Rob Mundle’s The First Fleet follows Arthur Phillip’s convoy

SINEAD FITZGIBBON

THE AUSTRALIAN NOVEMBER 1, 2014

Captian Philip
Detail from an 1786 portrait of Captain Arthur Phillip by Francis Wheatley.

 

First Fleet purser John Palmer's painting of the Sirius at the entrance to Port Jackson, January 26, 1788.
First Fleet purser John Palmer’s painting of the Sirius at the entrance to Port Jackson, January 26, 1788.

 

FORGET Wikipedia, census records, birth certificates, death notices. Anyone wanting to gain a little historical insight, regardless of the period, need look no further than an era’s prison rolls. Prisons have always been reflective of the times, holding a mirror to the prejudices, preoccupations, and partialities of society.

During the Tudor period in Britain, for example, religion was the thing likeliest to land you behind bars. Whether it was Catholicism or Protestantism depended on the monarch. Skip forward to the 19th century, and the proliferation of overcrowded debtors’ prisons in Victorian London is indicative of the number of people jailed for failure to pay their bills. Rewind a little to the 18th century, however, and we find convict passenger lists equally as informative as prison records. Theft, it seems, was one of the most frowned-on crimes of the day. No distinction was made between petty theft and larceny of the grander kind: Britain’s stringent judicial system meant you were just as likely to be jailed for stealing a piece of cheese as you were for making off with a few heifers or a quantity of silver plate. Since 1717, when transportation to America, Canada and the West Indies was enacted into law, ships’ manifests were heavily burdened with the names of condemned pickpockets, poachers and pilferers.

But as Rob Mundle outlines in The First Fleet, from 1782 onwards America (newly independent following the patriots’ victory in the War of Independence) was no longer prepared to accept the continued dumping of British felons on its shores. With such vast borders now closed to them, and with prison populations at home reaching critical levels, authorities in England had to find another location for a penal colony — and fast. A few fatal excursions to inhospitable Africa ruled out that option. There was nothing for it, it seemed, but to head south to that great landmass first discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770.

And so it was, Mundle explains, that Captain Arthur Phillip, a man of solid if undistinguished naval reputation, found himself, in 1787, leading a convoy of 11 ships to the farthest reaches of the globe. In his care was a coterie of sailors, marines, a few officers and their families. By far the greatest number on board, however, were the ‘‘shackle draggers’’: a human cargo of 775 unfortunate convicts sentenced to banishment to an unknown land. Their crimes, as listed in the glossary of this book, ranged from the theft of a bedsheet to highway robbery, fraud and forgery. It was this motley crew of adventurers, this ‘‘cross-section of vagabonds, vagrants and half-decent individuals’’, that would constitute Australia’s first settlers.

“I am not an historian, nor an academic,” Mundle declares in the author’s note that opens this book. “But having sailed countless thousands of nautical miles in my life, I consider myself a competent sailor and a man of the sea.” He need not have pointed this out. Fans of his previous books, which include studies of Cook, Matthew Flinders and William Bligh, will know that his exuberant enthusiasm for the ocean, coupled with his fluid, accessible writing style, has already seen him acclaimed as a gifted maritime narrator. For anyone coming to Mundle’s work for the first time, this will become apparent from the first few pages of The First Fleet. His seafaring experience, along with his passion for the subject, has produced another extraordinarily compelling book.

For all the writer’s talents, however, much of the success of this book is down to the adventure on which it is based. Even in lesser hands than Mundle’s, it would have been difficult to go wrong with this story. It bears all the hallmarks of a classic traveller’s tale: an irresistible combination of true-life bravery, tenacity, ingenuity and selfless heroism. During the eight months it took to sail the 17,000 nautical mile trip from Portsmouth Harbour to Botany Bay, the fleet encountered savage storms, perilous seas and almost ruinous deprivations. In recounting this tale, Mundle vividly depicts, with thrilling tension and pace, the reality of life aboard ship for the free sailors and the convicts shackled below: the hardships, the relentless seasickness, the occasional cruelties, the camaraderie, the hopeful highs and soul-crushing lows. With his flair for rich description and his attention to even the smallest details, he imbues his narrative with a colour not usually found in historical nonfiction.

Equally well rendered is the settlers’ subsequent post-voyage battle to establish a colony. For those who survived the arduous journey, their disembarkation on the shores of ‘‘New Holland’’ marked the beginning of an even greater struggle. Their fight for survival against the ravages of hunger and disease in a country one officer described as ‘‘the outcasts of God’s work … barren and forbidding … where Nature is reversed’’ was nothing short of epic. Guided by Mundle, we follow Phillip as he valiantly tries to maintain the physical and mental wellbeing of his charges, while liberally doling out placenames honouring the great and the good of the British establishment — the very establishment whose astonishing lack of interest had threatened the colony’s survival on more than one occasion.

That said, Mundle’s enthusiasm for his subject can, at times, bubble over into slightly breathless admiration. It is clear he holds all those who sailed on the First Fleet, and in particular Phillip, in very high regard. However, while this occasionally has resulted in the inadequate examination of the more questionable aspects of colonial settlement (the displacement of indigenous people, for example), even the most cynical among us cannot deny that this earnest esteem is well founded. Who can argue that the achievements of the travellers and convicts aboard this 11-strong flotilla of ships were anything short of extraordinary?

In an introduction to his 1974 classic The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes acknowledged that there had long been a ‘‘sublimation’’ of convict history. ‘‘The idea that the convicts might have a history worth telling,’’ he wrote, ‘‘was foreign to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.’’ In the interim period, a lot has been written to redress this. However, if there is any residual historical amnesia to be displaced, this exhaustively researched and perfectly pitched book is the one to do it.

Sinead Fitzgibbon is a Britain-based Irish author and critic. Several of her short history books have been published as part of the History in an Hour series.

The First Fleet By Rob Mundle

ABC Books,

382pp,

$45 (HB)