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1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet by David Hill

July 30, 2011

1788:  The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet – the biggest single overseas migration the world had ever seen, written by David Hill. Published by Heinemann Australia 2008Softcover, 392 pps, indexed with a chronology, bibliography and notes. Photos and charts included.

David Hill has had a successful career as Chairman and Managing Director of  the ABC, Chairman of the Australian Football Association, Chief Executive and Director of the State Railway Authority of NSW and Chairman of Sydney Water Corporation.  This is his second historical book. The first being The forgotten Children, which told the story of the children in England who were sent to Australia after World War 2, mostly without the consent of historitransportation  on the convicts, marines and officers.

Hill starts at the beginning, where he describes in great detail, the circumstances and events of life  in Georgian England,  that led to the decision to send convicts to start a new Colony in an unknown far away country.  He conveys the excitement that must have been felt by the officials behind the biggest mass migration scheme ever seen. He sets the scene of life in England at the time that transportation began and the reasons for the decision to transport the convicts to a new land.

The agonizingly long preparations for the journey are covered in great detail, along with the effect this had on the convicts, and the fear they felt at setting out on an unknown journey to the other side of the world, knowing that it was unlikely they would see their loved ones again. While waiting for the journey to begin, prisoners were being housed in ships at sea, close to land, due to the overcrowded conditions in the gaols. The conditions and hardships on these temporary prisons were also overcrowded and unhygienic, so many of the prisoners were in a poor state of health when the journey began.

We follow the First Fleet on the long  arduous voyage  of eight  months, over very rough seas  to the new unknown land.  The 11 ships that transported the convicts, marines and officers in what were atrocious, overcrowded and mostly unbearable conditions. We get to know many of the convicts with outlines of the crimes they committed and their sentences.  There were over 1500 people transported with food that was expected to last two years, along with  equipment needed to build the new Colony.

We learn more about why they took the particular route they did and their experiences at their various stop-overs enroute.  The political arguments of the day are also outlined so that we can understand the reasons for such long protracted preparations and the many delays that occurred.

The book also contains information about how Australia was settled after the arrival of the First Fleet, and the hardships, problems and deprivations that were encountered, which seemed to be insurmountable and caused much despair and conflict.  Conditions of famine, after failure of crops to survive caused rations to be continually cut, until the new arrivals were surviving on very meager starvation rations. Hill outlines the struggle for survival in the early days and years, which led to many deaths and finally to the settlement of Norfolk Island.

The Aboriginal people are not forgotten in this book. To read of the interactions of the marines and officers with the Aboriginal community in the context of today’s standards and understandings, is quite startling. However we must remember this was a different time with a different set of values.

We meet Governor Phillip and the officers who were consigned to set up and govern the new country. The insight into Governor Phillip is far more personal than any I have read previously. After reading this book, I feel I understand him more and why he chose certain actions and outcomes that are sometimes criticised.

The author has included a chronology of events surrounding the First Fleet, from 1717 until the death of Arthur Phillip in England in 1814.  Research notes are also included along with a comprehensive bibliography and suggestions for further reading.

Many text books have been written about this subject but David Hill has used diaries, manuscripts and newspaper reports from the time, along with characterization, to bring the story to life and to cause the reader to feel empathy for the convicts and those given the task of starting settlement.  This is a story of courage, tragedy, survival and the endurance of all involved. It is also a story of the short sightedness and uncaring attitude of the decision makers in the planning stages. In effect the First Fleeters were dumped in a new land and left to make the best of it and survive the best way they could.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, as I am a lover of history, with a particular interest  in the settlement of Australia. However, I was a little disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be any new information given at all.  The information in this book could be found in many of the textbooks and histories currently available.

However, the author has written in such a way that this historical tale  doesn’t read like a text book. It is written in the style of a novel, and is definitely a page turner. We meet many of the convicts and marines, and come to feel the pain they are suffering with the dreadful degradations and privations that they faced.   The reader comes to understand and feel the hardships that the convicts and first settlers faced. So for this reason I would recommend David Hill’s book as an easy read and an introduction to Australian history for the new researcher.

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