Reviewed by Rod McLary
It is now almost 231 years since the First Fleet sailed into what is now known as Sydney Harbour on 26 January 1788 to claim the east coast of New Holland for Great Britain – and to establish a penal colony to take the overflow from the British penal system.
The First Fleet comprised eleven ships carrying 1420 people of whom 778 were convicts including 200 women convicts. Led by Captain-General Arthur Phillip, who was at the same time commissioned as Governor of the new colony of New South Wales, the fleet departed Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 and landed in ‘Sydney Cove’ on 26 January 1788 – some eight months and thirteen days later. It was without question a courageous journey and a world-changing one – not least of all for the Indigenous people of this country.
Even though many indigenous people – and not a few non-Indigenous people – believe that 26 January would be more appropriately named Invasion Day, invasion or subjugation was not the intention of King George III. As the King said in his instructions to Captain-General Phillip –
You are to endeavour, by every possible means, to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them … you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment .
In writing this book, Trent Dalton accessed primary sources to bring the story of the journey to life through the voices of the men and women – and some children – who found themselves part of the journey.
Drawing on existing First Fleet journal manuscripts held in the State Library of New South Wales, Trent Dalton has created an often-moving first-hand account of the journey. Part of the account is told by means of excerpts from letters written by officers of the Fleet. One officer often quoted is Lieutenant Ralph Clark on the Friendship. Lieutenant Clark badly missed his wife Alicia left at home in Portsmouth. He writes –
Capt. Walton has given me a puppy. Have called it Efford after the dear sweet place where I first came acquainted with my Alicia, my virtuous wife. .
For all his protestations of love, Lieutenant Clark – once on shore at Sydney Cove – succumbed all too easily to the charms of 17-year-old Mary Branham. In July 1791, Mary gave birth to their child whom they named Alicia.
Of course, many had no say in whether or not they joined the Fleet. Their participation was compulsory and due to their criminal behaviour. The youngest convict on board the Fleet was John Hudson who was nine when he was imprisoned in the floating prison hulk Dunkirk awaiting transportation to Botany Bay. His crime – apart from being impoverished – was to steal a linen shirt, five silk stockings, two aprons and a pistol. It was three long years later before he joined the Fleet to be transported to ‘where the earth ends and a little further south’ .
The Fleet’s first landing in New Holland was not, of course, in Sydney Cove but what they called Botany Bay. Botany Bay was considered inadequate. Captain-General Phillip says in his journal that ‘the greater part of the bay being so shallow that ships … are exposed to a heavy sea that rolls in when it blows hard from the eastward’ . Further exploration led them to Port Jackson which was described as ‘the first port in the world’ due to the ‘safety and extent of this harbour’ and its ‘picturesque appearance which has a pleasing effect’ [117-118].
Young John Hudson – the now thirteen-year-old boy sentenced to seven years transportation – survived the journey and was present when Arthur Phillip made a speech reflecting on the previous night which had given rise to ‘an impulsive night of unbridled passion between landed sailors and female convicts’ . The night of passion is explained away as the ‘purging of eight months of collective fear and tension’  brought about by the journey.
To mitigate against such a night re-occurring, Phillip encouraged the convicts to marry and settle down to raise their children.
The references to individual convicts, sailors and officers on board the Fleet add much to the reader’s understanding of the huge task undertaken by Arthur Phillip in steering the Fleet across the world: a huge task shared by the sailors and officers on board the eleven ships and endured by the convicts below decks. By any standards, it is a ‘story of courage and perseverance’.
The genesis of By Sea & Stars was a series of articles written by Trent Dalton for The Australian earlier this year. The articles brought together in this book are intended to describe ‘the story of Arthur Phillip and his central role in the creation of modern Australia’ [xv] – an intention which is clearly achieved. His writing credentials are beautifully realised in this short but valuable book. It is both easy to read and informative – not always a common combination in history books.
Trent Dalton is an award-winning journalist having twice won the Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, four-time winner of a Kennedy Award for Excellence in NSW Journalism, and four-time winner of the national News Awards Features Journalist of the Year.
By Sea & Stars
by Trent Dalton
ISBN 978 1 4607 5743 3
137 pp; $24.99