The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Transactions of the Colony, from the Beginning of the Year 1790 until the End of May following.

Our impatience of news from Europe strongly marked the commencement of the year. We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England, in which long period no supplies, except what had been procured at the Cape of Good Hope by the ‘Sirius’, had reached us. From intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th of May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth. Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides, and gloom and dejection overspread every countenance. Men abandoned themselves to the most desponding reflections, and adopted the most extravagant conjectures.

Still we were on the tiptoe of expectation. If thunder broke at a distance, or a fowling-piece of louder than ordinary report resounded in the woods, “a gun from a ship” was echoed on every side, and nothing but hurry and agitation prevailed. For eighteen months after we had landed in the country, a party of marines used to go weekly to Botany Bay, to see whether any vessel, ignorant of our removal to Port Jackson, might be arrived there. But a better plan was now devised, on the suggestion of captain Hunter. A party of seamen were fixed on a high bluff, called the South-head, at the entrance of the harbour, on which a flag was ordered to be hoisted, whenever a ship might appear, which should serve as a direction to her, and as a signal of approach to us. Every officer stepped forward to volunteer a service which promised to be so replete with beneficial consequences. But the zeal and alacrity of captain Hunter, and our brethren of the ‘Sirius’, rendered superfluous all assistance or co-operation.

Here on the summit of the hill, every morning from daylight until the sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon, in hope of seeing a sail. At every fleeting speck which arose from the bosom of the sea, the heart bounded, and the telescope was lifted to the eye. If a ship appeared here, we knew she must be bound to us; for on the shores of this vast ocean (the largest in the world) we were the only community which possessed the art of navigation, and languished for intercourse with civilized society.

To say that we were disappointed and shocked, would very inadequately describe our sensations. But the misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it.

March, 1790. Vigorous measures were become indispensable. The governor therefore, early in February, ordered the ‘Sirius’ to prepare for a voyage to China; and a farther retrenchment of our ration, we were given to understand, would take place on her sailing.

But the ‘Sirius’ was destined not to reach China. Previously to her intended departure on that voyage, she was ordered, in concert with the ‘Supply’, to convey Major Ross, with a large detachment of marines, and more than two hundred convicts, to Norfolk Island, it being hoped that such a division of our numbers would increase the means of subsistence, by diversified exertions. She sailed on the 6th of March. And on the 27th of the same month, the following order was issued from headquarters.

Parole — Honour.

Counter sign — Example.

The expected supply of provisions not having arrived, makes it necessary to reduce the present ration. And the commissary is directed to issue, from the 1st of April, the under-mentioned allowance, to every person in the settlement without distinction.

Four pounds of flour, two pounds and a half of salt pork, and one pound and a half of rice, per week.

On the 5th of April news was brought, that the flag on the South-head was hoisted. Less emotion was created by the news than might be expected. Every one coldly said to his neighbour, “the ‘Sirius’ and ‘Supply’ are returned from Norfolk Island.” To satisfy myself that the flag was really flying, I went to the observatory, and looked for it through the large astronomical telescope, when I plainly saw it. But I was immediately convinced that it was not to announce the arrival of ships from England; for I could see nobody near the flagstaff except one solitary being, who kept strolling around, unmoved by what he saw. I well knew how different an effect the sight of strange ships would produce.

April, 1790. The governor, however, determined to go down the harbour, and I begged permission to accompany him. Having turned a point about half way down, we were surprised to see a boat, which was known to belong to the ‘Supply’, rowing towards us. On nearer approach, I saw captain Ball make an extraordinary motion with his hand, which too plainly indicated that something disastrous had happened; and I could not help turning to the governor, near whom I sat, and saying, “Sir, prepare yourself for bad news.” A few minutes changed doubt into certainty; and to our unspeakable consternation we learned, that the ‘Sirius’ had been wrecked on Norfolk Island, on the 19th of February. Happily, however, Captain Hunter, and every other person belonging to her, were saved.

Dismay was painted on every countenance, when the tidings were proclaimed at Sydney. The most distracting apprehensions were entertained All hopes were now concentred in the little ‘Supply’.

At six o’clock in the evening, all the officers of the garrison, both civil and military, were summoned to meet the governor in council, when the nature of our situation was fully discussed and an account of the provisions yet remaining in store laid before the council by the commissary. This account stated, that on the present ration* the public stores contained salt meat sufficient to serve until the 2nd of July, flour until the 20th of August, and rice, or pease in lieu of it, until the 1st of October.

[*See the ration of the 27th of March, a few pages back.]

Several regulations for the more effectual preservation of gardens, and other private property, were proposed, and adopted and after some interchange of opinion, the following ration was decreed to commence immediately, a vigorous exertion to prolong existence, or the chance of relief, being all now left to us.

Two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour,
two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease, per week,
to every grown person, and to every child of more
than eighteen months old.

To every child under eighteen months old, the same
quantity of rice and flour, and one pound of pork.**

[**When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear. The pork and rice were brought with us from England. The pork had been salted between three and four years, and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged within it. We soon left off boiling the pork, as it had become so old and dry, that it shrunk one half in its dimensions when so dressed. Our usual method of cooking it was to cut off the daily morsel, and toast it on a fork before the fire, catching the drops which fell on a slice of bread, or in a saucer of rice. Our flour was the remnant of what was brought from the Cape, by the ‘Sirius’, and was good. Instead of baking it, the soldiers and convicts used to boil it up with greens.]

The immediate departure of the ‘Supply’, for Batavia, was also determined.

Nor did our zeal stop here. The governor being resolved to employ all the boats, public and private, m procuring fish — which was intended to be served in lieu of salt meat — all the officers, civil and military, including the clergyman, and the surgeons of the hospital, made the voluntary offer, in addition to their other duties, to go alternately every night in these boats, in order to see that every exertion was made, and that all the fish which might be caught was deposited with the commissary.

The best marksmen of the marines and convicts were also selected, and put under the command of a trusty sergeant, with directions to range the woods in search of kangaroos, which were ordered, when brought in, to be delivered to the commissary.

And as it was judged that the inevitable fatigues of shooting and fishing could not be supported on the common ration, a small additional quantity of flour and pork was appropriated to the use of the game-keepers; and each fisherman, who had been out during the preceding night had, on his return in the morning, a pound of uncleaned fish allowed for his breakfast.

On the 17th instant, the ‘Supply’, captain Ball, sailed for Batavia. We followed her with anxious eyes until she was no longer visible. Truly did we say to her “In te omnis domus inclinata recumbit.” We were, however, consoled by reflecting, that every thing which zeal, fortitude, and seamanship, could produce, was concentred in her commander.

Our bosoms consequently became less perturbed; and all our labour and attention were turned on one object — the procuring of food. “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war” were no more.

The distress of the lower classes for clothes was almost equal to their other wants. The stores had been long exhausted, and winter was at hand. Nothing more ludicrous can be conceived than the expedients of substituting, shifting, and patching, which ingenuity devised, to eke out wretchedness, and preserve the remains of decency. The superior dexterity of the women was particularly conspicuous. Many a guard have I seen mount, in which the number of soldiers without shoes exceeded that which had yet preserved remnants of leather.

Nor was another part of our domestic economy less whimsical. If a lucky man, who had knocked down a dinner with his gun, or caught a fish by angling from the rocks, invited a neighbour to dine with him, the invitation always ran, “bring your own bread.” Even at the governor’s table, this custom was constantly observed. Every man when he sat down pulled his bread out of his pocket, and laid it by his plate.

The insufficiency of our ration soon diminished our execution of labour. Both soldiers and convicts pleaded such loss of strength, as to find themselves unable to perform their accustomed tasks. The hours of public work were accordingly shortened or, rather, every man was ordered to do as much as his strength would permit, and every other possible indulgence was granted.

May, 1790. In proportion, however, as lenity and mitigation were extended to inability and helplessness, inasmuch was the most rigorous justice executed on disturbers of the public tranquillity. Persons detected in robbing gardens, or pilfering provisions, were never screened because, as every man could possess, by his utmost exertions, but a bare sufficiency to preserve life*, he who deprived his neighbour of that little, drove him to desperation. No new laws for the punishment of theft were enacted; but persons of all descriptions were publicly warned, that the severest penalties, which the existing law in its greatest latitude would authorise, should be inflicted on offenders. The following sentence of a court of justice, of which I was a member, on a convict detected in a garden stealing potatoes, will illustrate the subject. He was ordered to receive three hundred lashes immediately, to be chained for six months to two other criminals, who were thus fettered for former offences, and to have his allowance of flour stopped for six months. So that during the operation of the sentence, two pounds of pork, and two pounds of rice (or in lieu of the latter, a quart of pease) per week, constituted his whole subsistence. Such was the melancholy length to which we were compelled to stretch our penal system.

[*Its preservation in some cases was found impracticable. Three or four instances of persons who perished from want have been related to me. One only, however, fell within my own observation. I was passing the provision store, when a man, with a wild haggard countenance, who had just received his daily pittance to carry home, came out. His faltering gait, and eager devouring eye, led me to watch him, and he had not proceeded ten steps before he fell. I ordered him to be carried to the hospital, where, when he arrived, he was found dead. On opening the body, the cause of death was pronounced to be inanition.]

Farther to contribute to the detection of villainy, a proclamation, offering a reward of sixty pounds of flour, more tempting than the ore of Peru or Potosi, was promised to any one who should apprehend, and bring to justice, a robber of garden ground.

Our friend Baneelon, during this season of scarcity, was as well taken care of as our desperate circumstances would allow. We knew not how to keep him, and yet were unwilling to part with him. Had he penetrated our state, perhaps he might have given his countrymen such a description of our diminished numbers, and diminished strength, as would have emboldened them to become more troublesome. Every expedient was used to keep him in ignorance. His allowance was regularly received by the governor’s servant, like that of any other person, but the ration of a week was insufficient to have kept him for a day. The deficiency was supplied by fish whenever it could be procured, and a little Indian corn, which had been reserved was ground and appropriated to his use. In spite of all these aids, want of food has been known to make him furious and often melancholy.

There is reason to believe that he had long meditated his escape, which he effected in the night of the 3rd instant. About two o’clock in the morning, he pretended illness, and awaking the servant who lay in the room with him, begged to go down stairs. The other attended him without suspicion of his design; and Baneelon no sooner found himself in a backyard, than he nimbly leaped over a slight paling, and bade us adieu.

The following public order was issued within the date of this chapter, and is too pleasing a proof that universal depravity did not prevail among the convicts, to be omitted.

The governor, in consequence of the unremitted good behaviour and meritorious conduct of John Irving, is pleased to remit the remainder of the term for which he was sentenced to transportation. He is therefore to be considered as restored to all those rights and privileges, which had been suspended in consequence of the sentence of the law. And as such, he is hereby appointed to act as an assistant to the surgeon at Norfolk Island.

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