First page of the List of Female Convicts on board the Lady Penrhyn, from the journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth May 1787 Courtesy National Library of Australia (MS 4568)

First page of the List of Female Convicts on board the Lady Penrhyn, from the journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth May 1787 Courtesy National Library of Australia (MS 4568)

The 6 February marked the anniversary of a night of salacious activity which took place at The Rocks in 1788, barely a fortnight after the First Fleet made landfall. Only problem is, this so-called ‘Scene of Debauchery & Riot’ never actually happened. 

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Historian Grace Karskens has written a compelling article for the Dictionary of Sydney on how the myth of Sydney’s foundational orgy came about and has lived on despite being fairly resoundingly debunked.

One of this city’s most famous urban legends details the night of 6 February 1788, when the convict women of the ship Lady Penrhyn disembarked after their 13- month journey from England to Australia. After they stepped ashore, they and the convict men allegedly engaged in mass sexual congress, all fuelled by rum.

The idea for this orgy story dates from about 1963, when historian Manning Clark wrote of the ‘drunken spree’ in his ‘Short History of Australia’. After checking his sources, Clark recanted on this description, however, the orgy story would find its way in some very famous works including Robert Hughes’ ‘The Fatal Shore’. The story was also told in works by Tim Flannery and Peter FitzSimons.

There are many diarised accounts which provide fascinating insights into the journey and arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney. One of those accounts, by surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth, seems to have been the source of the myth. Bowes Smyth described the scene after the women disembarked: ‘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’.

But Karskens notes the reason it was ‘beyond his abilities’ to adequately describe the night was because he wasn’t actually onshore; he was still aboard the Lady Penrhyn moored in Sydney Harbour. Bowes Smyth’s diary also frequently references the behaviour of the female convicts on the voyage, consistently framing them in sexual or deviant terms. In one excerpt, he said: ‘The greater part of them are so totally abandoned & callous’d to all sense of shame & even common decency’.

More to the point, and contrary to the story of the orgy, in reality the convict men were not allowed alcohol at all. And even more telling is the fact that none of the other diarists described or even alluded to such activities taking place.

In this world of ‘alternative histories’, as Karskens calls it, or ‘alternative facts’ as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the story of Sydney’s foundational orgy lives on despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

Listen to Nicole & Nic here and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

 

Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay, London : Published by Rbt. Sayer & Co., 1792 Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.obj-135226580)

Definitely NOT an image of an orgy…. ‘Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay’, London : Published by Rbt. Sayer & Co., 1792 Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.obj-135226580)

 

 

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