The story of the founding and rise to prominence of one of the world's greatest cities Sydney, Australia, site of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games. Blending together the writings of early Australian settlers, leaders, journalists, and explorers, in The Birth of Sydney editor Tim Flannery constructs a compelling narrative history of the early life of one of the world's most fascinating metropolises. From the majestic harbor city's infancy as a remote penal colony of the British Empire in 1788 to its emergence as a vital trading power in the nineteenth century, the book tells the stories of the people who made its history. In their own words and the words of their contemporaries, The Birth of Sydney brings to life the colorful personalities that built the city, from Bennelong, the Aborigine who befriended the early English settlers and eventually traveled to the court of King George III, to Nat Gould, an immigrant who turned his observations of life in colonial Australia into a series of best-selling books in his native England. It also includes observations by early visitors including Captain Cook, Charles Darwin, and Mark Twain.
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The Sandstone City
On 6 February 1788, Sydney was ten days old. The men of the First Fleet, both soldiers and prisoners, had already been ashore at Port Jackson for much of that time, preparing the ground and setting up camp. Now the women convicts were set ashore. There were more than 700 convicts but fewer than 200 of them were female, and the sexes had been kept apart in hulks, prisons or transports for at least a year.
The women had enjoyed solid ground beneath their feet for only an hour when the sweltering summer evening was lit up by a prodigious thunderstorm. Lightning knocked a sentry to the ground and temporarily blinded him; a pig and at least five of the colony's precious sheep were electrocuted. The storm was a manifestation of austral nature at its grandest, and it terrified many of the newly arrived Europeans, who cringed in their cabins or prayed by their bunks.
With authority blinded or cowering under cover, the lower orders seized the moment. The sailors of the Lady Penrhyn obtained a double ration of rum to celebrate the offloading of the women convicts, and fortified with the ardent spirit they soon found amusement singing, fighting and fucking.
A few days later the prudish Lieutenant Ralph Clark lamented at what he had seen, presumably intermittently as lightning struck the various unfortunates: 'Good God what a Seen of Whordome is going on there in the women's camp ... I would call it by the name Sodom for there is more sin committed in it, than in any other part of the world.' Clark's comparison with Sodom soon proved more accurate than he imagined.
The tempests continued for several days, but the mornings were tranquil, steamy and sodden, as is so often the case after the passing of a summer storm in Sydney. The record of what happened on one such morning is incomplete, but from the evidence I can imagine the scene that unfolded. In the dawn light a party of marines is trudging through the mud towards the women's camp. They search tent after tent, evicting scrawny, rag-clad convicts and poxy sailors nursing hangovers. Sometimes one, perhaps two or three emerge from a tent, holding their heads as a convict moll screams at the soldiers, 'You can kiss my c ...' Grim-faced the marines continue with their task until out of one tent is dragged a ship's carpenter. 'You're for it, mate,' whispers a marine through clenched teeth to the malefactor, whose transgression is all the worse because he is supposed to be one of the few figures of respectability in the settlement. The carpenter's paramour follows, but then to everyone's surprise a third figure emerges. It's the cabin boy from the Prince of Wales transport.
An exasperated Arthur Phillip, governor of the colony, seems to have been as uncertain of the appropriate punishment as he was of the nature of the crime, so he ordered the cabin boy and the carpenter paraded out of camp to that sprightly, sardonic tune 'The Rogue's March'. The fife-players probably gave a fine rendition, for they were doubtless well practised; the ceremonial salute in reverse was heard more often than any tune in the early days of the colony, except perhaps 'God Save the King'.
The scene that followed was a sort of prototype for Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The hungover convicts, scurvy-plagued sailors and red-coated marines were assembled into files, through which the curious procession of miscreants marched. First came the fifes, playing the mocking air with all the vigour they could muster. Close behind came the disgraced carpenter, his hands bound behind him, while bringing up the rear was the cabin boy, arraigned in petticoats and heartily jeered by the crowd. When the motley procession reached the camp boundary there must have been a moment of hesitation, for beyond the rough clearing there was nothing — no European settlement for thousands of kilometres. Their punishment over, the cabin boy and the carpenter straggled back into camp. There was simply nowhere else to go.
After that first night of debauchery, Governor Phillip desperately needed to restore law and order. He held a formal parade, adding to the agony of the revellers' hangovers with a reading of his 'letters patent' establishing his own authority and the various courts. He further assured them 'that if they attempted to get into the women's tents of a night there were positive orders for firing upon them'. The order did little good, for the party continued.
And so passed Sydney's first weeks, its first crimes and its official founding. It was a salty, saucy and insolent affair full of irony, colour and sex. It was as if the constraints of old Europe had been irrevocably left behind in this vast island prison, and the unbuttoned nature of the town, which remains characteristic, was stamped indelibly on it from the first.
It's hard for us to imagine the excitement and furore created when the destination of the First Fleet was announced, for the enterprise was breathtaking in its audacity. Eleven ships carrying about 1500 souls (roughly half of whom were convicts) would be launched on an eight-month journey halfway around the globe. Once at Botany Bay they would establish a beachhead settlement on the last of the habitable continents to be drawn into the realm of European imperialism. In its breadth and ambition, the announcement of the English expedition was every bit as monumental as the mission to land a man on the moon.
Soon the words 'Botany Bay' were on everybody's lips and the great publishing houses of London rushed to the principals in the endeavour. John Stockdale of Piccadilly signed up Governor Phillip and Captain John Hunter to produce accounts, while Cadell and Davies in The Strand got Judge-Advocate David Collins, and Debrett of Piccadilly retained chief surgeon John White. Botany Bay ballads were forming on the lips of singers, and broadsheets everywhere carried factual as well as fanciful accounts of the antipodes. From the very beginning the history of Sydney would be recorded in detail.
Some sense of the strength of the impression made by the expedition can be seen in the persistence of the name 'Botany Bay' for the new settlement. Botany Bay, in which James Cook had sheltered for a week in 1770, never was settled, for it had insufficient water and soil. The First Fleet stayed there a few days only before moving on to the more suitable Port Jackson; apart from the First Fleeters, no convict was ever sent to Botany Bay. The bay, however, has played an important role in Sydney's history. It was there, on the very day the First Fleet chose to abandon the place, that the ill-fated La Perouse Expedition, already years at sea, sailed into view. The French stayed six weeks, walking overland to visit Governor Phillip at Sydney Cove, but then sailed into oblivion. Decades later it was discovered that La Perouse's ships had foundered on a reef in what is now Vanuatu. Botany Bay, of course, is once again the gateway to the city, for with the passing of the great passenger liners that brought tens of thousands in through Sydney Heads, most visitors now step ashore beside Botany Bay at Sydney's Mascot Airport.
Unlike modern visitors, those sailing on the First Fleet were launching themselves into a great void, an isolation unimaginable today. While they were away the United States of America would ratify its constitution, France would have its revolution, King George III would go insane and then recover and Mozart would stage the first performance of Don Giovanni. Those lucky few destined to return from Sydney Cove would find a dramatically changed Europe, just as they themselves would irrevocably change Australia.
For half a century Sydney Cove was synonymous with European settlement in Australia in the European imagination, and because the settlement had such unusual beginnings it was under the microscope from the start. Enlightenment Europe was vitally interested in the moral and philosophical questions posed by the establishment of the colony. Could transportation redeem socially degraded felons? Could fallen women be made fertile and bounteous by the change of clime? Could the Aborigines be brought into the European fold, and could Europe itself be transplanted successfully into this strange antipodean world? Visitor after visitor penned opinions on these matters in everything from secret reports to popular books, while official documentation, letters, diaries and newspapers recorded how the city's inhabitants saw these issues. This book covers the first hundred-odd years of Sydney's life when such questions were urgent and the answers elusive. By the end of the nineteenth century, when Mark Twain made his triumphant visit to the city, and the journalist Nat Gould discovered that Sydney was the place to be on New Year's Eve, the character of the modern metropolis was largely formed.
Sydney thus represents the great experiment of the Enlightenment — the proving ground in which new philosophies and ideas were to be tested. What the savants of the Enlightenment did not have, however, was knowledge of the deep history of the region in which their experiment was being carried out, for geology is one of the newest of the natural sciences. This was a critical lack, for it was to be the mix of earth, water and people that was to determine the shape of the city.
One might imagine that Sydney was a purely British creation, but that would be quite wrong. Quite apart from the Aborigines who had been there for 50,000 years, the Maoris and Pacific Islanders, West Indians and Americans, Malays and Greeks put in early appearances, just to name a few. Within a few years, Muslim sailors would be constructing extravagant temples and filling the streets of the town with exotic Eastern festivals. It's important to remember that this great social experiment was taking place in a strange natural environment whose impact was to be profound, for the timeless interplay between earth, water, air and fire that helps shape all cities was felt in Sydney from the very first day. To understand how this interplay developed we need to see the world in a very different way.
Imagine if you can an utterly upside-down and inverted Sydney. The atmosphere is water and the sea is air. You are sitting in a boat afloat in the harbour, but you are on the wrong side of the line between air and water. Yes, you are a creature of the briny, approaching the land, fishing-line in hand, in hope of a meal. You cast your line out of the water and into the air, directing it to the bushes growing at the water's edge. What do you think will happen? How long will you wait for a meat-eating creature to come and seize the bait, and how long before you are snagged on some vegetation?
If you think about it you will see that this imagining reveals a great biological truth — that the ecosystems of the land and sea in the Sydney region are utter opposites, organised as mirror images of each other. The land forms a food pyramid whose broad base is made of plants. Feeding on these are fewer herbivores, and feeding on them in turn are even fewer carnivores. That's why you will get snagged land-fishing long before anything takes your bait. The seas are different because their food pyramid stands on a tiny base of plant life, which supports carnivores in huge numbers. Thus there is relatively little phytoplankton, algae and kelp existing at any one time. Balanced on this pinprick of plant life is a moderate number of marine herbivores, many of which are microscopic, though a few such as oysters and blackfish reach an edible size. On top of these herbivores in the theoretical food pyramid is balanced a vast number of carnivores. These include most of the fish recreational fishermen are familiar with — from jewfish to flathead and bream. Were it otherwise, fishing as we know it simply would not exist.
Sydney's sandstone region is an extreme kind of land environment, for it supports a plethora of plant species — indeed it stands in the top dozen or so environments on the planet for plant biodiversity — yet it supports fewer animals than most. Thus its food web structure is as different from the sea as any land ecosystem gets. Its soil is so poor that even the miserly koala has a hard time making a living, for most of the eucalypts growing on the sandstone produce leaves that are not nutritious enough to sustain it. Sydney's harbours and bays, in contrast, are relatively rich, for there fresh and salt waters meet, and rocky refuges abound. This difference between land and sea has meant that for as long as people have lived in the sandstone region they have looked to the sea for sustenance. The people of Sydney are and always have been a maritime people who do not fear to go to sea in their craft.
A very strange stone indeed lies in Sydney basements. The story of its origin and properties is an intriguing one. Imagine standing on a vast floodplain, bigger than any you've ever seen before. From horizon to horizon stretch meandering channels filled with ripples up to a metre high, testimony to the vast volume of water that sometimes flows here. The date is about 230 million years ago. The place — Bennelong Point, where Sydney's Opera House now stands. The significance? We are looking at the Hawkesbury sandstone in the making. It's the rock that will in turn make a city.
No city has been as profoundly influenced by its rocky foundation as Sydney, for its sandstone has given form and colour to its finest buildings, shaped its economy, guided its spread and protected its natural jewels — the rainforest gullies, coves and beaches made inaccessible to builders by its steep bluffs.
Sydney lies atop six kilometres of sandstone and shale, and all of it was laid down at a time when the world's first dinosaurs, mammals, ginkgos and pine trees were coming into existence. It was a temperate, wet world, a time when leafy swamps flourished. One day their debris would give the Sydney basin its coal mines.
Two hundred and thirty million years ago the Sydney area was hundreds of kilometres inland — as far from the coast as Broken Hill is today. It then lay in a vast valley, while to the east the highlands of what are now New Zealand and New Caledonia rose out of a prototypical Pacific Ocean. The entire continent lay well south of its present position and was firmly attached to Antarctica.
One of the enduring mysteries of the Sydney sandstone is just where the tiny grains of sand that constitute it came from. Geologists employ a handy trick in determining in which direction ancient rivers flowed (and thus from where they brought their sediment). They look for the remains of ancient ripple marks. These marks are very distinctive and are readily seen almost anywhere in the Sydney sandstone. They look like closely spaced lines running through the rock at an angle, something like this: \\\\\\\. These marks are left behind when the ripples move forward, just as waves do in water. Each ripple has a gentle slope (which faces upstream) and a steep side (downstream). The sand grains are pushed up the gentle slope and then fall down the steep side one by one. The lines in the roek are the steep faces, each covered by succeeding falls of sand.
Once you understand this you can never get lost in Sydney as long as you can see the rock. That's because the highest part of the lines you'll see always face approximately south, and the steeper the lines are the closer they are to facing true south. Even underground these ripples of the ancient river will guide you.
The ripples tell geologists that Sydney's sandstone must have originated in the south, but just how far south no-one quite realised until a sophisticated means of determining the ages and origins of sand grains became available. Dr Keith Sircombe, a geologist working at the Australian National University, has examined hundreds of grains from the Sydney sandstone using a technique called SHRIMP (Sensitive High Resolution Ion MicroProbe). Sircombe has discovered that most of the grains are derived from rocks that formed between 500 and 700 million years ago, far to the south of Australia in what is now the eastern Antarctic.
We can only imagine the river that brought these grains to rest, for it is long vanished. Its vast fossilised floodplain, however, indicates that it was the size of the Ganges or larger and its headwaters lay in the high mountains of Antarctica. As it flowed north along what is now the east coast of Australia it lost velocity. By the time it reached the Sydney area it was too feeble to transport sand grains more than a few millimetres in diameter, so the stone is composed of remarkably uniform grains of about that size.
David Roots, a geologist, explained to me that parts of the sandstone are such pure silica that were it not for iron stains it would be virtually clear. Imagine being able to see from the Harbour Bridge to Parramatta through crystal-clear rock. Several hundred million years ago the sands were buried deep in the earth's crust, where they were compressed and heated until they formed the solid stone we see today.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Birth of Sydney"
Copyright © 1999 Tim Flannery.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Sandstone City by Tim Flannery,
Philip Gidley King,
Arthur Bowes Smyth,
Arthur Bowes Smyth,
Francisco Xavier de Viana,
Rose de Freycinet,
Hyacinthe de Bougainville,
Charles von Hügel,
Louisa Ann Meredith,
J. C. Byrne,
Godfrey Charles Mundy,
Sydney Morning Herald,
Ebenezer Beriah Kelly,
Sydney Morning Herald,
Sydney Morning Herald,
Edmond Marin la Meslée,
Notes on Sources,
Notes on Illustrations,