Charles White.

Convict life in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land online

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New South Wales- and Van Diemen's Land.

F .A. H T S X <Sb II.






to 6'





Established Years before any others of the
saie name in the Colony.





Remember ! Our Only Address is

141, Elizabeth Street,


Tr {[(


A Series of Historical Sketches, bearing upon Australian
Colonization and Convict Life in New South Wales
and Van Dieman's Land.


^OW strangely the links fit in ! Little did the British
Government think when issuing the orders in
Council in 1786 for establishing a Convict Settle-
ment in New South Wales, that they were taking the initial
steps towards foimding a "New Britannia in the Southern
World." Yet so it was. If the American War of Indepen-
dence had not closed the plantations of Virginia against the
reception of transported offenders, and cast upon the British
Government the duty of fixing upon some other place to
which they might send some of the prisoners who then filled
the gaols of Great Britain to overflowing, the wonderful land
of which Captain Cook had spoken as having been discovered
by him, and concerning which the interest of the English
people had been considerably excited at the time his narratives
were published — tlie land which now ranks as one of the
richest, most populous, and most progressive of the British
lependencics — might to this day have remained in the
possession of the aborigines; producing nothing, promising


nothing ; locked up from civilization and all its blessings (and
curses), and unknown save to the few thousands of blacks who
might from year to year inhabit it. And what, then, would
the world have lost — what, then, should we who live in it
have lost ?

Pessimists, time and again, have raised a lachrymose
wail about the " stain " which must always rest on the colony
through the criminality of its early life ; but these men can
never see anything but the evil, and even that evil they would
intensify for the sake of making their wailing more mournful.
'Tis true that the beginning was in some measure bad, but
that bad beginning was better than no beginning at all ; and,
fresh from long and deep research among old records, I am
bold to declare that the earlier convicts were not the worst
criminals who came out to the colony, and that some of the
darker and bloodier stains which deface the first pages of the
colony's history were made by men who counted the poor
chained wretches under them as worse than the offal in a
charnel-house — men who came out free, who lived freely, lied
and robbed and murdered freely, and who literally fattened on
the blood of other mortals a thousand times better than
themselves, although those mortals had been banished from
their fatherland in chains. The facts in proof of this assertion
will appear in proper order ; at present we must deal with
events that transpired before either bond or free from Britain's
shores placed foot upon Australian land for the purpose of
making it their home.

Great Britain had had experience of transport colonis-
ation before ever Australia was thought of. For upwards of a
century and a half, historians tell us, great numbers of convicts
were annually sent across the Atlantic to American plant"
ations, most of them being sold to the planters for a term of


years or for life, and from this source, for a considerable period,
England is said to have derived a revenue as large at times as
;f 40,000 a year, the convicts being sold to the planters at an
average of ;f'20 each. But here, also, out of evil good arose.
Virginia, one of England's earliest and most successful
attempts at colonization, is a remarkable instance of pros-
perity outflowing from beginnings of the darkest moral shade.
In the case of Australia, the conditions were different, but the
elements were the same, and now that the old order has
changed, giving place to the new, we, from the midst of the
free, beneficent and flourishing institutions now existing —
from surroundings of the most favorable character — from
conditions of private, social and public life of which any
nation might be proud — look out upon the fast-fading picture
of the past, and marvel exceedingly at the change.

•* Read me anything but history," said Walpole ; " that
is sure to be false." And a good many in Australia living at
the present day would give not a little of their possessions to
be able to create a general distaste for and hatred of colonial
history, and to induce those who cared to read that history to
believe that it was false. They fear the record because of its
truth, and because the}' have reason to know that in this case
" truth is stranger than fiction." And I purpose giving only
such facts, in this somewhat irregular narrative, as can be
vouched for either by living witnesses or by written (some very
badly written) official records. The reader can, of course, if
he choose, keep in view the maxim of Epicharmus — " Be
discreet, and bethink thee to be mistrustful, to disbelieve rather
than otherwise;" but neither doubt nor distrust on the
reader's part will render less true the records — some of which
re written in inefl"aceable letters of blood.


The Story of the Ten Governors.












)T was early in the year 1787 that a fleet of eleven sail
fJlS could be seen rendezvousing off the Isle of Wight, the
names of the vessels being the Sirius, frigate ; the
Supply, armed tender ; the Golden Grove, Fishburn, and
Barrowdale, storeships ; and the Scarborough, Lady Penrhyn,
Friendship, Charlotte, Prince of Wales, and Alexander,
transports. On board were Captain Arthur Phillip, styled
Governor and Commander-in-Chief of New South Wales,


Nvith Other inferior officers — a Lieutenant-Governor, a chap-
Jain, a conimissclry, judge advocate, surgeon, adjutant,
quarter-master, two assistant surgeons and an agent for
transports ; a garrison of 200 marines, fully officered ; 200
soldiers, forty of whom were allowed to take their wives and
famihes ; 81 other free persons and 6g6 convicts — making a
total of 1044 persons. Of this number 1030 were safely
landed in the colony in January, 1788, having been eight
months on the water. Of the number landed about 300 were
females, twenty-eight being wives of the miHtary, and 192
convicts. It must not be supposed that these male and
female convicts were criminals of the deepest die, for they
were mostly young persons from the agricultural districts of
England, and out of the whole 696, only 55 were sentenced
for longer periods than seven years, and the sentences of a
large number would expire within two or three years after
their landing. The laws of England a century ago, and their
administration, were very different from what they are now,
and large numbers of those who crowded the gaols, and were
sent from the gaols across the water to the new land, had
never been accused of anything worse than poaching or
smuggling, while many of them were suffering for political
offences which in later days made statesmen, and crowned
the " transgressors " with imperishable glory. That there
were some very bad men and women in the first batch, and
in the batches that followed in their wake, is true ; but the
number was proportionately small, and their influence for
( vil was necessarily contracted.

The first ship of the fleet, the Supply, with the Governor
oil board, anchored in Botany Bay on i8th January, 1788,
tnd was closely followed by the other ships. Concerning the
landing we find the following record in the history of


Governor Phillip's voyage, published in the following year : —
** At the very first landing of Governor Phillip on the shore
of Botany Bay, January i8th, 17S8, an interview with the
natives took place. They were all armed, but on seeing the
Governor approach with signs of friendship, alone and un-
armed, they readily returned his confidence by laying down
their weapons. They were perfectly devoid of clothing, yet
seemed fond of ornaments, putting the beads and red baize
that were given them on their heads and necks, and appearing
pleased to wear them. The presents offered by their new
visitors were all readily accepted, nor did any kind of
disagreement arise while the ships remained in Botany Bay."
Well would it have been for the aborigines if Governor
PhiiUp's spirit had animated all those who in after years,
during the succeeding efforts of colonization and settlement,
were brought into contact with them. Some of the facts
detailed later on will prove that, in the fullest sense of the
term, civilization to the blacks meant nothing more nor less
than physical and moral ruin, and that in the sound of the
first gun fired from a British piece on Australian soil the
original occupants of that soil heard their death knell.

The story of the first landing of Governor Phillip's mixed
party, and the subsequent removal of the settlement from
Botany Bay to Port Jackson, whose harbour, from its sheltered
position, deep water, and almost inuueasurable bays and bold
headlands, was seen to be the most desirable haven that
anyone could wish, must be familiar to the reader ; as also
must be the formalities observed by the Governor on January
26th, 1788, in taking possession of the land — hoisting British
colors on a flagstaff erected on the site now occupied by
Dawes' Battery, drinking the King's health around the pole
amid much excitement and cheering, while the blacks saw and


heard from a distance the wonderful sights and sounds, little
dreaminf^ that the company of white-faced mortals upon whom
tiiey ga^ed would in so short a space of time push them off
the land which Nature had given them to possess.

The work of clearing a sufficient space for tents and stores on
the shores of Sydney Cove occupied about a fortnight, and this
done, the work of establisliing a regular form of Government
was carried out in a very solemn manner by the Governor. The
military was drawn up under arms, the prisoners stationed
apart, and the Royal Commission and the Acts of Parliament
authorising the establishment of the Courts of Judicature
having been read by the Judge- Advocate, a volley was fired,
and his Excellency delivered an address to the convicts. He
reminded them that they were now so placed that by industry
and good behaviour they might soon regain the advantages
which they had forfeited, and promised that every assistance
should be rendered them in their efforts to reach the position
which they had lost by their offences ; but he told them
plainly that no mercy would be shewn to offenders against
the law. He advised those of the convicts who were in a
position to do so to marry, holding out to them promises
of assistance ; and he closed his address by declaring his
earnest desire to promote the wellbeing of all who had been
placed imder his control, and his determination, with the help
of God, to render the colonization of the new land advan-
tageous and honorable to the colony.

Speaking of this time, Collins, one of the earliest writers
on the colonization of New South Wales, says : " The
confusion that ensued will not be wondered at when it is
considered that ever}- man stepped from a boat literally into a
wood. Parties of people were every\vhere heard and seen
variously employed ; some in clearing ground for the different


encampments, others in pitching tents or bringing up such
stores as were more immediately wanted ; and the spot which
had so recently been the abode of silence and tranquility was
now changed to that of noise, clamour and confusion ; but
after a time order gradually prevailed everywhere. As the
woods were opened and the ground cleared, the various
encampments were extended, and all wore the appearance of
regularity." Let anyone now mix with the thousands of
hurrying, bustling mortals, of every age and color and clime,
who daily come and go to the water's edge where this landing
took place, and as he gazes across the crowded harbour or
turns back to pass through the mazes of buildings and the
ever-thickening stream of people in the city of Sydney and the
adjacent suburbs, the one great surprise of his life will be the
marvellous change which has taken place in the short space
of a hundred years.

Four months after the first landing — in May, 1788 — the
Governor directed every person in the Settlement to make a
return of what live stock was in his possession, and this was
the full record : — i horse, 3 mares, 3 colts, 2 bulls, 5 cows, 29
sheep, 19 goats, 49 hogs, 29 pigs, 5 rabbits, 18 turkeys, 29
geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, and 89 chickens. And only this
from which the supply of fresh meat for more than a
thousand persons was to be drawn ! From this sniall
stock, in the following month, the two bulls and four of the
five cows were lost through the carelessness of the man who
had charge of them ; although the loss eventually proved
a great and permanent gain, the stray animals being after-
wards discovered — in November, 1795 — on the other side of
the Nepean River, a place thereafter called the Cowpastures,
the seven having becofiie nearly fifty. Governor Hunter,
who had succeeded Phillip, in person went in search of the


missing cattle and persorlatlly inspected the herd, satisfying
himself that they were the descendants of the original
importations by having one of them killed. These wild
cattle were religiously preserved from destruction, and
increasing greatly divided into mobs, each under the charge
of a victorious bull, until the general increase of stock
diminislied their value. The surrounding small settlers con-
sumed not a little of the wild beef, and, subsequently, when beef
ceased to be a luxury, the remnants of this wild tribe, which
had sprung from the original stock, were destroyed by order
of the Government. It is recorded that about the time this
wild herd was discovered three miserable cows of the Indian
breed sold for ;f 189, and two years afterwards two ships were
employed eight months in bringing 51 cows, 3 bulls, and go
sheep from the Cape, at enormous cost. Running along the
years we find at the beginning of 1887, in the three colonies
of Australia alone — New South Wales, Victoria, and Queens-
land — the following record of live stock possessions : —





New South Wales




4,071 563

10,700,403 ■
9 690 445









And this is not the only illustration that Australia has
furnished of a "little one " becoming " a thousand."

It was towards the close of 1792 that Governor Phillip
resigned his command in the colony and returned to
England; and here a word 6t two may be said in praise
of his uprightness of character, kindness of heart, firm
<3iscipline, and administrative ability. His position was


a peculiarly onerous one, his duties were most difficult,
and the noble example £>£ disinterestedness and self-sacrifice
set by him on more than one occasion when actual starvation
stared the colonists — free as well as bond — in the face, has
never been surpassed by any ruler in ancient or modern times.
After the lapse of a hundred years one can hardly conceive
the difficulties attendant upon official life in the days when
Governor Phillip held absolute sway. The rough and rude
material which he had to shape into order and decency would
under favorable circumstances have tested the humanity and
statesmanship of the kindest of mortals and the most skilful
of generals ; but it was under the most unfavorable conditions
that Governor Phillip successfully carried the people placed
under his charge through the initial stages of colonization
and settlement. The convicts at times gave great trouble,
and had it not been for the strictness of the discipline enforced
— although no approach was made to arbitrariness, much less
official cruelty — it is more than probable that felony would
have proved too much for the powers of militaryism, and
lawlessness would have triumphed. It is not every man who,
in a similar position, would have used his powers so wisely —
powers the equal of which have, perhaps, never been held or
exercised by any other official in the British dominions. He
could sentence to 500 lashes, fine iTsoo ; the regulation of
customs and trade were in his hands ; he could fix prices and
wages, could sentence a man to death and execute him, or
grant an absolute pardon ; he could bestow grants of land, or
prevent a would-be purchaser from investing in any article for
use or trade. As Samuel Sidney well puts it : " All the
labour of the colony was at his disposal, all the land, all the
stores, all the places of honor and profit, and virtually all the
justice. His subjects consisted of his subordinate officers —


for, as captain-general, the commandant of the troops was-
under his orders, — of the few who resorted to New South
Wales to trade, whose profits were at his disposal, and the
convicts, outcasts without civil rights. The distance from
England, the few means of communication, the indifference of
the English to the fate of the inhabitants of a penal colony, or
of any colony, rendered the governor, so far as the control of
law extended, actually irresponsible. As there was no lawr
so there was no publicity and no public opinion to restrain the
despotism which was the only possible government in such a
penal colony." More powerful than many Sovereigns, yet
exercising that power more like a kind parent than a despotic
king, what wonder that he should have succeeded In preserv-
ing order in a communit} and under conditions most
unfavorable, and where failure would have attended the efforts
of most men ?

Under the unfavourable circumstances existing, it was-
not to be expected that during the four-and-a-half years-
of Governor Phillip's reign any great progress in the
direction of proper settlement would be made ; but
there was progress, nevertheless. The work of cultivation
was carried on by the Government as well as it was-
able on the public account, but the conditions of soil and
labour were so unsuitable that the yield was not nearly
sufficient at the best to provide for the wants of the
inhabitants, whose numbers were ever increasing by the
arrival of fresh ship-loads of convicts. On two or three
occasions the colony was put in the greatest straits through
the failure of the crops and the absence of provisions. During
the first year nothing was produced in the colony except a
few vegetables, and the stock of provisions brought out from
England was in danger of being exhausted before fresh


supplies could be procured. Everyone was put upon short
allowance, and disaffection among the troops and the convicts
speedily manifested itself. Some of the former entered into a
conspiracy for plundering the public store, and succeeded in
abstracting a quantity of provisions before the plot was
discovered. As a warning to others the chief conspirators,
seven in number, were hanged by the Governor straight off.
Starvation stared the people in the face, and, regardless of
consequences, the convicts broke regulation bounds and
strayed into the bush in search of herbs and roots. The
result was a natural one — scores of them were murdered
by the blacks, and so many were being cut down in
this way that an order was given for every one found
beyond certain boundaries to receive one hundred and fifty
lashes. If any of the unfortunates managed to get away
from the aborigines only wounded they were sent to the
hospital, and flogged as soon as they recovered. In those
days death was not always the worst fate that could befall
a prisoner.

The early records declare that one man who was caught
by the solitary clergyman in the settlement stealing potatoes
from a garden, was sentenced to 300 lashes, to have his
ration of flour stopped for six months, and to be chained for
that period to two others who had been caught robbing the
Governor's garden.

During this tr3ang period Governor PhiUip lived on the
same ration as was allowed to the meanest person under
his charge, the weekly provision issued to everyone bein«g
simply two and a half pounds of flour, two pounds of rice,
and two pounds of pork. The humanity of the Governor is
seen in the fact narrated by Collins that he gave up 3 cwt. of
flour which was his own private property, declaring that he


did not wish to have on his table at such a time more than
the ration that was received in common from the public

When the people were on the very verge of despair and
death, their eyes were gladdened by the sight of a provision
ship sailing into the harbour, and bringing 127,000 lbs. of
flour, being a four months' supply for the settlement. A few
days afterwards four ships arrived bringing 1000 male and
250 female convicts. It can readily be imagined what would
have happened had these transport ships discharged their
living freight before the public larder had been replenished
1 \ the timely arrival of the vessel with provisions.

It is worthy of record that the first grant of land was made
to a settler named Ruse in 179 1, he having declared that he
was able to support himself without aid from the Government
stores on a farm which he had occupied fifteen months, the
grant of land having been made as a reward for his industry.
In December, 1792, there were 67 settlers holding under
grant 3,470 acres, of which 470 acres were under cultivation
and another hundred cleared. The bulk of this land was
near Sydney, and was then, as it is now, looked at from an
agriculturist's point of view, ** miserably barren ;" and the
little provision that was won from the soil was chiefl}' due to
the fact that the work was done by convicts and without pay.
These free settlers — most of them convicts free by servitude
or pardon — were supported entirely for eighteen months by
the Government, assistance being rendered as soon as they
went on the land. They were clothed, received their tools
1 primitive implements of husbandry, and grain for seed,
irom the Government stores, together with the use of as many
convicts as they would undertake to clothe, feed, and employ ;
while huts were erected for them also at the public expense.


The Government also did a little farming on its own account,
and the site of the present Botanical gardens was one of the
fir-st plots to be brought under cultivation.

Among the first settlers were some of the marines who
had formed the first garrison and whose places were filled by
detachments of the corps raised expressly for service in the
colony, afterwards called the 102nd Regiment. Those who
chose to stay had quantities of land granted to them in
proportion to their rank, and several of those who availed
themselves of the advantages offered became wealthy colonists
in the course of a few years. The regulations under which
land was granted to non-commissioned officers and privates
on the expiry of their terms of service were as follows : — To

Online LibraryCharles WhiteConvict life in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land → online text (page 1 of 52)