The Storm of February 6, 1788

This post was intended for publication on, but our server was hacked so I will post it here until we can access our site again.

About seven years ago my flatmate James was reading The Fatal Shore when he came across the following passage and read it out loud:

“A fortnight passed before enough tents and huts were ready for the female convicts. On February 6 their disembarkation began, and all through the day the longboats plied between the transports and the cove, carrying their freight of women. Those who had decent clothes had put on all their finery: “Some few among them,” noted Bowes Smyth”, heartily glad to have them off his ship, “might be said to be well dressed.” The last of them landed by six in the evening. It was a squally day, and thunderheads were piled up in livid cliffs above the Pacific; as dusk fell, the weather burst. Tents blew away; within minutes the whole encampment was a rain-lashed bog. The women floundered to and fro, draggled as muddy chickens under a pump, pursued by male convicts intent on raping them. One lightning bolt split a tree and killed several sheep and a pig beneath it. Meanwhile, most of the sailors on Lady Penrhyn applied to her master, Captain William Sever, for an extra ration of rum “to make merry upon the women quitting the ship.” Out came the pannikins, down went the rum, and before long the drunken tars went off to join the convicts in pursuit of the women, so that, Bowes remarked, “it is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night.” It was the first bush party in Australia, with “some swearing, others quarreling, others singing–not in the least regarding the tempest, tho’ so violent that the thunder shook the ship exceeding anything I have ever before had a conception of.” And as the couples rutted between the rocks, guts burning from the harsh Brazilian aguardiente, their clothes slimy with red clay, the sexual history of colonial Australia may fairly be said to have begun”[1]

James and I marveled at the horrific drama of this tale: the storm, the booze, the sex and the shameful gender relations! I likely exclaimed either “I love history” or “truth is stranger than fiction!”. Now, almost every time I engage in a discussion about the First Fleet or colonial Australia, I wheel out a modified version of this startling tale.

I thought that would be a good tale to explore in more detail during the residency for Tilting at Windmills, I included it in my original proposal to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. As soon as I began looking further into it, I was shocked to learn that this horrific and yet strangely compelling story of the storm and that accompanied the female disembarkation from the First Fleet is largely apocryphal. While I was expecting my research to throw up more information on what happened that night, I actually found less. What Hughes represented in his book is a significant elaboration and embellishment of the single journal entry that exists. It seems that there was a storm and that the women did disembark from the ship, the men probably had some extra rum. But whether or not there was either a night of drunken and orgiastic revelry or, indeed, the systematic rape of many of the female convicts is highly unlikely.

As Grace Karskens notes, “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’ fueled by ‘extra rations of rum’ in his Short History of Australia” [2] apparently Clark was not quick enough to retract his comments and the story of colonial Australia’s violent sexual awakening made it into popular mythology. Perpetuated again and again by Robert Hughes, Peter Fitzsimmons and Tim Flannery, along with a host of others.

At our second Public Reading on Monday 15th April we will explore the various iterations of this stormy myth and discuss it in relation to the ideas we have been exploring during the residency.

[1] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia’s founding (New York: Knopf), 1986, pp.88-89
[2] Grace Karskens, ‘The myth of Sydney’s foundational orgy’. Retrieved from April 6, 2013.

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