‘Dear Jack…I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you’. Denis Prendergast, Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall and John Thompson, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998

1788 – 1868: Of 163,000 convicted criminals transported from the British Isles to Australia between 1788 and 1868 only 25,000 were women. Of these 12,500 went directly to Tasmania and none (zero) to West Australia. See: G is for Genocide

‘The tender [Supply] may be employed in conveying to the new settlement a further number of women from the Friendly Islands, New Caledonia etc. from whence any number may be procured without difficulty; and without a sufficient proportion of that sex it is well known that it would be impossible to preserve the settlement from gross irregularities and disorders’. London, Heads of a Plan for Botany Bay, 1786

1786 – 26 August, London: Toward the end of August 1786 Treasury advised the Navy Board; ‘To take the necessary Measures for providing a proper Number of vessels for the Conveyance of 680 Male and 70 female Convicts to Botany Bay’. Following representation the numbers were amended – 600 male and 200 female convicts.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: A ‘proper number’ was eleven (11) vessels – two (2) warships HMS Sirius, HMS Supply, four (4) troop carriers Alexander, Scarborough, Prince of Wales and Charlotte. Friendship and Lady Penrhyn carried mainly women prisoner camp-followers with three (3) store-ships Fishburn, Golden Grove, Borrowdale together known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’.

This large armed squadron commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN sailed from England for Botany Bay on 13 May 1787.

Fully funded by government the ‘First Fleet’ was radically different from Britain’s subsequent transportation fleets in that all males – marine and convict – were rationed as ‘troops serving in the West Indies’. See: A Riddle – When an invasion fleet is not an invasion fleet?  When it’s the First Fleet

Captain Arthur Phillip RN was first and foremost a commander engaged by the British Government to prosecute a military campaign. His mission to conquer and dispossess New Holland’s First Peoples of their land in order Britain secure strategic supremacy over the Southern Oceans.

‘New Holland is a blind, then we want to add to the military strength of India…I need not enlarge on the benefit of stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales’. Historical Records of New South Wales

Gender disparity characterised Britain’s invasion and occupation of the island continent of New Holland now Australia.

The fleet’s complement of 1500 souls was overwhelmingly male – 1300 men – twenty (20) officials, two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, about four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen, five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts.

The female  component numbered a mere two hundred and twenty-one (221) – one hundred and ninety (190) convicts and thirty-one (31) marine wives.

The fleet Chaplain Reverend Richard Johnson, selected by William Wilberforce ‘God’s Politician’ England’s leading anti- slavery parliamentarian, was accompanied by his wife Mary.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: Mid January 1788, after a voyage of eight (8) months and, within 36 hours, the entire fleet was anchored in Botany Bay. But wide open, so difficult to defend and, with a limited water supply for such a large number, the area was deemed unsuitable for permanent settlement.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, two (2) French ships, commanded by Jean-Francois La Perouse, arrived off the entrance to Botany Bay but bad weather forced them south to shelter at Sutherland.

‘There is some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Edward Jenks, History of Australian Colonies, cited in H.E. Egerton, Short History of British Colonial History, Methuen, 1928

1788 – 25 February, Port Jackson: Captain Phillip left Botany Bay in HMS Supply and sailed (9) miles (14km) north to Port Jackson (Sydney Cove) where he raised the Union Jack and claimed victory over the French. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land’. Professor Behrendt, The Honest History Book, ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2017

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: By 6 pm on the 26th of January the remainder of the English fleet sailed into Sydney Cove and anchored alongside Supply.

1788 – 27/28 January: The marines and male convicts disembarked over the following two (2) days. Land was cleared and a parade ground marked out. Soldiers supervised as male convicts felled trees, dug saw-pits, latrines and set up tent lines.

1788 – 6 February, Sydney Cove: Ship manifests record two hundred and twenty-one (222)  women and about thirty (30) free children disembarked in Sydney Cove on 6 February 1788 and moved into a tent town of canvas and duck boarding.

A day of high humidity was followed by a stifling night, in pitch darkness came a cycle of violent storms – wild winds, driving rain, thunder and fearful lightning.

The tempest…exceeded anything I have ever had a conception of I never before experienced so uncomfortable a night…and the heat was suffocating’. Arthur Bowes Smyth, Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, First Fleet Journal

Lightning struck a tree it split in half and burst into flames. A pig and seven (7) sheep Marine Major Ross had tethered beneath it burned to death. The sounds and smell of their dying must have heightened the terror of the storm. In the midst this wild cacophony fleet journals report a ‘sexual orgy’ took place.

‘Several of the First Fleet had been tried as early as 1781 and 1782. As seven years transportation was the most common sentence, many had already served five-sevenths of their time on embarkation, and six-sevenths on disembarkation at Sydney Cove’. Dr John Cobley, Crimes of the First Fleet, Vol. 1, Angus and Robertson, 1982

Safe arrival after a long, perilous voyage to a frightening unknown land 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from home makes it difficult to credit orgasms – sexual and/or otherwise – did not occur that dark and stormy night.

Yet historians, intent on sanitising history, play down the very notion of ‘a sexual orgy’ deftly avoiding the blinding obvious – a gross disparity of the sexes.

In Britain’s prisons throughout the 18th century the sexes mixed more or less freely.

However post legislation, the Hulks Act of 1776, men sentenced for ‘transportation to America [later] beyond the seas’ were confined for years on dank, filthy ships – prison hulks – moored along the Thames River

Situational homosexuality: then as now prisoners embrace the ‘situation’ in which they find themselves. With too few women to alter that ‘situation’ most would have been male to male encounters.

Few prisoners transported to Australia could write, let Denis Prendergast’s ‘frank and tender letter of homosexual love’ speaks for those exiled an ‘extreme distance’ from their lovers, family, friends and homeland.

1846: As Denis prepared for death on the gallows he wrote a farewell letter to Jack the lover left behind in England.

‘Dear Jack…I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you. I hope you wont forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldred away. I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you…the only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together’. I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover’.  Oxford Book of Australian Letters. Op.Cit.


An acute shortage of food caused Governor Phillip, a man held to be of ‘uncompromising common sense’, decide against procuring; ‘a further number of women  from the Friendly Islands’ as instructed in the Heads of a Plan for Botany Bay. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790 

‘I am certain’ he wrote to Lord Sydney ‘your Lordship will think that to send for women from the Islands, in our present situation, [famine] would answer no other purposes than that of bringing them to pine away in misery’. Governor Phillip to Lord Sydney, May 15th 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales

As flagged in the ‘Heads of a Plan’ it proved ‘impossible to preserve the settlement from gross irregularities and disorders’. They fell on the First Nations’ women conscripted to ‘comfort’ both conqueror and criminal.

James Lavell, the first named Anglo-Aboriginal child was born in 1788. After Henry Lavell his convict father returned to England James remained in Sydney with his un-named Aboriginal mother. See: A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose

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