Tag Archives: Sydney
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
From Tongan Princes to the daughters of Sāmoan political leaders, elite Australian schools have long been considered desirable locations for the children of high-ranking Pacific families. One such student was a young Tahitian named Joanna Marau Ta‘aroa who attended Sydney Ladies’ College from 1869 to 1873.
While easily “mistaken for a Spaniard” on the streets of downtown Sydney, the young Marau was in fact the second youngest daughter of an aristocratic Tahitian mother, Ari‘i Taimai, and a wealthy Englishman of Jewish descent, Alexander Salmon. (The pair, who had married in 1842, had nine children, all of whom enjoyed a cosmopolitan upbringing, speaking English and being educated overseas.)
Although little is known about her time in Sydney, other than an abiding memory of ice-cold baths and unpleasant Australian mutton, Marau’s Australian education was cut short at the age of 14 when she was summoned home to marry Prince Ari‘i-aue. Her marriage to the alcoholic future king, who was some 22 years her senior, saw her written into the history books as “the last Queen of Tahiti”.
An unhappy match
By all accounts, Marau’s royal wedding was a spectacular affair, with a fusion of Polynesian and European style festivities continuing across Papeete, the Tahitian capital, for two days. However, unlike that of her parents, her marriage was far from a love match.
It was a strategic alliance between the Pōmare family – who had always struggled to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Tahitian public – and her mother’s Teva dynasty, who were more readily recognised as the true holders of chiefly power and prestige.
But in Marau’s words, her husband’s behaviour “quickly became impossible to tolerate”. Allegedly suffering from syphilis, tuberculosis and occasionally pneumonia, the prince’s predilection for rum before noon was legendary.
Despite the kindness shown to her by his mother Queen Pōmare IV, palace life was far from happy for Marau. She found herself spending more and more time at her mother’s home in Papara, where she occupied herself reading, learning Tahitian embroidery and unravelling the secrets of her family’s land.
After the death of the Queen, she was briefly encouraged to return to her prince’s side to ascend the throne in September 1877. However, less than two years later, the now-Queen Marau accepted a royal pension of 300 francs per month and moved out permanently.
Children shut out
While the pair did not officially divorce until January 1888, from 1879 onward they would appear together only at official ceremonies where neither would talk to the other. However, Marau would not let these personal circumstances get in the way of living a life befitting of royalty.
In 1884 she took to Europe – without the King’s blessing – where she was “received and celebrated all over”, often finding herself in homes and palaces of elite Parisian families. Wearing old-style Tahitian dresses, Marau would attend the theatre most nights, where she revelled in the limelight as any 25-year-old guest of honour would do.
Meanwhile, back in Tahiti, her husband felt that press reports of his wife’s reception by the French political class “offended our dignity and insulted us as people”. This was perhaps a little rich coming from somebody who just four years earlier had ceded sovereignty over Tahiti and its dependencies to the French for a sizeable pension in return. (Famed American historian Henry Adams would write that he “now gets drunk on the proceeds, $12,000 a year”.)
For Queen Marau, the tip of the iceberg was the King’s refusal to recognise her two daughters, Teri‘i (born in 1879) and Takau (born in 1887), as his own.
Though they eventually took the Pōmare name – the third, Ernest, who arrived several months after the divorce proceedings, was never officially recognised – all three children were shut out of the royal inheritance. After Pōmare V’s refusal to recognise the third child, Marau famously snapped back that none of them belonged to him anyway.
In the months preceding the death of Pomare V in June 1891, Queen Marau played host to Henry Adams and his artist-friend John La Farge. Bored and growing increasingly critical of colonial Papeete, the pair’s fortunes changed upon meeting Marau and her brother Tati Salmon at Papara. Of Marau, Adams wrote:
If she was once handsome, certainly her beauty is not what attracts men now. What she has is a face strongly marked and decidedly intelligent, with a sub-expression of recklessness, or true old-goldishness … One feels the hundred generations of chiefs who are in her, without one commoner except the late Salmon, her deceased parent.
Finding her “still showy, very intelligent, musical, deep in native legends and history, and quite energetic”, Marau became the perfect conduit between Adams and her ageing mother. In turn, this enabled the pair to work on the production of the Memoirs of Arii Tamai (1901). A history of pre-colonial Tahiti from the perspective of the Teva family, it is now regarded as a canonical text in Tahitian ethnography.
A dominant public figure
With most scholars tending to lose interest in Marau’s life at this point, it would be tempting to end our story here with the Queen living out the rest of her years “hard-up” on a measly government pension.
But the reality was that she remained a dominant public figure until her death in February 1935.
When massive phosphate deposits were discovered on the nearby island of Makatea in 1907, Marau frustrated the progress of an Anglo-French consortium by using her influence to sign contracts with local landowners, despite knowing she lacked the means to exploit the mineral herself.
While the intervention netted her a tidy payment of 75,000 francs and an ongoing royalty of 37 and a half centimes per ton of phosphate extracted, victory was even sweeter as the man behind the phosphate operation was her ex-husband’s lawyer, Auguste Goupil, chief architect of the plan to write her children out of their royal inheritance.
Finally, just as the stories of Ari‘i Taimai were collected and written down by a younger, energetic Marau, her own daughter Takau did the same for her mother in her dotage (eventually published in 1971 as Memoires de Marau Taaroa). As modern and tumultuous as her life may have been, the Memoires also portrays someone who never lost her grounding in ancient Tahitian culture.
Nothing reflects this better than Marau’s grand tomb at Uranie cemetery just outside of Papeete. Her tomb, taking the form of the grand Teva-family marae, Mahaiatea, it is a tribute to one of Tahiti’s greatest cultural and spiritual monuments.
This monument to the Tahitian god ‘Oro, consecrated by the famous Tupaia between 1766-8, had been destroyed in 1865 by a European planter in order to construct a bridge. The bridge itself was soon washed away by flood.
In April 2020, Australia will mark 250 years since James Cook sailed into Kamay (later known as Botany Bay) on the Endeavour, kicking off a series of events that resulted in the British arriving and staying uninvited first at Warrane (Sydney Cove) in 1788, and later at numerous locations across the continent.
Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded, and as a nation we are still grappling with the consequences of these actions of 221 years ago. Although we often focus on the large-scale impact of British settlers – the diseases my ancestors brought, the violence they committed – we are less good at seeing the small and unwitting ways that settlers participated in British colonialism. One such story emerges when we track the history of an unlikely cultural object – clay from Sydney.
In April 1770, Joseph Banks – the gentleman botanist on James Cook’s first voyage – recorded in his journal how the traditional owners of Botany Bay painted their bodies with broad strokes of white ochre, which he compared to the cross-belt of British soldiers.
Eighteen years later, Arthur Phillip, Governor of New South Wales, sent Banks a box full of this white ochre – he’d read the published journal and suspected Banks would be interested. The ochre was a fine white clay and Phillip wondered whether it would be useful for manufacturing pottery.
Once in Britain, this sample of clay took on a life of its own, passed between scientists across Europe. Josiah Wedgwood – Banks’ go-to expert on all things clay-related – tested a sample and described it as “an excellent material for pottery”. He had his team of skilled craftspeople make a limited number of small medallions using this Sydney clay.
These medallions depict an allegory according to the classical fashion of the time. A standing figure represents “Hope” (shown with an anchor) instructing three bowing figures – “Peace” (holding an olive branch), “Art” (with an artist’s palette) and “Labour” (with a sledgehammer).
A cornucopia lies at their feet, representing the abundance that these qualities could produce in a society, while in the background a ship, town and fort suggest a flourishing urban settlement supported by trade.
This little ceramic disc made out of Sydney clay represented tangible evidence of how the new colony could flourish with “industry” – the right combination of knowledge, skills and effort. Yet notably absent from this vision of the new colony was any representation of Aboriginal people.
For something only a little larger than a 50 cent piece, this medallion had a long legacy in colonial NSW. It was reproduced on the front page of The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay – one of the first accounts of the fledgling colony. Later it was adapted for the Great Seal of New South Wales – attached to convict pardons and land grants.
Later still, a version formed the first masthead of the Sydney Gazette – the first newspaper in the colony. The ideas behind the medallion gained even wider circulation in the colony. As historian of science Lindy Orthia has argued, the Sydney Gazette was a place where various schemes for improving manufacturing and farming were regularly discussed.
We can see the impact of these ideas by looking at what colonists themselves did with the clay. Although the first examples of Sydney-made pottery were unglazed and fragile, by the first decades of the 19th century, the quality had improved.
Over the last 30 years, archaeologists have found examples of Sydney-made pottery across Sydney and Parramatta on sites dating from the 1800s to 1820s.
Commonly called “lead-glazed pottery”, this material ranges from larger basins and pans, to more refined, decorated items, including chamber pots, bowls, plates, cups and saucers. Although basic, it clearly was based on British forms. The discovery of the former site of a potter’s workshop in 2008 confirmed this material was made locally.
It has been found on sites ranging from the Governor’s residence on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Street, Sydney, to former convict huts in Parramatta, alongside imported British earthenware and Chinese export porcelain. Visitors to the fledgling colony commented on this pottery as evidence of its growth and development.
Sydney-made pottery helped colonists maintain different aspects of “civilised” behaviour. When imported tableware was expensive, local pottery allowed convicts living outside of barracks and other poorer settlers to use ceramic plates and cups, rather than cheaper wooden items.
Locally-made pots were also used to cook stews over a fire. Stews not only continued the established food practices of their British and Irish homes, but also conformed to contemporary ideas of a good, nourishing diet.
These practices around food would have distinguished colonists from the local Aboriginal people. In the coastal area around Sydney, locals tended to roast meat and vegetables, and to eat some fish and smaller birds or animals after only burning off their scales, feathers and fur.
George Thompson, a visiting ship’s gunner who had a low opinion of most things in the colony, thought that eating half-roasted fish was evidence of “a lazy indolent people”.
As historian Penny Russell has discussed, eating “half-cooked” food became a well-worn trope in the 19th century, frequently repeated as evidence of the supposed lack of civilisation by Aboriginal people. By contrast, as the historian and curator Blake Singley has suggested, European cooking methods frequently became a way that native plants and animals could be “civilised” and incorporated into settler diets.
The colonists’ use of Sydney clay helped to distinguish their notion of civilisation from Aboriginal culture, and so implicitly helped to justify the dispossession of Aboriginal people. The story of this clay demonstrates how quickly colonists’ focus could shift away from Aboriginal people: although Aboriginal use of white ochre continued to be recorded by colonists and visitors, Sydney clay primary became seen as the material of a skilled European craft.
Through the use of local pottery, ordinary settlers could participate in this civilising program, replicating the culture of their homeland. These small, everyday actions helped create a vision of Sydney that excluded Aboriginal people – despite the fact that they have continued to live in and around Sydney since 1788.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In December 1882, Eliza O’Flaherty died of “diabetes and exhaustion” at her lodgings in Sydney. Aged 64, Eliza lived in a brick cottage behind a dyeworks, where she had been employed as manager for two years. Her demise might seem unremarkable: a widowed, childless woman of the 19th century who had been worn out by work. But O’Flaherty was actually Eliza Winstanley, the first woman to play Richard III in an Australian theatre, and an early star of the colonial stage.
Winstanley was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1818. With her parents William and Elizabeth and her five younger brothers and sisters, she emigrated to Sydney in 1833. Family stories recall that the Winstanleys went to the Liverpool port intending to emigrate to America but finding no ships bound for America at the docks, they boarded one for Sydney instead.
On arrival in Sydney the family rented a cottage in Kent Street and soon after William found employment as a scenic artist at Sydney’s first licensed theatre, Barnett Levey’s Theatre Royal in George Street.
In 1834, Eliza, then 16, and her sister Anne, then 9, made their acting debut at this theatre. Eliza performed the role of Clari in The Maid of Milan, a forgotten musical play known for its sentimental song, Home Sweet Home. She received positive reviews, with The Australian’s critic praising,
“the rich intonation of her voice, and the expression of unfeigned grief which her countenance occasionally assumed”.
Surviving hissing from the mob
Early in her career, Winstanley endured the organised attacks of rowdy sections of the audience. The Cabbage Tree mob, named after their distinctive hats made from the leaves of the cabbage tree palm, were fans of the young actress Mathilda Jones, who, unlike the Winstanley sisters, was Australian born. The mob would hiss like geese whenever Eliza and Anne appeared on stage. But over the next 12 years Eliza refined her craft, becoming one of the most confident, reliable performers on the Sydney stage.
Many reviews describe Winstanley’s physical animation and emotional connection to her roles. She often enacted characters that demanded dynamic vocal and physical transformation, such as hags, maniacs and villains, which she played, as one critic put it, “with all the powers of tragic acting”.
Winstanley’s interest in physical transformation reached its zenith when she was advertised to play the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III at Sydney’s Australian Olympic Theatre. This was a tent theatre she and her husband, Henry O’Flaherty, briefly managed in 1842.
Shakespeare’s villainous Duke of Gloucester was widely regarded as the ultimate test of an actor’s skill. The character had been played a number of times in Sydney by men, with varying success. Winstanley’s decision to play Richard III indicates she was prepared to take on male theatrical rivals and unafraid of provocative programming.
‘Unsexly and indelicate’
Theatre historian Yvonne Shafer suggests that 19th century actresses played male roles because of “natural inclination, a wish to display ability, and novelty”, and also to “take the lead and compete with men in a very direct way”.
One 19th century critic was appalled by Winstanley’s decision. Although he chose not to attend her performance, he opined, “that the interests of any company of performers would be advanced, by such an exhibition, appears to us to be a most preposterous notion … such an attempt is unsexly and indelicate.”
Unfortunately, a review of Winstanley’s portrayal of Richard III has not yet been discovered. This lack of reviews could indicate that the production was boycotted by the Sydney critics.
In 1846, Winstanley and her husband left Sydney for London. For the next 20 years she carved out a career under her maiden name, and had consistent acting engagements in New York, Philadelphia and London.
Her days of cross-dressing and physical transformation were now over, and her repertoire consisted mainly of attractive widows, cheerful landladies and stock theatrical characters known as “heavy ladies”.
After the death of her husband, Winstanley had to rely on her own resources. She cemented her professional success as a member of Charles and Ellen Kean’s company at London’s Princess Theatre, and performed many times in the Kean’s command performances for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.
In an 1853 letter to Charles Kean, Winstanley accepts his offer to play Queen Elinor in the Keans’ production of Shakespeare’s King John.
The short note reveals Winstanley’s anxiety about her widening figure, her literary sense of humour and delight in word play. “With pleasure I secede to your request. Though in attempting the part of Queen Elinor I certainly shall fail to represent A leaner Queen.”
Reinvention as a writer
Although she maintained her acting career until the mid 1860s, Winstanley reinvented herself for a second successful career. Her first novel Shifting Scenes in Theatrical Life was published in 1859, and this marked the beginning of her professional life as “Mrs Winstanley” a writer and editor for popular “penny weekly” magazines.
Many of her novels are set in the world of the theatre, and reveal her insider’s knowledge of acting craft. Some of her novels, including the 1864 convict story Twenty Straws, were adapted and performed at London theatres in the 1860s and 70s.
In 1880, Winstanley returned to Sydney, perhaps to be near her brother Robert and his family. As Mrs O’Flaherty, she found employment as manager of Eldridge’s Dyeworks.
Sydney had transformed from the rough, colonial town she had known three decades earlier. Did any of the older customers of the dyeworks remember her as a skilled performer of tragedy and melodrama in the early days of the city’s first theatres?
Living as a widow for most of her life, without the material support of a husband, Winstanley adapted to her circumstances. As an actress she saw employment opportunities dwindle as she aged, and so remade herself as an editor and writer.
As her health declined, she again put her shoulder to the wheel at the dyeworks.
Winstanley’s three careers are proof of her indefatigable inventiveness in her professional life, and an ability to endure. As a leading artist on Australia’s earliest stages and our first female Richard III, Winstanley deserves a prominent place in our theatrical histories.
The natives of new Holland are perhaps the quickest fighters in the world … They remind me of Homer’s description of his heroes. The warriors throw themselves
into the same attitudes, they harangue, they brandish and cast their spears in a manner similar to
that described by the celebrated poet, “so saying, swaying back and forth, he launched his long-shadowed spear”.
–Benjamin Bowen Carter , 1798
This laudatory account of a group of Indigenous Australians, including Woollarawarre Bennelong, has been
collecting dust in Rhode Island since 1798, when the fledgling United States was just beginning
to stretch into the Asia-Pacific region, led by private
It is contained in one of two 220-year-old journals from the merchant ship Ann & Hope (held in the John Carter
Brown Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society respectively) penned by sailors Benjamin Page,
Jr. the teenage son of the ship’s captain, and Benjamin Bowen Carter, the ship’s surgeon.
They have been largely forgotten by historians, bar one or two, but shed light on Bennelong in particular: a celebrated yet misunderstood man. For much of white Australian
history, Bennelong was portrayed as a tragic victim of alcoholism and cultural
homelessness. Captured in November 1789 under orders from Governor Arthur Phillip to be
taught English and serve as a cultural intermediary, he was later taken to England, returning to his homeland in 1795.
In their 11-month journey around the world, the Ann & Hope’s crew spent just four days in Sydney. But Page and Carter wrote thousands of words about New Holland’s
people, environment, and trading prospects. Chief among their fascinations was witnessing Bennelong adjudicate an
unusually messy payback punishment, which they recorded in excruciating and bloody detail.
so, they inadvertently reveal that Bennelong continued to hold positions of authority long after his return from the UK – in contrast to accounts by many
eminent historians and popular authors that depicted him as lost between two worlds, comfortable in neither.
According to writer and academic Deborah Bird Rose, in Aboriginal communities,
designed to re-establish social relations ruptured by wrong-doing is called ‘payback’. It is
physical violence that is expected to be roughly equivalent to the offence. Its purpose is to
restore a sense of balance and to effect a form of closure.
Echoing this desire for balance, Carter
observed in 1798 that:
The generosity of these people is singular. When their enemies have
discharged their spears, they will return them and prepare themselves for another assault. They
frequently during the battle ran up to the opposite party and received their spears from the enemy. Nor did their antagonists throw a foul spear or improve in the least the advantage put into
their hands, of killing an enemy when alone or unguarded.
Unfortunately, this protocol went awry when Bennelong decreed (apparently unconvincingly)
that the appropriate punishment had been met.
He was violently rebuffed and, according to Page:
Whilst Bennelong was sitting down unguarded to our great surprise we saw one spear pierced
through the left side of his breast he rose up immediately and had another flung at him which he
kept off with his iron shield by his looks and words he seemed to enquire who did it then several
of both parties arose and seemed to be in a great passion the women especially who were crying
and beating themselves at a terrible rate at length.
Bennelong walked away about a hundred yards and sat down with the spear then through him
after it was pulled out with the loss of blood he fainted then the women began with more
tremendous shrieks and yells than before thinking he was dead and were down upon their knees a
sucking the blood from the wound after several were speared through the legs & thighs.
Nearly being killed while adjudicating a payback punishment does not paint Bennelong in the
most favourable light. But the fact that as late as 1798 he was given the honour of adjudicating such a
ceremony challenges much of the outdated historiography about him.
Bennelong has been mistakenly remembered for centuries, encouraged by national
institutions such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography. The dictionary is currently rewriting its
entry on Bennelong and other Indigenous Australians to reflect the new findings of scholars such
as Shino Konishi, Keith Vincent Smith, Kate Fullagar, and Emma Dortins.
Bennelong’s 1966 entry in the dictionary is especially careless for highlighting how, after being the
first Aboriginal man to visit England in 1792, he returned to Sydney,
and thereafter references
to him are scanty, though it is clear that he could no longer find contentment or full acceptance
either among his countrymen or the white men. Two years later he had become “so fond of
drinking that he lost no opportunity of being intoxicated, and in that state was so savage and
violent as to be capable of any mischief”.
Less disparagingly, Inga Clendinnen argues that, after
returning from Europe, Bennelong, “with his anger and his anguish, simply drops from British
In reality, he dropped from official British records, but certainly not from positions of
authority or from visiting American sailors’ notice.
The New South Wales government’s pledge to
build a memorial on the land where Bennelong is buried certainly could not come at a better time.
Meanwhile, historians who have been diligently rewriting
Bennelong’s history are finally being written about in the mainstream press. And who knows, maybe there
are more dusty journals scattered around the world that will contribute to this rewriting over the
next 200 years.
The author thanks Josiah Ober of Stanford University for translating from Greek the Iliad
quote at the top of this page.
More than 200 years after Woollarawarre Bennelong’s death, the NSW government has purchased the land where he is buried. On the north side of the Parramatta river, the unmarked grave site will be turned into a memorial to the great Wangal leader.
But Bennelong is not the only person interred at the spot. Boorong, his third wife, lies alongside him. She has intrigued me for years, since I first began researching the role of Christianity in the encounter between Eora and Europeans. She is not famous like Bennelong, or his second wife Barangaroo. So who was Boorong? And why should we remember her too?
Colonial sources only give us a few glimpses of Boorong. She is discussed briefly in letters by the first chaplain, Richard Johnson, and his wife Mary, with whom she lived for about 18 months in 1789-90.
Other first fleet officers and a few later colonists also mention her in their journals, using a range of names including Abaroo, Araboo, Aboren and Aborough – as well as Booron or Booroong. These mainly incidental references are coloured by the Europeans’ perspectives and agendas. There are no surviving records produced by Boorong herself – no equivalent to Bennelong’s letter.
Still, pieced together, these fragments suggest Boorong played a significant role in the initial interaction between black and white Australians. She was the first Indigenous person to have a substantial encounter with Christianity and its Bible. She was also a political go-between, a cross-cultural broker, and a survivor.
Boorong was the daughter of Maugoran, a Burrumattagal elder, and Goorooberra, whose name means “firestick”. She belonged to the Parramatta area, “the place where eels lie down”. Born there in the mid-1770s, she was about 12 when European colonists arrived.
Boorong caught smallpox during the epidemic of autumn 1789. Some of Governor Phillip’s men found her sick and brought her into their camp for attention. She was nursed by Arabanoo, an Eora captive at Government House. Arabanoo caught the disease and died – along with as many as half the local Eora, including Bennelong’s first wife, whose name is lost to history.
Boorong, like Bennelong, was one of the survivors. According to Lieutenant Watkin Tench, she was then “received as an inmate, with great kindness, in the family of Mrs Johnson, the clergyman’s wife”.
We don’t know what Boorong thought of the Johnsons, what her agenda was, or how free she felt to stay or leave their hut. But Richard and Mary encouraged her to wear clothes, to speak English and to make herself useful around the house. The clergyman – an evangelical – taught Boorong the Lord’s Prayer and tried to convey an idea of “a supreme being”. His hope, he wrote to a friend, was to see “these poor heathen brought to the Knowledge of Christianity”.
The Reverend Johnson also “took pains” to instruct Boorong in reading, presumably using the Bible as a text for lessons. She thus encountered a new language, a new kind of literacy, and the technology of books and writing. These language skills meant she later got caught up in the political negotiations between black and white.
Early Sydney politics
By 1789, Governor Phillip had made virtually no progress in understanding the Eora – and had resorted to kidnapping people to establish a channel of communication with the local tribes.
After Arabanoo’s death, Phillip’s officers took in two more warriors by force. Coleby soon escaped his shackles, but Bennelong stayed longer – gathering information about the colonists and forging strategic relationships with Phillip and others around Government House. But then Bennelong, too, escaped – dashing English hopes that he would broker some kind of understanding between the two sides.
In this context, Phillip’s officers turned to Boorong, as well as a boy Nanberry, to act as go-betweens. On and off, between May 1789 and November 1790, they reluctantly relied on her as a translator and mediator with the Sydney tribes.
Boorong also accompanied the officers on several visits to Bennelong during the spring of 1790, and conveyed their repeated requests that he come back to the British camp.
In late October, Bennelong indicated a willingness to go and visit Phillip. Barangaroo, Bennelong’s wife at the time, opposed the trip so strenuously that the officers offered a guarantee of safety: “Mr Johnson, attended by Abaroo (i.e. Boorong), agreed to remain as a hostage until Baneelon should return”.
Boorong rejects white society
There was a rapproachment of sorts between Bennelong and Phillip. And by late summer 1791, numbers of Eora were routinely staying in the town. The Rev. Johnson thought this new state of affairs had been “principally brought about” by Boorong, the “little girl” he had taught.
Boorong herself did not stay in the English camp. In October 1790, she returned to the bush neither converted to Christianity nor convinced of the colonists’ way of life. She continued to visit the Johnsons occasionally for at least five years after that, but in Mary Johnson’s words she did so “quite naked” and “evidently preferred [her] own way of life”. An image of Boorong, now held by the Natural History Museum in London, depicts her at her brother Ballooderry’s funeral in December 1791.
By 1797, Boorong was married to Bennelong. Barangaroo had died a few years previously, and Bennelong had survived a round trip to England. Boorong and Bennelong lived together with a band of perhaps 100 Eora survivors on the north side of the Parramatta river.
Around 1803 they had a son, known as Dickey, who as a young adult converted to Christianity, received baptism, and became probably the first Indigenous Australian evangelist.
We do not know the details of Boorong’s death, sometime around 1813. But in 1815, an Aboriginal elder known as “Old Philip” told ship’s surgeon Joseph Arnold that Bennelong had “died after a short illness about two years ago, & that they buried him & his wife at Kissing Point”.
In 1821 Nanberry, by his own request, was also buried alongside Bennelong – but that’s another story. In the meantime, let’s not memorialise Bennelong in a way that erases Boorong and her contributions as a negotiator and survivor.
Black skies and raging seas: how the First Fleet got a first taste of Australia’s unforgiving climate
The women screamed as the huge waves crashed loudly on the wooden deck. Horrified, they watched the foaming torrent wash away their blankets. Many dropped to their knees, praying for the violent rocking to stop. The sea raged around them as the wind whipped up into a frenzy, damaging all but one of the heavily loaded ships.
The severe storm was yet another taste of the ferocious weather that slammed the First Fleet as it made its way across the Southern Ocean in December 1787. Now, after an eight-month journey from England in a ship riddled with death and disease, the passengers’ introduction to Australia was also far from idyllic. The unforgiving weather that greeted the First Fleet was a sign of things to come. More than once, intense storms would threaten the arrival of the ships and bring the new colony close to collapse.
So how did the early arrivals to Australia deal with such extreme weather? Have we always had a volatile climate? To answer these questions, we need to follow Australia’s colonial settlers back beyond their graves and trace through centuries-old documents to uncover what the climate was like from the very beginning of European settlement. By poking around in the settlers’ old diaries, letters and newspaper clippings, we can begin to piece together an idea of what the country’s climate was like long before official weather measurements began.
When the British sailed into Australian waters, they had no idea of what awaited them. Eighteen years before the arrival of the First Fleet, Captain James Cook had barely spent a week in Botany Bay. He didn’t even stop in for a quick stickybeak at Port Jackson, the settlement site that eventually came to be known as Sydney Cove. HMS Endeavour had only briefly skirted past modern-day Sydney Harbour in May 1770, so the British knew next to nothing of the land, its climate or its people. Perhaps they expected that life would resemble their other colonial outposts like India, or an undeveloped version of England. With enough hard work, surely the land could be tamed to support their needs. But when the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Cove, they unknowingly entered an ancient landscape with an unforgiving climate.
Even before Governor Arthur Phillip set foot in Botany Bay, violent storms had battered the overcrowded ships of the First Fleet. During the final eight-week leg of the journey from Cape Town to Botany Bay, the ships had sailed into the westerly winds and tremendous swells of the Southern Ocean. Ferocious weather hit the First Fleet as it made its way through the roaring forties in November–December 1787. Although the strong westerlies were ideal for sailing, conditions on the ships were miserable. Lieutenant Philip Gidley King described the difficult circumstances on board HMS Supply: “strong gales … with a very heavy sea running which keeps this vessel almost constantly under water and renders the situation of everyone on board her, truly uncomfortable”. Unable to surface on deck in the rough seas, the convicts remained cold and wet in the cramped holds.
As Christmas approached, King noted the surprisingly chilly conditions off the southwestern coast of Western Australia: “The cold is in the extreme here as in England at this time of year, although it is the height of summer here.” Aboard HMS Sirius, Judge David Collins wrote about how the crew tried to celebrate in “mountains high” seas, to no avail. On New Year’s Day 1788, Arthur Bowes Smyth, a surgeon aboard the Lady Penrhyn, described how the sea poured into his cabin:
Just as we had dined, a most tremendous sea broke in at the weather scuttle of the great cabin and ran with a great stream all across the cabin, and as the door of my cabin happened not to be quite closed shut the water half filled it, the sheets and the blankets being all on a flow. The water ran from the quarterdeck nearly into the great cabin, and struck against the main and missen chains with such a force as at first alarmed us all greatly, but particularly me, as I believed [the] ship was drove in pieces. No sleep this night.
In a letter to his father, Sirius crew member Newton Fowell described the terrible weather that greeted the new year: “This year began with very bad tempestuous weather, it blew much harder than any wind we have had since our leaving England.” As the atrocious conditions continued, the First Fleet was forced to slow down to prevent the ships’ sails from tearing. Earlier in December 1787, the Prince of Wales had lost its topsail and a man washed overboard in what a sailor on the Scarborough described as “the heaviest sea as ever I saw”.
Captain John Hunter described how the rough seas made life on the Sirius very difficult for the animals on board:
The rolling and labouring of our ship exceedingly distressed the cattle, which were now in a very weak state, and the great quantities of water which we shipped during the gale, very much aggravated their distress. The poor animals were frequently thrown with much violence off their legs and exceedingly bruised by their falls.
It wasn’t until the first week of January 1788 that the majority of the First Fleet sailed past the southeastern corner of Van Diemen’s Land, modern-day Tasmania. As his boat navigated the coast, surgeon John White noted: “We were surprised to see, at this season of the year, some small patches of snow.” The fleet then began the 1,000-kilometre struggle up the coast of what would soon be called New South Wales, against a strong headwind and the East Australian Current. Newton Fowell wrote:
The wind variable and weather dark and gloomy, with a very troublesome high sea. About two o’clock p.m. we had one of the most sudden gusts of wind I ever remember to have known. In an instant it split our main-sail; and but for the activity shewn by the sailors, in letting fly the sheets and lowering the top-sails, the masts must have gone over the side… Fortunately for us the squall was of short duration, otherwise the ships must have suffered considerably from the uncommon cross sea that was running; which we had found to be the case ever since we reached this coast.
According to Bowes Smyth, faced with a “greater swell than at any other period during the voyage”, many of the ships were damaged, as were seedlings needed to supply the new colony with food. Bowes Smyth continued:
The sky blackened, the wind arose and in half an hour more it blew a perfect hurricane, accompanied with thunder, lightening and rain… I never before saw a sea in such a rage, it was all over as white as snow … every other ship in the fleet except the Sirius sustained some damage … during the storm the convict women in our ship were so terrified that most of them were down on their knees at prayers.
Finally, on January 19, the last ships of the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. But after just three days there, Phillip realised that the site was unfit for settlement. It had poor soil, insufficient freshwater supplies, and was exposed to strong southerly and easterly winds. With all the cargo and 1,400 starving convicts still anchored in Botany Bay, Phillip and a small party, including Hunter, quickly set off in three boats to find an alternative place to settle. Twelve kilometres to the north they found Port Jackson.
When the Endeavour had sailed past the location 18 years earlier, Cook had simply noted: “About two or three miles from the land and abreast of a bay or harbour wherein there appeared to be safe anchorage, which I called Port Jackson.” Early in the afternoon of the second day of their exploration, Phillip and his party discovered a large sheltered bay with a freshwater stream flowing into it. As Phillip later relayed to England, they “had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world”. It was decided that their new home would be here, not Botany Bay. It was named Sydney Cove after Lord Sydney, the home secretary of England at that time. John White was even more blown away by Port Jackson, gushing that it was “without exception, the finest and most extensive harbour in the universe”.
On 23 January 1788, Phillip and his party returned to Botany Bay and gave orders for the entire fleet to immediately set sail for Port Jackson. But the next morning, strong headwinds blew, preventing the ships from leaving the harbour. On 25 January, King wrote: “The wind blowing strong from the NNE prevented … our [the Supply] going out,” adding that they were obliged “to wait for the ebb tide and at noon we weighed and turned out of the harbour”. In the meantime, the rest of the fleet was still trying to sail out of Botany Bay. A surgeon, George Worgan, wrote about “the wind coming to blow hard, right in to the bay, the Sirius and the transports could not possibly get out”. A huge sea rolling into the bay caused ripped sails and a lost boom as the ships drifted dangerously close to the rocky coastline. According to Lieutenant Ralph Clark:
If it had not been by the greatest good luck, we should have been both on the shore [and] on the rocks, and the ships must have been all lost, and the greater part, if not the whole on board drowned, for we should have gone to pieces in less than half of an hour.
Finally, as Bowes Smyth described, the ships left the bay: “With the utmost difficulty and danger [and] with many hairbreadth escapes [we] got out of the harbour’s mouth … it was next to a miracle that some of the ships were not lost, the danger was so very great.” By 3 p.m. on January 26, 1788, all 11 ships of the First Fleet had safely arrived in Port Jackson. Meanwhile, while waiting for the others to arrive, Phillip and a small party from the Supply had rowed ashore and planted a Union Jack, marking the beginning of European settlement in Australia.
After such an epic journey, the whole ordeal was washed away with swigs of rum. Unknowingly, it marked the start of our rocky relationship with one of the most volatile climates on Earth.
This is an edited extract from Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change by Joelle Gergis, published by Melbourne University Publishing. An edited version of this article has also appeared on Pursuit.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day celebrations in Sydney, Australia.
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The link below is to an article that takes a look at Cockatoo Island in Sydney.
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The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of whaling in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
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