BOOK REVIEW: By Sea & Stars: The Story of the First Fleet by Trent Dalton

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Dazzling, poetic and vivid storytelling from one of Australia's greatest writers, which tells the bloody, brutal and enthralling story of the epic journey of the First Fleet.

Originally published as a multi-part serial in The Australian, By Sea and Stars tells the story of the epic voyage which led to the founding of our nation, as told from the point of view of the people who took part - willingly or unwillingly - in it. Drawing from historical sources of the time, including letters and journals, Trent Dalton, one of Australia's best writers, brings this epic voyage, and the people who went on it, to vivid life.

This is not dry history of dates and names. These are gripping stories of real people, from the lowest to the highest. From terrified nine year old chimney sweep and convict John Hudson to conscientious Lieutenant Ralph Clark, pining after his wife and son, to the brave and determined Captain-General Arthur Phillip, the brightest star of the British Navy: these are the people who made the voyage, and these are their stories - of death, duty, glory, lust, violence, escape, mutiny - and a great southern land...

My Thoughts:

By Sea & Stars tells the stories of some of the people whose lives were changed forever by the intrepid journey of the First Fleet from England to Australia in the late 18th century. This is not a textbook, filled with dry facts & explanations, but rather a collection of vividly drawn character sketches & vignettes, drawn from diaries, letters & court records & inspired by the true stories of the convicts, soldiers and local Eora people whose lives were so dramatically altered.

The First Fleet comprised eleven ships, carrying 1420 people in total. Of these, 778 were convicts. The fleet departed Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 and landed in ‘Sydney Cove’ on 26 January 1788 – eight months and thirteen days later.

The book starts with the crime of a nine-year-old chimney sweep named John Hudson who stole a linen shirt, five silk stockings, two aprons and a pistol and so was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. He spent three long years on a floating prison hulk moored on the Thames before the Fleet at last set sail. At twelve, he was the youngest convict on board.

Another story brought to life is that of Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who hated serving on the voyage and missed his dear wife Alicia terribly. He called the female convicts ‘damned whores’, but ended up having an affair with 17-year-old Mary Branham, who later gave birth to a daughter named Alicia.

The Fleet’s safe landing in Australia triggered ‘an impulsive night of unbridled passion between landed sailors and female convicts’.  This is explained away as the ‘purging of eight months of collective fear and tension’. I was interested by this, and would have liked a more thoughtful appraisal of the event. Were the female convicts willing partners in this impulsive unbridled passion?

Similarly, I was troubled by Trent Dalton’s side-stepping of the biggest issue at the heart of the story of the First Fleet – an event now called ‘Invasion Day’ by many people. I would have liked to have known so much more about the lives of the local Eora people, and how the arrival of the First Fleet impacted them.

Trent Dalton’s writing is lyrical and evocative, and he does a great job of breathing life into the historical record. The book was originally written as a series of articles for ‘The Australian’ newspaper, and this is both an advantage & a disadvantage. It’s very readable, and I whizzed through it in less than an hour. However, it does feel rather lightweight & flimsy, and I was left wanting more.

Nonetheless, By Sea & Stars is a great introduction to the epic journey of the First Fleet & really illuminates the human stories behind the history.


You may also love One Enchanted Evening by Charlotte Smith:

BOOK REVIEW: One Enchanted Evening by Charlotte Smith

Kate Forsyth
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