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Our Australia

Story: NOEL GOSS.  

Pictures: WALTER SEED.


THE grim annals of the

convict system show no worse record than that of the Second Fleet, where the hardships inseparable at that time from a long voyage were intensified  

almost beyond belief by  

the callous cruelty of those in charge.

The contractors for the voyage undertook to provide for 1,000 con- victs at so much a head. In all, 1,008 convicts were put on board three ships, but there was nothing in the contract to make the con-

tractors in any way responsible for the health of the convicts while at sea. Before ever the ships sailed, convicts began to die. It was even alleged that their bodies were thrown into the river unham- mocked and unweighted. And every death meant more profit for

the contractors.

On each vessel were detachments of the New South Wales Corps, newly recruited for service in the Colony. Among them was John Macarthur and his wife. The soldiers co-operated with the captains of the ships to enforce order, for the convicts, a restless and vindictive gang, grew more and more restless as the ghastly voyage proceeded. Practically no care was taken to air their quarters; even part of their scant rations was withheld for the

benefit of officials, who did not scruple to profit thus.

Heavily manacled, overrun with vermin, the men lay in the steaming, pestilential atmosphere below decks. Disease broke out, and some died, but their companions concealed the deaths, because, until the odour of the putrifying body revealed its presence they could draw the dead man's ration and divide it among themselves. As the weeks dragged by any fate would seem preferable to such confine-  


Before the vessels reached Cape Town plans for mutiny and murder were afoot in the Scarborough, where the convicts planned to surprise the crew, murder the officers, and capture the ship. Had they succeeded they would have turned pirate, but the plot was discovered and the ringleaders punished in the usual way. Hope of better treat-

ment generally provided one tell-tale.

After leaving Cape Town a mysterious death occurred. Lieutenant Shapcote had been appointed to look after the convicts, and had presumably earned someone's enmity by trying to discharge his duties. He went to bed one night about 9 o'clock, and about 4 a.m. a  

woman who attended him reported him dead. Such was the story,

but as his body was buried without any investigation as to the cause of his death there is a suspicion that he was killed by some scoundrel

on board.

So the dreadful voyage continued. The weak died early, because their stronger comrades in misfortune snatched the rations out of their hands. Those nearest a man who had died divided his clothes. Men in extremity of hunger were even known to take half-chewed wads of tobacco from the mouths of dead companions in order to have something to masticate. Truly these were ships that sharks might well follow in the certainty of being well fed almost daily.

But at Sydney Cove Governor Phillip was waiting.

By the time the ships had reached Sydney 267 of the original 1,008 had died, while 488 were sick. Of these 124 died shortly after they had landed. Of the rest the Rev. Johnson, who went among them as soon as the ships reached port, wrote: —"The misery I saw amongst them   is indescribable . . . their heads, bodies, clothes, blankets, were all full of lice. They were wretched, naked, filthy, dirty, lousy, and many of them

utterly unable to stand, to creep, or even to stir hand or foot."  

THE extreme inconvenience of

having these starved and sickly people dumped in Sydney at a time when provisions were very short moved Phillip far less than their suffering and the ras- cality and brutality of those re- sponsible for it. He left the English authorities no excuse for minimising the scandal,

and his pro- test set afoot an official in- quiry in Eng- land which led, in time, to much more careful regula- tion of condi- tions on trans- ports.

Next Week: Mutiny