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LABOURS AND SUFFERINGS OF THE EARLY CONVICTS

Journal by janilye

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

The state of things thus feebly depicted continued until the middle of May, when the Sirius returned from the Cape with a four months' supply of provisions for the settlement. Her arrival was hailed with great joy, and those convicts who had almost given themselves up to despair and the recklessness attendant upon such a condition of mind and feeling, at once became orderly, industrious, and well-behaved.
Full rations produced contentment and even hilarity, and the convicts went so far in this direction as even to indulge in dramatic entertainments, permission to do so having first been obtained from his Excellency.

The 4th of June 1789 was the King's birthday, and free and bond joined in its celebration, rendering the occasion remarkable as the data of the first performance of a play in Australia.
The play produced was George Farquhar's comedy of 'The Recruiting Officer,' and the theatre was a hut fitted up for the occasion, the actors being all convicts. Concerning the merits of this early performance no information has been handed down to us ; but Collins says, ' they (the players) professed no higher aim than 'humbly to excite a smile,' and their efforts 'to please' were not unattended with applause.'

The chief work upon which the prisoners had up to this time been employed was in procuring building materials, erecting houses and stores, building boats and wharves, and in farming operations, 250 of them being engaged, mostly at Parramatta, in clearing the ground and cultivating the soil. The discovery of the Hawkesbury River by the Governor, who spent a large portion of his time in exploring the country in this direction in search of better land for cultivation, furnished a wider scope for operations, and parties of convicts were soon sent further afield to work.
The fine deep soil on the banks of the river was admirably adapted for raising grain, and shortly after its discovery portions of it were allotted to settlers. But another season of distress being feared, in November the people were again placed on short allowance, for although the first crop had been garnered at Parramatta, amounting to upwards of 200 bushels of wheat, with small portions of maize, barley and oats, it was deemed advisable to save the whole for seed for the ensuing year ; and the rats had committed great havoc among the provisions in the public store at the settlement. The rations now served out were barely sufficient to preserve life, the weekly allowance for adults being 2lbs. flour, 2lbs. pork, 1 pint peas, and 1lb. rice, the Governor and the officers again receiving equal measure with the convicts.

And right in the midst of this trouble there came intelligence which intensified the gloom.
The Sirius frigate, which had been sent to Norfolk Island, had been wrecked there, and although two years had elapsed since the foundation of the colony, no intelligence had been received from England, and for all the people knew no fresh supplies had yet started from headquarters.
And again want bred discontent and disorder ; again were issued and enforced stringent regulations against waste; again there followed insubordination, floggings and executions.

The tender Supply was despatched to Batavia, the commander carrying instructions to charter a vessel there and load her as well as the Supply with a full cargo of provisions.
Two months of deepest misery intervened, and then one morning early in June a sail was sighted from the South Head. The vessel proved to be the Lady Juliana, from London, which had been eleven months on her passage, having started in July of the previous year.
The ship Guardian had been dispatched from England about the same time, with a large quantity of live stock and other supplies, but having struck on a rock she was compelled to put into the Cape of Good Hope, almost in a sinking state ; and the Lady Juliana, a much smaller vessel, had come on with a part of her cargo and passengers.
The provisions which thus came to hand at such an opportune time enabled the Governor to increase, but only to a small extent, the scale of provisions, it being thought that the stock would last until the return of the Supply from Batavia.

Then other surprises quickly followed. Three ships from London, transports, put in their appearance, bringing ,out a large number of convicts, and detachments of the New South Wales Corps.
More mouths to feed and very little to feed them ! the outlook was indeed dark and gruesome.

The character of the New South Wales Corps afterwards embodied in the 102nd Regiment has already been dwelt upon in Part I of this history ('The Story of the Ten Governors'), but the subject was not then exhausted, and it is necessary that something more should be said concerning a set of men whose actions proved them to have been cast in the coarsest mould of genteel viciousness.

Concerning the formation of the Corps : A Major Grose had made a proposal to the Secretary of State to enlist a force for service in the penal settlement of Botany Bay, on condition that he received certain emoluments and honours, and his offer being accepted he set his recruiting officers to work, and soon succeeded in raising the requisite number to form the first detachments. Not from the ranks of tried soldiers did he raise his force, and not from the ranks of reputable men. They were to do duty in a land of convicts ; who better for such service than convicts themselves? An Irish political prisoner named Holt, who was transported to the colony some years later than the period here referred to, and whose peculiar experiences will be narrated in a subsequent chapter, describes, the. officers-of this Corps as ' old tailors and shoemakers, stay-makers, man-milliners, tobacconists and pedlars, that were called- captains and lieutenants.' Likely men for the service were sought in the hulks of the prisons of the old land ; soldiers under punishment were taken. from the navy hulk; and those who had been condemned to service in India were reprieved on enlisting in the New South Wales Corps.
-Says Governor Hunter, who found them more, troublesome than the convicts,'Characters who have been disgraced in every other regiment in his Majesty's. service have been thought fit and proper recuits , for the New South Wales Corps. We find among these, men capable of corrupting the hearts of the best disposed, and often superior in every species of infamy to the most expert in wickedness among the convicts !'
And these are only fine lines in the picture.
Those who have read what has already been written of these men, and who read what follows and after all is said the whole truth will not have , been told will share in the astonishment of the writer of this story that every element of goodness in the young colony was not swallowed up in this sink of corruption called a Corps.

The vessels which brought to the colony the first contingent of Major Grose's army also brought about : 2,000 male and 250 female convicts. The voyage out was full of horrors to the unfortunate prisoners.
The vessels were not, regular transports, but private ships, whose owners had contracted with the Government to embark prisoners at 17/7/6 per head, without any agreement being made for sufficient accommodation or proper control ; nor were they even liable for any deduction for those who died on the voyage hence, the greater number of deaths, the more profit to the contractors. Will the reader be astonished to learn that the sharks were well fed on human flesh during the passage. Nearly 300 of the wretched creatures on board in chains perished before the vessels reached Port Jackson, in consequence of the close and improper way in which they had been confined.
Driven to desperation by the treatment they were receiving, some of the convicts made an attempt to overpower the guards and get possession of the ships. They failed, and failure brought increased suffering.
The convicts were after this attempt all heavily ironed : and the bodies of those who died under the hatches were permitted to remain there and putrefy for weeks !
Is there in all the records of the time when slave ships sailed the sea, a story more horrible and horrifying than this?
Some of those who survived the voyage died when being conveyed to the land in boats, and many of the others landed only to die.
No record has been preserved of the number that died after they were landed, but Colonel David Collins makes this grim report : All possible expedition was used in getting the sick on shore, for even while they remained on board many died. The total number of sick on the last day of June was three hundred and forty-nine.

The melancholy which closed the month of June appeared unchanged in the beginning of July. The morning generally opened with depositing in the burying ground the miserable victims of the night !'But the officers and men of the New South Wales Corps lived through it all, and on their arrival they began to shew their superiority as soldiers wearing the King of England's uniform.

Let Governor Phillip speak. He says : "They were observed to be very intimate with the convicts, living in their huts, eating, drinking and gambling with them, and perpetually enticing the women to leave the men."

The whole detachment, we are told, with the exception of the non-commissioned officers and five or six of the privates, took an oath to stand by each other, and not to suffer a soldier to be punished for whatever crime he might commit against an inhabitant ; and so we hear Governor Hunter complaining that they had destroyed the dwelling house of one resident, for sport, no doubt, and that the greatest part of the detachment on one occasion left their barracks with their bayonets 'to attack an unarmed people,' continuing for four days in open and avowed mutiny.' The officers did not, certainly, transgress so openly after the fashion of their inferiors, but they committed outrages of another character, as fully detailed in Part I ; and they gave the sanction of silence to the 'innocent pranks' of the privates in the Regiment.

Governor John Hunter it was who wrote to one of the commanding officers (Lieut.Colonel Paterson)- in the following strain, his anger somewhat interfering with his grammar : "I must declare to you, sir, that the conduct of this part of the New South Wales Corps has been, in my opinion, the most violent and outrageous that was ever heard of by any British Regiment whatever!"
Major Grose and Captain Paterson each served as Lieutenant-Governor during the interregnum, between the departure of Governor Phillip in December, 1792, and the arrival of Governor Hunter in September, 1795 the former acting two years, and the latter for about nine months.
And here let us drop the: New South Wales Corps. I do not care to handle vice too long.

Again taking up the thread of the narrative proper, we learn that in October (just six months after leaving on her foraging mission) the Supply returned to the colony from Batavia, with a full cargo of provisions, and the captain reported that he had chartered a Dutch ship, which was following, also laden with provisions. This was joyful news, and the whole settlement was immediately put on full allowance.
The action of the Governor in limiting the ration of himself and the officers to that served out-to the soldiers and convicts, while it prevented any expression of discontent, gave the latter the clearest proof that could be offered of Phillip's desire to deal fairly with them ; and when the fresh provisions arrived there was general rejoicing. The frequent recurrence of times of scarcity, however, and the slow growth of internal production, made the convicts very unsettled, and there was a wide-spread desire to escape from a condition where starvation appeared to be a contingency not very remote at any time.

Early in 1791, several daring and successful attempts were made by prisoners to escape from the colony, by means of boats stolen from the settlers on the banks of the Parramatta and Hawkesbury Rivers, and with a view of preventing this an order was issued by the Governor limiting all boats to be built in future to a size so small that none but the most foolhardy would think of escaping in them. Nevertheless, the attempts continued to be made, but in the majority of cases the boats were so small and weak that they were swamped almost before they had cleared the Heads.

It was in August of this year that the convicts whose sentences had expired, and who desired to remain in the colony, were allowed to select small parcels of land to clear and cultivate for their own use. The first party, twelve in number, made selections of land about four miles from Parramatta, at the foot of Prospect Hill. From this time forward grants of land to emancipists continued to be made with more or less liberality, and some of the large estates in the colony at the present day, if traced back for little over
half,a century, will be found to have had their beginning under the rule which extended the system of land grants to convicts whose sentences had expired and whose conduct had been good.
And many of the prisoners had earned all that was given to them, for their services to the colony, apart altogether from the 'labour' which the Government extracted from them as a penalty attaching to crime, were really very valuable which is more than can be said of the services rendered by the crowds of non-commissioned officers to whom the public estate was served out in such large slices at this and at subsequent periods.

The real pioneers of the country were, not the retired officers or free settlers, but their assigned servants; for these were the men who braved the dangers of the bush, withstood the assaults of the justly incensed aborigines, cleared the land, cultivated it and made it habitable, and developed the resources of the country while their masters, during the greater portion of the time, took their ease in what was then the only centre of civilization in the colony.
It does not detract at all from the merit of the work in which these men engaged that their labours were not voluntary. It is to their credit that they performed their duties faithfully and well under circumstances of the most discouraging kind; and they deserved all the reward that came to them.


As this story proceeds it will be seen that, as a rule, the men who laid the foundation upon which the industrial prosperity of the colony has been raised more often received kicks than half-pence as a reward for their labours. Many of the more successful of the First Fleeters dwelt on the Hawkesbury and its tributaries, where the first agricultural settlers were planted, and from them, even to a date near the fifties could be obtained reliable reminiscences of the olden time.

One of these settlers,a Mr. S - , who was in well-to-do circumstances, and who had been freed shortly after arriving in the colony, told the following thrilling story ,in the year 1845 :
"I arrived in the colony fifty-six years since; it was Governor Phillip's time and I was fourteen years old ; there were only eight houses in the colony then. I know that myself and eighteen others laid in a hollow tree for seventeen weeks, and cooked out of a kettle with a wooden bottom; we used to stick it in a hole in the ground and make a fire round it. I was seven years in service (bond) and then started working for a living wherever I could get it. There was plenty of hardship then. I have often taken grass and pounded it, and made soup from a native dog. I would eat anything then. For seventeen weeks I had only five ounces of flour a day. We never got a full ration except when the ship was in harbour. The motto was 'kill them or work them ; their provision will be in store'.
Many a time have I been yoked like a bullock with twenty or thirty others to drag along timber. About eight hundred died in about six months at a place called Toongabbie, or Constitution Hill. I knew a man so weak he was thrown into the grave; when he said, 'Don't cover me up; I'm not dead; for God's sake don't cover me up!'The overseer answered 'D- your eyes, you'll die tonight, and we shall have the trouble to come back again!
The man recovered; his name is James and he is now alive at Richmond.
They used to have a large hole for the dead; 0nce a day men were sent down to collect the corpses of prisoners, and throw them in without any ceremony or service. The native dogs used to come down at night and fight and howl in packs, gnawing the poor dead bodies.
The Governor would order the lash at the rate of 500, 600, or 800 ; and if the men could have stood it they would have had more. I knew a man hung time and then for having stolen a few biscuits, and another for stealing a duck frock. A man was condemned no time take him to a tree, and hang him. The overseers were allowed to flog the men in the fields, Often have the men been taken from the gangs, had fifty, and been sent back to work. Any man would, have committed murder for a month's provisions ; I would have committed three (murders) for a week's provision ! I was chained seven weeks on my back for being out getting greens, wild herbs. The *Rev. used to come it tightly to force some confession. Men were obliged to tell lies to prevent their bowels being cut out with the lash!
Old - (an overseer) killed three men at the saw in a fortnight by overwork. We used to be taken in large 'parties to raise a tree; when the body of the tree was raised he (old - ) would. call some of 'the men away then more ; the men were bent double they could not bear it they fell the tree on one or two, killed on the spot. 'Take him away; put him in the ground!' There was no more about it.
After seven years I got my liberty and then started about working for a living where I could get it. I stowed myself away on board the 'Barrington, bound for Norfolk Island, with eighteen others ; it was not a penal settlement then. Governor King was there. I had food, in plenty. I was overseer of the Governor's garden. Afterwards I went to live with old D'Arcy Wentworth and a better master never lived in the world. Little Billy, the great lawyer, has often been carried in my arms. Old D'Arcy wanted, me to take charge of Homebush station, but I took to the river (Hawkesbury), worked up and down till I saved, enough money to buy old B-'s farm at Pitt Town. No man worked harder than I have done. I have by me about 1000 ready cash. I have given that farm of forty acres to my son Joseph, and three other farms and about 500 head of cattle ; and about the same to my other son. I have also got 80 acres besides my house, and some fine cattle. We are never without a chest of tea in the house ; we use two in the year. I have paid 40 for a chest of tea in this colony. Tea is a great comfort."


This old man was described as large-featured, handsome, military sort of face, of a red-brown complexion, clean shaved, and his dress a flannel shirt with black bandanna, tied sailor fashion, exposing his strong neck, and a pair of fustian trousers. A coat to him was like a prison, and he kept religiously away from that article of dress. He was as rough-mannered as he was honest, and a story is told of his meeting with Dr. -, who had the reputation among the prison population of never having spared any man in his anger or any woman in his lust. It was during the flogging days, and the Dr. met him in Sydney coming out of the bank. Holding out his hand the medico said, "Come Mr. S -, shake hands, let bygones be bygones; I am glad to see you looking so well." The old man put his hands behind him, and bawled out "I suppose because I have got a velvet waistcoat, and money in the bank, you want to shake hands; but no! Dr. - , it would take a second resurrection to save such as thee!"
The Dr.-- did not wait to hear any more.

The old man's wife was blind, but had a good memory, and she told the following story with tears :
"I have seen Dr. - take a woman who was in the family way, with a rope round her, and duck her in the water at Queen's Wharf. The laws were bad then. If a gentleman wanted a man's wife he would send the husband to Norfolk Island. I have seen a man flogged for pulling six turnips instead of five. One was overseer, the biggest villain that ever lived delighted in torment. He used to walk up and down and rub his hands when the blood ran. When he walked out the flogger walked behind him. He died a miserable death ; maggots ate him up, and not a man could be found to bury him. I have seen six men executed for stealing 21 lbs of flour. I have seen a man struck when at work with a handspike, and killed on the spot. I have seen men in tears round Governor , begging for food. He would mock them with 'Yes, yes, gentlemen; I'll make you comfortable; give you a nightcap and a pair of stockings!"

Another man in the same year gave this account ;
"I arrived in the third fleet on the 16th October, 1791; it was on a Sunday we landed. The ship's name was Barrington, Captain March. I was sent to Toongabbie. For nine months there I was on five ounces of flour when weighed out barely four; served daily. In those days we were yoked to draw timber, twenty-five in gang. The sticks were six feet long, six men abreast. We held the stick behind us, and dragged with our hands. One man came ashore in the Pitt; his name was Dixon ; he was a gentleman. He was put to the drag, but it soon done for him. He began on a Thursday and died on a Saturday, as he was dragging a load down Constitution Hill. There were thirteen hundred died there in six months. Men used to carry trees on their shoulders. How they used to die ! The men were weak dreadfully weak through want of food. A man named Gibraltar was hung for stealing a loaf out of the Governor's kitchen. He got down the chimney, stole the loaf, had a trial, and was hung the next day at sunrise. At this time a full ration was allowed to the Governor's dog. I have seen seventy men flogged at night, twenty-five lashes each. On Sunday evening they used to read the laws. If any man was found out of the camp he got 25. The women used to he punished with iron collars. In Governor King's time they used to douse them overboard. They killed one.
Dr. - was a great tyrant. Mine is a life-grant from Governor Bourke fourteen acres. I grow tobacco, wheat, and corn ; just enough to make a living."


A story was current to the following effect, shewing the arbitrary rule of 1816:
Governor Bligh having heard from his cowkeeper that the servant of an officer of the staff had made some impertinent remarks because disappointed of the customary supply of milk for his master, on the following morning sent for the disappointed delinquent. Wondering and trembling he was ushered into the presence of His Excellency, who received him with a condescending smile, and told him that as the chief constable's house was on his way home, he (the Governor,) had simply sent for him to save a dragoon the trouble of going there with a letter. The letter was handed to the somewhat bewildered servant, who straightway delivered it to 'the chief constable, and as a reward was immediately tied to the triangles and treated to 25 lashes the letter, having contained the Governor's warrant for the payment of the reward.

This chapter (5) transcribed from
Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (NSW : 1851 - 1904)
Published, Saturday 5 January 1889
Written by Charles White (1845-1922), editor and author,
Under his pseudonym, 'The Chatterer'
White was born at Bathurst, New South Wales,
the eldest son of John Charles White, bank clerk and Methodist lay preacher,
and his wife Myra, ne Oakey, of Demerara, West Indies.
In October 1859 his father bought the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal
The family owned this paper until 1904.
janilye, 2012


Notes: Production history of The Recruiting Officer.
It opened at Drury Lane in 1706. It was an immediate hit and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century. The part of the foppish Brazen proved a notable role for the renowned actor-manager Colley Cibber. The Recruiting Officer was also the first play to be staged in the Colony of New South Wales, which is now Australia, by the convicts of the First Fleet in 1789 under the governance of Captain Arthur Phillip RN (also Commodore of the First Fleet) as well as the first performance of the original Dock Street Theatre in Historic downtown Charleston, SC in 1736. The most famous modern revival was staged at the National Theatre (when at the Old Vic) in 1963 its inaugural season. Directed by William Gaskill, it had an extremely strong cast which included Laurence Olivier as Brazen, Robert Stephens as Plume, Colin Blakely as Kite, Derek Jacobi as Worthy, Maggie Smith as Silvia and Mary Miller as Melinda.[citation needed] The National Theatre staged the play again in 1991 with Desmond Barrit as Brazen, Alex Jennings as Plume and Ken Stott as Kite. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner.

There have been two television adaptations of the play. The first for Australian television in 1965, the second a BBC Play of the Month in 1973. The latter, directed by David Giles, starred Ian McKellen as Plume, Prunella Ransome as his sweetheart Silvia, Jane Asher as Melinda, John Moffatt as Brazen, and Brian Blessed as Sergeant Kite.

* Rev. Samuel Marsden
The flogging Parson, He was appointed a magistrate in 1796; however, his reputation plummeted as his cruelty and harsh sentences became the stuff of legend. He was removed from the magistracy twice, by Governor Macquarie in 1818 and by Governor Brisbane in 1822-his picture below and depicted in this episode of the highly popular 1978 Australian Television series Against The Wind which may be watched here.

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by janilye Profile | Research | Contact | Subscribe | Block this user
on 2012-05-26 04:44:57

janilye - 7th generation, Convict stock. Born in New South Wales now living in Victoria, carrying, with pride 'The Birthstain'.

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