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March 1787

1787 March 5. I this day left London, charged with dispatches from the Secretary of State's office, and from the Admiralty, relative to the embarkation of that part of the marines and convicts intended for Botany Bay; and on the evening of the seventh, after travelling two days of the most incessant rain I ever remember, arrived at Plymouth, where the Charlotte and Friendship transports were in readiness to receive them.

General Collins, commander in chief at that port, lost no time in carrying the orders I had brought into execution: so that on the morning of the ninth the detachment of marines were on board, with all the baggage. But the


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next day being ushered in with a very heavy gale of wind, made it impracticable to remove the convicts from on board the Dunkirk prison-ship, where they were confined. So violent was the gale, that his Majesty's ship the Druid, of thirty-two guns, was forced to cut away her main-mast to prevent her driving on shore.

The weather being moderate the following day, the convicts were put on board the transports, and placed in the different apartments allotted for them; all secured in irons, except the women. In the evening, as there was but little wind, we were towed by the boats belonging to the guardships out of the Hamaoze, where the Dunkirk lay, into Plymouth Sound. When this duty was completed, the boats returned; and the wind now freshening so as to enable us to clear the land, we proceeded to Spithead, where we arrived the seventeenth, and anchored on the Mother Bank, among the rest of the transports and victuallers intended for the same expedition, under the conduct of his Majesty's ship the Sirius. As soon as the ship came to anchor, I visited all the other transports, and was really surprised to find the convicts on board them so very healthy. When I got on board the Alexander, I found there a medical


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gentleman from Portsmouth, among whose acquaintances I had not the honour to be numbered. He scarcely gave me time to get upon the quarter-deck before he thus addressed me—“I am very glad you are arrived, Sir; for your people have got a malignant disease among them of a most dangerous kind; and it will be necessary, for their preservation, to get them immediately relanded!” Surprised at such a salutation, and alarmed at the purport of it, I requested of my assistant, Mr. Balmain, an intelligent young man, whom I had appointed to this ship for the voyage, to let me see the people who were ill. “Sir,” returned Mr. Balmain, taking me aside, “you will not find things by any means so bad as this gentleman represents them to be; they are made much worse by him than they really are. Unlike a person wishing to administer comfort to those who are afflicted, either in body or in mind, he has publicly declared before the poor creatures who are ill, that they must inevitably fall a sacrifice to the malignant disorder with which they are afflicted; the malignity of which appears to me to exist only in his own imagination. “I did not, however,” continued Mr. Balmain, “think proper to contradict the gentleman, supposing,


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from the consequence he assumed, and the ease with which he had given his opinion, or more properly his directions, that he was some person appointed by the Secretary of State to officiate for you till your arrival. When you go among the people you will be better able to judge of the propriety of what I have said.” Mr. Balmain had no sooner concluded than I went between decks, and found every thing just as he had represented it to be. There were several in bed with slight inflammatory complaints; some there were who kept their bed to avoid the inconvenience of the cold, which was at this time very piercing, and whose wretched clothing was but a poor defence against the rigour of it; others were confined to their bed through the effects of long imprisonment, a weakened habit, and lowness of spirits; which was not a little added to by the declaration of the medical gentleman above mentioned, whom they concluded to be the principal surgeon to the expedition. However, on my undeceiving them in that point, and at the same time confirming what Mr. Balmain had from the first told them, viz. that their complaints were neither malignant nor dangerous, their fears abated. To this I added, that I would immediately give orders for such as were in


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want of clothing, to be supplied with what was needful; a power delegated to me by Captain Phillip, together with the liberty of giving such other directions as I thought would tend to the recovery or preservation of their health. And, further, as they had been nearly four months on board, and during that time had been kept upon salt provisions, I would endeavour to get fresh for them while in port. This short conversation had so sudden an effect on those I addressed, and was of so opposite a tendency to that of the gentleman alluded to, that before we got from between decks I had the pleasure to see several of them put on such clothes as they had, and look a little cheerful. I then pointed out to Lieutenant Johnson, commanding officer of the marines on board, and to the master of the ship, the necessity there was of admitting the convicts upon the deck, one half at a time, during the course of the day, in order that they might breathe a purer air, as nothing would conduce more to the preservation of their health. To this these gentlemen readily assented; adding that they had no objection to the whole number coming upon deck at once, if I thought it necessary, as they were not apprehensive of any danger from the indulgence. On returning to the quarter-deck, I found my new


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medical acquaintance still there; and before I could give some directions to Mr. Balmain, as I was about to do, he thus once more addressed me—“I suppose you are now convinced of the dangerous disease that prevails among these people, and of the necessity of having them landed, in order to get rid of it.” Not a little hurt at the absurd part the gentleman had acted, and at his repeated importunity, I replied with some warmth, “that I was very sorry to differ so essentially in opinion from him, as to be obliged to tell him that there was not the least appearance of malignity in the disease under which the convicts laboured, but that it wholly proceeded from the cold; and was nearly similar to a complaint then prevalent, even among the better sort of people, in and about Portsmouth.” Notwithstanding this, he still persisted so much in the propriety of their being landed, and the necessity there was for an application to the Secretary of State upon the occasion, that I could no longer keep my temper; and I freely told him, “that the idea of landing them was as improper as it was absurd. And, in order to make him perfectly easy on that head, I assured him that when any disease rendered it necessary to call in medical aid, he might rest


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satisfied I would not trouble him; but would apply to Doctor Lind, Physician to the Royal Hospital at Hasler, a gentleman as eminently distinguished for his professional abilities as his other amiable qualities; or else to some of the surgeons of his Majesty's ships in Portsmouth harbour, or at Spithead, most of whom I had the pleasure of knowing, and on whose medical knowledge I was certain I could depend.” This peremptory declaration had the desired effect. The gentleman took his leave, to my great satisfaction, and thereby gave me an opportunity of writing by that evening's post, to inform the Secretary of State, and Captain Phillip, of the real state of the sick; and at the same time to urge the necessity of having fresh provisions served to the whole of the convicts while in port, as well as a little wine for those who were ill. Fresh provisions I dwelt most on, as being not only needful for the recovery of the sick, but otherwise essential, in order to prevent any of them commencing so long and tedious a voyage as they had before them with a scorbutic taint; a consequence that would most likely attend their living upon salt food; and which, added to their needful confinement and great numbers, would, in all probability, prove fatal


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to them, and thereby defeat the intention of Government.

The return of the post brought me an answer, and likewise an order to the contractor for supplying the marines and convicts daily with fresh beef and vegetables, while in port. A similar order I found had been given long before my arrival; but, by some strange mistake or other, had not been complied with. The salutary effect of this change of diet, with the addition of some wine and other necessaries ordered for the sick, through the humanity of Lord Sydney, manifested itself so suddenly that in the space of a fortnight, on comparing my list of sick with that of a surgeon belonging to one of the guardships, allowing for the disproportion of numbers, mine did not exceed his. And yet, notwithstanding this, which is a well-known fact, the report of a most malignant disease still prevailed: and so industriously was the report promulgated and kept alive by some evil-minded people, who either wished to throw an odium on the humane promoters of the plan, or to give uneasiness to the friends and relations of those engaged in the expedition, that letters from all quarters were pouring in upon us, commiserating our state. The newspapers were daily filled with alarming


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accounts of the fatality that prevailed among us; and the rumour became general, notwithstanding every step was taken to remove these fears, by assurances (which were strictly true) that the whole fleet was in as good a state of health, and as few in it would be found to be ill, at that cold season of the year, as even in the most healthy situation on shore. The clearest testimony that there was more malignity in the report than in the disease, may be deduced from the very inconsiderable number that have died since we left England; which I may safely venture to say is much less than ever was known in so long a voyage (the numbers being proportionate), even though not labouring under the disadvantages we were subject to, and the crowded state we were in.

During the absence of Captain Phillip, I mentioned to Captain Hunter, of the Sirius, that I thought whitewashing with quick lime the parts of the ships where the convicts were confined, would be the means of correcting and preventing the unwholesome dampness which usually appeared on the beams and sides of the ships, and was occasioned by the breath of the people. Captain Hunter agreed with me on the propriety of the step: and with that obliging


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willingness which marks his character, made the necessary application to commissioner Martin; who, on his part, as readily ordered the proper materials. The process was accordingly soon finished; and fully answered the purpose intended.

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