Thursday, 9 June 2016

Sydney's Orgy Myth - 6 February 1788

All writers of history know how hard it is to swim against the tide of a conventional wisdom repeated over and over in a range of books. Once something is committed to the page, people tend to think of it as gospel.

Take for instance, that famous ‘foundation story’ of Sydney – the story of what supposedly happened on the night the female convicts of the First Fleet set foot on the shores of New South Wales, on 6 February 1788. The orgy story.

In its original form it goes like this, thanks to the transcription of pp 94-96 of the journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, on the website of the State Library of New South Wales:
abt. 6 O'Clock p.m. we had the long wish'd for pleasure of seeing the last of them
[Page 95]
leave the Ship -- They were dress'd in general very clean & some few amongst them might be sd. to be well dress'd. The Men Convicts got to them very soon after they landed, & it is beyond my abilities to give a just discription of the Scene of Debauchery & 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, lighteng. & rain I ever saw. The lighteng. was incessant during the whole night & I never heard it rain faster --
Abt. 12 o'Clock in the night one severe flash of Lightg. struck a very large tree in the centre of the Camp under wh. some places were constructed to keep the Sheep & Hogs in: it split the tree from top to bottom; kill'd 5 Sheep belonging to Major Ross & a pig of one of the Lieuts. -- The severity of the Lighteng. this & the 2 preceeding nights leaves no room to doubt but many of the trees wh. 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 wt. upon the Women quitting the Ship indeed the Capt. himself had no small reason to rejoice upon their being all safely landed &: given into the Care of the Governor, as he was under the penalty of 40£ for every Convict that was missing -- for wh. reason he comply'd wt. the Sailor's request, & abt. the time they began to be elevated, the Tempest came on -- The Scene wh. presented itself at this time & during the greater part of the night, beggars every discription; some swearing, others quarrelling others singing, not in the least regarding the Tempest, tho' so violent
[Page 96]
that the thunder shook the Ship exceeded anything I ever before had a conception of. I never before experienced so uncomfortable a night expectg. every moment the Ship wd. be struck wt. the Lighteng. -- The Sailors almost all drunk & incapable of rendering much assistance had an accident happen'd & the heat was almost suffocating.
It never occurred to me, prior to publishing my book in January 2009, to look further than that quote and the orgy story enlivening the myriad of books already published about the early days of Sydney. Accordingly, this is what I said on page 43 of my book Robert Forrester, First Fleeter. I’m glad I pretty much stuck to the original source and did not embellish it, as most other writers have done:
Within ten days of the arrival of the newcomers, Sydney’s erratic summer weather made its first dramatic statement. A violent electrical storm on Monday 4 February struck a tree and split it down the middle.[1]
Two days later, in the evening of Wednesday 6 February, another of Sydney's violent electrical storms broke. This second storm arrived on the day the women convicts were allowed on shore for the first time. The storm erupted around 7pm, about an hour after the last of the women convicts were disembarked into longboats.[2] The women had left the transports ‘dress’d in general very clean & some few amongst them might be s’d to be well dressed [but the] men convicts got to them very soon after they landed’.[3]
For all intents and purposes, the two sexes had been segregated for months, and as the men pursued the women with but one thought on their minds, the wild storm illuminated a ‘scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night’.[4] It was the most violent storm of thunder, lightning and rain ever seen by one informed spectator.[5] About midnight lightning struck another tree in the centre of the camp, splitting it from top to bottom and killing five sheep and a pig housed in a shelter below it.[6]
Recently I had the pleasure of the company of Patricia Kennedy and her husband John at the annual lunch (in Melbourne) of the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies. We don’t meet often as they live on the Central Coast of NSW and I live in Melbourne. But as descendants of First Fleeters, we have plenty to talk about when we are together. While researching her recently-published book ‘Legacy of Andrew Goodwin and Lydia Monro’ she was forced to confront an important question. Was Lydia a prostitute, as the female convicts on the First Fleet are routinely portrayed? Over lunch, Patricia alerted me to a startling idea – the orgy story is not true.

Trying to understand Lydia, Patricia delved deeply into this orgy story, about which she subsequently wrote (but has not published) a paper entitled ‘Fact or Fiction’. She referred me to the work of historian Grace Karskens (recently published online as The Myth of Sydney’s Foundational Orgy’), who says that the orgy myth was demolished years ago by historian Marian Quartly, the independent thinker from Monash University in Melbourne. When so many officers and men on the First Fleet kept journals, from Governor Arthur Phillip down to John Easty, a seaman on the Scarborough, Marian wondered why only one of them ever thought to mention such a dramatic and salacious event as an orgy. That single diarist was the surgeon responsible for the welfare of the female convicts, Arthur Bowes Smyth, who spent the night of 6 February 1788 aboard the Lady Penrhyn.

Patricia informed me that this ship was not moored in Sydney Cove but well out in the harbour, so the surgeon could not possibly have been an eye witness. His journal entry attests to swearing, quarrelling and singing aboard his ship, but not to any sounds from the shore. No women screaming. (Although such a violent storm might have frightened anyone into screaming. ) Likewise, the surgeon made no reference to drunken convicts  - because they were not drunk - they were not issued with any alcohol until June 1788, as a special treat to celebrate the King’s birthday. It was the sailors aboard his ship who were drunk.

Sigh. I try to be accurate in what I write. This small section of my Forrester book (get your copy here) will now need to be amended, should I ever produce a second edition. Thank you, Patricia Kennedy, for being an interesting and enlightening lunch companion.





[1] Easty, First Fleet Journal, p 95
[2] Smyth, Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, p 67
[3] Ibid, p 67
[4] Ibid, p 67
[5] Ibid, p 67
[6] Ibid, p 67