And More Again...

The traditionalist reading, when it comes to the flax, cotton, spices and timber, is to suggest that they’ve been tacked on at the end and are, therefore, inconsequential window-dressing and to argue conditional verbs ("may not be amiss", "may also be proper to attend") reinforce that conclusion. Frost, on the other hand, finds such terminology in common usage in similarly-labelled documents.

Then, given the lack of official references to the use of the settlement as a naval base, the traditionalist reading is to rule it out completely since it wasn’t specifically spelled out, while Frost argues the idea  was left out deliberately. You don’t, after all, advertise your intentions when it comes to these matters. There are also interesting references to Arthur Philip’s role in naval intelligence prior to his appointment as Governor.

Frost explains that lack of documentary evidence in the form of a written plan or account detailing an intention to expand British interests in the Pacific by suggesting Pitt and his advisers worked it out verbally, and pieces together enough hints and glimpses in the documents he’s uncovered to support the suggestion. Interestingly, Frost claims Pitt himself took personal responsibility for the scheme, and Colonial Secretary Sydney is portrayed as lazy and ineffective. Nepean, according to Frost, did the work and Sydney signed off on it.

Frost asserts the First Fleet scheme was well-organised and thought out and that from the earliest stages of the plan, the voyage to Australia was undertaken with the ultimate aim of developing a free settlement. He goes on to point out that the eleven ships chosen for the expedition were all under five years old, in good condition and well fitted out. There also seems to have been a partial selection process and both convicts and Marines were chosen for their knowledge of farming, carpentry, construction, weaving and mining. 

The Fleet carried two years worth of medicines and surgical items including bed, flour  made ‘from good sound corn and calculated to keep for a good eighteen months’, and interestingly, the death rate on the voyage was much lower than expected (around 2%). Things might not have worked out as well as expected, but the convicts were not just dumped ashore and left to starve. 

To Frost, the convicts were a secondary consideration in a wider strategic plan, there to build the port, dress the flax, fell the timber and work on the plantations. Norfolk Island, offered the prospect of timber and flax and within a week of hoisting the flag at Port Jackson and before he had landed the convicts and unloaded the ships Phillip advised Lieutenant Philip King that he would be taking a specialist party to occupy Norfolk Island and harvest the flax. King sailed a fortnight later.

If there’s any single fact that suggests a broader strategic motive for the settlement this is it. Traditionalists may argue the flax industry, if it eventuated at all, would an additional benefit to England but sending a subsidiary expedition to a remote location known to lack a safe anchorage within three weeks of arrival suggests a sense of urgency that can only be explained by an urgent need for the goods the island was expected to provide.

Looking at it from this perspective it’s obvious the traditional version of the First Fleet story needs tweaking, at the very least, and the decision that sent those eleven ships on their way was based on far more wide ranging motivations than simply relieving the overcrowding in His Majesty’s prisons. 

Sure, the decision resolved the convict problem by expelling them from England and, further down the track provided an avenue whereby social agitators could be silenced, but it also had important implications for the whaling and sealing industries that provided this country’s export income before Macarthur’s merino sheep came into the picture. It secured an alternative route to China that was safely out of range of Dutch (or French) interference,  and limited French, Spanish and Dutch the territorial ambitions, did something  

More significantly, once the infant colony found its feet it was, by and large, a self-funding exercise rather than a drain on the Exchequer and a site that could accommodate as many law-breakers as the British authorities needed to expel. Frost’s work should lead to a reassessment of the story, and needs to be followed by further research into the British side of the story using that lode of documentation Frost has managed to unearth.

That might, of course, reveal some unwanted truths. Maybe the convicts on the First Fleet weren’t all the harmless petty criminals they’ve been painted to be. I've got Frost's The First Fleet: The Real Story queued up and ready to go when I get the time to turn my attention that way

© Ian Hughes 2012