IN THE first days of the new colony, as giant crocodiles swam into the rivers that flowed into Sydney Harbour, a gigantic, drunken orgy took place. It was 1788.
It was just over a year since a fleet of 11 ships known as the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth, England. Led by Captain Arthur Phillip, the early settlers were all men. But that was about to change. The women were on their way.
On February 6, as the Charlotte pulled into shore and European women set foot on Australian land for the first time, emotions, among other things, began to stir.
It was a stormy night and with the convicts drunk on rum and glee, The Rocks was transformed into “a scene of debauchery” wrote one witness, surgeon Arthur Bowes Smith.
“Abt. 6 O’Clock p.m. we had the long wish’d for pleasure of seeing the last of them,” he wrote. “They were dress’d in general very clean & some few among 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 description of the Scene of Debauchery & Riot that ensued during the night.”
Though the famed ‘Foundational Orgy’ has been debunked by some modern historians, it is no secret the early Australian settlers were indeed a horny bunch.
Take for example Mary Reiby, who features on our $20 note. She achieved much in her lifetime and is viewed by history as a legendary businesswoman in the colony.
She was also Australia’s first cross-dresser.
“That’s an amazing story of how a 13-year-old cross-dressing girl who was sentenced to death ends up becoming one of the richest people in Australia,” author of Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, David Hunt told Vice.
One of the earliest references to male cross-dressing is in Hobart in 1816, when Thomas Fiske was reportedly seen wearing his wife’s clothes in the streets after she left him.
In fact Vice called Australia’s early colonists a bunch of “sex-crazed freaks”, and famed botanist Sir Joseph Banks a “notorious swinger and playboy with (literally) a woman at every port)”.
In those days among the convicts and the free, sex was steamy and sordid, relationships blossomed and men reportedly “acknowledged their partners and children and supported them if they could”.
But not all.
When the women finally landed in Australia men outnumbered the ladies one to six.
But by the mid 1800s the demand for more woman became so great the Chaplain of Fremantle Prison wrote:
“What will ensue when we have thousands of men cooped up in the colony without wives and unable to seek them elsewhere. Evil will be the result — too humiliating for the mind to dwell upon — too revolting to name. … That moral evil of far greater magnitude, which has of old brought down the signal judgment of Heaven, will result.”
Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Riaz Hassan, quoted an officer in command of the First Fleet who claimed in those early days “expedition convict women threw themselves at the sailors and Royal Marines in ‘promiscuous intercourse’ and ‘their desire to be with the men was so uncontrollable that neither shame nor punishment could deter them’.”
But the reality is the women got the raw deal. With so few women and so many men, it was not necessarily a safe place.
“Were an inquiry to be made of men lately convicted before the Supreme Court, who have of late fallen into the errors or crimes which they have committed respectively, I think it would be found to have emanated from the women convicts, by encouragement and lascivious promises,” opined “A Gentleman Subscriber” in 1834.
“But this I will maintain, the misfortunes of numbers of the men originate in the connections they have formed with vile abandoned women.”
Homosexuality also flourished, despite same-sex relations being openly frowned upon. In 1841, an inquiry into the convicts at Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, female factories noted “unnatural connections” between female prisoners.
Some have suggested at least 30 same-sex couples existed at the factory and an entire “Flash Mob” of females was exposed at the time, but in truth, these women were simply lovers who would reoffend to be sent back to be with their loved one. Ellen Scott was one of these women, who was dobbed into an Enquiry over her “unnatural connection” with a woman by the name of Catherine Owens.
When authorities tried to break up the couples, the women would riot. Between 1839 and 1844, six major riots in the Cascades and Launcestion factories took place.
There are reports of rent boys and hustlers in early Sydney.
But it wasn’t until the case of labourer Francis Wilkinson on March 6, 1796 that the first recorded case of sodomy made it to court. He was charged with an “assault” against a man named Joseph Pearce with “ill-treatment” and “an intent that most horrid detestable and sodomitic crime (among Christians not to be named) called Buggery”.
Thanks to the State Library of New South Wales we have discovered he was found not guilty.
The earliest execution for sodomy came later, in 1828. Twenty more were to come between 1828 and 1863.
“I hope you won’t forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldered away,” wrote one man to his male lover on the eve of his hanging in 1846.
“I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you. Your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack, I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you … The only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together.
“I hope you won’t fall in love with no other man when I am dead and I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover.”
Graham Willett, an Honorary Fellow in historical and philosophical studies at the University of Melbourne, said new arrivals at Hyde Park barracks including younger men put themselves “under protection of older men — and adopted names such as Kitty, Nancy, Bett”.
Robert Pringle Stuart, a magistrate on Norfolk Island, noted at least 150 male couples who called themselves “man and wife” and “could not bear to be separated,” notes the book, Crimwife: An Insider’s Account of Love Behind Bars.
“Where respectable colonists saw filth and moral evil, there is evidence that convict women and men experienced companionship, affection and attachment, which included sexual love,” Willett wrote.