Blind luck and bloody mindedness: the ridiculous history of January 26, 1788


There seems to be some confusion about the happenings of the first “Australia Day”.

I asked a raft of friends and co-workers the question while researching this article and the top responses were diverse.

  1. “It’s the day the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay.”
  2. “It’s the day of the flag raising ceremony at Sydney Cove.”
  3. “It’s the day Arthur Phillip first landed in Sydney Cove.”
  4. “It’s the day the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour.”
  5. “It’s the day James Cook planted the Union Jack in Sydney.”

If you answered options 2 or 4, you get partial credit and while these events sound legit on paper, the reality was far less grandiose.

Saturday, January 26, 1788 was a big day for the newly arrived colonial forces and the end of a long, tiring and unpleasant week.

In historical context, using it as a patriotic holiday is decidedly weird.

Chances are it wasn’t a day our first Governor, Arthur Phillip, remembered fondly.

But the arrival of the First Fleet has long been discussed in the awed tones of a citizenry happy with a history rooted in romanticism and denial.

As a white person and a descendant of early colonists, I am not the author to write about the impact of this invading force on indigenous Australian civilisation.

It’s the equivalent of asking a descendant of Cortez how the Aztec’s felt about their extinction.

There’s nothing to do but hope desperately your ancestors were idiots from alien skies and feel shame about the entire cowardly, genocidal affair.

What I can do, is express utter mystification at the phoney sentimentalism of nationalist voices about our choice of “Australia Day” now.

Viewed rationally, the arrival of the First Fleet was a farce worthy of Monty Python, with January 26 its crowning prat fall.

Image: Sydney Living Museums
Australia’s first English Governor, Arthur Phillip, was 49 years old when he arrived in Australia. He was plucked out of semi-retirement by the British Government on the recommendation of his country neighbour Sir George Rose and a British intelligence official, Evan Nepean for whom Phillip had worked as a spy in France.

Arthur Phillip arrived at Botany Bay on Saturday, January 18th aboard the HMS Supply, accompanied by 3 other tall ships (Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough).

Known as the flying squad, they were the fastest of the First Fleet’s 11 vessels.

They had orders to arrive before the main fleet, choose a good site and make camp.

The idea was when the main fleet arrived, civilians and convicts could disembark after their long sea voyage into an established site and quickly begin founding a colony.

It didn’t work out.

Phillip landed in a cove called Yarra Bay, just east of what is now Sydney’s main freight terminal and the international airport.

The arrival was witnessed by the local Eora people, who later returned to point out Bunnerong Creek, a small freshwater stream nearby.

Phillip wasn’t happy with Botany Bay’s soil (too sandy), or the limited fresh water available. After all he did have 1,487 people to cater for.

Still, his party made camp and that night in something of a cultural foreshadowing, they got on the beer to celebrate their arrival.

Their hangovers were rudely interrupted in the morning by strong winds which blew down their tents and, worst of all, by the arrival of three more ships of the fleet.

Within 36 hours, the entire First Fleet was at anchor in Botany Bay while passengers, convicts and crew bitched about having to remain aboard after a 252-day voyage.

By this stage, the tall ships bilges were rank, supplies were being rationed and the female convicts were wearing clothes made of rice sacks.

Their original dresses had been burnt as a result of the… we’ll call it “lice” they had caught between England and Rio de Janeiro.

Phillip held a round table with his officers and admitted the flying squad had failed and everything James Cook and Joseph Banks had told them about Botany Bay was catastrophic misinformation.

Botany Bay was shallow, open to high seas and strong winds and very hard to defend from attack.

Image: Darug Custodian Aboriginal Corporation
The indigenous Eora and neighbouring nations were heavily populated and well educated about the movements of the English military presence from the moment they arrived. The English reported first firing on the Gweagal people on the 21st or 22nd of January so they would “know and dread the superiority of our arms.”

The situation was grim.

They were weeks sail away from help, low on supplies, Cook’s charts and Banks’ notes were unreliable and they faced potential mutiny and chaos if they didn’t find a good camp site quickly.

Huts and tents raised since the 18th had been consistently destroyed by bad weather.

The trees in the area (many of them no doubt centuries or thousands of years old) were so sturdy, their tools broke when they tried to cut them down.

The Eora were subjected to the spectacle of the colonists blasting trees down with gunpowder only to find the wood useless for anything but burning.

Add to this, 212 drunk and debauched marines and the well recorded DGAF attitude of their commander, Major Robert Ross…

It’s fascinating to wonder just what the Eora thought of this clumsy, louse-ridden circus.

On Monday, January 21st, Phillip sailed out of Botany Bay in three smaller vessels to scout for better locations to the north.

They sailed into Sydney Harbour that day and landed at Camp Cove inside the southern headland.

It didn’t take an idiot to realise they’d entered one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world.

Phillip famously said in a letter (sent sometime later) he’d found “the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security.”

They reached Sydney Cove on the 22nd, a deep natural harbour with a large, freshwater stream, semi-decent soil and one of the best views for a selfie known to man.

Lucky too, Phillip later reported to his superiors he’d had no time to look for anything better.

The myth of Sydney Cove’s natural suitability for a settlement developed long after its many problems had been solved.

Participants in this scouting expedition wrote the Eora were aware of their movements and had already established the soldiers wore red coats, but they did not intervene.

The Eora were a large and ancient nation but their culture was far more gracious and peaceful than the arrivals’.

Had they attacked Phillip’s small party on the 21st or 22nd, England’s colonial ambitions in their nation could have ended and history altered overnight.

Phillip returned to Botany Bay on the 23rd and found his run of good luck in Port Jackson ended.

The French had arrived.

Image: La Parisien
Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de LaPerouse was a French noblemen whose scientific expedition arrived in Botany Bay at the most humiliating moment for the First Fleet. LaPerouse’s expedition was later wrecked on Vanikoro in the Solomon’s Islands and the crew killed by locals. It’s reported on the day he died in 1793, King Louis XVI asked if LaPerouse had been found yet.

It’s easy now to forget England and France spent the better part of the last thousand years at each others throats.

In 1788, the two kingdoms had been at peace for five years.

But the war of American independence had been a hard loss for England in which French involvement was bitterly resented.

The foundation of the new southern colony had been partially motivated to prevent French influence and expansion.

Phillip had fought the French during the Seven Years War and worked as a spy in France until 1784.

The French, aboard the Astrolabe and Boussole, commanded by Jean Francoise de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse, were on a scientific expedition and had been at sea for 3 years.

They had already visited Chile, Hawaii, California, Alaska, Russia, Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands.

La Perouse’s orders were to investigate what he had assumed would be a thriving colony by the time of his arrival and report on its potential value to the English.

The French ships were well supplied and their crew in good health.

To find the English behind schedule, confused, drunk and starving with their mission on the verge of collapse was a surprise.

Like any patriotic Frenchmen in such circumstances, they messed with their English rivals heads.

Why had the First Fleet arrived so late? How had they not built anything yet? Did they want to trade for some of the well-stocked French food supplies?

La Perouse was also of ancient nobility and esteemed rank.

Phillip as a naval Commodore and Captain Governor was a social inferior.

He pointedly never met La Perouse in person during his stay.

Worst of all, a northerly wind picked up bringing heavy seas and making the entrance to Botany Bay almost impossible to sail.

Despite the ferocious weather, a party of Eora armed with spears and shields kept watch from the shore.

The arrival of the French pushed the First Fleets personnel over the edge.

All it would take would be one French longboat expedition north and again history could have been upended. The greatest harbour in the world was at risk.

England could have found herself at war with France over a new foreign possession she had considered completely secure and Phillip knew who would cop the blame.

Phillip panicked and ordered the immediate evacuation of Botany Bay; gale force winds be damned!

La Perouse set up camp near what is now a nudist beach and built an observatory and a garden, all the while watching the English fleet get blown about the bay.

January 26 proved the climax of an angst ridden, booze fuelled, trainwreck of a week.

It took the First Fleet the entire day to get out of Botany Bay.

The French must have been astonished to watch as eleven ships seemingly pointlessly battled a vicious gale, tearing sails, snapping lines and toppling masts as they went.

Several ships reported nearly running aground or being blown against rocks that could easily have sunk them.

In the words of one diarist: “Every one blaming the rashness of the Governor in insisting upon the fleets working out in such weather, and all agreed it was next to a miracle that some of the ships were not lost, the danger was so very great.”

Phillip’s own ship Supply made it out past Cape Banks late on the 25th with the vision of two ships colliding in the bay behind him.

The overwrought, exhausted crew raced to Sydney Cove and even as they raised the Union Jack early on the 26th, they were left wondering just how many other ships would make it out alive.

It was later noted with extreme bitterness, the brutal winds died within hours of the entire fleet having made it out to the Tasman Sea.

By evening, the heavily damaged, angry and humiliated First Fleet had limped into Sydney Cove.

Hardly a day of jubilation. Something akin to celebrating the political career of Tony Abbott on the day he ate the onion.

Australian culture consistently portrays the arrival of the First Fleet as a gallant and historic affair. The reality was ruthless weather, foolish mistakes, drunken marines, sarcastic French explorers and an indigenous population restrained by a more civilised society than their conquerors.

The next two months, arguably the next two years, followed a similar theme.

The French snootily informed the English some of their convicts had escaped and asked for French help to return to Europe.

A great deal of cattle transported had died.

The convicts proved themselves lazy, unskilled workers. Most of them were petty thieves and prostitutes with no knowledge of construction or farming.

Scurvy and smallpox ravaged the colonial population.

The smallpox did far more to weaken the Eora’s resistance than the drunken marines.

The colony faced starvation several times.

By the time poor health forced Governor Phillip’s return to England in 1792, it was clear his government had no understanding of the unreal wealth and beauty to be found in Australia.

It’s astonishing just how easily and how much our colonial history has been twisted.

The voyage of the First Fleet is still celebrated as one of the great feats of the Age of Discovery.

Realistically, it was a farce of ignorance and incompetence that succeeded out of blind luck and bloody mindedness more than skill or ambition.

During the week of the First Fleets arrival, the entire endeavor almost collapsed several times.

For the Eora, to say nothing of Australia’s hundreds of other distinct indigenous nations, the First Fleet marked the arrival of tyranny after tens of thousands of years of peace and prosperity.

Beyond the astounding insult to their millions of exploited and slain ancestors, we are insulting colonial Australians by lying and exaggerating about their history.

January 26 has more realistically found it’s sordid and controversial place as our national holiday thanks to its proximity to summer weather and the start of the school year.

It’s time we dropped the sentimental bullshit and found a day that allows us to celebrate something about ourselves that’s real.

Australia Day must be more than an optical illusion.