A Brill Calendar: May 13
The First Fleet
Few events testify as convincingly the potential of botanical scholarship to impact government policy as the departure of a particular fleet in 1787.
This British fleet of eleven vessels – six of them transports – set sail on May 13 1787 from Devonshire’s coast; carrying 160 women and some 820 men to the Antipodes. Roughly one out of four of these men – chiefly Marines – served to guard and watch the 790 convicts. The officer in command: Captain Arthur Philip, would celebrate his 49th birthday aboard ship.
Some twenty years earlier, the British Admiralty had sent the good ship ‘Endeavour’ (captained by James Cook) on a voyage of discovery to investigate a ‘terra australis incognita’: an unknown southern land. Cook was leading an expedition boasting eminent scholars as well as a fine, hand-picked crew; among the learned men was a young naturalist, Joseph Banks (London, February 13 1743 – Isleworth, June 19, 1820). The wildly successful journey around the globe boosted Banks’s career & fame: the botanist became in 1778 President of the Royal Society; a man carrying political weight in Georgian Britain. Cook’s most notable landing place was called ‘Botany Bay’, signaling enlightened trust in scholarly progress generally; and in botany especially.
‘The First Fleet’ – of planned British settlement in Australia – arrived in Botany Bay at the end of January 1788; perhaps an interesting site for botanists after a long voyage, but lacking, alas, enough sweet water and sufficiently fertile soil. It is seldom that motivation for an expansionist government action was based on such poor knowledge and so little insight in social and cultural dynamics. During the first seven years famine – let alone sickness – seriously threatened the survival of these white men & women, while benevolent relations between natives and settlers proved illusory. Comparing the private quest of the lone ‘Mayflower’ (1620) to the government transport six generations later, on the brink of the French Revolution, could attests to an evolution of a secular idealism.