Some time ago, I rather flippantly (and crassly?) suggested that the 6th February- the night of drunken revellry on the Sydney Cove beaches- might be a more appropriate celebration of Australia Day than 26th January. You know the story- Robert Hughes has the couples rutting between the rocks; Tim Flannery started his The Birth of Sydney with it; Tom Keneally fictionalized it; and the tele-doco The Floating Brothel based on Sian Rees’ book of the same name re-enacts it. Now I find that perhaps this “foundational orgy” never occurred.
Grace Karskens in her beautifully written and presented book The Colony: a history of early Sydney pins the origin of the “foundational orgy” on Manning Clark’s Short History of Australia, but Manning Clark himself backtracked on the story when he re-read the original sources. Too late- the story (and let’s face it- it IS a striking one) was off and running.
There is no real evidence that the orgy ever occured. Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smith wrote that “the men convicts got to them soon after they landed” and that it was “beyond my abilties to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night.” Perhaps because that’s because he wasn’t there- he was on the Lady Penrhyn moored out in the harbour. The sailors on his own ship were issued with rum rations, but the convicts were not.
Ralph Clark described the women’s tents of “Seens of Whordom” but he called all convict women “whores”. He describes the punishments meted out to male convicts and sailors alike who tried to have sex with the women, but not on or around 6th February. He mentions the thunderstorm, but nothing else. Neither does anyone else- in fact, Watkin Tench mentioned that “nothing of a very atrocious manner appeared” during February.
So, Karskens asks, does it matter? Are we going to let the facts get in the way of a good story? It does matter, she claims, because told as a story of “loose whores and randy drunken men” it validates, and even celebrates certain types of male behaviour. Even more than this, Hughes et al claim this “scene” as the foundation of Australia’s sexual history- a sensationalist view that obscures the real legend- the fruitfulness and growth of relationships between men and women in those early years.
I am duly chastened.
Grace Karskens The colony: a history of Early Sydney pp.313-315