04 May, 2020

Catholics and the First Fleet : Re-posted

The famous painting of 1937 by the artist Algernon Talmage
depicting the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove on
26th January 1788.

Image : The State Library of NSW
Every Australian knows about the First Fleet, but how it came about is a tale both interesting and awful.  White settlement in Australia was not primarily about colonising new lands for immigrants, nor to extend English geo-political influence in the Asia-Pacific region, but rather because of the need for the British government to find a solution to the over-crowding of its gaols.  English historians Alan Brooke and David Brandon help us look beyond that fact :
In order to safeguard wealth and property, [English] governments from the 16th to the 19th centuries produced a penal code which, at first glance, was of fearsome severity.  The classes that dominated Parliament used the criminal law and the creation of more and more capital offences to support a redefining of property and the purposes of government.
Brooke and Brandon Bound for Botany Bay, 2005, p.15
Throughout England but especially in London, crime rates increased when ordinary citizens had to turn to petty theft to alleviate extreme poverty. From the beginning of the 18th century, such theft was dealt with the greatest severity in a succession of new laws.  London was a violent melting-pot, awash with vagabonds, villains and organisers of crime, who readily took advantage of the poor to expand their criminal activity.  New laws pertaining to larceny, increasingly comprehensive, sought to bring expanding waves of crime under control.  Although intended to deter crime by the severity of punishment, Justice was also flexible and even merciful in 18th century England.

Contemporary illustration below deck on an 18th century prison hulk.
The convicts transported in the First Fleet would have been confined
in conditions similar to this, except that the height of these below deck cells
would have been significantly lower.

Image : National Library of Australia.
The prisons of England were unable to contain all the felons sent to them and alternative arrangements had to be found.  The settlement of North America provided the British Government with great opportunities to send its unwelcome convicts, and transportation to the Americans colonies continued, on and off, for a century. This came to an abrupt end in 1776, however, when these Colonies collectively declared their independence from Britain, and with the ensuing American Revolutionary War.  These are the years immediately prior to the First Fleet.

In 1770, Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy, in a voyage of exploration on behalf of the British Government, chartered the East coast of Australia and most of New Zealand. Of especial interest was the discovery of a coastal inlet which became known as Botany Bay, because of the wide variety of native flora found there. The name "Botany Bay" became synonymous with Australia, even though the greater continent had been known as New Holland since Dutch voyages of discovery more than a century before Captain Cook. It was also regularly referred to as New South Wales.

With some reluctance and having rejected alternatives, the Government of Prime Minister William Pitt determined in 1786 that it was expedient to establish a Penal Colony for England's felons on the far-side of the world - in Botany Bay - and ordered the preparation of a transportation Fleet by the British Home Office, the Treasury and the Royal Navy. Eleven ships comprised this First Fleet, transporting 750 convicts (more than 75% being male) to Botany Bay. They ranged from hardened and violent criminals to foolish but otherwise respectable first-offenders; but they all had fallen foul of the law. Life aboard these ships was harsh for convicts, but not significantly worse than they had experienced in English gaols and the prison hulks, the floating penitentiaries, formerly battleships of the Royal Navy. The First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787.

The practice of Religion played little part in the lives of those Transportees, except for the formalities of Divine Service required to be carried out by the Government. Aboard were adherents of the Church of England, as well various Protestant Non-Conformists, Jews and - especially of interest to readers of this blog, a significant number of Catholics : perhaps as many as 25% of the Fleet's total. An application in 1787 by Father Thomas Walsh, to provide for the spiritual needs of those Catholics by sailing with the Fleet to Australia was ignored. A young clergyman of the Church of England, the Reverend Richard Johnson, had been appointed in October 1786 to join the expedition as Chaplain. We shall discuss Mr Johnson more in a forthcoming post.

Illustration from Captain Watkin Tench's
Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789)

Image : National Library of Australia.

Historians debate whether there were particular criteria in the selection of those to be transported to Botany Bay.  It seems clear, however, that the British Government took this opportunity to create a system for ridding itself of those deemed undesirable : hardened criminals, the unskilled (as we would understand the term today), the rebellious, anti-Establishment protestants and papists (a Protestant term derogatory of Catholics) etc.

The archivist and historian James Hugh Donohoe has written :

The Catholic Church in Australia began on the River Thames in London in 1787 when some members of the First Fleet were first embarked ...  95 Irish-named convicts came in the First Fleet.  Another five came as family members, 19 as ships’ crew and 29 as marines.  …  Only 170 of the 800 Catholic convicts on the First and Second Fleets had Irish surnames : a total of 20%. … Of those likely Catholics identified by their Irish or generally Catholic surnames, most were convicted in courts located in coastal western or southern England.
Brooke and Brandon The Catholics of New South Wales 1788 - 1820, 1988, pp.1 - 4
A contemporary illustration of Sydney Cove in the months following the
arrival of the First Fleet.

Image : National Library of Australia.
It is a myth that the first Catholics in Australia were all Irish and convict and transported to Australia as political prisoners. Mr Donohoe's research reveals that the earliest Catholics in Australia - before 1791 - were largely English, or Irish resident in England. Most of these were convicts, but some were not.  No provision was made by the British Government for these Catholics.  We can only surmise, in the absence of evidence, that for those earliest Catholics, the practice of their religion was a private matter and some comfort amidst the harsh life of the new penal colony. 

A following post will discuss the practice of Religion in the early years of the NSW colony.



This article was previously published on this blog in 2019.  It is re-published as the first chapter in our serial on the foundation of the Catholicism on this continent.

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