Book review: First Fleet Surgeon is a vivid account of a struggling colony

Written by admin on 05/07/2018 Categories: 苏州美甲美睫培训学校

FIRST FLEET SURGEON: The Voyage of Arthur Bowes Smyth By David Hill.  NLA Publishing.  $44.99.
苏州美甲美睫培训学校

First Fleet Surgeon is a beautifully annotated and illustrated edition of a treasure of the National Library, the journal of surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth on his voyage to Australia in 1787-1788, and his return to Britain the following year. One vivid story gives the flavour of the book.

The first execution in the newly-founded penal colony of New South Wales was in February 1788, and Smyth saw it. Lovell, Hall and Barrett, were sentenced to death for stealing food. The diarist accused the Governor, Arthur Phillip, of running a settlement of “anarchy and confusion”.

The events Smyth recorded in his diary seem to bear this out. Just as the sentence on the three men was about to be carried out Major Ross and Judge Advocate Collins arrived with a 24-hour stay of execution for Lovell and Hall. Next day they were reprieved. Barrett was not so lucky.

At this point the reluctant hangman, himself a convict, refused to proceed with the execution and had to be threatened at gunpoint to force him to obey orders. So Barrett became the first person executed in the new colony and today a plaque marks the site.

But the same Thomas Barrett has another claim to fame. He was a skilled engraver and at Botany Bay Surgeon John White commissioned Barrett to engrave a medal which depicted the ship in which they had both travelled and their route. This survives as one of the colony’s first European works of art.

More than 12 diaries by those on the First Fleet are known, one only rediscovered in 1982. The Journal of Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth, a leather-bound volume of 238 pages, is a treasure of the National Library. Historian David Hill has edited this lavishly-illustrated edition.

In his Journal Smyth records the departure of the First Fleet from Portsmouth in 1787 and the long voyage to Australia. His job was to be surgeon to more than 100 convict women on the Lady Penrhyn.

At Botany Bay and Port Jackson, he gives an eyewitness record of the struggle to set up the new colony, the failure of the first crops and encounters with the Aboriginal people. While Smyth is critical of Governor Phillip, most historians think Phillip gave splendid leadership.

After three months in the new colony, Smyth records his departure back to Britain, and to his native village in Essex. In 1790 the surgeon died, but he left behind this diary. It opens a window into our national beginnings.

Robert Willson is a Canberra reviewer. 

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