The myth of Sydney's foundational orgy

2011
Cite this

The myth of Sydney's foundational orgy

All cities are built of concrete, bricks and mortar, but they are also built on urban legends or myths – commonly shared stories about origins, and about how the city came to be.

One of Sydney's favourite urban legends must be the Foundational Orgy. Sydneysiders tell the famous story of the convict women coming ashore on 6 February 1788. No sooner had they set foot on the antipodean shore, they and the convict men engaged in mass sexual congress, fuelled by rum, much to the disgust of their superiors. It's an urban legend which strikes a modern chord. Sydneysiders know they're a fun-loving, partying, hedonistic bunch. We love a good time, love a drink, we're larrikins, so it must be true!

But legends have provenances, and it turns out that the orgy story dates, not from 1788, but from 1963, when the historian Manning Clark included it as 'a drunken spree' fuelled by 'extra rations of rum' in his Short History of Australia. [1] After he re-read the sources properly, he quickly recanted. But it was too late, the story was out. 'The orgy', writes feminist historian Marian Quartly, 'had entered the historical consciousness of all the students in Australian history, including mine'. [2] And with every retelling it just got raunchier. Robert Hughes was the originator of the modern version of the legend, for in The Fatal Shore (1987) he sites the action in the Rocks, with the lightning of a ferocious Sydney storm revealing couples bestially 'rutting' in the 'red clay' (there is no red clay in Sydney Cove). And in Hughes's version the sex wasn't consensual: 'the women floundered to and fro, draggled as muddy chickens under a pump, pursued by male convicts intent on raping them'. [3]

Zoologist Tim Flannery retold the orgy story with equal relish in The Birth of Sydney. Peter FitzSimons gave it another run in the Sydney Magazine's 'place in time' series in 2005. But, the snowball effect continued, for in FitzSimons's version, the convicts and the sailors were completely drunk on rum, 'extra lubricant for what they know is about to happen'. They wait together on the shore (maybe an early instance of mateship?) for the women to arrive. [4] Histories of Sydney and early colonial Australia routinely include the orgy. [5] It has even been re-enacted for television: a lascivious, silhouetted scene in the docu-drama The Floating Brothel, and a collection of comically shaking tents in the Botanic Gardens in Tony Robertson Explores Australia. [6]

There's just one problem. There is no real evidence for the orgy. There is only one 'witness', the surgeon, Arthur Bowes Smyth, who wrote an account of the women convicts leaving his ship:

abt. 6 O'Clock p.m. we had the long wish'd for pleasure of seeing the last of them They were dress'd in general very clean & some few amongst them might be sd. to be well dress'd. The Men Convicts got to them very soon after they landed, & it is beyond my abilities to give a just discription of the Scene of Debauchery & Riot that ensued during the night. [7]

But the reason Bowes Smyth said it was 'beyond his abilities to give a just discription' was because he wasn't actually there. He was on his ship, the Lady Penrhyn, moored out on the harbour. He did describe drunken revellers, but they were the sailors on board this ship, drowning their sorrows and fighting after the women had left. Meanwhile, back on shore, the convict men were not given grog at all. [8]

As for other evidence, there were a few more general and disapproving reports from the officers about the convicts busily fornicating in early Sydney. They considered the lower orders to be sexually depraved anyway, so this should come as no surprise; neither should the fact that people had sex, children and got married in early Sydney. But what about the orgy? Such an outrageous, sensational and salacious event would have been compulsory material for the myriad scribes of early Sydney. All the journal- and letter-writers were busily scribbling down every little detail, after all. But no one mentioned an orgy. Not on 6 February, not ever. In fact Watkin Tench remarked that, contrary to expectation, 'nothing of a very atrocious nature appeared' in February. Even Ralph Clark, who famously loathed convict women, failed to note any events that night, apart from the tremendous storm. [9]

It is a stunning, and telling, silence. What it tells us is that the orgy never happened.

So what's wrong with this picture? As a nation, as a city, as a people, we need stories about our past, about who we are, don't we? Isn't a powerful and widely believed legend like this as valid as factual history? Does it matter that it probably didn't happen? I think it does matter, for at least two reasons.

First, the modern orgy story is about rape, and it's told as a kind of rough comedy about loose whores and randy drunken men. As Aveling pointed out, Robert Hughes was saying that these were the foundations of sexual and gender relationships in early Australia. Brutal, drunken rapes, sex lacking in any kind of commitment or feeling; this is how it would be. [10] But convict men and sailors did not simply root and leave, or at least not if they could help it. Most acknowledged their partners and children and supported them if they could. The lucky ones formed families and households which became the basis of the new colony. Given the severely unbalanced gender ratio, many men never got that chance. [11]

And second, the orgy story hides a real urban legend: the story of an environmental miracle which amazed everyone. For once in New South Wales, women who had never had a child, who were considered barren, suddenly became pregnant. Every letter home told and retold this tale about women's mysterious and marvellous fecundity. It was this legend which reassured settlers that they could live and thrive in this environment, that it was healthful and life-giving. [12] But we have forgotten that women's story, that true story about sex and seeding and birth.

Alternative histories

What does the future hold for Sydney's foundational orgy myth? Despite the fact that Marian Quartly demolished it over 20 years ago, it continues to thrive. Nowadays television producers deliberately choose to re-enact it, even though they know it is a fiction. [13] It seems few facts will not stand in the way of a good story, and this one seems deeply embedded in the Sydney male psyche.

So Sydney blokes will very likely continue to celebrate the foundational orgy, and every generation has a different take on it. But perhaps we might predict, even guide, some future iterations? What about a Sensitive New Age Guy version? The men put some salt pork on to simmer gently, pick assorted wildflowers and plump up soft beds of bracken fern in preparation for the ladies.

Given the 'orgy' is now firmly 'located' in The Rocks, there might well one day be the Fashion Week version: the convict women were much too busy parading around, showing off their clothes to one another to be bothered with a bunch of smelly, lousy, drunken blokes. At least the bit about the clothes has some basis in fact!

Or maybe a version inspired by popular Sydney crime writer Robert G Barrett, a la Guns 'n' Rosé? [14] The drunken, priapic men get tired and emotional while waiting for the women. They form rival gangs and beat one another senseless. When the women arrive they find all-but-lifeless bodies draped all over The Rocks. Sighing, and with a heavy sense of historical inevitability, they set about putting up tents, boiling billies, cooking food, caring for children, and getting on with life.

Notes

[1] CMH Clark, A Short History of Australia, 1963, p 25

[2] Marian Aveling, 'Gender in early New South Wales society', The Push from the Bush, no 24, April 1987, p 31–4

[3] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1787–1868, London, Collins Harvill, 1987, p 89

[4] Tim Flannery, The Birth of Sydney, Melbourne, Text, 1999, p 1–2; Peter FitzSimons, 'Place in time: the rocks', The (Sydney) Magazine, no 25, May 2005, p 25

[5] For example Jan Kociumbas, The Oxford History of Australia Volume 2 1770–1860, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992, p 18–19; Thomas Keneally, Commonwealth of Thieves: The Sydney Experiment, Sydney, Random House, 2005, pp 121–2; Sian Rees, The floating brothel: the extraordinary story of the Lady Juliana and its cargo of female convicts bound for Botany Bay, Sydney, Hodder Headline Australia, 2001, pp 207 and 208 where the 'orgy' is moved to 1790 and Bowes Smyth is grievously misquoted.

[6] Mark Lewis, (Director) 'The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary Tale of the Lady Juliana and the Unlikely Founding Mothers of Modern Australia', Film Australia/Essential Viewing, 2006; WTFN Productions, Tony Robertson Explores Australia, screened on the History Channel, May 2011.

[7] Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal 1787–1789, fair copy compiled c1790, Mitchell Library, entry for 6 February 1788, transcript online at http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/_transcript/2007/D00007/a1085.html#a1085090.

[8] Marian Aveling, 'Gender in early New South Wales society', The Push from the Bush, no 24, April 1987, pp 30–2. Convicts were not issued grog until 4 June (King's birthday), see Watkin Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, published as Sydney's First Four Years edited by LF Fitzhardinge, Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1979 (1789) pp 39, 60; Ralph Clark, Journal kept on the Friendship during a voyage to Botany Bay and Norfolk Island…9 March 1787 – 31 December 1787, 1 January 1788 – 10 March 1788, Fair copy, probably compiled later, transcripts online at http://image.sl.nsw.gov.au/Ebind/safe1_27/a262/a262000.html, entries for 9, 11, 12, 20 February 1788. Interestingly some of these entries condemn the severe punishment of soldiers for attempting to have sex with convict women; Clark blamed the women.

[9] Watkin Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, published as Sydney's First Four Years edited by LF Fitzhardinge, Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1979 (1789) pp 44; Ralph Clark, Journal kept on the Friendship during a voyage to Botany Bay and Norfolk Island…9 March 1787 – 31 December 1787, 1 January 1788 – 10 March 1788, Fair copy, probably compiled later, transcripts online at http://image.sl.nsw.gov.au/Ebind/safe1_27/a262/a262000.html, entries for 6 and 7 February 1788

[10] Marian Aveling, 'Gender in early New South Wales society', The Push from the Bush, no 24, April 1987 pp 30–2; Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of convicts to Australia 1787–1868, London, Collins Harvill, 1987, p 89

[11] See Tina Picton Phillips, 'Family matters: bastards, orphans and baptisms – New South Wales, 1810–1825, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 90, part 2, December 2004, pp 122–35; see also Portia Robinson, The Women of Botany Bay: A reinterpretation of the role of women in the origins of Australian society, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, p 199; Monica Perrot, A Tolerable Good Success: Economic Opportunities for Women in New South Wales 1788–1830, Sydney, Hale & Iremonger, 1983; Deborah Oxley, 'Packing her (economic) bags: convict women workers', Australian Historical Studies, vol 26, no 102, April 1994, pp 57–76; Kay Daniels, Convict Women, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1998; Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia: A History, volume 1, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997

[12] Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2009, pp 323–5

[13] WTFN Productions, Melbourne, which produced Tony Robertson explores Australia, 2011

[14] Robert G Barrett, Guns'n'Rosé, Sydney, Pan Australia, 1996