The First Fleet

The colony was only a little over four years old. The First Fleet of eleven ships carrying more than 1300 people, convicts, sailors and marines drew into the magnificent harbour of Sydney Cove, Port Jackson in January 1788, the 7000 mile voyage taking 51 days. The idea behind the enterprise was not punishment but commerce. The convicts were regarded as a source of cheap labour to be used to establish a successful and profitable colony.

The person appointed as First Governor was Arthur Phillip a 49 year old Captain in the Royal Navy.

Arthur Phillip. First Governor of New South Wales

Phillip himself had brought a prefabricated house, the marines had tents and the convicts slept under canvas sheets. Food was always scarce and was strictly rationed. The first land cleared for agriculture was not very fertile and the convicts knew little about the subject. Clothes were in short supply and eventually the marines had to stand guard without shoes. A disaster occurred when livestock brought with the fleet escaped into the bush. Stray kangaroos, snakes and birds had to be shot to supplement their diet. One marine wrote, "an encampment amidst the rocks and wilds of a new country, aggravated by the miseries of a bad diet and incessant evil will find few admirers".

There were no ships and no news from England so Phillip sent the ship the 'Sirius' to the Cape of Good Hope for provisions. The 'Sirius', however, took over seven months to return having circumnavigated the world by way of New Zealand and Cape Horn. A Second Fleet arrived in 1790 which helped the situation but conditions were still basic.

Initially contacts with the Aborigines were good and one settler wrote that the natives "received our people with great cordiality". Soon, however, relations worsened when an Aborigine was killed by convicts and two convicts out cutting rushes were speared to death by Aborigines. Smallpox brought by the Europeans took a heavy toll on the natives. Death was a daily occurrence; one Aborigine band who lived near the colony were reduced in number from about 50 in 1788 to 3 in 1790.

Watling was the first professional artist to arrive in the colony and was seconded to its Surgeon General, John White who was an amateur naturalist. White kept a journal and collected specimens and drawings of the colony. He had already produced a book full of natural history illustrations called ' Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales' (London 1790) which was a great success. He had in mind a second volume and he worked Watling very hard drawing the flora and fauna of the settlement. Watling did not like him, calling him "a very mercenary, sordid person". The book came to nothing but Watling had in mind a book of his own which was published in Penrith in 1794. His 'Letters from an exile at Botany Bay to his Aunt in Dumfries' gives an irreverent informal account of his life in the early years of the colony. Only two copies now exist. In them his education and his personality come out as he gives lively descriptions of the countryside, climate and customs of the natives of New South Wales.

Title page of Watlings book

His ageing aunt Marion must have read them with mixed feelings, joy at receiving news, wonder, and not a little fear for her nephew trapped in this strange new world.

"Our longest day coincides exactly with your shortest and vice versa. The climate is an extremely sultry one, especially in summer. A few European culinary vegetables grow but never arrive to pristine maturity. The face of the country is deceitful, having every appearance of fertility; and yet productive of no one article in itself fit for the support of mankind, In the warmer season the thunder very frequently rolls tremendous, accompanied by a scorching wind, whilst the surrounding horizon looks on entire sheet of uninterrupted flame.

Fifteen months have been known to elapse without a single shower, The vast number of green frogs, reptiles and large insects, among the grass and on the trees, makes an incessant noise and clamour. Should the curious Ornithologist, or the prying Botanist, emigrate here, they could not fail of deriving ample gratification in their favourite pursuits in this luxuriant museum. Birds, flowers and shrubs and plants; of these, many are tinged with hues that must baffle the happiest efforts of the pencil".

Of the Aborigines Watling was perceptive, informative and disparaging, "That the inhabitants of N.S. Wales, are centuries behind some other savage nations, in point of useful knowledge, may be fact, but in this there is no criterion of judging mental ability. The people are in general very straight and firm but extremely ill featured, and in my opinion the women more so than the men. Irascibility, ferocity, cunning, treachery, revenge, filth and immodesty are strikingly their dark characteristics, their virtues are so far from conspicuous that I have not, as yet, been able to discern them. One thing I may adduce to their credit, that they are not cannibals. The men and women at an early age, devote to their chieftain, the former one of the upper fore teeth and the latter, the first joint of the little finger of the left hand, as a token of their fidelity".

Watling echoed a common complaint among the prisoners - that the Governor was more liberal to the Aborigines than to the convicts, "Many of these savages are allowed, what is termed, a freemans ratio of provisions for their idleness. They are bedecked at times with dress which they make away with the first opportunity, preferring the originality of naked nature; and they are treated with the most singular tenderness".

Wearrung. one of many native portraits by Watling

Phillip tried to protect the rights of the Aboriginals and integrate them. Two of them Colebee and Bennelong were captured to live in the settlement and learn English, "To an European ear the articulation seems uncommonly wild and barbarous; owing, very likely, to those national prejudices every man imbibes, and perhaps cannot entirely divest himself of. One thing they have in common with more refined communities is a similarity in the termination of their surnames Terribilong, Bennalong, Byegong, Wyegong, Colebee, Nanbree etc are full as striking as Thomson, Johnson and Robson".

Relations deteriorated further between the natives and the Aboriginals. One settler wrote home depressingly, "The Natives are murdering the settlers, soldiers are in return murdering the Natives (but it cannot be avoided)". Colebee escaped within a week but Bennelong was to be civilised and taken back to England. The whole experiment now seems superficial. An officer wrote of his progress, "Considering the state of nature which he has been brought up in, he may be called a polite man, as he performs every action of bowing, drinking health, returning thanks, with the most scrupulous attention". He was always in disputes with other Aborigines, however, usually over women and he took off his clothes as often as possible.

Watling in contrast to other settlers seems to have got on well with the Aboriginals, "The natives are extremely fond of painting and sit hours by me when at work". He was clearly homesick and thought the whole idea of a new colony a waste of time, "Sydney-Cove, from where I write this letter, is the principal settlement, and is about 1/3 part as large as Dumfries. Many houses are built with brick; but none of them, the governors excepted, exceed the height of one story.

North view of Sydney Cove c1794

To see what has been done in the space of five or six years, of clearing, building and planting, is astonishing".

He went on, "I humbly declare that it is my opinion, that all that has been done is of little service [and a]wild adventure. When you write to me, be so kind as to inform me of every little incident in [Dumfries]. Your new bridge and theatre I have already heard of. My old favourite Miss J S_________, is also still a great one. Tell me whether or not she is single: she used to be a kind neighbour; and one I could cheerfully at any time in my better days have taken as a lovely and an agreeable partner through life".

He finished one letter, "Remember we will meet, if not in time, in eternity. Meanwhile accept this tear, and heart felt adieu, which is all at present that is in the power of your unhappy but most affectionate nephew".