27 February 2024

Macquarie's Egalitarianism in NSW

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 382-385:

The appointment of Lachlan Macquarie as governor in January 1810 brought much needed stability and efficiency to the colonial administration. With William Bligh’s reputation reinstated, the settlers had hoped that Macquarie would follow a similar policy of assisting small farmers to increase food production in the colony. However, although Macquarie gave assurances of his support for this policy, his actions by no means matched those of the Bligh administration. The governor’s first priority was to try and heal the serious rifts still in the community, and he avoided overt favouritism, initially at least, to any particular sector. In his hands, the colony’s overall economy began to recover from the mishaps of the rebel administration.

Nevertheless, Macquarie made it clear that grain production was a priority for the government, and the free and emancipist settlers quickly understood this. Most importantly, with the removal of the New South Wales Corps from the marketplace, the financial rewards to farmers who cultivated large crops rose sharply. Fair-trading became the norm and grain prices were stable and predictable. Macquarie made sure the government civil servants and the court officials treated everyone equally, independent of their social status or occupation. His policies eventually enabled people from all sectors of the community to be promoted into important positions in the administration, and he insisted that emancipists in the community be given the same social and business opportunities as free settlers.

It was not long before Lachlan Macquarie realised that some ‘better members of society’ were excluding emancipists who had become successful through hard work and entrepreneurship from legitimate recognition in the colony. Such unjustified discrimination clashed with his Scottish and military upbringing, and he was determined that it be stamped out. As early as April 1810, Macquarie appointed the emancipist farmer-industrialist Andrew Thompson as a Justice of the Peace and Magistrate in the Hawkesbury District. Thompson was the first ex-convict to become a Magistrate, and Simeon Lord, another emancipist, was the second. Lord was appointed as Magistrate on the Sydney court benches. These appointments were strongly criticised by wealthy free settlers and civil officers, who argued such men had no place in respectable society, and that granting them positions of power would corrupt the social order. Macquarie believed these criticisms were made by people who had only recently achieved social standing in the colony and did not want this diluted by nouveau-riche emancipists.

Reverend Marsden was one of the most outspoken opponents of Macquarie’s encouragement for widespread social equality. Marsden’s views on the importance of social distinctions were in stark contrast to those of the governor, and he became a persistent critic of all aspects of the Macquarie administration. When Marsden refused to join a trustee board of which Andrew Thompson and Simeon Lord were members, Macquarie considered it an act of civil disobedience. Like Bligh, Macquarie was a military man who had little tolerance for dissent. He was hostile to those opposing his egalitarian efforts, maintaining that equality was essential to the harmony of such a diverse community.

Andrew Thompson gained wide acceptance in the community for his courage, honesty and fairness as a magistrate, and became a regular dinner guest at Government House. Unfortunately his health deteriorated rapidly following his heroic rescues in the Hawkesbury floods and he died in October 1810 at the age of 37. He was one of the colony’s wealthiest settlers with an estate worth in excess of £20,000 (over £2 million today). Thompson, who was unmarried, bequeathed a quarter of his estate to Governor Macquarie for recognising his abilities, and a quarter to his friend and fellow emancipist-magistrate Simeon Lord. The remaining half was to be equally divided between his brother, and four nephews and nieces in Scotland. Bizarrely, they never accepted the inheritance – perhaps believing that benefiting from a transported criminal’s honest earnings would taint their good name. Their refusal to benefit from Thompson’s estate is a telling example of 19th century propriety and prejudice, befitting a Charles Dickens tale. Andrew Thompson had been an honest, industrious and successful young man, of whom any family would have been proud if they had known of his achievements and good deeds.

26 February 2024

Captain Bligh's Foes and Fans

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 365, 377-381:

In one sense, the life of Bligh is a tragedy, but a tragedy in the grand manner. He was the victim of two mutinies, one at sea, the other on land. In neither case was he the victim of his own tyranny. The objective of the Bounty mutineers was immediate return to the Lotus Land of Tahiti. In the case of Bligh’s New South Wales administration, the thought of forcible rebellion was probably suggested by the fact of the prior Bounty mutiny. It is only a child who would reason that, because there were two mutinies against Bligh, he must have been guilty of conduct justifying both.


William Bligh was a blunt opinionated man who vigorously opposed anyone who disagreed with him. He had little time for the fripperies and subtleties of society; he lived by simple rules and expected others to do so as well. Despite the colony’s small size and isolation, it had strict social protocols and etiquettes, and the veteran mariner’s language and brusque manners probably shocked upper-class sensitivities. For people who knew him well, Bligh’s social crassness was more than offset by his courage, his honesty, and a generosity to those he thought deserved it. Few leaders, then or today, could rise above the indignities and pressure he had been subjected to, and fought so strongly for what he believed in. In a very real sense Australia’s egalitarian society and fair judicial system survived because of Bligh’s determined spirit. He had fought against entrenched opposition and won.


The minor penalties imposed on [Rum Rebellion leaders] Johnston and Foveaux are unlikely to have satisfied William Bligh. While the courts had clearly vindicated him and his government, the sentences imposed on the rebels were unusually light. From all accounts, Bligh shrugged off his disappointment and moved on. In 1812, Bligh was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue, and in 1814 to Vice-Admiral of the Blue. In 1812, he was invited to give advice to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transportation, and a year later was granted a full government pension. Vice-Admiral Bligh died on 7 Dec 1817, aged 63.

What can be said about the contribution of this controversial man to the fledgling colony? The Hawkesbury settlers regarded him as a person of courage and honour; a heroic fighter against what they saw as a corrupt system. He was considered ‘one of them’, who had fought for their cause and had been arrested as a consequence. Portrayals of Bligh’s character vary greatly in contemporary history, ranging from a fractious troublemaker to inspirational leader. But all assessments agree that Bligh’s actions were always honest. He strived to do the right thing by the colonialists who battled the hardest, however, he appeared unable, or unwilling, to rally the entire colony to his causes. Bligh either lacked, or undervalued, the political and diplomatic skills needed to convince the businessmen that his goals would lead to a successful prosperous colony. His blunt edicts were uncompromising, and this outraged the trading community who expected some give and take in government transactions – in any case, since Hunter’s time they were accustomed to get what they wanted. Bligh’s rigid no-compromising reforms came as a real shock, and those most effected believed they had no option but to fight against them.

In modern times, the support or damnation of the Bligh governorship seems to be divided along ideological lines. One right-wing opinion is that the rebellion ‘was caused not by rum but by the code of honour, which set out how gentlemen should behave. Governor William Blight was overthrown by the powerful people of Sydney because he was no gentleman’. Those in the opposite corner, claim that Bligh’s battles with Macarthur and the Corps were to protect the underprivileged, and to preserve democracy and equality. Overall, the latter camp appears to have many more historical facts on their side.

The commonly cited negative traits of Bligh are difficult to reconcile with our knowledge that he was a devoted family man and was considered something of a hero by most of the small farmers. Some settlers named their newborn sons after him and the use of ‘William Bligh’ or ‘Bligh’ as forenames for boys born in that era are evidence of this admiration. One example of this is William Bligh Turnbull, who was born in 1809 in Windsor, and is the ancestor of a former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull.


The earliest writings damning Bligh were written by the colony’s educated elite who supported his overthrow. The written opinions of the illiterate emancipists went largely unrecorded, but the few surviving letters and petitions show their determined support and admiration. Probably the most learned and detailed analysis of William Bligh’s governorship is that of the socialist politician, lawyer and historian, H.V. Evatt. In his book Rum Rebellion Evatt reveals that he is an unapologetic admirer of Bligh. This is not surprising. Knowledge of Evatt’s own character, and his fierce battles in the Australian Labor Party and Australian Parliament, leads one to suspect that he and Bligh would have been the very best of friends, had their lives coincided.

25 February 2024

NSW Economy Expands, c. 1800

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 328-329:

Under [Governor] King’s astute administration, the colony’s agricultural production and building construction – activities that had so impressed the French three years earlier – flourished. Sheep had been imported from Bengal in 1793 and the Cape in 1796, and these had been crossbred to produce fine wool. Coal mining, as well as whaling and sealing had become profitable enterprises. In 1805 the King George, a locally built whaling vessel owned by Simeon Lord, Henry Kable and James Underwood, was launched in Sydney. By the end of 1805 the wealth of the colony had grown to an extent that the per capita income was at least as high as in Britain. The New South Wales settlement population was now 6980 people; every third was a convict and every fourth a child. With better food more pregnancies carried to full term, and, with a lower incidence of childhood diseases, children reached adulthood in greater proportions than in England. However, the gender imbalance remained at one female to three males.

The year 1806 started badly for settlers. In March, after a week of heavy rain, the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers rose 50 ft (15 m) inundating the low-lying lands and flooding many farms, including the Ropes. Farmers, and especially Andrew Thompson and Thomas Biggers, used their boats to rescue almost 300 people from roofs, trees and straw rafts. The drowning of five people was attributed to a mistaken belief that the huge floods of 1801 could not happen again.

23 February 2024

Misrule of the NSW Corps

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 261-264:

Within a month of Governor Arthur Phillip’s departure the colonial administration regretted the absence of his steading hand. The new Lt. Governor, the 35-year-old affable and indolent Major Francis Grose of the NSW Corps, was in the colony ten months before taking up the reigns in December 1792. He quickly bowed to the demands of the NSW Corps for radical changes to the civil administration. It was not long before he gave the Corps absolute legal authority over all civil and military matters.

Between 1790 and 1791, Francis Grose had been responsible for recruiting the NSW Corps regiment in Britain and had profited from the selling officers’ commissions. The Corps was not an attractive career choice for ambitious soldiers, and the men he signed on had invariably been rejected by established regiments, or were too old for active military duty, or were past criminals, deserters or mutineers. Since the primary role of the regiment would be to police a small remote colony, it was of little or no interest to professional soldiers looking for active service. These men preferred the famous army regiments based in exotic India, where there were opportunities to become wealthy in the employ of the East India Company. In short, the NSW Corps was not considered distinguished enough for serious soldiers. However, not all Corps recruits were interested in becoming soldiers. Some realised that the NSW Corps offered an ambitious man real opportunities for rapid advancement and wealth, and indeed, this turned out to be the case.

Judge Advocate David Collins thought the way the NSW Corps had been recruited was ‘disgusting’ because the sorts of men attracted did not have the best interests of the settlement at heart. In order to provide a ‘counterpoise to the vices and crimes’ Collins expected them to be chosen from the ‘best characters’, rather than men exhibiting a ‘catalogue of our most imported vices’.


The day Grose took over the governorship of the colony, he abolished the civilian courts and transferred their magistrates to the authority of Captain Joseph Foveaux, the senior Corps officer at Parramatta. In effect this gave Corps officers legal authority over all civil and military matters. There is no evidence that Judge Advocate Collins vocally opposed these changes, but his diary entries show that he was definitely against them.

Next, Grose abolished the equal-rations-for-all policy of Phillip and replaced it with two rations. Free people, watchmen and overseers would receive a larger ration than convicts. But emancipists, who were now officially free citizens, would get the same ration as convicts. Grose had in a few days reimposed the privileges of the English class system on the young colony. He did this on the grounds that it would restore a better sense of order and rank in the settlement, and that the previous government had been overly generous to the convicts.

With his next action Grose did not attempt to hide behind the guise of good governance. In the same week Phillip departed he permitted the sale of alcohol to convicts – this had been prohibited to avoid drunkenness and disorder in the small fragile colony. Grose’s decision went further than making alcohol available, it allowed the Corps to pay for produce or convict labour in rum. The consequences of this were immediate and tragic. Collins observed that ‘the peaceful retreats of industry were for a time the seats of inebriety and consequent disorder’.

Worse was to come. Grose appointed the most opportunistic officer in the Corps, Lt. John Macarthur, as Inspector of Public Works in charge of superintendents, storekeepers, overseers and convicts at Parramatta and Toongabbie. He and other Corps officers aggressively sought to acquire the farm animals given to the emancipist settlers by Phillip. Grose thought emancipists incapable of farming and claimed their only ambition was to save enough money to return to England. The false rumour was circulated that the gifted animals were being killed and sold as meat – Grose decided that they needed to be “rescued” by the Corps. In reality, the Corps officers saw this as a way of acquiring the livestock at a low price and paying for it with rum. It is uncertain just how many sheep were purchased for two gallons of rum per head, though Registrar Atkins records that Corps Captain Foveaux in Parramatta acquired most of the livestock in the district.

22 February 2024

"Civilly Dead" Convicts Win Lawsuit

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 186-187:

In July, the convicts Henry and Susannah Kable launched the first civil action in the settlement. They sued the Master of the Alexander, Duncan Sinclair, for the loss of personal items in his charge during the voyage. These articles had been purchased in England from donations sent to them following the newspaper articles about baby Henry not being allowed to board the Dunkirk, and Sinclair had held these during the First Fleet voyage. When Henry and Susannah disembarked in Sydney Cove, most of these personal items had disappeared. The court ruled that the Kables be compensated £15.13

The importance of this trial is that Judge Advocate Collins’ ruling set the legal precedent of ignoring English common law which maintained that felons were ‘civilly dead’ if they had ever been sentenced to death. A ‘civilly dead’ person was not allowed to hold property, give evidence, make contracts or sue in court. Although [Governor] Arthur Phillip and David Collins were well aware of the English law, they had no official sentence documents to check Kable’s convict status. A large number of the convicts in the colony had been given death sentences that were later commuted to transportation, and, had the English legal interpretation been applied, they would be barred from the commercial and legal affairs of the colony. Collins’ decision to proceed with the case, and to find in favour of the Kables, cleared many legal obstacles for convicts to participate in the commercial development of New South Wales.

21 February 2024

From Convict to Emancipist to Settler

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 229-231:

In March 1791, Governor Phillip issued the first colonial grants of land in the Rose Hill district to emancipists. The granting of land to ex-convicts – known as emancipists – was of special significance to the settlement. It was the first official action confirming that this was not a penal colony. The British government had understood that the most compelling inducement for ex-convicts to remain in New South Wales was the ownership of land. A land grant not only gave them an investment in the future, but it encouraged law-abiding participation in the colony’s life and, most importantly, the farmed land contributed to food production. Without such an incentive, the Home Office believed emancipists would return to England and resume a life of crime. Governor Phillip’s commission also gave him authority to discharge convicts from servitude and to issue land grants to those ‘who shall from their good conduct and a disposition to industry, be deserving of favour’. A single man was to be granted 30 acres of land, a married man 50 acres, with an additional 10 acres for each child.

The emancipist James Ruse, the marines Robert Webb and William Reid, and ex-superintendent of convicts, Philip Schaffer, were the first men to receive land grants. Ruse received 30 acres and the marines 60 acres each. Schafer was a German who had found his command of the English language inadequate to perform his duties, and he preferred to settle as a farmer rather than return to Europe. As an ex-superintendent his entitlement for a land grant was 140 acres.

The land grant to James Ruse is worthy of special mention, as he was the first convict in the colony to receive one. When his term expired in August 1789 Ruse asked for his release and a land grant to become a farmer. Although Phillip was unable to verify his sentence length, he decided to help Ruse in order to ascertain how quickly an industrious man could support himself as a settler. With this in mind, in November 1789, Phillip ordered a hut to be built for Ruse on the 30-acre Experiment Farm near Rose Hill.

By February 1791 Ruse was self-sufficient and no longer needed government rations. Because of this, he was given the title deed to the land. Ruse’s success led Phillip to seek other energetic men and families in the Rose Hill area who could become productive and eventually go off-rations. Even prior to receiving the official sentencing records in July 1791, Phillip planned to let other convicts, who claimed their term had expired, become independent settlers.

19 February 2024

Australian Convict Fecundity, 1790s

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 227-228:

In early 1791, Rose Hill [now Parramatta] had a population of about 550 people but only 16 children. This meant that the young received extra attention from everyone and were often spoilt. Many convicts had left families behind in England, so seeing small children brought them both sadness and joy. The First Fleet arrived in January 1788 with only 54 children on board. Over 80% of the transported females were of childbearing age, between 15 and 45 years, so it is not surprising that a further 59 children were born to the colony by February 1790. Child numbers surged with the arrival of later fleets, and by the end of 1791 there were 249 (half below the age of 2) in the colony, and 39 of them lived in Rose Hill.

Because of the supposedly low food intake of convict women, the high birth rates in the early years of settlement have puzzled historians and medical scientists. One explanation for the high fecundity is that the atrocious diets in English gaols had kept the women’s body weight below that needed for fertility, whereas the adequate rations aboard the transport ships and at the settlement had reversed this. The prompt conception of baby Robert Rope was evidence of Elizabeth’s robust health when she stepped from the Prince of Wales in January 1788.

Concomitantly, during the colony’s “hunger years” (1789-1790), one might have expected female fertility in the settlement to drop. Diaries and letters from the first two years of the colony show that the above average birth-rate surprised the government administration. Watkin Tench credits this to the healthy climate:

I ascribe the great number of births which happened, considering the age and other circumstances, of many of the mothers. Women who certainly would never have bred in any other climate here produced as fine children as ever were born.

The Surgeon’s Mate [name unknown] on HMS Sirius wrote ‘Our births have far exceeded our burials; and what is very remarkable, women who were supposed past child-bearing, and others who had not been pregnant for fifteen or sixteen years, have lately become mothers’. And marine John Nicol, from the Second Fleet, was astonished that ‘old women’ had new-born babies, ‘There was an old female convict, her hair quite grey with age, her face shrivelled, who was suckling a child she had born in the colony. Every one went to see her, and I among the rest. It was a strange sight, her hair was quite white. Her fecundity was ascribed to the sweet tea’. Of course, the stress of prison life and punishments made some convicts look prematurely old – grey or white hair was not really a gauge of age.

17 February 2024

Australia's Second Fleet of Convicts

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 214-216:

By evening, the Lady Juliana had safely anchored inside Port Jackson, and soon the much-needed food supplies, plus almost three-years of news and letters, were off loaded. The cargo included clothing for marines, medicine, sails and cordage, wine, blankets, bedding for the hospital, tools and agricultural equipment. There were also textiles for convict clothing. After years of stinting and salvaging, it would be possible to make new clothing. The old clothing would not be thrown away; it was be used for other purposes and children’s clothes.

The choppy harbour water prevented the female convicts on the Lady Juliana from disembarking until June 6th [1790]. Two days prior to this, the Royal Birthday had been a double celebration. The settlement had its first full ration for many months and news of King George III’s improved health was an added reason to celebrate. For the starving colony this was a joyous day, and, with news that other ships would soon follow, there was renewed optimism in the settlement. In keeping with the tradition for the King’s birthday, the governor pardoned gaoled prisoners and those with corporal punishment pending. Samuel Day, Anthony’s friend, who had been punished for attacking Aborigines, was freed from his fetters.

Regrettably, the food provisions from the Lady Juliana proved much less than expected, and the ship’s contingent had added more mouths to feed. It quickly became evident that the new food supplies would not support the colony for long, and only 1½ lb of flour was added to the weekly rations. This was disappointing, but better than nothing. On June 9th, all work was suspended so that residents could attend a commemorative church service in which Reverend Johnson gave prayers for King George’s further recovery from illness.

A week later, the outpost at South Head signalled the arrival of another ship. It was the cargo ship Justinian and, excitingly, its cargo comprised only foodstuffs. Phillip promptly announced that a full ration would now be issued, and the normal working hours for convicts were to be restored. The last three transport ships of the Second Fleet, the Neptune, the Surprize and the Scarborough arrived at the end of June. Apart from the Lady Juliana, on which only three women had died, the convicts aboard the Second Fleet ships had been treated terribly. Of the 1095 convicts (1006 male and 89 female) embarked on the Second Fleet in Portsmouth, 256 males and 11 females had died. This was a death rate of 24%, compared to a 2% death rate on the First Fleet. Convicts even died while being rowed ashore in Sydney; 486 convicts landed sick, and of those 124 later died. The treatment of convicts on the privately run Second Fleet was the worst recorded in the history of transportation to Australia.

David Collins was disgusted at the condition of the convicts and wrote ‘both the living and the dead exhibiting more horrid spectacles than had ever been witnessed in this country’. Watkin Tench demanded that the English government act immediately to prevent any reoccurrence, stating ‘No doubt can be entertained that a humane and liberal government will interpose its authority to prevent the repetition of such flagitious conduct’.

[Governor] Phillip was appalled at the scenes of misery aboard the Second Fleet ships and protested strongly to the masters. He informed them that he would report officially to the Home Office in London about their treatment of convicts. He wrote that the main reason for the high death rate was the gross neglect of prisoners’ welfare by the private contractors, who were being paid for the number of convicts embarking, not for the number delivered alive. The ship’s contractors had previously been involved in slave transportation to America and this was abundantly evident. The transports were overcrowded with convicts chained together and rarely allowed on deck to exercise. Although the ships carried adequate food supplies, convict rations had been kept small so that the excess food could be sold in ports for profit.

Absurdly, the officers responsible for guarding the convicts had no authority over a ship’s master and could not intervene even when they saw convicts being mistreated. Phillip was furious at these reports and tried to have the ships’ owners prosecuted. When his report on the Second Fleet’s mortality rates finally reached England, the public was made aware of the horrors of the voyage. The master of the Neptune was charged with wilful murder but was acquitted. However, the damning reports submitted to the Home Office brought a swift response from the British government, and later fleets were more closely scrutinised.

The arrival of Second Fleet convicts caused immediate problems for the colony. The hundreds of sick men placed a strain on the small hospital and medical resources. The ships also landed 100 convicts who, because of old age or chronic illness, could not work. Phillip later complained to the Home Office that the hulks and gaols in England seem to have retained the healthy prisoners and transported the sick. If this practise were to continue, the colony would be a burden to the mother country for years.

15 February 2024

Australia's "Foundational Orgy" Myth

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 155-157:

Paradoxically that first stormy night ashore for the females, February 6th, has been depicted in some early historical narratives as a drunken orgy. There is little evidence to support this description. There is no doubt that some males welcomed the females ashore, presumably, while the marine guards were sheltering in their tents from the storm. Whether these were convicts, marines or seamen, or some of each, is not known. A gathering took place and little else is reliably recorded.

A gathering took place and little else is reliably recorded. Surgeon Smyth, safe aboard the Lady Penrhyn in the harbour, later wrote about the female convicts on their first stormy night ashore.


Since Smyth was on his ship in the harbour, his account must have been second-hand scuttlebutt and is likely to be highly exaggerated. Nevertheless, some modern-day descriptions of this party, based on his diary entry, refer to it as a drunken orgy with convict couples rolling around in Sydney Cove’s red mud. Such accounts are bogus as there is no evidence of such behaviour, and no red mud exists anywhere near the cove. Moreover, the convict men had no access to alcohol. There were drunken sailors aboard Surgeon Smyth’s ship because they had been given extra grog to celebrate the offloading of the convicts. Significantly, no other diarist, except the remotely located Smyth, mentions bad behaviour that night. If anything as licentious as this had happened in the settlement, Ralph Clark would have recorded it. Clark’s diary entry on February 7th, details the storm and the farm animals ‘Kild six Sheep 2 Labms and one Pigg belonging to Major Ross’ but there is no mention of female misdemeanours on that day, or for several days thereafter.

Historian Grace Karskens, writing about the night of February 6th, claims ‘the orgy never happened’ and debunks the orgy myth:

… it turns out that the orgy story dates, not from 1788, but from 1963, when the historian Manning Clark included it as ‘a drunken spree’ fuelled by ‘extra rations of rum’ in his Short History of Australia. After he re-read the sources properly, he quickly recanted. But it was too late, the story was out. …… And with every retelling it just got raunchier. Robert Hughes was the originator of the modern version of the legend, for in The Fatal Shore (1987) he sites the action in the Rocks, with the lightning of a ferocious Sydney storm revealing couples bestially ‘rutting’ in the ‘red clay’ (there is no red clay in Sydney Cove). And in Hughes’s version the sex wasn’t consensual: ‘the women floundered to and fro, draggled as muddy chickens under a pump, pursued by male convicts intent on raping them’.

Karskens points out that the Zoologist Tim Flannery retells the orgy myth in his book The Birth of Sydney and Peter FitzSimons gives it another spin in the Sydney Magazine in 2005. Many histories of Sydney and early colonial Australia routinely include the orgy story. It has even been re-enacted for television as the documentary drama The Floating Brothel, and as a collection of comically shaking tents at the Botanic Gardens in Tony Robertson Explores Australia.

The “foundational orgy” claim has no credibility, and it is absurdly unjust to label women as promiscuous sluts and men as rapists, when there is no written evidence of non-consensual sex. Only one aspect of that stormy night is certain: those who met up were celebrating their first taste of freedom in months and had probably sought out each other’s company. This would have been a natural thing to do. It is demeaning and absurdly high-handed to assume that the convicts were disrespectful of each other, or that they were unaware of social norms.

14 February 2024

First Fleet Commander & Governor

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 72-75:

In early September 1786, Captain Arthur Phillip was officially commissioned to become the governor of the colony in New South Wales. This would prove to be an excellent choice; Phillip was a veteran mariner with vision and humility and had enlightened views on equality. Support for Phillip’s appointment had not been unanimous. On 3 Sep 1787, Lord Howe wrote to Lord Sydney ‘I cannot say the little knowledge I have of Captain Philips [sic] would have led me to select him for a service of this complicated nature’. Arthur Phillip is certainly not the focus of this story but his importance to the ultimate success of the First Fleet and the New South Wales settlement cannot be overstated. Because of this, a short overview of his career is warranted.

Excellent biographies of Arthur Phillip’s life have been published. Michael Pembroke writes ‘He was a man with a good head, a good heart, lots of pluck, and plenty of common sense. To those qualities he brought an uncommon amount of integrity, intelligence and persistence’. As an experienced sea captain, Phillip appreciated the dangers of the voyage ahead and from his time as a farmer he knew that establishing a new settlement would be challenging. He had progressed through the ranks of the Royal Navy from Ordinary Seaman to Post Captain mostly by merit and had held numerous important commands during his long naval career.

Like the great maritime navigator and explorer James Cook, Arthur Phillip had risen to some eminence from quite unprivileged beginnings.


In April 1787, Captain Phillip received details of his commission as Governor of New South Wales. They included the authority to establish a new settlement at Botany Bay. Somewhat controversially Phillip was ordered to govern the colony alone, without a council. Much later, during the establishment of the settlement, some officers questioned the extent of the powers granted to Phillip. Arthur Bowes Smyth, the Fleet Surgeon, observed that Phillip’s commission was ‘a more unlimited one than was ever before granted to any Governor under the British Crown’. This concern was understandable. Although the governor was subject to the rule of British law, he had been given the power to appoint justices and officers of the law, to raise an army, to erect fortifications and to exercise sovereign naval powers. Phillip also had full authority to pardon and reprieve, either absolutely or conditionally, according to the seriousness of the crimes, and, most importantly, to make land grants to emancipated convicts. Matters of particular concern for Phillip with his commission were the rights and official status of transportees. He had been appalled by the slavery he had seen in South America and Africa, and he was determined that New South Wales not be another convict slave colony.

13 February 2024

Who Were the First Fleet Convicts

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 26-27:

The majority of convicts transported on the First Fleet were poor illiterate males, younger than 30, and a high proportion of these came from the rural areas of England. It was here that poverty and unemployment was rampant, and, in the absence of any form of social or government support, men stole to keep themselves and their families alive. In the countryside, part-time magistrates, who were mostly landed gentry, sentenced the rural youth to death, prison and transportation for trivial offences – even for leaving their workplace without permission wearing servants’ clothing. Not all offenders were rural, but many of the crimes committed in London (Middlesex) districts were country youths who had migrated there in search of work and food. The enclosure laws and the industrial manufacture of textiles had destroyed the livelihoods of the small farmers, agricultural labourers and many others in small villages. It was here that the full impact of land aggregation and industrialisation was most severely felt. Without work or social support, these people were destitute. The brutal reality of the mid to late 18th century was that starving workers with no prospect of employment had no other choice but to become a felon.

This story explores the lives of young men and women who were transported to Australia for relatively petty felonies. In particular it will trace the history of two young rural workers, Anthony Rope and Elizabeth Pulley, who lived through these tumultuous times. We shall see that their punishment for stealing was incarceration and, eventually, transportation as convicts on the First Fleet. Both came from small villages in Norfolk, but they did not know each other until they reached New South Wales. The story is not specifically about them however, their lives are typical of the convicts sent to establish a new colony on the continent that would eventually become Australia. Their individual stories replicate, in so many ways, those of mostly illiterate and underprivileged workers who were transported to the Ends of the Earth for stealing to prevent starvation.

12 February 2024

New Sites for Convict Colonies

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 63-67:

Between 1783 and 1786, three different sites for convict colonies were under consideration – in Senegal, on the Gold Coast of Africa and in New South Wales on the east coast of New Holland. In December 1784, an exploratory expedition to transport convicts to Lemain Island, 700 km up the river Gambia in Senegal, was put forward. Following strong public and parliamentary criticism, the Lemain project was abandoned because of the region’s unsuitable climate. In May 1785, James Matra once again testified before a committee enquiring specifically into the suitability of Botany Bay as a penal colony. Even at this late stage, the committee was not prepared to rule out the free colonisation of this site. Despite much testimony in favour of a New Holland location, the majority of the committee believed that an African site would be more practical. In parallel with committee’s enquiries, the government was independently exploring various settlement options. The Home Office was increasingly anxious at the burgeoning number of transportees in prisons and Lord Sydney and Evan Nepean, thought that closer sites in Africa could be settled sooner.

The strain on the prison system by the end of 1785 was so great that additional naval ships had to be converted into prison hulks. The hulk Fortunée was moored at Portsmouth and the Dunkirk at Plymouth. The political and public pressure on the government was intense, and the Home Office commissioned a ship to explore possible locations on the west coast of Africa between Das Voltas (Orange River) and Angola. This expedition returned in July 1786 and reported that the soil in the Das Voltas was not suitable for cultivation. This report effectively ended any further consideration of Africa as a place for a British convict settlement.


The often-cited belief that Botany Bay was planned solely as a dumping ground for convicts is unsupported by available documents. It may have been the main objective, but there is clear evidence the Pitt government saw tangible benefits in establishing commercial bases in the South Pacific. At the time, Britain was embroiled in conflicts with France, Spain and America, so there were also strategic reasons for establishing a territorial claim on the continent. Nevertheless, the endless debates on whether New South Wales was suitable suggests a begrudging recognition by the Tory government that this was a good locality – it was just a pity one had to go so far to dispose of the convicts, and to achieve these objectives.

Early assessments of the Botany Bay Scheme logistics by the Home Office appreciated that it would be quite different to sending convicts to America, which had been privately financed and organised. The Botany Bay Scheme would be administered by the government, transported by the Royal Navy and guarded by Royal Marines. This enterprise had no precedent in previous British convict transportations. The government, rather than private merchants, would be involved in convict transportation on a scale that they had never before attempted.

In August 1786, Lord Sydney informed the Admiralty of what he needed to transport 750 convicts to Botany Bay. He requested a naval warship that would escort and protect transport ships carrying the convicts and 160 marines as guards to the new settlement. The marines would be responsible to the Home Office for a term of three years.

11 February 2024

Colonial American Convict Labor

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 19-21:

A brief overview of earlier British convict transportation practices is relevant here. In 1717, the British Parliament passed the Act for the Further Preventing Robbery, Burglary, and Other Felonies, and for the More Effective Transportation of Felons, etc. (4 Geo. I cap. XI), which established penal transportation to America with a seven-year convict bond service for minor offenders, and a fourteen-year convict bond service for more serious crimes. Between 1718 and 1775 an estimated 50,000 convicts were transported to the British-American colonies. This represented about a quarter of all British migrants to the North American colonies at a time when they were desperately short of labour. The American colonists saw convict transportation as beneficial socially, politically and economically. It disposed of minor criminals at a cost that was less than gaoling them and a boon to the colonies by providing cheap labour. This was, in effect, and indeed in fact, a slave trade under a different guise. From its inception, transportation to the American colonies was a private business enterprise. Shipping contractors managed the movement of the convicts, obtained contracts from the sheriffs and in the colonies recouped their costs by selling the prisoners at auctions. Colonists would buy a convict as an indentured servant for the duration of their sentence. During an indenture the living and working conditions imposed on convicts differed little from those of slaves.

However, by the mid 18th century, convict labour had become less attractive to American colonialists and, moreover, in the 1770s the prospect of antislavery laws in England spelled the end of this practice. Maryland was the last colony to accept convicts and by 1775 the American Revolutionary War ended the trade of imported British goods and convicts. On 11 Jan 1776, the London Gazetteer reported ‘there will be no more convicts sent to America whilst the country remains unsettled.’ The article suggested that transportation would resume just as soon as peace was restored. This never took place.

With the loss of the American colonies, the systematic disposal of convicts to places beyond the seas came to a halt. Nevertheless, most judges consistently refused to apply capital punishment to relatively minor crimes and, where it was applied, capital sentences were often commuted to transportation. Consequently, the land gaols in the 1770s and 1780s overflowed with prisoners awaiting the imposition of a sentence that could not be enacted and, importantly, could not be altered. It was a serious judicial stalemate.

10 February 2024

New Wealth in Britain, 1700s

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 13-15:

The 18th century in England was a time of enormous social, economic and political change. There were a multitude of reasons for these upheavals, but the principal ones were the all-embracing industrial and agrarian revolutions. These dramatically altered the lives of both urban and rural working classes by eroding traditional employment opportunities, and, ultimately, decimating the cottage-based industries. These changes took place when Britain’s colonial empire, along with its African slave trade, was burgeoning, but they also occurred in a period of major military conflicts with France, Spain and the American colonies. The burgeoning growth in international trade and commodity markets at the time contributed significantly to the overall wealth of the mercantile classes but, in most respects, it reduced the opportunities and living standards of unskilled and illiterate workers.

The advent of new industrial and transportation technologies proved a major factor in Britain’s increasing mercantile success. John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle in 1733 and the carding machine in 1754 accelerated cloth weaving and were the forerunners of innovations that ultimately led to the complete automation of textile manufacturing. James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny in 1765; Matthew Boulton and James Watt began producing steam engines for factories in 1774. By 1780, the combination of Hargreaves’ inventions, Richard Arkwright’s water frame, and the increased access to canals linking major population centres, made Britain a world leader in the manufacture of high quality textiles.

These industrial advances increased the prosperity, sophistication and leisure pursuits of the British upper and middle classes of society and provided the intellectual environment for the appreciation of progressive social concepts, including the abolition of slavery. The mid 18th century in Britain was a time of far-reaching intellectual advances in scientific knowledge, politics and philosophy and is commonly referred to as the Age of Enlightenment and Science. The outspoken views of William Wilberforce, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Benjamin Franklin and many others, were discussed within literate and political circles and became catalysts for significant shifts in the social attitudes of the educated. The tolerant views of King George III cultivated a relatively liberal approach to social mobility and political change. George III suffered from bouts of porphyria during his 50-year reign but for most of this time he remained politically astute and active.

Era of Petty Capital Crimes, mid 1700s

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 17-19:

By mid-century the fear that increasing crime rates would lead to widespread social disruption spawned new penalties intended to discourage property theft. The legal imperatives for these were bolstered by a growing concern about the civil insurrection in France, especially after the French Revolution took place in 1789. The British Parliament passed bills reclassifying many petty crimes as capital offences (to which the death sentence applies). Capital crimes now included burglary, highway-robbery, house-breaking in daytime, private stealing or picking pockets above 1 shilling, shoplifting above 5 shillings, stealing above 40 shillings, maiming or stealing a cow, horse or sheep, or breaking into a house or church. The official punishment for these offences was now the same as for murder and treason – death by hanging.

Quite unfairly the new laws came into effect rapidly and were little understood by the poor, of whom 90% were illiterate. Consequently, the severity of the changes went largely unappreciated by the working class, which Thomas Paine – author of The Rights of Man – claimed was intentional to disadvantage the poor. Other enlightened members of English society, including the judiciary, strongly opposed the imposition of the new capital sentences for minor offences and this became a cause célèbre for many social reformers; the same people advocating for the abolition of the slave trade in the 1770s.

Mercifully, there were several ad hoc legal options available to those members of the judiciary who were inclined to avoid the imposition of a capital sentence. The legal loopholes were not recognised officially, but they were commonly applied, nonetheless. In particular, juries could be encouraged to apply pious perjury in assessing the severity of an offence when a prisoner was charged with a minor property or financial crime. Such actions permitted judges to assign imprisonment by transportation rather than the death sentence. For example, a court clerk could routinely understate the value of stolen property on the charge sheet in order that it was below the capital offence threshold.

In fact, the widespread application of judicial leniency in the late 1700s meant that transportation beyond the seas became the de facto sentence imposed by courts for minor crimes. Relaxation of the capital sentencing laws was tolerated because a sentence of transportation satisfied the political imperative of removing petty lawbreakers from decent society. Ironically, the lenient judicial practices posed a new problem for the prison system in England; where were all these transported prisoners to go? After 1775, the American Colonies no longer accepted transportees and there was no other offshore prison to send them to.

09 February 2024

New Poverty in Britain, 1700s

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 15-17:

The rapid increase in national prosperity and liberal attitudes did not reward everyone in Britain. The upper echelon of society – the landed gentry and mercantile classes – profited but there were far fewer benefits for the rest. The prospects for rural workers were further damaged by legally enforceable changes to land-management practices. At the start of the 18th century, tenant farmers had small leaseholds to grow cereal crops and those with sheep and cattle were allowed to graze on the common land. This provided a basic subsistence living that supported many rural families: freehold and tenant farmers, cottagers, squatters and farm labourers. In effect, the traditional communal sharing of land allowed the ‘humblest and poorest labourer to rise in the village’. This basic agrarian lifestyle had existed since feudal times, and it was how most of England’s country population survived. The mostly illiterate rural poor were largely unaware of the changes that were soon to disrupt their traditional livelihood.

Agricultural land practices altered dramatically in 1710 when laws permitting major landholders to fence off farming lands were enacted, thus restricting their communal use. Successive changes to the Enclosure Act (Inclosure Act) led to the consolidation of small farms into larger estates. This encouraged more efficient farming practices but seriously reduced the earnings of rural villages and small freehold farmers. It also meant that there was much less need for agricultural labour. The new laws reduced the income and food-producing capacity of farmers who did not own land. Large numbers of rural labourers and their families, most of whom had for many generations scrounged a meagre living as small tenant farmers became destitute. Some moved to towns hoping for work in the industrialised textile factories, but they usually discovered that the machine-based industries offered little opportunity for unskilled labourers. As a consequence, unemployment, poverty and hunger became commonplace in many parts of rural and urban Britain by the mid-18th century.

Although the full impact of the Enclosure Act was not felt until the 19th century, by 1760 up to 40% land in Norfolk County had been enclosed. By the 1780s life for the poor in rural Norfolk, where both Anthony and Elizabeth lived, became a bleak struggle for survival. There was little or no social assistance for the unemployed, and many poor people stole to feed their families. The disparity between the rich and poor at that time was seen in the spending by the wealthy on “fad foods” such as tea and sugar. It was claimed that ‘as much superfluous money is expended on tea, sugar, etc as would maintain four millions more of subjects in BREAD’.

It is difficult today to fully appreciate the gulf that existed between the gentry and the working classes in Britain up until the 20th century. The famous author Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived in England at the same time as Elizabeth and Anthony. Jane’s father was a country pastor, and this meant that the Austen family was of ‘modest means’ and were even considered poor by their relatives. But because they were educated and well connected, all of the Austen family members were able to forge successful careers. Nevertheless, for this enlightened Christian family their social separation from the lower classes ‘remained absolute and unquestioned; both sides believed that God had arranged the system’. The stark reality of the 18th century was that the upper and lower classes lived in separate worlds – one full of privilege, education, smart clothing, witty theatre, coaches, glamorous balls, parties and opportunity – the other full of deprivation, hard work, poor housing, illiteracy, poverty and frequent hunger. These two worlds rarely intersected, and when they did it was only if advantageous to the gentry; usually when cheap labour or rent income was needed. To the majority of the privileged classes the poor remained nameless beings invisible in their daily lives, even when present in their houses as servants. Consequently, the wealthy had scant concern for their wellbeing. The common belief was that the working classes existed because it was God’s Will, and they deserved to be where they were. This was an unrelentingly hard and miserable time to be poor.

06 February 2024

Rooting Out Nazis in 1946 Germany

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 236-238:

The Spruchkammer tribunals were mocked for a good reason. They served mainly to whitewash suspect characters who needed certificates of good character, notoriously labelled Persilschein – after the washing powder Persil – to show they were ‘whiter than white, with all brown [Nazi] stains removed.’ The initial problem was to find anyone in the legal profession who was not themselves compromised – 90 per cent of German lawyers had been Nazi Party members. In Hamburg at the end of the war, every judge was a member of either the Party or an affiliated organisation. It was a dilemma that would never be resolved. So Nazi judges tried cases of Nazi crimes – including those jurists who had sent people to the gallows for ‘crimes’ that, until Hitler came to power, had not been offences, such as sexual relations between Jews and Christians. In the American zone not a single judge was removed from the bench after the war.

The majority of the police were Nazis, too, which ought to have prevented their involvement in such cases, but did not. Kurt Schumacher, the leader of the SDP, had been assigned a five-man police guard by the British Occupation forces, who had assured him that the police force had been ‘cleared of Nazis’. But on 15 May 1946 he angrily wrote to British officials to say that, after overhearing his bodyguards chatting, he found that four out of the five had been in the SS. He was also profoundly shocked to learn that the British had just appointed a notorious SS man, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Shult, as head of the police in the British zone. An Allied Control Commission report to the British Foreign Office explained: ‘It is fairly clear that if the denazification of the police is carried to extremes there would be no police force left. With conditions…[in Germany] as they are it would perhaps seem that the essential thing is to have a reliable police force and this cannot be achieved without some sense of security…The need is…[to] terminate the process of denazification at some stage for these reasons…We will surely still need the police as an instrument of military government.’ In an apparently seamless transition, many senior officers kept their jobs, among them Wilhelm Hauser, Chief of Police in the Rhineland-Palatinate, who, when he was an SS officer in Byelorussia, had been responsible for countless wartime atrocities.

No German institution was entirely ‘cleansed’. Brown stains remained everywhere. More than three-quarters of university professors had been Party members, and even those who briefly lost their jobs were reinstated. Dr Hans Preuss, Dean of the Theology Department at one of Germany’s foremost universities, Erlangen, in Nuremberg, was a fervent Nazi who, in the 1930s had organised the burning of books in the university’s library written by Jews or Marxists. Preuss was sacked in the summer of 1945 but got his job back the following year. Around two-thirds of Germany’s teachers had been Nazis, and at the gymnasia, the best secondary schools, the figure was higher. Thousands had been fired in the three or four months after the end of the war. In 1946, 90 per cent of them were reinstated. The British poet Stephen Spender, then a civil servant, who had been despatched early in the year to report on education in the British Occupation zone, could see why. Visiting a school in Hamburg, he asked the children what they were studying. ‘Latin and biology,’ they said. ‘Nothing else?’ I asked. ‘No, sir. You see the history, geography, English and mathematics teachers have all been fired.’

Many of the clergy, regardless of denomination, had also been Party members. After the sacking of numerous German civil servants, the Lutheran Bishop of Württemberg, Theophil Wurm, preached that they had suffered too much and were the victims ‘of extremely skilful propaganda…[most] had joined the Party thinking of the public welfare. They did not identify themselves with the regime.’ He was perhaps also thinking of himself. He had joined the Nazi Party in 1933, arguing that he had done so ‘in good faith…believing it could produce a religious revival,’ though he later began to oppose the regime and was removed from his bishopric. The American Religious Affairs Division of the Occupation reported to Clay that it knew of 351 active clergy in the American sector. Of these, only three were defrocked. In the summer of 1946 the Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg, Conrad Gröber, nicknamed ‘Brown Conrad’ because of his fervent support for the Nazis, issued a pastoral letter to his flock in which he blamed the rise of Hitler on ‘secularism’, neatly absolving the Church and the people from responsibility for what had happened over the last dozen years.

05 February 2024

Dilemma of Imperial India in 1946

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 212-214:

For [Viceroy] Wavell, a respected general with a reflective mind – his collection Other Men’s Flowers is one of the most entertaining of all English verse anthologies – Britain ‘made an entirely wrong turn in India twenty-five years ago.’ He thought that if the Indians had been seriously offered the kind of Dominion status within the Commonwealth that ‘white’ territories such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa had obtained around the time of the First World War, there would have been a good chance of keeping India united. In the early 1930s Gandhi and other Congress leaders went to London for talks and were assured that soon India would gain a kind of self-government – but not yet. No date was given, and all goodwill with the nationalists was lost when in 1939 Wavell’s predecessor, Lord Linlithgow, declared war on Germany ‘on behalf of India’ without consulting any Indians at all. The Australian and Canadian governments, for example, were asked beforehand and made the decision for themselves. The British expected a million Indians to fight against the Germans.

Nehru, who loathed fascism and the Nazis rather more than some of Britain’s ruling elite did, said that it was hard for the people of India to fight for the freedom of Poland when they themselves were under foreign occupation. ‘If Britain fought for democracy she should…end imperialism in her own possessions and establish full democracy in India. A free and independent India would gladly co-operate…with other free nations for mutual defence against aggression.’

The British establishment tended to believe the dictum of the most magnificent of all the imperial grandees sent to oversee the smooth running of the empire: Lord Curzon. As Viceroy at the turn of the century, Curzon had declared, ‘As long as we rule in India we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straightaway to a third rate power…The rest is redundant.’ Few believed this as instinctively as did Winston Churchill, the most romantic of imperialists, who had battled all his political life to maintain British rule in India. Yet Churchill probably did as much as anyone to hasten its end.

When he was Prime Minister he had no intention of ever giving up the Jewel in the Crown. He told the War Cabinet that even if he was forced by the Indian nationalists into making some concessions, ‘I would feel under no obligation to honour promises made at a time of difficulty.’

Churchill regarded any notion of Britain leaving India, or even India being granted Dominion status, as ‘criminally mischievous’. He retained the sentimental attachment to the idea of the Raj that he had held as a junior cavalry officer on the North-West frontier in the 1890s. Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India during the war, said, ‘Winston knew as much about India as George III did of the American colonies…He reacts instinctively and passionately against any government for India other than the one he knew forty years ago.’

04 February 2024

Tito vs. Stalin in Greece, 1946

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 258-259:

One country, however, did want to help the Greek communists. Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito began sending large quantities of weapons and money to the Greek Left – partly out of zeal to help comrades in need, but also to assert an independent line, what he called ‘a national route to Socialism’ – heresy in Stalin’s eyes. Tito, who had been in Moscow exile for years in the 1930s, had in many ways modelled himself on the dictator in the Kremlin. Already he had established a terrifying secret police force, the OGPI, led by the thuggish Ante Ranković, which had murdered thousands of opponents. Stalin distrusted the Yugoslav dictator, who he told Beria and Molotov was too ‘ambitious, too ardent and full of zeal’. In Eastern Europe only Yugoslavia had liberated itself, albeit with money and weapons from the Russians and Britain – but without the need of Soviet troops. Tito resented being ordered around by Moscow, as he told his cronies in comments that he knew would get back to the Kremlin. He had ambitions to be the most powerful communist in the Balkans, which would give him a big power base. Tito resented the Soviet Union’s interference in Yugoslavia’s territorial demands. For months after the war the Yugoslavs had laid claim to Trieste, and thousands of partisans surrounded the city, but the British insisted that it must remain under Italian sovereignty. Tito continued to protest and threatened a full-scale invasion. Finally, the Soviets ordered him to give up his claims on Trieste and grudgingly he agreed, though he could not hide his frustration. He said he did not want to be ‘small change in the politics of the Great Powers’.

Stalin now instructed the Yugoslavs to stop aiding the Greeks. He told two senior officials from Belgrade, Milovan Djilas and Edward Kardelj, that the insurgents in Greece ‘have no prospect of success whatsoever. What, do you think that Great Britain and the United States – the most powerful state in the world – will permit you to break their lines of communication in the Mediterranean? Nonsense. The uprising in Greece must stop, and as quickly as possible.’

But Tito defied the Russians. He continued sending arms to the Greek communists, in increased quantities. The consequences were soon dire for hundreds of thousands of loyal communists throughout the Soviet domains. It was the first sign of the spectacular Soviet–Yugoslav split which would dominate Eastern Europe over the coming few years – and the seeds were sown for a mass Stalinist purge throughout the ‘socialist camp’. Alleged Titoists would be murdered and tortured in Eastern Europe, as ‘Trotskyites’ had been in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Again the Bolsheviks devoured their own children in an orgy of bloodshed. In Greece, the fighting would continue until 1949, leaving more than a hundred thousand dead, around one million homeless – and would increasingly turn into a front line in the Cold War conflict between East and West.

03 February 2024

Japan's No. 1 Problem in 1946

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 102-104:

Amidst the rubble of the cities, one of the saddest sights was that of orphaned children with white boxes hanging around their necks. The boxes contained the ashes of their relatives. In some cities, more than a quarter of the population was homeless – with a mass influx returning home from the front. More than five million Japanese were repatriated in the eighteen months after the war. Around 80 per cent were soldiers and the rest were colonists and their families from the empire Japan had conquered but had now lost. They were seldom welcomed back with open arms. Soldiers, in particular, were widely despised – and this in a country where propaganda, and long tradition, had conditioned its people to hold officers and men from the Imperial Army as the fount of all honour. ‘We were not invincible, as we had been told by our superiors,’ one officer recalled wearily, many years later. ‘The big shock was coming home and being shunned. People did not look us in the face.’ Army and people together were not ‘a hundred million hearts beating as one’, as the military mantra went. The people now regarded soldiers not as returning heroes but as discredited failures, and treated them as pariahs. But it was not only that the military had failed lamentably in its mission and left the country starving and ruined: since the defeat, the public had also been inundated with information about the atrocities Japanese soldiers had committed in China, the Philippines, Korea, Indonesia, and South-East Asia. Japan had been dishonoured in the eyes of its own people, for which the Japanese blamed their own soldiers.

But in the immediate aftermath of defeat questions of honour took second place. For at least the next two years food remained the biggest issue for most Japanese. Much of Japan had gone hungry long before the surrender. Shortages had been acute since the fortunes of war had turned in favour of the Western Allies and by the end of 1944 the majority of Japanese were malnourished. South Korea and Formosa (Taiwan) had been colonies since before the First World War and had produced large amounts of food for the home market. But the sinking of Japanese ships in the Pacific meant that these supplies were not getting through. American bombing of the cities had also disrupted food distribution, and 1945 saw the worst harvest since 1910. At the end of autumn 1945 the country was almost entirely out of rice. Thousands had starved to death and officials warned that ten million people now faced imminent starvation. They were exaggerating, but their panic prompted swift action from the occupying army.

MacArthur’s first, decent, instinct was to alleviate hunger and avoid famine. He cut through red tape, ordered the seizure of 3.5 million tons of food that the US Army had stockpiled for emergencies and had it shipped to Japan. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the House Appropriations Committee were indignant and demanded an explanation, but he responded with customary arrogance.

Among my more vivid earliest memories of Japan in the early 1950s was the sight of former Japanese soldiers, dressed all in white except for their green field hats, often missing a limb, begging in pedestrian underpasses or other unobtrusive places with lots of passing foot-traffic.

02 February 2024

Japan's Abdication Crisis, 1946

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 95-96:

Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni was the first member of the Japanese imperial family to break ranks and say it publicly. On 27 February 1946 he told a journalist from the New York Times that Emperor Hirohito should abdicate in favour of his son and a regent be nominated until Crown Prince Akihito, then aged twelve, came of age. Higashikuni, the Emperor’s uncle by marriage, was one of the few members of Japan’s ruling circle in the 1930s to have opposed war in Asia and to have warned against embarking on a route bound to result in conflict with the United States. After Pearl Harbor he had continually sought ways to bring about peace. Following Japan’s surrender in August 1945, he became Prime Minister, charged with overseeing the cessation of hostilities and reassuring the people that the Japanese empire was secure, despite the defeat. After two months he retired voluntarily, but he remained one of the most influential members of the government. Now he admitted that in Tokyo court circles the idea of abdication had been discussed for months; just a few days earlier he had told the Emperor in a private audience that he should stand down. He had said the same thing at a Cabinet meeting. Hirohito, he declared, bore ‘moral responsibility’ for the nation’s defeat, ‘to the dead and to his bereaved subjects’.

These unprecedented comments caused a sensation. Japan was a strictly hierarchical society. The imperial family and leading aristocrats seldom spoke out of turn or manifested any sign of disloyalty. A few days later the Emperor’s youngest brother, Prince Misaka, declared that Hirohito should accept responsibility for defeat and graciously volunteered himself as the regent. Another brother, Takametsu [sic, Takamatsu], was also suggested. Despite hunger and extreme hardship being uppermost in most Japanese minds, much of the country was talking about the possible abdication. The censored press, however, barely mentioned the issue, although there was a huge stir when one of Japan’s foremost poets, Miyoshi Tatsuji, published an essay urging the Emperor to step down as he had been ‘extremely negligent in the performance of his duties…[and] was responsible for betraying the loyal soldiers who had laid down their lives for him in battle.’

But the most powerful man in the country had decided against abdication. General Douglas MacArthur, the proconsul in charge of America’s occupation of Japan, was insistent on Hirohito staying on the throne – and whatever MacArthur wanted in postwar Japan he got. America would remake Japan from the top down and turn it from semi-feudal despotism into a model twentieth-century democracy rooted in Western precepts of freedom. The Americans would impose democracy by fiat on Japan, whether the Japanese wanted and liked it or not, but they would do so using imperial institutions, including the existing civil service. They adopted as their principal ally and functionary in the task an Emperor who just weeks earlier had been regarded by his people, and by himself, as a descendant of the gods. Despite such obvious ironies, the creation of the new Japan was a remarkable achievement – practical, efficient, bloodless – and of lasting importance in re-ordering not just Japan but, by example, much of the Asian continent.

At the beginning of 1946 neither princes nor poets would have dared to question Emperor Hirohito’s right to rule, despite the humiliation of total defeat. But early in the New Year, the Emperor issued a statement proclaiming himself human. It was the first stage of a process that turned Hirohito from an absolute ruler, literally worshipped by his people, into a constitutional monarch.

This chapter is perhaps the weakest in the book. Many small typos indicate it was neither written nor proofread very carefully, or that he relied only on occupation-era English language reports. For instance, it spells Daiichi [第一 'No. 1'] Bank as 'Daichi' Bank, Prince Takamatsu [高松] as 'Takematsu'; Atsugi [厚木] Naval Air Base as 'Atsugii'.

But the most egregious error in his account of the war in northern China was relying on outdated (and false) Chinese Nationalist sources that blamed Japan for destroying the Yellow River dikes that flooded huge areas and killed millions of people, but allowed the Chinese Nationalists time to withdraw their armies and capital deeper into the interior.

Disasterhistory.org offers a more up-to-date corrective.

Many people drowned in the flooding; far more would succumb to illness or hunger in the difficult months and years that followed. To the east, however, the river’s diversion halted the invading Japanese, who abandoned their westward march. The vital railroad junction at Zhengzhou was held for the time. The city of Hankou, China’s provisional political center after the fall of Nanjing, won a temporary breathing spell.

Strategically, breaking the dikes may have bought the Nationalist army time to withdraw and regroup, bogging down Japanese tanks and mobile artillery in fields of mud as Chinese forces secured their defenses around Zhengzhou. By preventing the Japanese from taking the railway junction, some scholars argue, the river’s diversion postponed the seizure of Wuhan by several months, giving the Nationalist government time to relocate its capital to southwest China in the city of Chongqing. But the Japanese simply redirected their advance from a north–south land attack along the railways to an amphibious assault along the Yangzi River that combined naval and infantry forces. Wuhan fell in October 1938, after the Nationalist central government had withdrawn into China’s interior.


Like the numerous scorched-earth tactics that the Nationalists employed during the Sino-Japanese War, the breaking of the Yellow River dikes was undertaken in an atmosphere of high-level desperation and panic that grew from the Japanese war of terror. On the other hand, the Nationalist regime showed a willingness to sacrifice people along with resources to keep them out of Japanese hands. The breaking of the Yellow River dikes was the prime example of this tendency. In the eyes of Nationalist leaders, not unlike other modern regimes of the twentieth-century world, “saving the nation” could justify unlimited sacrifice on the part of the civilian population.

Throughout the war, the Nationalist government refused to take responsibility for the disasters caused by the Yellow River’s intentional diversion. Instead, the Nationalists claimed that Japanese bombing of the dikes had caused the floods, presenting the disaster as another example of Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians. Chinese newspaper reports published in the summer of 1938 followed the official version of events. The Japanese denied these accusations, framing the flood as proof of China’s disregard for human life. When the disaster’s true causes eventually came to light after 1945, the Nationalist regime changed the narrative and presented the flood as evidence of sacrifices made by China’s people to save the nation during the War of Resistance.


On shifting representations of the flood disaster see especially, Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, “From ‘Nourish the People’ to ‘Sacrifice for the Nation’: Changing Responses to Disaster in Late Imperial and Modern China,” The Journal of Asian Studies 73:2 (2014), 447–469.

01 February 2024

Stalin's 'Rule by Dining Room'

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 30-31:

Stalin had always been a patient man. While he rose gradually to absolute power over the Communist Party and the State, he was always calculating, waiting for the right time to act. But now he was often irascible, irritable and unpredictable. ‘In the last years, Stalin began to weaken,’ said Molotov, his obedient lackey for decades. ‘Sclerosis comes to all with age in various degrees, but in him it was noticeable.’ He lost his temper and became conceited, ‘which was not a good feature in a statesman.’ Another of his underlings, Nikita Khrushchev, agreed that after the war ‘he wasn’t quite right in the head…He was very jittery. His last years were the most dangerous. He swung to extremes.’ He could still charm and manipulate, but he now grew increasingly autocratic.

There was no longer any pretence of anything other than one-person rule. Even during the Great Purge of the 1930s and the early years of the war, there had been a nod to a more collegiate ruling style. Now Stalin simply issued instructions. ‘Sometimes he would listen to others if he liked what they were saying,’ recalled Khrushchev. ‘Or else he might growl at them and immediately, without consulting anyone, formulate the text of a Resolution of…the Council of Ministers and after that the document would be published. It was completely arbitrary rule.’

He took immense interest in the private lives of those close to him but, over time, as he grew ever more isolated from ordinary life and the Russian people, these numbered only the other members of the ruling elite. ‘He often appeared unannounced at their homes to try to establish what the hierarchy was within their families,’ recalled Lavrenti Beria’s son, Sergo Beria, who was often present at these visits. ‘He made sure the families of his underlings did not see too much of each other – he feared friendships would lead to coalitions against him. He did not allow them to be absent for even a few hours without knowing where they were. A conversation between them of any length aroused his suspicion. He did not like them to have evening parties at their own homes. Any meeting without his supervision was suspect in his eyes.’

Stalin’s social life was confined to these ‘business associates’. Several times a week, at his insistence, Kremlin power brokers and, occasionally, visitors from other, mostly Eastern European communist parties would dine with him, usually at Kuntsevo, his dacha about fifteen kilometres west of Moscow. Refusal to attend was unthinkable. Here, work and ‘relaxation’ blurred seamlessly in ‘Rule by dining room’, as one Stalin biographer put it. They were ghastly bacchanals at which Stalin’s cronies would be ritually humiliated in order to provide entertainment for the Red Tsar. But they could be deadly serious. Once, after one of these drinking bouts, Khrushchev was on his way back to his Moscow apartment with another Party chieftain, the planning supremo Georgi Malenkov. With visible relief, he sank back into the seat and whispered, ‘One never knows if one is going home or to prison.’

As he got older Stalin turned more vicious to his entourage, men who – after him – were the most powerful people in the Soviet Union, and who inspired fear amongst their own underlings.