The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­of­frey Blainey

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.

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