December 5, 2014 Book review: The First Fleet, by Rob Mundle

Reviewer: Robert Willson

THE FIRST FLEET By Rob Mundle. ABC Books. $45

When I opened this book by Rob Mundle, a journalist with a passion for ships and the sea, I wondered if there was need for yet another account of Captain Arthur Phillip and his brilliant leadership of the First Fleet.

Phillip died exactly 200 years ago and Mundle’s story amply justifies the book.

The author has distilled years of painstaking research by scholars in the 18th century history of Great Britain, her rebellious colonies in America, as well as her rivalry with France, to explain the motivation for sending the First Fleet to found a penal colony which became a great nation. The early career of Phillip as a naval officer, fluent in German, French and Portuguese, and a spy for the British government, makes an intriguing story. He made the First Fleet the success it was by his wise and calm leadership. Clothing, medical care and adequate food supplies, all helped to minimise deaths on the voyage. Phillip ordered that records of every convict should include details of useful skills in the new colony. More than just a naval officer, he was a far sighted nation builder.

The author includes key passages from those who kept diaries on the voyage, such as Watkin Tench. One remarkable account, from an ordinary sailor’s perspective, was that of the American Jacob Nagle. His manuscript was only rediscovered in 1982.

The chapter “The Shackle Draggers” includes stories of some of the convicts who later became famous. One was Mary Bryant who arrived on the transport Charlotte and married John Bryant, a fellow convict on the same ship. Later they made a remarkable escape from Sydney Cove and Mary made it back to England.

There were several mutiny plots in the Fleet, one on board the transport Scarborough. Phillip ordered the ringleaders to be flogged on the Sirius and then transferred to another ship. Yet this humane man also ordered that the convicts be released from their fetters when possible, to make life easier for them.

The author takes the story beyond the arrival at Botany Bay, and the move to Port Jackson, and the founding of the settlement. We learn of the struggle to survive in the face of starvation.

Even if you feel that you have heard it all before, the author will fill you with admiration for Arthur Phillip and what he achieved.