Travels with my Ancestors #7: From where the fleets sailed
This is the seventh in the Travels with my Ancestors series. You may wish to read the first post for context. You can find it here.
I’m at Portsmouth, in Hampshire on England’s south coast, at the mouth of the Solent River.
It was from here that the first three fleets of convict transportation ships left England in 1787, 1790 and 1791 respectively. The fleets were made up of ships carrying convicts, male and female; plus officers, marines to guard the prisoners, and ships’ crew; along with one or two supply ships. Surprisingly, there were ‘private’ passengers aboard as well: people chancing it in the unknown of the colony, hoping to make money, to find adventure or sometimes, seeking anonymity after scandal or disgrace at home.
After those initial three fleets, transport ships set sail independently, at different times and from a variety of ports. It was all systems go for the British authorities, who could not wait to rid their country of their undesirables, the so-called ‘criminal class.’
Five of my ancestors were on ships of the Second and Third Fleets.
They were Thomas Eather, William Roberts, Elizabeth Lee, William Eaton and Isaac Cornwell. You can read a little about those underlined by clicking the links on their names.
Life at sea in the eighteenth century was not for the faint-hearted. There was the ever-present risk of shipwrecks, generally resulting in terrible loss of life because most people could not swim.
Shipboard diseases and illnesses such as ‘ship fever’ (typhus), measles, influenza, scurvy, constipation or infection could bring death or disability.
It meant living for months in cramped spaces, sleeping in a hammock or uncomfortable narrow bunk, sharing those spaces with many others – with limited washing or laundering facilities and primitive toilets. Rations were monotonous at best, unless you were ship’s master or among the officers or upper-class passengers. Ship’s biscuit, salted beef or pork, rancid butter, hard cheese, and gruel or porridge, with a ration of ale, or spirits if you behaved yourself – and that was the lot of the crew and soldiers, who usually fared better than the prisoners.
For those travelling at His Majesty’s Pleasure below decks in the prisoners’ quarters, conditions were usually much worse.
Especially on the Second Fleet, the convicts’ lot was unspeakably bad. The British government made the mistake of paying the ships’ owners for every prisoner taken on board their ship – not the prisoners taken off at the other end. It’s obvious to see the problem here. Having pocketed the money for each convict shoved into the prisoner hold, the owners and captains had no financial incentive to ensure the wellbeing and safety of these men and women. In fact, there was a strong incentive NOT to do so. By skimping on rations, clothing, blankets, the captains could on-sell saved foods and other items when in port, at inflated prices.
One ship of the Second Fleet, the Neptune, was the worst of the fleet and later labelled the ‘death ship.’ The ship had been previously used as a slave ship, transporting enslaved people from West Africa to the Caribbean or the Americas. The ship’s master, Donald Traill, had captained the Neptune on those shameful voyages and proceeded to treat the new human cargo in the same way.
The end result was a shocking death toll, with many bodies jettisoned over the edge into the deep waters below. Those who did survive crawled, or had to be carried off, at Sydney Cove: emaciated, dressed in tattered rags, filthy, and covered in weeping sores.
Thomas Eather and WIlliam Roberts were among the survivors. One hundred and sixty years later, their descendants met and married: my father and mother. I am always in awe when I consider the odds against the possibility of such an outcome. Whatever their crimes that put them on that ship, those men were tough to have outlasted the months on the Neptune and then go on to prosper in the penal colony that was their new home.
The outcry about the conditions on the Second Fleet resulted in an improvement for subsequent transport ships, which meant that Elizabeth Lee and Isaac Cornwell had a somewhat better experience on the Third Fleet.
Having recently travelled back to Australia on an Airbus A380, I remember the feeling of being cramped in the small seats and worn out by the long flight. Then I remind myself to think of my convict ancestors. On the plane I was given a seat, was regularly fed, had clean toilets to use, fresh water to drink and cabin staff to bring me anything I needed. Apart from a few midair bumps and jolts, I did not suffer weeks of debilitating sickness due to the unaccustomed motion of the sea. I had no chores to do on the journey, nor did I have to worry about my fellow passengers’ emotional or violent outbursts or theft of my few, precious belongings from home.
So yes, I had it easy. Those people on the convict ships did not.
As I stand at the edge of the historic part of Portsmouth harbour, I look out at the blue-grey sea and sky, and down to the shingle on the beach below. There is a line of old buildings on one side of the harbour; small vessels dot the waters around the fully rigged ship on display. A fresh wind brings the tang of the sea as it blows across my face. How much of this did the convicts see or feel, once they had boarded their ship?
For those unfortunates on the Second Fleet vessels, the answer is not very much. Prisoners were kept below decks, chained together in twos or threes for most of the voyage, and I imagine that began as soon as they boarded, clanking along the deck in iron fetters.
For later voyages, prisoners were given regular time above deck, although with the risk of escape always foremost in the minds of authorities, that was often curtailed whilst in port.
As each ship drew anchor and slowly made its way out of the harbour, some would weep as the expanse of sea widened between them and their loved ones. Others remained dry-eyed as they had nothing to leave behind.
But for each and every convict, the thought that remained was this: What lay ahead at the end of this voyage?
I’m happy to know that for three of the four of my convict ancestors, what lay in store for them was a much better, healthier and more prosperous life in the colony.
Isaac Cornwell’s story did not have such a happy ending. On New Year’s Eve in 1810, he went to a celebration at the home of Patrick Hand at Richmond Hill (now called Agnes Banks.) Another local joined in the drinking until about 9 pm, when a violent argument broke out between the three men. Isaac was known for his hot temper, especially when drunk. One of the others armed himself with a musket. The night ended with Isaac lying dead with a musket ball in his head.
Which I think only goes to prove that alcohol and weapons are always a dangerous combination, no matter the era or the circumstances.
I am grateful that the other three survived and lived happier lives than they would have experienced had they remained in England. And very glad to have stood at the spot where those ships departed Portsmouth harbour, two hundred and thirty years ago.
One last thought: this monument, marking the sailing of the convict fleets from Portsmouth, makes me smile but also feel a wee bit astounded. It’s an ugly sculpture (in my humble opinion) but it is the wording on the plaque that stops me in my tracks.
This Monument commemorates the Sailing
from Spithead on the 13 May 1787
of the First Fleet Conveying Settlers to Australia
A Great Nation was Born
Where to begin with this one? Perhaps with the last line ‘A great nation was born.’ This ignores the fact that before English colonisation Australia was already home to several hundred First Nations. It reinforces the destructive legal fallacy of Australia being ‘terra nullius’ – empty land.
And ‘Settlers’? Yes, as mentioned above, there were some ‘free settlers’, voyaging to the colony of their own choosing. But the vast majority of those on board that First Fleet and all the transport ships that followed, were definitely not there from choice. Most of them did go on to settle in Australia once they had served their sentences, and they may well have been tempted to thumb their noses at the ‘mother country’ because their lives were a great deal better there than in England. Still. The choice of that single word – ‘settler’ – neatly obscures the suffering and trauma the convicts experienced. This is the power of language.
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All photos by the author.
Time travel: marking 200 years of the Parramatta Female Factory
Today, Sunday 21st February 2021, the Parramatta Female Factory marked two hundred years since the convict prison building, commissioned by Governor Macquarie, took in its first cohort of 109 women and 71 children. It has been many years since the site operated as a gaol, workhouse, marriage bureau, work assignment centre and even an early version of a women’s health service (of sorts), but the Greenaway-designed buildings still stand, as do others added on over the decades.
A group of volunteers called Parramatta Female Factory Friends have been advocating for this site to be given world heritage status and for local, state and federal governments to recognise its importance and do what needs to be done to protect and enhance its future. It was a committee from the Friends who organised and ran today’s event.
It’s estimated that one in seven Australians today can trace their heritage back to a Parramatta Female Factory woman. That includes me: my 4 x great-aunt Mary Greenwood was an inmate here in the 1830’s, almost certainly her mother passed through here briefly before being assigned to work at the (then brand new) King’s Grammar School – as a laundress. Her name was Mary Ann Greenwood and she was my 5 x great-grandmother.
Thomas and Meg Keneally, both patrons of the Friends of Parramatta Female Factory, spoke of the power of the stories it can tell modern Australians about the women who lived and worked there. To survive the whole transportation experience, including incarceration in the various female factories around the country, women needed to be resilient and tough. They were voiceless and powerless then, but as Meg said, she and other descendants of her 3 x great-grandmother can now be her voice.
The day included an opportunity to lay floral tributes along the commemorative wall, which is inscribed with the first names of every woman known to have passed through its forbidding gates. Here I am with my little posy; if you look closely you’ll see my forebears’ names on the wall.
Another special part of the morning was a performance by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald, along with Nigel Lever and Ann Palumbo, of four songs specially commissioned by the Female Factory Friends to mark the bicentenary. The song suite is called Mothers of the Nation and includes recognition of the many women who, as the title song’s lyrics tell us, were
Mothers of the Nation, black and white,‘Mothers of the Nation’, by Cliona Molins and Rosie McDonald
Written out of history
Mothers of the nation, hold your heads high
Mothers of the nation, elders yarn,
her story of strength and fight
to carve out a life in this land.
My thanks to the organisers of today’s special occasion.
If you’d like to know more about the stories of the Parramatta Female Factory and the activities of the PFF Friends, you can visit their website.