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Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Flying ants

I was up at the sanctuary today, and we came across some ants swarming. One of the other people didn't know much about the process, so I pulled this out of the old files: it follows on from the previous entry in this blog.

There are two lay reactions to "flying ants". Some people think them as real as flying monkeys or drop bears, while a larger group will assure you that they exist, and tell you they are termites on the move. In fact, they are proper ants, Formicidae, but not the usual ground-runners.

Flying ants are the sexually mature forms that the ants (and Australia alone has some 3000 species of ants) use to establish new colonies. The confusion with termites is understandable, because "white ants" also use a similar dispersal method.

Termites, though, are more closely related to the cockroaches, while the ants are near relatives of wasps. Ants and termites are both important recyclers, but I will stay with the ants here. The termites can wait.

Old bush wisdom says ants swarm and send off their colonists on days when it is warm and humid, though some scientists think suitable air currents need to be available. Humidity and warmth seem to be the main factors.

Early stages of the swarm: males (wings) and workers.
It helps them if many nests swarm at the same time: it gives the ants a better chance of slipping past the birds and bats seeking a tasty snack. There is also a better chance of cross-breeding between nests, so it's a win-win.

You will usually see the males first, because there are more of them, and a smaller number of "queens" or fertile females. The males, as you can see above, are roughly the same size as the non-fertile female workers.

The queens, on the other hand, are much larger, because they will need to lay enough eggs to raise the first crop of workers for the new nest.

A queen, males and workers. The larger pipe is a 45 mm
diameter, so the workers are about 12 mm long
The workers do a lot of formicating (this is the technical term for "rushing around like ants" and a great word for mentioning in sedate tea parties). People say the workers are grooming the queen, but nobody seems to quite know what this achieves,

When they fly off, the males and females mate on the wing, the males die soon after and the queens land, find or make a shelter, and start laying eggs, if they are lucky.

Queen with some worker ants.
Flying ants may be alarming, but without flying ants, there would be no ants. Without ants, your garden would stink from all the dead animals.

     Learn to like flying ants!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A bit about ants

 I am a fairly predictable creature, and my temporary obsessions are fairly obvious to the Tuesday mob, the people who work as volunteer gardeners with me (or with whom I work) on Sydney's North Head.

One of the longest lasting temporary obsessions relates to ants, in part because they reveal what lies beneath the surface. Anybody who has worked where I work will have seen something like the picture on the right. Under the soil that was laid to make the oval, there is a bed of pure white sand. Ants that reveal that are neat.

Bull ants have been an interest of mine since I had a traumatic experience with them when I was three. I will gloss over the circumstances, but suffice it to say that I ended up with a bull ant in my underpants. No, I don't want to talk about it…

Stung into action, as it were, I set out to study the enemy, and while the story of me and my sting is not on the agenda, I will discuss how I photographed the one above: having  captured it in a jar,  I put the ant in the refrigerator to slow it down, then set it on a paper towel on cork in a bowl of ice water. My purpose was simple: a dead bull ant has its nippers crossed, and I wanted a live one.

My first bull ant is clearly alive, as is the second one, on the right, which was in a footprint on a sandy trail, with the camera coming in safely from above. No, I didn't step on it…
 Other ants are safer to study, and there are ants almost everywhere, but they aren't easy to "catch". I have searched all over Australia for a good shot of an ant trail, and I had just about decided that the "trail" is a construct, a figment of the way we see motion — until I found one on a street kerb (right) near the cemetery at Alice Springs, where I had gone to see the graves of Namatjira and Lasseter.
The student of ants is better satisfied by studying ant hills, which are always neat and practical against floods. And the heap also tells us about what lies below.

This one on the left was on another part of the same oval, where there is none of the pure white sand in reach of the ants.

But ants feeding are also fun. Each summer, we need use baits to control the little sugar ants that invade our home. They get everywhere, and make nests inside the furniture: enough is enough! I mix my own borax and sugar.

I do feed the meat ants, the ones seen in the last shot (below), eating steak in a Petri dish: this is part of my ongoing determination to, one day, get ants to form a convincing trail.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

About leaves

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a bit of a thing about leaves. He was z poet, so he wrote a poem about the leaf of the Ginkgo, probably because he saw the leaf as a symbol of love. Goethe was many things, and also a curious botanist—some might even say a peculiar botanist. He thought the leaf was the basic unit of the plant: "from top to bottom a plant is all leaf…".

I thought of this when I sighted a Lomatia (right) along one of the North Head tracks a few weeks back. At least, I think it was a Lomatia, but now I have my doubts, because of where it was growing. I'll need to visit it later in the year to check the flower, but Lomatia is one of those once-seen-never-forgotten leaves.

That started me thinking about distinctive leaves, like Canada's maple leaf, the serrated leaves of the Banksia (left) and the gracefully curved leaves of some gums.

Again, once seen, never forgotten, though I'll bet that somewhere out there, some other plant has taken on a similar design. That's why botanists, both before and after Goethe, used flower parts for identification, despite Goethe's ideas. Still, leaves help in identification, and they are certainly worth attention.

She-oak, Allocasuarina.
A leaf is just a plant's way of catching sunlight, while hopefully not losing too much water. Most Australian plants have tricks to hang onto their water. 

She-oak needles (right) are really branches with the leaves tightly attached, all except for little scales sticking out.

Every walk brings me "leaves" to admire, but some are fake leaves like those on Bossiaea (left) which are really cladodes, that being a fancy name for flattened stems. 

Then again, the leaves of wattles are often phyllodes, flattened petioles or leaf stalks, and in each case, the change is designed to save the plant from losing water.

Another way to avoid losing water is to discourage animals from eating the leaves. Biting a leaf opens wounds that the plant "bleeds" from, and what is eaten represents a loss as well.

Rainforest leaf, unidentified.
That explains this rainforest leaf, which I saw on the Dorrigo Plateau, has such nasty spines, though as you can see, small animals just dodge around the spines.

Listen, young Goethe, forget about plants as symbols of love—even the leaves remind us there's a war on out there. Some leaves are even mined!
Leaf, attacked by leaf-miners.
I think I might leaf it there.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Crooked Mick's dog and the locusts

Somebody asked me in an unbelieving tone the other day about Crooked Mick's dog, the one that could round up a swarm of plague locusts, and drive them through a small camp fire.  Now don't get me wrong: I didn't say that Mick's was the only dog that did this, but it was more efficient at it than most dogs.

You see, a plague swarm is usually a few miles (let's say 5 kilometres in your terms) wide, and many of the swarm are well out of the reach of even the best jumping dog, as they fly up to a mile above the earth — call it about 1.5 km.  Narrowing the swarm's front is easy, but getting the high fliers down low enough is always a problem.  The important point is that Mick's dog got around this difficulty in a new and rather creative way.  He was dead lazy, as everybody knows, but Mick's dog was quite good at solving unusual problems.

Plague locusts will always settle on anything green, and Mick's dog had somehow worked out or noticed that male blowflies on the Speewah are green.  So what he used to do was to round up all the blowflies (something any Speewah pup could do) and then cut out the males into a compact mass.  Driving this mass of male blowflies under the swarm of locusts, the dog would then have to lead the locusts back to where the campfire was lit.

Then came the really hard part.  To keep the locust swarm moving down, the dog needed a compact swarm of male blowies, and that meant keeping the blowies in one group while driving the locusts through the flames, so their wings were singed, and they dropped to the ground to die. 

That wasn't hard: even my dog could do that on a good day, but the hard part was that the smell of dead and dying locusts brought all the female blowies around, and keeping them out of the way, and controlling the male blowies, AND driving the locusts through the flames, but not so close that they put the fire out, and gathering enough wood to keep the fire going at the same time, that was pretty hard.

So as I said before, Crooked Mick had a pretty good dog there.  In fact, if we had a few more like him today, we could use a lot less chemical spray than we do.  Which reminds me: Mick's dog also had a good way of dealing with the Speewah mosquitoes.  Now this really was amazing, because the dog was born in the middle of a small drought, and so he was eight years old before he saw his first mosquito.

Yeah, that's a small drought as they come and go on the Speewah.  When it rained after a real Speewah drought, one of Mick's mates fainted at the shock of water on his face, and they had to throw three buckets of dust over him to bring him round.

Anyhow, the mosquitoes came when the drought broke, and like everything else on the Speewah, they're big.  They don't whine, they go FLAP!  FLAP!  FLAP!  It's just as well they aren't around in the times of drought, or they'd blow all the dust away to New Zealand.

Well, Mick's dog didn't hesitate.  As the first mosquito flew over, the dog sized the situation up, and jumped, taking a lump out of the mosquito's proboscis, the giant stinger thing on the front end of the mosquito.  Hardly letting go, he slipped to a new spot on the stinger, and bit again, as the mosquito flew on.

Finally, the dog had chewed all the way around, and the proboscis fell to the paddock below, where it speared into the ground.  The mosquito was now unbalanced, and it spiralled down to the ground, close to its stinger, and wandered off, looking dazed.  As the mosquito landed, the dog let go, stepped safely onto terra firma, then turned around and looked for the next victim.

It took him a week, and by the end of that week, the female mosquitoes were all unspiked, and the whole of the Speewah home paddock was full of proboscises, all stuck in the ground.  Later, when the floods came, the proboscises all filled with water, which made them really useful in the drought that came after that.  All you had to do was chop a wedge into the side, and hold a billy underneath to catch the water flowing out.

But don't get me wrong: other dogs could probably have done the same thing, but I doubt they would have worked it out quite so quickly.

* * * * *

Somebody told me the other day that Crooked Mick's dog couldn't have seen that the male blowflies on the Speewah are green, because dogs are all colour-blind, but that is a false assumption.  You see, the dogs on the Speewah are all kelpies, brought out to Australia from Scotland, and the kelpies have a dash of seal in their pedigree, and seals can see colours quite well.

In any case, as I mentioned before, the dog was born in the middle of a drought, so until he was eight years old, he never saw anything green.  So not being used to green things, he immediately saw the colour when it appeared.

So you have to face it: there's no sense in underestimating the brainpower of a Speewah dog.  Although Mick's dog did have one failing: it could set up a camp fire, fill the billy at the nearest water hole, and put it on the fire, but unless you gave it matches, there was just no way it could light the fire.  And not just any old matches: it had to be given safety matches, and quite often it used three or four of them.

Nobody could ever work out why: the dog was completely normal in every other way, but it just couldn't handle that one simple task.  Probably it got upset by somebody asserting within its hearing that it was colour-blind.  Or maybe it was just that the dog was lazy.  That was its real failing, laziness.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I have been pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Does thermodynamics matter?

To put it another way, do ordinary folk need thermodynamics, or an understanding of it? C. P. Snow, later Lord Snow, certainly thought they did, because, as he saw it,  thermodynamics is an area that matters intensely.

As a scientist who also wrote literary novels (as did his wife, Pamela Hansford Johnson), Snow was very aware of how ‘the other side’ saw science, and vice versa. Here, Snow is characterising the attitude of scientists to the ‘arts culture’, in his first entry into this arena, his lecture called The Two Cultures:
…the whole literature of the traditional culture doesn’t seem relevant…They are of course, dead wrong. As a result, their imaginative understanding is less than it could be. They are self-impoverished.
But what about the other side? They are impoverished too—perhaps more seriously, because they are vainer about it. They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture’, as though the natural order didn’t exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences…
As with the tone-deaf, they don’t know what they miss. they give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance is just as startling. A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought to be highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.
Once or twice I have been provoked and asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking them something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying Can you read?—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.
Sir Arthur Eddington thought thermodynamics mattered very much to scientists:
Eddington was always at his best when he was having fun with science: “Electrical force is defined as something which causes motion of an electric charge; an electrical charge is something which exerts an electrical force.”
That, however, was bettered by this comment, also from his book, The Nature of the Physical World:
The law that entropy always increases—the second law of thermodynamics—holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If [your pet theory of the universe] is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
So, yes, thermodynamics matter. It would be worth asking a climate change denier who babbles (as they all do) some drivel about the uncertainty of science, one of Snow's questions.

Oh, and if you aren't sure what the second law says, try this: In any spontaneous process, there is always an increase in the entropy of the universe.

Another way of saying this is to assert that there can never be a 100% efficient (or perfect) heat engine. Another form of the law states that heat flows spontaneously from a hot object to a cold object. Heat will not flow spontaneously from a cold object to a hot object.

If you understand thermodynamics, you can answer this:

You have a perfectly insulated room, and inside it, there is a refrigerator. It has been switch on, and the door had been wedged open. Now:

  • Does the room get cooler? or
  • Does the room get hotter? or
  • Does the temperature stay the same?

This one tricks a lot of people, and the odds are that it will fool climate change deniers as well.  Nobody who is unable to answer this should speak about climate matters.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Convict escapes

This is one of a series of pieces that may or may not ever see the light of day in a book: it is more likely than not that I will be self-publishing my Colonial Concerns, from which this is taken, as an e-book: it turned into a huge opus (a quarter of a million words of Australian history) that frightens print publishers. If and when the e-book happens, I will edit this to indicate where it can be obtained. In the interim, this is available to students of all ages, complete with sources.
The First Fleet arrived with enough food to last the population two years. They also brought live animals, plants and seeds, but these were not for eating. One important source of fresh food for the early settlers was fish. There was a catch with relying on fish as a food source: there had to be boats around, and for some convicts, that was a temptation, but let’s look at the history of escaping back to the sailing of the First Fleet.

Many convicts hoped desperately to escape. Most of their attempts were acts of desperation with no chance at all. The masters of the convict transports were fairly desperate to stop escapes as well. Arthur Bowes Smyth noted in his journal, that the masters had to safely land, the convicts and deliver them “into the Care of the Governor … under the penalty of 40£ for every Convict that was missing” [1]

Given that penalty, it is surprising that when the fleet was at Teneriffe, a convict was allowed to work on deck while there was a boat alongside his ship, the Alexander, with oars in it. This was all too much for John Powers, who rowed away that night in what Smyth calls the jolly boat. Unwisely, Powers went ashore and fell asleep. Marines found the boat the next morning, then they found him, and they took him back to the ship.

Powers was then “heavily ironed”[2], but later in the voyage, he tried to start a mutiny, and in Sydney, he stole some boards and received 200 lashes in November, 1788. After that, he seems to have disappeared. Perhaps he just died and nobody bothered to take note of it.

Then again, he may have stolen some more boards, made a boat and went to sea, but if he did, he probably drowned. At the end of 1793, David Collins wrote a list of the losses in that year:

There died between the 1st of January and 31st of December, both inclusive, two settlers, seven soldiers, seventy-eight male convicts, twenty-six female convicts, and twenty-nine children. One male convict was executed; six male convicts were lost in the woods; one male convict was found dead in the woods; one male convict was killed by the fall of a tree, and two male convicts were killed by lightning; making a decrease by death and accidents of one hundred and fifty-three persons. To this decrease may be added, four male convicts, who found means to escape from the colony on board of some of the ships which had been here. [3]

The forger-artist, Thomas Watling was one of those who failed to escape on the way to Australia, but quite a few disappeared, rather desperately, once they came ashore in Australia. Four seamen from the First Fleet escaped at Cape Town, and only two were recaptured[4]. The chances for escapees were poor, though.
On the other hand, one Portuguese soldier at Rio asked to be taken on board the fleet so he could go with them to Botany Bay. Captain Phillip refused. [5]

Once in Sydney, convicts had three possible ways to escape alive:
* They could run away into the bush;
* They could stow away on a ship; or
* They could get or steal a boat and sail away.

Running away into the bush was always possible, but surviving in the bush was quite another matter, because the convicts had no idea of how to feed themselves, or how to stay alive, dry, and warm. Almost as soon as the convicts landed, two of them, Ann Smith and a Frenchman called Peter Paris (or Parris) went missing.

John White thought a Frenchman might have found more favour with La PĂ©rouse, but he added that “… the French commodore had given his honour that he would not admit any of them on board … he might have been concealed, through pity, by his countrymen, and carried off without the knowledge of the commanding officer”. [6]

If Smith and Parris had sailed away with the French, the two would have died with them when the French ships were wrecked, not long afterwards, but a large ship would always be safer than a small boat.

Hiding on a ship was hard to do. When the transport Neptune was unloaded in August 1790, she was bound for China to pick up a cargo, but before she left, the town-adjutant, marine lieutenant Long, searched the ship. He found a man and a woman hidden in the ship’s supply of firewood. [7] This was no chance search: among the convicts, there was little honour, and informers were everywhere.

Those who went off into the bush never lasted long. They had no idea of how to get food in the bush, no idea of how to stay warm and dry, and little chance of being helped by the Aborigines. [8] That only left stealing a small boat.

On the night of September 26, 1790, five male convicts took a small punt from Rose Hill and headed for Sydney. The punt would have been a death trap, once they left the shelter of Port Jackson, so the party, John Tarwood, Joseph Sutton, who had already been caught and punished after hiding on the Neptune, George Lee; George Connoway, and John Watson, took a small boat, and made a break for the open sea. [9]

Collins called this boat small and weak, but it had a mast and a sail, and enquiries revealed that the escapees had taken food for one week; their clothes and bedding; three iron pots, and some other utensils. Rather optimistically, they were planning to reach Otaheite, or as we would say now, Tahiti, which was a distance of more than 6000 km.

They were searched for in the harbour, and when no trace was found, the authorities concluded that they had sailed over the ocean which, as Collins put it, “… from the wretched state of the boat wherein they trusted themselves, must have proved their grave.”

In fact, they sailed up the coast as far as Port Stephens and put in there, Sutton later died, but the other four men were taken in by the local Aborigines, and when Captain Broughton of the Providence put in there during a storm in August 1795, he found four miserable, naked, dirty, and smoke-dried men who begged to be taken to Sydney.

By that time, each had a native wife and one or two had children, and according to them, the natives worshipped them as the spirits of their countrymen, which, after death, had gone away and then returned in pale human form. They had had enough.

Until that time, everybody assumed that Tarwood and his party had all died, and the same assumption applied to William Bryant and his family and friends, but Bryant was a Cornish sailor. He knew the sea, and he planned ahead.

The first thing people needed was secrecy over the time it took to get everything ready. You needed food, water, clothes, some sort of tent or shade cloth, tools, money, some sort of map and instruments for navigation. Most of all, you needed a boat big enough to sail in the open ocean, and you needed to know how to handle it.

Bryant had been tried for resisting revenue officers (as a smuggler) in Launceston in March 1784, and sentenced to death, but this was commuted to seven years’ transportation. Mary Braund (or Broad) was part of a family well-known as sheep-stealers, but she was charged with highway robbery. Found guilty, she was sentenced to death, commuted to transportation.

They married, and by 1791 they had two small children, and wanted to go home. They gathered another seven convicts: William Allen, Samuel Bird, Samuel Broom, James Cox, Nathaniel Lilly, James Martin and William Morton. Five of the adults including Mary Bryant had arrived in the First Fleet, the other four had come in the Second Fleet. William Bryant’s sentence had expired, three had been transported for life, the others had at least a year or two to go.

When they left Sydney at the end of March, 1791, his sentence had run out, but no records had reached Australia, so he couldn’t prove that he deserved to be free. Mary Bryant had two more years to serve, they had everything they needed, and only required a moonless night—and no ships in the harbour that might chase after them.

The snow Waaksamheyd had been chartered to bring food to the colony from Batavia (Jakarta) and when the frigate Sirius had been lost off Norfolk Island, Captain Hunter and his crew (they all survived) were placed on board to return to England.

The escapees had bought a chart of sorts from Detmer Smith, the master of the Waaksamheyd, along with a compass and a quadrant. William Morton and James Cox also knew something of navigation. Detmer Smith also sold Bryant muskets and food, the money coming from the fish that Bryant had held back and sold on the black market.

Waaksamheyd’s master had been a good friend, but the authorities might take over his ship to chase after them, so that ship had to leave port before they fled, but the officers knew Bryant had something planned, and they were watching him closely. There was a new moon on March 24, so on March 28, the moon would have gone by about 10 pm. Later in the week, there would be moonlight longer. They had to go.

He gathered his friends, they got the hidden stores together, and crept off into the darkness. Along the way, they dropped a handsaw, and they spilt a couple of kilograms of rice that were seen the next day [10], but nobody admitted to seeing them go off in the governor’s six-oared cutter.

Their plan was a simple one. They rowed into the harbour at Kupang (it was spelt ‘Coepang’, back then) on the island of Timor, and said they had been shipwrecked, a claim made more believable because they had a woman and children with them.

Somehow, the Dutch authorities discovered that these were really escaped convicts, so they locked them up. Then came a piece of really bad luck. HMS Pandora had struck a reef near Cape York, after searching for the Bounty mutineers, with 14 prisoners on board.
Taking to the ship’s boats, he and his whole ship’s company arrived in Kupang. Now Captain Edwards quizzed them, they confessed, and the game was up.

It might have been better if Edwards had still had his ship, because he would have set out for Britain, but now he needed to get all of these people home, and that meant going to Batavia  to find a ship to carry them all. Back then, Batavia was a disease-ridden death-trap, and it was diseases caught there which reduced the Bryant party to five survivors.

They travelled to the Cape of Good Hope, where they found H.M.S. Gorgon, returning from Sydney with some of the marines, including Watkin Tench, who managed to get many more details of their travels from Mary Bryant. Among other things, Tench says that one of the men let slip the truth when he was drunk. At the end, he wrote:
I confess that I never looked at these people without pity and astonishment. They had miscarried in a heroic struggle for liberty after having combated every hardship and conquered every difficulty.

The woman, and one of the men, had gone out to Port Jackson in the ship which had transported me thither. They had both of them been always distinguished for good behaviour. And I could not but reflect with admiration at the strange combination of circumstances which had again brought us together, to baffle human foresight and confound human speculation. [11]
 Ralph Clark (a notoriously poor speller) wrote in his journal as they sailed up the Atlantic on Sunday, May 1792:
Squaly weather with a great dele of Rain all this day last night the child beloning to Mary Broad the convict woman who went a way in the fishing Boat from P. Jackson last Year died about four oClock committed the Body to the deep Latd. 5–25 No. [12]
Of the party, William Bryant and his son Emanuel died in Batavia, Bird and Morton died on the way to the Cape of Good Hope, Cox either jumped or fell overboard on that same voyage, and Mary’s daughter Charlotte died in the Atlantic.

Mary Bryant, along with Allen, Broom, Lilly and Martin were charged with escaping transportation, for which the usual penalty was death, but they were merely sentenced to complete their original sentences in Newgate Prison. In May 1793, the writer James Boswell gained for her a free pardon, and later gave he a pension of £10 a year, on condition that she was of good behaviour.

The men were released in November 1793, and three of them disappeared from the record, as did Mary Bryant. One of them, Samuel Broom, alias John Butcher, may have enlisted in the New South Wales Corps. By 1795, a man of that name was back in Sydney, and he later obtained a grant of land. The dates make this unlikely, as the Butcher in question enlisted in May, 1792.

[1] This is from the transcript of page A1085095 of the State Library of NSW copy of Smyth’s journal. It is missing from the version in the National Library of Australia. (This often happens when one of the versions was the original, and another is a “fair copy”. Scholars say that the State Library version is probably a fair copy, and the National Library version is probably the original.)

[2] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, Introduction, page lxiv (with electronic searches, look for “heavily ironed”).

[3] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, chapter XXIII, page 278 (with electronic searches, look for “there died between”—this also finds the figures for 1792).

[4] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, Introduction, page lxxxii (with electronic searches, look for “fiscal’s people”).

[5] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, Introduction, page lxxv (with electronic searches, look for “soldier of the island”).

[6] John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, 1790, entry for February 8, 1788, available as, on page 72.

[7] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, page 107 (with electronic searches, look for “among the fire-wood”—include the hyphen!).

[8] See Arthur Phillip, The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay, page 118: in electronic versions such as, search for “starved”.

[9] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, pages 112–3 (with electronic searches, look for “Connoway”.

[10] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, p. 128-9, or online at (in which it is pages 153–4).

[11] This appears in a footnote to page 108 of Tench’s printed Complete Account. See Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, p. 147, or online e-text at

[12] Ralph Clark was clearly the worst speller in the First Fleet!

Friday, 9 September 2016

First Fleet backgrounder

This is one of a series of pieces that may or may not ever see the light of day in a book: it is more likely than not that I will be self-publishing my Colonial Concerns, from which this is taken, as an e-book: it turned into a huge opus (a quarter of a million words of Australian history) that frightens print publishers. If and when the e-book happens, I will edit this to indicate where it can be obtained. In the interim, this is available to students of all ages, complete with sources.
The British public first learned about the government’s plans to settle Australia in their newspapers in 1786. It seems that The Times was a little confused about the location of Botany Bay:
Government is now about settling a colony in New Holland, in the Indian seas; and the Commissioners of the Navy are now advertising for 1500 tons of transports. This settlement is to be formed at Botany Bay, on the west side of the island, where Captain Cook refreshed and staid some time on his voyage in 1770. As he first sailed around that side of the island, he called it New South Wales, and the two Capes at the mouth of the river were called by the names Banks and Solander. There are 680 men felons and 70 women felons to go, and they are to be guarded by 12 marines and a corporal in every transport, containing 150 felons. There are several men of war and some frigates to go, but they all come back, but one or two of each, which are to remain there some time to assist in establishing a garrison of 300 men intended to be left there. The whole equipment, army, navy, and felons, are to be landed with two years provisions, and all sorts of implements for the culture of the earth, and hunting and fishing, and some slight buildings are to be run up immediately till a proper fort and town-house are erected. This place is in nearly the same latitude with the Cape of Good Hope, and about eight months voyage from England. [1]
 It took The Times three weeks to think about this.
…the measure of sending convicts to Botany Bay … must meet with the approbation of all moderate men. No measure has been yet devised, which so effectually combines the punishment and the security of the felons. [2]
 After that, the plans to go to Botany Bay were almost daily news. People talked about it, people sang about Botany Bay, but even if you can see and hear it said on television or read about it in story books, prisoners were not sentenced to be “transported to Botany Bay” until June 1791. [3]

In October, the fleet was said to be leaving in December 1786, a few days later, it was reported that 300 felons were already gathered together in Newgate. In April 1787, the fleet had still not sailed, though “Hughes’ troop” were performing the “favourite Opera of Botany Bay” [4]. Everybody important knew about Botany Bay, but the fleet was still at anchor.

On May 5, another 38 convicts were loaded onto a transport in Portsmouth Harbour [5], but on May 13, the fleet sailed escorted by the frigate H. M. S. Hyaena. Late in May, The Times reported that the Botany Bay fleet was “… all well the 20th instant in lat. 47:50 N. long 11: 30 West.” [6] That means the frigate Hyaena had left the fleet in that position on May 20, and now reached England. (The word “instant”, sometimes abbreviated to “inst.”, was commonly used then to mean “this month”.)

In summary, the ships left on May 13, 1787, and sailed all of 1787, and part of 1788, before reaching Botany Bay. They called at three ports along the way to take on supplies, and there would be a few incidents. In those eight months, some would die, babies would be born. Some who arrived alive would die in Australia, while others would return to Britain. Others would find a new and better life in what would become Australia.

The path followed.

The eleven ships of the First Fleet were a mixture. There were two navy ships, Sirius and Supply, there were store-ships Fishbourn, Golden Grove and Borrowdale, and the convict transports Alexander, Scarborough, Charlotte, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn and Friendship.
The main points on the route of the First Fleet (Peter Macinnis)

The frigate, Hyaena went with them for a few days, returning to England on May 29 with reports and letters. The fleet sailed on to Teneriffe, arriving on June 3.

They bought musket balls and paper for cartridges (somebody had forgotten these!), and a convict named John Powers tried to escape (see my next post). They left Teneriffe on June 9.

The fleet crossed the Equator on July 14, and those who had not “crossed the line” before were subjected to a set of rough ceremonies.

On August 2, the fleet sighted the coast of South America, and on August 4, they dropped anchor off Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. At noon, a ship passed by, headed for Portugal, and took letters and reports from the fleet that would later reach the government in England.
Captain Phillip had served at one time in the Portuguese navy and spoke Portuguese, so he was made very welcome. During their stay, all of the people on the fleet were given good food, with fresh vegetables and fruit. It took a lot longer for scientists to show that scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, but by 1787, sensible sailors understood the disease, and knew that fruit and vegetables prevented it, somehow.

At Rio, they also bought seeds or plants (or both) of coffee, cocoa, cotton, banana, oranges, lemons, prickly pear with cochineal beetles (to be used to make a red dye), guava, tamarind and some medical plants.

They left Rio on September 4, heading for Cape Town in what is now South Africa, arriving there on October 13.
Arthur Phillip, frontispiece to his The Voyage to Botany Bay
Before they left Cape Town on November 12, Phillip and some of the officers and men bought cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and other stock to carry to the new colony.

They also bought fresh food for everybody, and took on supplies of water for drinking and cooking. Captain Phillip also sent back reports with an English army officer who was returning to England from India.

At Cape Town, they bought seeds or plants (or both) of figs, bamboo, “Spanish reed”, sugar cane, vines of different sorts, quinces, apples, pears, strawberries, oak and myrtle trees, rice, wheat, barley and corn. They had brought the last four from England, but those seeds might have been damaged, so the extras seemed like a good idea.

On November 25, Captain Phillip transferred to H.M.S. Supply, and with the three transports which had most of the men convicts (Alexander, Scarborough and Friendship), he went ahead to start making preparations at Botany Bay.

Captain Hunter took charge of the rest of the fleet. David Collins sailed with him and he wrote the best account of the trip, so we will now follow them.

On Christmas Day, Hunter’s seven ships were at 42° 10’ south, and on December 30, calculations based on the moon (called “lunar observations” or just “lunars”), they decided they were at 118° 19’ east, and by noon on January 3, they were at 44° south and 135° 32’ east. They had gone fast, and now they were ready to turn north.

On January 7, they sighted land, and just as night was falling on January 19, they saw Botany Bay. The next morning Hunter’s seven ships sailed in.

The rest is history, as they say.

[1] News report, The Times (London, England), Thursday, Sep 14, 1786; pg. 3; Issue 529. The stories from The Times are located in a Gale database which is hard to access. I use it through the State Library of NSW: ask your librarian for help.
[2] News report, The Times (London, England), Friday, Oct 06, 1786; pg. 2; Issue 548.
[3] Search for “Botany Bay” (with the quote marks) at
[4] News report, The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Apr 24, 1787; pg. 3; Issue 733. This probably refers to an opera of that name.
[5] News report, The Times (London, England), Saturday, May 05, 1787; pg. 3; Issue 742.
[6] News report, The Times (London, England), Saturday, May 26, 1787; pg. 1; Issue 757.