Dis­sect­ing a sur­geon’s time in colo­nial NSW

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

First Fleet Sur­geon: The Voy­age of Arthur Bowes Smyth By David Hill NLA Pub­lish­ing, 224pp, $44.99 Arthur Bowes Smyth (1750-90) was a sur­geon on the Lady Pen­rhyn, one of sev­eral ships that made up the First Fleet un­der the lead­er­ship of Arthur Phillip, who was to be­come gover­nor of the con­vict set­tle­ment of New South Wales. When the fleet ar­rived in Port Jack­son in 1788, Bowes Smyth spent three months in the fledg­ling pe­nal colony be­fore re­turn­ing home to Eng­land. Dur­ing this time, the sur­geon kept a di­ary and made copies of it, the later ver­sions oc­ca­sion­ally em­bel­lished with new de­tails. The Na­tional Li­brary of Australia bought the orig­i­nal manuscript in 1974 and this ver­sion is David Hill’s main source for First Fleet Sur­geon.

Bowes Smyth’s di­ary is one of the many his­tor­i­cal sources that have been digitised. The as­sump­tion is some­times made that by digi­tis­ing his­tor­i­cal records, cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions are mak­ing th­ese na­tional trea­sures ac­ces­si­ble to all. At best, this is only half true. At the click of a mouse, the ca­sual reader of cen­turies-old di­aries and let­ters is con­fronted with fre­quently faint, hard-to-read hand­writ­ing, along with the te­dious rep­e­ti­tion and as­sumed knowl­edge of

May 2-3, 2015

The Kan­ga­roo, am­a­teur au­thors. De­spite their in­creased avail­abil­ity, such texts re­main hard to ac­cess in the fullest sense of the word. Con­se­quently, there is still a place for books that add mean­ing and con­text to the pri­mary sources of his­tory.

First Fleet Sur­geon suf­fers from a some­what chaotic de­sign. The reader is dis­tracted from Hill’s nar­ra­tive by pic­tures intruding on space de­voted to text, as well as page-length in­for­ma­tion boxes that com­pete for at­ten­tion. The pic­tures are beau­ti­ful, but not all are cho­sen with dis­crim­i­na­tion: a sub­stan­tial num­ber date from be­fore or af­ter the 1780s, mak­ing the book seem anachro­nis­tic and lack­ing in vis­ual co­he­sion. The com­mis­sion­ing of spe­cial il­lus­tra­tions or new pho­to­graphs may have more ap­pro­pri­ately com­ple­mented the au­then­tic im- ages, such kan­ga­roo.

This ap­par­ent de­ter­mi­na­tion to cre­ate a non­lin­ear cof­fee-ta­ble book for ran­dom dip­ping into seems a wasted op­por­tu­nity. While the qual­ity and ex­pres­sion of Bowes Smyth’s in­sights varies tremen­dously, the diarist does have in­trigu­ing com­ments to make on early Abo­rig­i­nal-Euro­pean con­tact, crime and pun­ish­ment in early NSW and sea jour­neys in the golden age of sail. First Fleet Sur­geon in its present de­sign ob­scures, rather than en­hances, Bowes Smyth’s words.

Nev­er­the­less, Hill has done an ef­fec­tive job of nar­rat­ing Bowes Smyth’s per­sonal jour­ney, and in do­ing so il­lu­mi­nates the ex­pe­ri­ences of con­victs, sol­diers and sailors in an era so dif­fer­ent from our own. He de­tails the pre­car­i­ous na­ture of this mission to cre­ate a pe­nal colony in an iso­lated con­ti­nent. Phillip’s at­tempts to shore up food sup­plies on the way to Australia were thwarted by the poor-qual­ity pro­vi­sions pur­chased in South Africa, many of which had to writ­ten off. The orig­i­nal land­ing place, Botany Bay, proved to be un­suit­able for a pe­nal colony: how lucky it was for Phillip to find that fine har­bour, Port Jack­son.

The reader is also struck by the po­ten­tial for chaos in a colony far for home where con­victs con­sid­er­ably out­num­bered their jail­ers. How­ever, Hill is per­haps too will­ing to ac­cept un­crit­i­cally Bowes Smyth’s agree­ably sen­sa­tion­al­ist

as Bowes




a no­tion that the first land­ing of fe­male con­victs led to scenes of ‘‘de­bauch­ery and riot that ... may be bet­ter con­ceived than ex­pressed’’.

Bowes Smyth some­times crit­i­cises Phillip’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing and qual­i­ties as a leader. At times, he comes across as an arm­chair ex­pert: ‘‘We were obliged to work out of the bay with ye ut­most dif­fi­culty and dan­ger with many hair breath es­capes … ev­ery­one blam­ing the rash­ness of the Gover­nor in in­sist­ing upon the fleet work­ing out in such weather.’’ But the diarist’s con­cern about Phillip’s al­legedly in­con­sis­tent lead­er­ship style might have been an­a­lysed a lit­tle fur­ther by Hill and tested with the ev­i­dence in other pri­mary sources. In­deed, a ten­dency to­wards straight­for­ward re­portage marks Hill’s treat­ment of the Bowes Smyth di­ary en­tries.

Bowes Smyth was writ­ing for him­self, his fam­ily and a few close friends. As such, his di­ary of­fers a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive from the pub­lished ac­counts of other 1788 vet­er­ans such as Watkin Tench, whose nar­ra­tives were writ­ten with pol­ish and with a view to what would ap­peal to a com­mer­cial read­er­ship.

While the vis­ual ap­peal of this pub­lished ver­sion of the Bowes Smyth story will vary ac­cord­ing to taste, Hill and his edit­ing team are to be com­mended for bring­ing the story of this rel­a­tively un­sung First Fleet sur­geon to greater public at­ten­tion.

a pen and ink drawing from Arthur Bowes Smyth’s jour­nal (1787-89)

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