By Georgia Murphy

An exploration of the Silentworld Foundation’s collection conveys the complex stories of early and ongoing European colonisation of Australia. Walking through the theme-based rooms displays of evolving cartography of the Pacific and Australia, shows you the progression of European discovery of our continent; the vast displays of documentation, archaeological remains from settlements, and art show you the successes, failures, and overall evolution of building a colony; and the remains of excavated shipwrecks paired with intricate ship models and detailed artwork, share the stories of the vessels and their passengers who both thrived on land and fell victim to the sea.

In this abundance of history, it might seem interesting that the story I was most struck by started from just a pair of documents. These documents were a letter and an invoice addressed to Home Secretary Henry Dundas requesting the payment of £220 to the estate of Samuel Davis. Davis claimed that he acquired this debt by providing both shelter and food for fourteen men who belonged to the ship Neptune, a Second Fleet convict transportation ship that arrived in Sydney Cove on the 28th of June 1790.

Reading these documents raised a lot of questions regarding the context of this request, such as the nature of the voyage, the experiences of the convicts and crew on board, and what became of them once they landed? It was only through researching this ship that I realised the indirect ways that other parts of the museum’s collection told this story.

Correspondence to Henry Dundas requesting payment of £220. Invoice and autograph signed, London, October 1792 and 1793. Murphy, G. (2023).

In the beginning...

The First Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the ‘Act for the Effectual Transportation of Felons’. Through enabling transportation, the Act enabled the foundation of Australia. This report by the committee was a key process in the refinement and implementation of the Act. Murphy, G. (2023).

The lawful and organised transportation of convicts was enabled in Britain through the Act for the Effectual Transportation of Felons in 1717. Under this new law capital crimes could receive fourteen years of transportation, while non-capital offences could receive seven years. This act was arguably necessitated by a complex combination of socially detrimental events and circumstances. First was the civil unrest lingering in Britain following the War of Spanish Succession, which had ended in 1715. This was paired with the increasing overpopulation of urban centres stemming from a trend of migration from rural to urban living, a trend which resulted in lower wages, increased overpopulation, and decreased standards of living derived from the disease and economic hardship fostered by overcrowding. This was an issue that would only be later exacerbated by the advent of the Industrial Revolution. In addition to this, gaols across Britain became full as hanging became restricted to capital offences. The conditions inside of these gaols were infamously unhygienic with many individuals contracting illness from their containment.

The transportation of felons to overseas colonies became the decided solution to these issues, and with the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, a need arose for a new destination. Allegedly, the British government investigated the African continent and the Caribbean as potential candidates for this venture, but neither location were deemed suitable. In 1783 James Matra, a junior officer on James Cook’s 1768 exploration of the Pacific, proposed Botany Bay as a viable location for the British government to start a colony. Subsequently, the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay on the 18th of January 1788.

The Second Fleet and Life on Neptune

The Second Fleet comprised itself of six vessels, four of which were convict transport ships and two of which were storeships carrying supplies. These ships were Guardian (wrecked en route), Justinian, Lady Juliana, Neptune, Scarborough, and Surprize.

The experiences of convicts and crew alike on these ships is infamously known for continuous maltreatment and starvation. There are claims that out of the approximate 1250 male convicts on the fleet, 25% died before reaching Botany Bay and many more died shortly after reaching the colony due to sickness acquired on the voyage or from the British gaols. This is particularly notable in comparison to the 2.8% of deaths experienced by the First Fleet en route to Botany Bay.

In the specific case of Neptune, out of the 502 convicts on board the ship 158 died during the journey, which calculates to a mortality rate of 31%. This is the third highest mortality rate in the history of convict transportation to New South Wales.

There are a multitude of possible reasons for the high mortality rate suffered by the passengers of this ship, including the use of private contractors for transportation management. These private contractors were paid a flat rate per head for each convict they transported and were provided with no incentive to ensure their safe and healthy arrival. The captain of Neptune, Donald Trail, was a former slaver and is known as having been unreasonably cruel and neglectful of convicts and crewmates alike. A reputation which is perfectly evidenced through the legal trials that faced Trail in London after the voyage, where Trail along with his first mate William Ellerington were accused of causing the death of Neptune’s cook John Joseph, whose death was the result of a ‘brutal flogging’. This type of flogging is not regarded as unique, as it is believed that the crew of Neptune were often beaten for minor violations in addition to being fed poor quality rations. Trail was also accused of the intentional starvation of convicts with the motivation of selling rations at inflated prices, this starvation was so extreme that convicts allegedly concealed the deaths of their messmates in order to receive extra rations. These accusations were paired with additional claims of more generalised misconduct, and the brutal use of irons as punishment. However, Trail and Ellerington were both acquitted of any charges.

Poor sanitation and disease stemming from overcrowding and low-quality of life within gaols and hulks were also likely contributors to higher mortality rates upon Neptune, with scurvy and dysentery likely being prevalent amongst the inmates. In relation to this, higher mortality rates were also likely caused by the arguably unethical choices made by the British legal system in sentencing individuals of poor health to transportation. There are unfortunately many examples of this, such as Mary Anthony who was an 18 year old girl when convicted. Mary actively petitioned against transportation upon the grounds of having given birth in gaol and being in a poor state of health. Both Mary and her child sadly died on Neptune. Another story is that of Frances Hadley, a 40 year old widow with seven children aged between twenty-one and four years old who was convicted of shoplifting two and a half yards of muslin. She spent eighteen months in gaol prior to transportation, and died during the voyage.

In considering these factors, and reading these stories, the reason for high mortality rates amongst passengers of Neptune is no mystery with the harsh conditions of overcrowding, disease, and starvation faced by convicts both before the voyage and on the ship.

A collation of (from top to bottom) a convict ball and chain, convict leg irons, and convict handcuffs. Used in the restraint and discipline of convicts. Murphy, G. (2023).
A collection of convict love tokens. These are coin-like objects that some convicts inscribed with messages of affection or comfort and gave to their loved ones before departing for Australia. Murphy, G. (2023).

Reaching the Colony

Upon landing at Botany Bay, the convicts and freemen alike would soon realise that life in Australia was anything but comfortable. The first two years of settlement following the First Fleet were consumed by a fear of famine and starvation created by drought, failure of supply vessels to arrive, and the natural struggles of adapting European farming to the Australian climate. By June 1790, the year of Neptune’s arrival, rations were significantly deficient in proteins and vitamins necessary for adequate function. In addition to this, the arrival of the Second Fleet naturally resulted in a significant expansion of the colony’s population, intensifying the threat of starvation. The colony desperately needed able bodies to sow the foundations of this young colony and contribute to the struggling agricultural industry.

A portrait of Arthur Phillip located within the Silentworld Foundation's museum. Murphy, G. (2023).

However, the Second Fleet including the convicts from the Neptune, were in incredibly poor condition with many suffering from sickness and the effects of starvation. They were described by onlookers as ‘unfit for anything but occupying a space in the dirt’, as ‘naked, filthy, dirty, lousy wretches’, that were ‘so near death as they could not stand’ (Phelps, N. 2019. Page 49). If the situation was not tense enough before the arrival of the Second Fleet, the wave of sick and dying mouths to feed and care for would not have been a relief. Our statistics indicate that a month following the Second Fleet’s arrival at Botany Bay only 470 out of an approximate 1715 individuals in Sydney and Rose Hill (Parramatta) were working, with 438 believed to be sick. As such, Arthur Phillip ordered that any convicts from the Second Fleet who were healthy enough to leave hospital had to be sent to Rose Hill, as the land there was far more suitable to agriculture.

However, a benefit for the convicts arriving and residing in Australia during the early years of colonisation is that although famine and rations were a cause of tension, evidence suggests that punishment and discipline was not nearly as harsh or common as it was after the settlement became more secure. At the time of Neptune’s arrival, there were no ‘chain gangs’, penal uniforms, institutions of secondary confinement, and only limited examples of convict assignment. This can be rationalised through a need for intensive productivity during the early stages of colonisation to ensure survival and the initial foundation of institutions needed to run the new colony. Only as the colony grew stronger and the population expanded, and subsequently the need for productive convict labour became less and less required to run the colony, did conditions become as infamously harsh and draconian as we commonly understand them.

Wrapping Up…

I hope that this exploration into the experiences of Neptune’s passengers both on and off the ship is an exciting representation of the stories that you can reveal through just one piece of this museum’s collection. And as you will see sprinkled along the sides of this blog, there are many other items within the collection that can be woven into this conversation of convict experience. We can see the First Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the ‘Act for the Effectual Transportation of Felons’ in 1785, the ball and chains, handcuffs, and leg chains used to restrain and punish convicts, and we see examples of convict love tokens that represent the real people within all of this who had left behind families and loved ones. In this, you can see how an interest that starts with one item can easily evolve and reveal an interconnection of items across a collection through the people that they represent and the stories they share.

Further Reading

National Museum Australia, Canberra (year unknown), Convict transportation peaks, viewed 23 of May 2023, <https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/convict-transportation-peaks>.

Phelps, N. (2019), “Convict to settler: an analysis of the transition of the female convicts of the second fleet vessel Neptune from the status of convict to settler and the role they played in the early colonisation of Australia during the period 1790-1792”, Southern Cross University.

State Library of New South Wales, Sydney (year unknown), Convicts: Bound for Australia, viewed 23 of May 2023, <https://guides.sl.nsw.gov.au/convicts-bound-for-australia/second_fleet>.

The Dictionary of Sydney, Sydney (2016), The Second Fleet, viewed 23 May 2023, <https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/second_fleet>.

About the author

Georgia Murphy is an undergraduate student at Macquarie University, currently within her final year of studying a Bachelor of Ancient History. Although her main areas of interest are the ritual nature of ancient burial practices, she has always held an interest in family and local history, which draws her to the experiences of early settlement for both convicts and freemen alike. She is currently undertaking her placement semester with the Silentworld Foundation.