The Bowes Smyth First Fleet journal
First glimpses of Sydney in 1788
2 October 2014
In August I read an article by Tom McIlroy in The Canberra Times dispelling the idea that the original inhabitants of the Sydney area, the Eora people, had contracted Smallpox as was historically believed. Instead it asserted that they had contracted chicken pox, which similarly they had no resistance to, hence the terrible morbidity in the early days of the settlement in 1789. Inspired to find out more I began looking through the Library’s First Fleet journal written by Arthur Bowes Smyth (1750-1790), the untrained ship's surgeon on the female convict transport the Lady Penrhyn. I thought that being a medical man, he may have recorded something about the distressing events in February 1789 in his lively and engaging record.
Sadly, this proved not to be the case as is often the way, (he left the colony on 20 April on the Lady Penrhyn for England via China); however, I made another discovery (which is also a fairly common occurrence: when searching for something one finds something just as interesting but completely unexpected.) Such is the pleasure of my role at the Library and rarely a day passes when I don’t find something of unexpected interest in the collections.
Perusing the digitised pages of the Bowes Smyth journal on the Library catalogue (at this stage we don't have a transcription of our version of the manuscript), is relatively easy once you have deciphered his hand. He records important moments from landing at Botany Bay and the almost daily meetings with Indigenous people which pass without incident, at least from his perspective. He hears from the landing party that reconnoitred Port Jackson, ahead of their move from Botany Bay, that the landscape and harbour are almost beyond description - it is "a perfect Paradise". Bowes Smyth mentions the great heat (about 25°C) and the intensity of the regular storms with attendant lightning. One lightning strike just after the settlement is established splits a tree in two and kills five sheep and a pig, precious commodities, particularly in the earliest days of settlement. He mentions the scene of "debauchery" when the female convicts are disembarked and seized upon by the males and the ensuing tumultuous storm. He relates Governor Phillip's "harangue" to the recently assembled population, after his commission as “Governor General and Commander in chief” (7 February), and stresses that the penalty for stealing even a "trifling article of stock or provisions" would be death. However, he continues “they would never be work’d beyond their Abilities, but every one should contribute his share in order to render himself & the community at large happy & comfortable as soon at the Nature of the Settlement would admit …” Here Phillip echoes the egalitarian sentiments for which he became well known (he also enshrined the precept that there could be no slavery in this fledgling colony, 45 years before its official abolition within the British Empire).
Reading further I encountered the following poignant journal entry for Saturday 9th February 1788 (note: the convicts and their overseers had been in Botany Bay/Port Jackson for less than three weeks.)
"This day 2 of the Natives came down to the camp with one of the Convicts who was working at a spot about 1 mile distant (called The Farm) he inticed them to come down by giving them his cap, they were old men, had long spears in their hands. The Governor went to them accompanied by several officers and presented one of them with an axe and bound some red Bunting about their heads with some yellow tin foil, etc etc. They would not approach to the Camp but sat down under a tree a little distant from the Governor’s house, which they seem’d to view with much astonishment; whilst one of them was sitting on the ground with his feet drawn up (as the Taylor’s sit in England) he sharpened the point of his spear with an oyster shell fixt in the end of a Stick on the bottom of his foot and he bit the shell in order to sharpen it. Whilst I was standing near them, a negro boy from one of the Ships came to look at them. They were surprised and rejoyc’d to see him: felt his hair and opened his bosom and examin’d his breasts and seemed surpris’d that they c’d not understand each other. They expres’d a great desire to have a lock of his hair, and I persuaded the boy to let me cut off a lock and presented’d each of them, which they put carefully by in a wad of Grass fasten’d to one of the spears.
This day one of the sailors belonging to the Alex(ander?) was caught in the Women’s Tents & drum’d out of the Camp with his hands tyed behind him & the Rogue’s March playing."
In this short passage we find such a stark collision of cultures in the very earliest days of settlement. Bowes Smyth’s ending of his remarkable and surprising description then bluntly segues into a story of a misbehaving sailor.
There are two other versions of this journal in manuscript form. One is in the State Library of NSW (Safe 1/15), the other in the British Museum (Add MS 47966); both are fair copies (i.e. a clean copy of a handwritten document on which all corrections have been made) – our version is considered the original – after its discovery in the UK in 1963. The published version of the journal which is based on the SLNSW copy is subtly different to our copy. In ours the indigenous elders view the Governor’s house with “much astonishment” in the published version “They appear’d to express very little surprise at the Governor’s house.” In our version Bowes Smyth presents each of the elders with a lock of hair from the Negro child, in the SLNSW version he reciprocates by cutting off the elder’s hair presumably for the boy. In the published version the elders “stayed here at least an hour then betook themselves into the woods, & nobody has been near the Camp since.” Bowes Smyth omits this point in the original version. There are many instances of changes in the later version of the journal, some are inexplicable others simply glosses or sentences that have been missed. It appears he reflected on his version of accounts editing as he revised. Then, shortly before his death he must have penned another version based on the SLNSW copy which now resides in the British Museum.
The image now emblazoned on my memory from the journal is not of his description of a hanging (the prisoner was “turned off”), nor of his description of the emu (possibly for the first time), nor his description of the early government – “all anarchy and confusion”, nor the stupid drowning of either the Negro cook or the Carpenter's dog Jockey that fell overboard, nor his many curious decorative doodles but, rather, the scene of the two indigenous elders wearing crowns fashioned from red bunting and yellow tinfoil.
The Journal was kept between 22 March 1787 and 11 August 1789.
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