The “First Convict Fleet” had set sail in May 1787, carrying the first consignment
of convicts bound for the new penal colony of New South Wales, Australia.
An extremely harsh Judicial system in the 18th Century, resulted in the severe overcrowding
of English gaols and “hulks” (disused ships) were often utilised as temporary prisons
to take the overflow of prisoners.
The Government saw the transportation of convicts as an ideal solution to this ever
The voyage of the First Convict Fleet had gone reasonably well, with relatively few
outbreaks of illness, due to good quality rations, good weather, and the strict attention
paid to cleanliness, airing and exercising of the prisoners. However this success
came at a considerable cost to the Treasury’s pocket. Yet, the English gaols continued
to be filled, and before long it was proposed to despatch -The Second Convict Fleet.
The ships’ Contractors for the Second Fleet were to be Camden, Calvert & King, who
had been previously involved in the transportation of slaves to America.
The ships for the Second Convict Fleet were chartered, and not owned by the British
Government. They were ordinary, small merchant ships - hired at the lowest rate,
and were wet, dark and musty. As the Naval Agent in charge of this voyage, John Shapcote
was to ensure that these vessels were properly fitted out.
Approximately 502 convicts were to sail on the “Neptune”, and 78 of them were female.
Shapcote ordered that the women were to be kept separate from the men, and were not
to be abused or ill-treated. Further instructions were given as to the cleanliness
of both the ship and passengers on the long journey to Port Jackson in New South
Wales. John Shapcote’s task was to see that the convicts were safely aboard at the
point of embarkation, and to see that all the provisions for the journey were properly
During the journey he was to ensure that the prisoners were adequately exercised
and fed, cleaned and fumigated regularly, and that the ships were properly cleaned
and aired. He also had responsibility for the convicts’ health, as did the ships’
However, these regulations did not appoint particular responsibility to
any Officer or person of rank to ensure that the above tasks were properly undertaken,
and as a result conflicts of interest between the Naval Agent and the various Officers
on board often arose. Indeed, in reality, supervision of such ships while at sea
was very difficult. It was impossible for the ships to stay together due to weather
conditions etc., and lack of surveillance allowed the ships’ officers, contractor’s
agent, guards or anyone else to treat or abuse the convicts as they chose. The only
real times that the Navel Agent could exercise any authority was before sailing or
when the ships were anchored at a port of call.
Some Naval Agents did take the time to board the other ships in their fleet, but
these visits were few and far between, and it was generally an ineffective way of
checking up on the unscrupulous Ship’s Masters, incompetent Surgeons, and left the
convicts at the mercy of the Officers and the Contractor’s Agents once they were
Another responsibility of the Fleet’s Naval Agent was to ensure that the trip
was completed with minimum delays, but it was left to the Ship’s Master to decide
how long to stay at sea or in port etc. There was little or no co-operation between
the Naval Agent and the Commander of the Guards, even though they were all officers
in His Majesty Service, and both were in charge of the prisoners.
When the Naval Agent was aboard his own ship, his status and powers were so ill defined,
that he was left practically unable to perform his duties.John Shapcote was soon
to discover these difficulties for himself regarding the fated Second Fleet.
1789 a dispute arose between the Master of the “Neptune” - Captain Gilbert, and the
Army Officer Captain Nicholas Nepean over who had authority of some hatch keys. Captain
Gilbert went so far as to challenge an army man - Lieutenant John Macarthur to a
However, Captain Gilbert was unaware that Captain Nepean’s brother Evan Nepean
held the position of Under-Secretary of State. On this occasion John Shapcote sided
with Captain Nepean. This was clearly owing to Nepean’s political influence. John
Shapcote told Captain Gilbert that if he gave Captain Nepean any further cause for
complaint, he would be removed from command. Eventually Captain Gilbert was removed
from command, only to be replaced by Captain Donald Trail from the “Surprize”, who
was a Scot with a harsh and violent temper.
Lieutenant John Macarthur and his wife Elizabeth had been married for only a year
when he had enlisted as a Lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. Aged 22, he was
ambitious and eager to throw off the embarrassment of a humble background. He saw
the posting as a great opportunity. His wife and baby and a maid were to accompany
him on the journey that was to take them to their new life in Australia.
a cramped little compartment was to be their accommodation for the duration of the
voyage. A cabin had been hastily been divided: a small section was to house Elizabeth,
her child and travelling companion, the rest of the space was to be utilised for
housing some of the female convicts.
And so, on the 19th January 1790 the Second Convict Fleet set sail from Portsmouth,
carrying over one thousand prisoners.
The voyage was marred from the very onset. Sixteen convicts had already died before
the fleet had even sailed. Many of the prisoners onboard had already spent months,
or years, in prison. Many of the convicts to be sent to embark on the transport ships
were already in an emaciated and sickly state, quite possibly suffering from infectious
or contagious diseases. Once installed onboard the convicts were contained by being
As the Fleet sailed from the English Channel it was immediately struck
by stormy weather. 3 days later the Fleet met with a day-long storm in the Bay of
Biscay in which it was reported that -“the sea ran mountains high”.
Elizabeth Macarthur was already starting to regret her decision to leave her comfortable
home in England for a life in the new colony. She was appalled by the living conditions
of her neighbouring female convicts. She was forced to live with the wretched stench
from their slop buckets, and she could hear every uncouth word they uttered through
the flimsy partition. She refused to set foot amongst the convicts. The baby, Edward,
would often become fretful, so Elizabeth would sometimes walk with him on the deck
of the “Neptune”. In spite of the cold January weather she found some comfort, enjoying
the freshness of the winds and the open space around her.
On one occasion when she
climbed the ladder to the upper cabin, from where she could gain access to the ship’s
deck, she struggled to push open the hatch, which seemed to be stuck fast. Handing
Edward back down to her maid she banged hard to loosen it, but it would not move.
In frustration she hammered loudly with both her fists against the wooden boards
and cried out for her husband.
It was Captain Trail who had ordered the hatch to be nailed up, making a virtual
prisoner of Elizabeth in an act of retaliation against her husband, John.
A few days
before John Macarthur had accused Captain Trail of cheating on him, his wife and
soldiers, by ordering the Steward to cut down on everyone’s rations. John Macarthur
knew well that any food left at the end of the voyage could be sold for a handsome
profit to the desperate inhabitants of Sydney (the new colony was barely two years
old and on the verge of starvation.) Clearly Captain Trail was planning to line his
own pockets with the profits of his exploits.