On the very morning the ships of the First Fleet left Portsmouth for New South Wales (Australia) in May of 1787 carrying 736 criminals on board, the Prince of Wales was discussing his debts which had amounted to 161,000 pounds with the Prime Minister, William Pitt.
On that same day two 17 year-old girls were leaving to serve 14 year sentences, effectively life on the other side of the planet, for stealing 10 yards of printed cotton.
The ships sailed from Portsmouth with no greater fanfare than a brief notice in the London Chronicle announcing that early on Sunday 13 May 1787, the fleet had sailed for Botany Bay.
It’s said one woman died of a broken heart even before her ship sailed.
On the other hand many were pleased to be leaving the awful conditions of the jails and hulks behind for a new land of fresh air and open spaces.
All the same many would die in shackles on the terrible journey which took nine months or more around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Roaring Forties.
Others would be flogged for talking of mutiny.
These human lives were of no great concern to those sitting in the Parliament in London or, for that matter, to those on or close to the throne of England.
The Prince of Wales included.
Yet did one of those passengers include an unsuspecting secret child of the Prince being sent as far away as possible to the new convict colony in the antipodes?
My book explores the possibility.
There were eleven vessels in the fleet, six of them transports, three store ships, a supply ship and the flagship.
Upon his arrival in New South Wales in January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip assumed the position of the first Governor-in-Chief.
The First Fleets sailed from England between 1787 and 1791 bound for New South Wales, as Australia had been named by Captain James Cook, in the land called New Holland by the Dutch (who first landed here in 1606), which some two thousand years ago had been referred to by the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy as Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown South Land.
The name ‘Australia’ first appeared on explorer Matthew Flinders’ map (1801-3) of the first circumnavigation of the continent.
This marked the beginning of a quiet invasion of an already inhabited land by hapless settlers, mostly convicts (often guilty of the pettiest crimes) banished from a homeland of overcrowded jails and hulks on the Thames that cared not of their unknown fate.
They left behind their families and loved ones knowing they would never see them again.
“As the fleet sailed from Table Bay on 12 November,” wrote a leading historian*, “a melancholy reflection obtruded itself on the minds of a few. The land behind them was the abode of a civilized people; before them was the residence of savages. Refreshments and pleasures were to be exchanged for coarse fare and hard labour at New South Wales. All communications with families and friends was now cut off. To some this was an attractive challenge; this leaving behind civilization, this task of exploring a remote and barbarous land, and planting in it the arts of civilization. Others were so overwhelmed by their private anguish that their minds could not soar to such a theme. Whatever the feelings in their hearts, all were sailing ever closer to a country which at that moment belonged, as it had done for countless centuries, to the peoples the white man called ‘Aborigines’.” (*Manning Clark’s History of Australia’, abridged by Michael Cathcart, published by Melbourne University Press 1993. Page 6.)
Phillip named the place Sydney (Sydney Cove) after Lord Sydney, the Secretary of State for the Home Office, and the harbour Port Jackson.
(Extracted from my book ‘Back to the Wall’, Ch. 7, ‘The Mystery of the Mary Ann’, pages 62-4).
(Illustrated above: The all female convict ship of the First Fleet the ‘Lady Penrhyn’.)