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By Sea & Stars: The Story of the First Fleet - Book Review

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by Gillian Ching (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane who loves exploring quirky places with my dog. Join me on my quest to find, experience, and share fun things to do and interesting places to go.
Published January 15th 2019
Exploring Australia's Past
This historical piece sees Brisbane author and journalist Trent Dalton describe with skilful beauty the brutal, disease-ridden and suffocated lives of the crew and convicts of men, woman and children on their 259-day voyage to the new settlement of what was to become Australia.

Photo courtesy Harper Collins Publishers


We re-trace Arthur Phillips' first fleet flotilla of 11 vessels on route across the Atlantic in a procession of "grimy, disease-ridden prison ships" and witness the barbaric cruelty of flogging and starvation, beside a sense of longing for those left behind and hope for something better.

Through Dalton's poetic descriptions, we come close to smelling the filth, feeling the bubbling discontent of the sailors and prisoners and the at times nervous optimism of Arthur Phillip to successfully complete the mission.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia


We come to learn of individuals lives of convicts like it's youngest John Hudson. Dalton writes: "the young chimney sweep who found himself swept up among the 780 convicts exiled to botany bay would take the icy winter sleep of any London gutter over the motionless oven of the friendships crowded prison demon in the high summer of the great south land."

At the same time, we come to understand how big and bold the idea was to explore uncharted lands on this ambitious social experiment.

By Sea & Stars offers us a timely read as we approach Australia Day, a time when questions of our national identity remain topical. It contains illustrations, including of the vessels and the convicts arriving in Botany Bay, only reinforcing the enormity of the challenge.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia


This piece of non-fiction has been informed by reference material including from the National Museum of Australia. It was part of a series presented by the Australian newspaper called James Cook rediscovered, which was published over 5 days in September 2017.

It is a relatively short read at only 130 pages but it reminds us of new beginnings. It led me to look outside the front window of my house and see the hilly terrain with fresh eyes and imagine a time when it was barren, empty and untouched. The book also led me to re-visit my own family history to consider what part we have played to contributing to the new land that became modern Australia and feel grateful that as painful and arduous the journey the Phillips, the crew and the convicts too.

My only disappointment was that little content is devoted to the original inhabitants of Australia or a true appreciation of the ancient history of the land prior to Phillips' arrival. Perhaps that is left for part 2.

About the author Trent Dalton


Photo courtesy Tent Dalton Twitter account

Brisbane born Trent Dalton is a journalist at the Australian newspaper and author of highly acclaimed novel Boy Swallows Universe.

He is a two-time Walkley Award winner, three-time Kennedy Award winner for excellence in NSW journalism and a four-time winner of the national News Awards Features Journalist of the Year. In 2011, he was named Queensland Journalist of the Year at the Clarion Awards for excellence in Queensland journalism.
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