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The Women Come Ashore

On Wednesday 6 February 1788, after some eight months at sea, for the most part segregated from the men and once crude facilities had been made ready by work parties, female convicts were landed on shore. Diarists of the time recorded that it was a day of frequent thunder squalls, the wind was from the west-north-west, the temperature was 70 degrees F, and the barometer 29.48. This might raise in the mind the prospect of scenes of wild debauchery taking place; and one would be right. That’s precisely what took place within hours of the landing. The scene is most graphically and eleoquently described by one of the ships’ surgeons, Arthur Bowes.

 “At five o’clock this morning, all things were got in order for landing the whole of the women, and 3 of the ships longboats came alongside us to receive them; previous to their quitting the ship, a strict search was made to try if any of the many things which they had stolen on board could be found, but their artifice eluded the most strict search, and at six o’clock p.m. we had the long wished for pleasure of seeing the last of them leave the ship. They were dressed in general very clean, and some few amongst them might be said to be well dressed. The men convicts got to them very soon after they landed, and it is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night. They had not been landed more than an hour, before they had all got their tents pitched or anything in order to receive them, but there came on the most violent storm of thunder lightening and rain I ever saw. The lightening was incessant during the whole night and I never heard it rain faster. About 12 o’clock in the night one severe flash of lightening struck a very large tree in the centre of the Camp, under which some places were constructed to keep the sheep and hogs in. It split the tree from top to bottom, killed five sheep belonging to Major Ross, and a pig of one of the Lieutenants. The severity of the lightening this and the two preceeding nights leaves no room to doubt but many of the trees which appear burnt up to the tops of them were the effect of lightening. The sailors in our ship requested to have some grog to make merry with upon the women quitting the ship, indeed the Captain himself had no small reason to rejoice upon their being all safely landed and given into the care of the Governor, as he was under the penalty of £40 for every convict that was missing. For which reason he complied with the sailor’s request, and about the time they began to be elevated the tempest came on. The scene which presented itself at this time and during the greater part of the night beggars every description. Some swearing, others quarrelling, others singing – not in the least regarding the tempest, though so violent that the thunder shook the ship exceeded anything I ever before had a conception of. I never before experienced so uncomfortable a night, expecting every moment the ship would be struck with the lightening. The sailors almost all drunk, and incapable of rendering much assistance had an accident happened and the heat was almost suffocating.”

So began the the first BBQ in New South Wales. Perhaps Sydney has not much changed…

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