Dissecting a surgeon’s time in colonial NSW
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
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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
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)