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SYDNEY COVE 1790

 

 

Mary Higgins was on board for a total of one year, three months and three weeks. She didn’t care where she was by the end of it, just to get off that bloody boat and stand on dry land again was enough. Mary eased little Annie onto the other hip, picked up her bag, stumbled through the mud and stood on shore waiting for the rest of the boatload to join them. Despite herself she was excited. Finally she was free of some of those women; at least, now, she could walk away. She had no idea what was to happen to her and right now, with her feet on dry land for the first time in a year, probably didn’t care.

Watching the new arrivals were the unattached males on the colony, a flea-bitten, sex-starved bunch of reprobates with more than charity on their mind, but they looked right past a woman with a baby, staring instead at the striking auburn haired woman at her side. Mary Lammerman stared straight back. The hunt for sexual partners had already begun.

In that moment both girls realized that the game had changed; the power dynamics of the boat meant nothing. The women had finally been freed from the nunnery. Here was a whole new set of challenges – men. They’d forgotten all about men, it had been so long. Surprisingly enough, after a while nobody missed them; it was almost a relief. But, now, there they were, a whole pack of the mongrels, baying around at the fringes like the randy dogs they were.

*

It was Saturday morning, 12th July 1790. Everything was new. A fresh breeze was blowing in her face as she headed for the fires and the company gathered round. There was something resembling porridge in a pot, weak tea simmering in a billy. Her optimistic start to the day took a battering as she heard just how bad things had been at the camp since the First Fleet arrived, eighteen months ago. Now she understood those first looks from the settlers, that disappointed gaze, half-smile. They wanted food, not women and soon they’d all understand why. The Colony was running short of rations. The settlers knew there was help on the way. If only the help had appeared before the women.

Mary smiled to herself. Nobody seemed too concerned with that last night, she thought.

The day was spent settling in to her camp, easing into her new situation. The girls from the ‘Lady Juliana’ had been split up into three groups, one at the hospital, one near the governor’s house and the largest down toward Dawes Point. Mary and Annie were across the harbour with the bulk of them, next door to the men’s camp. On the other side was the hospital. The event of the day was watching Abel and Jeffries being punished for stealing the sugar from their ship; two hundred lashes each. Then, the following morning they were all marched down to the same spot, the whipping tree, for the weekly dose of religion, a fine sermon by the Reverend Richard Johnson, who; ‘with much propriety, touched upon their situation, and described it so forcibly as to draw tears from many who were the least hardened among them.’

*

The Rod and the Cross were wasted on Mary. She was too tied up in her own situation to feel compassion for the lashed men, too cynical to fall for the good Reverend’s artful schmooze. She knew an actor when she saw one, had pulled the same stunts herself many a time, wrung tears from stone with a well-placed pause, a tremble in her voice.

Within a week the ‘Justinian’ arrived. Finally there was food and soon a way of easing the load on the struggling colony. The great excitement didn’t ease the fact that there were just too many people at Sydney Cove. The women were to be sent to Norfolk Island. The ‘Lady Juliana’ was in no state to travel, so, when a ship was available, off they’d go. Mary watched the inevitable negotiations from a distance. She didn’t really care where she ended up. She was just happy to be here, wherever here was. The ground didn’t move beneath her feet.

Full bellies meant the settlement’s men-folk had a chance to settle back and appreciate the newly arrived women for what they were – breeding stock. The smartest of the girls were acutely aware of this and many of them took a calculated punt with a total stranger and allowed themselves to become just that. They were protected. There was a general lunge for the best connected but Mary just didn’t have it in her. She came with a handicap and that was tiny Annie. Right now, Mary wouldn’t have it any other way. The child had been a great boon to her during the voyage. They adored each other.

So she watched as the frantic pairing off occurred all around her, stayed removed and sanguine as unlikely bedfellows coupled and were wed, cast her fate to the wind as someone, somewhere decided just where she would spend the rest of her life. She sat and gossiped and played with her child, attended to work parties when demanded and just allowed herself to arrive. Her world was Annie. Mary had not the slightest interest in even looking outside the hut.

*

Here is chapter and verse on Mary’s time in Sydney Cove:

COBLEY: SYDNEY COVE

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During the next two weeks the rest of the Second Fleet – first the ‘Surprize’, the ‘Neptune’ and finally the ‘Scarborough’ – arrived in Port Jackson. The Camp started buzzing with rumors as soon as the first contact was made.

We had the mortification to learn, that the prisoners in this ship were very unhealthy, upwards of one hundred being now in the sick list on board. They had been very sickly also during the passage, and had buried forty-two of these unfortunate people. A portable hospital had fortunately been received by the ‘Justinian’, and there now appeared but too great a probability that we should soon have patients enough to fill it; for the signal was flying at the South Head for the other transports, and we were led to expect them in as unhealthy a state as that which had just arrived. On the evening of Monday the 28th, the ‘Neptune’ and ‘Scarborough’ transports anchored off Garden Island, and were warped into the cove the following morning.

David COLLINS: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Volume 1: 1798

When the first of them was unloaded Mary and Annie, like most of the rest of the population were there to watch and help. None of them could believe what came out of the boats. Mary stood there, jiggling Annie on her hip, watching aghast as the terrible procession began. The true size of the calamity came on them slowly, incrementally, as wave after wave of grief hit the shore. Some of the girls from the ship had husbands, lovers, children on board. She watched as they ran from arrival to arrival, quizzing those who could talk. But for so many speech was beyond them. Mary couldn’t stand it any longer. She handed Annie to Mary Lammerman and ran down to help.

‘Oh! If you had but seen the shocking sight of the poor creatures that came out in the three ships it would make your heart bleed… they were almost dead, very few could stand, and they were obliged to fling them as you would goods, and hoist them out of the ships, they were so feeble and they died ten or twelve a day when they first landed; but some of them are getting better… They were not so long as we were, but they were confined and had bad victuals and stinking water. The Governor was very angry, and scolded the captain a great deal, and, as I heard, intended to write to London about it, for I heard him say it was murdering them. It, to be sure, was a melancholy sight. What a difference between us and them…’

Letter from a female convict: published London Morning Chronicle 1791

‘All this was to be attributed to confinement, and that of the worst species, confinement in a small space and in irons, not put on singly, but many of them chained together… On board the other ships, the masters, who had the entire direction of the prisoners, never suffered them to be at large on deck, and but few at a time were permitted there. This consequently gave birth to many diseases. It was said, that on board the ‘Neptune’ several had died in irons; and what added to the horror of such a circumstance was, that their deaths were concealed, for the purpose of sharing their allowance of provisions, until chance, and the offensiveness of a corpse, directed the surgeon, or some one who ad authority in the ship, to the spot where it lay…’

David COLLINS: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Volume 1 1798

‘The landing of these people was truly affecting and shocking; great numbers were not able to walk, nor to move hand or foot; such were slung over the side in the same manner as they would a cask, a box or anything of that nature. Upon their being brought up into the open air some of them fainted, many died upon deck, and others in the boat before they reached the shore. When come on shore many were not able to walk, to stand, or stir themselves in the least, hence some were led by others. Some creeped upon their hands and knees and some were carried on the backs of others.’

Rev. Richard Johnson: Letter to Mr. Thornton 1789

All of them pitched in. No human being could not at the sight of all that misery splayed out in front of them. They lifted, dragged, encouraged and somehow all the men were eventually taken off the shore and placed in some kind of shelter. It was bedlam. ‘Such terrible things to see,’ said a witness, and she was right. Mary and the other women brought water and did what little they could but they couldn’t undo the ravages of whatever horror had gone on in that ship.  Then the next day they got up and did it again, and again, until all 486 ailing men were disembarked.

She spent the next week tending to the sick. Each morning she would trudge over to the tent city around the hospital, little Annie tied in a shawl around her back, past the cart of bodies of those who had died in the night. One in four of those who arrived alive died in the hospital in Sydney Cove. The men were dying from typhus, dysentery, scurvy; a whole host of opportunistic infections that strike when the system is low. So many young men and nobody to mourn over them. She listened to their stories, held scabby hands and talked, tried not to see the fear on their faces, tried not to notice the smell, the shit, the blood. Little Annie brought a smile to many of their faces, a tear to some. She reminded them of all they had left behind, they spoke of their children and their loved ones, sobbed and found a moment’s solace in the uncomprehending gaze of a child. She gurgled and played with their fingers, licked her thumb and played on the floor.

*

Little Annie fell ill within days. It hadn’t crossed Mary’s mind that she might be placing her child in danger by bringing her in to the hospital, in contact with such a host of pestilence. The toddler started to refuse her food, lay listless and still, then a fever began that raced through her tiny frame. Mary could feel the heat on the child’s forehead, tried to ease her growing unease. When the vomiting and diarrhoea began she began to get worried and as Ann began to slip in and out of consciousness knew in her heart that something was very wrong indeed. Annie had a rash around her stomach and abdomen, little red spots perhaps a quarter of an inch in size freckled the child. The doctor, in the brief moments he had to attend to her, just sighed.

The fever continued, got worse, Annie swung from confusion to despair, trying to express all the pain she felt. The diarrhea stopped to be replaced by nothing at all for a week, then began again. There was blood and shit and tears.

She died just ten days later, on Saturday 17th July with Mary at her side; such a little life to disappear after such an epic journey. Mary let out a low howl of despair. This was too, too cruel. The infant died on the same day Mary Kimes got married.

Her fight nearly left her the next morning as she saw her baby thrown away. Little Annie Higgins was dumped in a hole with yesterday’s dead and a brief prayer from the Reverend Johnson. Mary was alone. She sobbed and clung to her daughter’s clothes and swore blue murder at the skies, but nothing would bring her baby back. With Annie went the last vestiges of her old life in London. Now Mary had to start again without a reason for doing so. Her heart was breaking. She sat. She cried. She slept.

For a time she veered between despair and a wild excitement, but it was her grief talking and those randy men kept clear of her till the worst of it was over. She had a mad-woman glint in her eye. Trouble. She drank too much. She was rowdy. The worst of her street life came back to haunt her in the embrace of drunks. She didn’t care any more. Her bubby was gone.

*

 © NIGEL TRIFFITT 2010

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