NEW TAKE ON OLD SYDNEY
THE sailing ships that carried 732 convicts into Sydney Harbour in January 1788 have been viewed through different telescopes by historians. This First Fleet is usually seen as a shambles, hastily planned in London to rid Britain of excess convicts. Curiously, Sydney is the stronghold of writers who see the birth of their city as initially a kind of ill-organised blunder.
To a few other authors, the incoming fleet is seen as the fruit of plans made with some care by British leaders who envisaged their harbour in eastern Australia as a commercial and strategic pivot as well as a dumping ground for criminals.
Alan Frost, who has long been the captain of this minority view, now mounts, in The First Fleet: The Real Story, a devastating attack on his opponents. For a third of a century he has searched the British archives, finding hundreds of documents not seen for 200 years.
He calls this book ‘‘ the first extended study of the mounting of the First Fleet’’. Whereas the convicts who stepped ashore 1788 are widely said to have been
in unskilled, Frost discovers that they represented a variety of the skilled trades of the day. Thus the Friendship (an odd name for a convict ship) carried six weavers and four brickworkers, three farmers or gardeners, two carpenters and a variety of other skilled workers. In addition, many of the marines who guarded the convicts in the new colony could practise, once ashore, their original trades. At least five were stonemasons, five were sawyers and others were specialists who cut and installed the wooden shingles used especially for roofing.
The founding fathers in London are sometimes accused of not even sending the work tools. But Frost finds official records showing that they were assembling everything from animal harnesses to wheelbarrows. Thus the Navy Board requested that each able-blodied man be supplied with a felling axe, a hatchet, a spade and shovel, and three kinds of hoes for grubbing or tilling. As the production of sails and linen from a distinctive South Seas species of flax was one aim of the new colony, even a mill to dress the flax was sent with the fleet.