- Potter, John
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In the early morning of Saturday 12 May 1787, a small fleet of eleven ships prepared to leave Portsmouth’s Mother Bank in the UK to found a penal colony halfway around the world. This motley collection of small convict transports and storeships now known as the First Fleet, carried on board the first troops to serve in Australia, consisting of four companies of the British Marine Corps. The now Royal Marines trace their origins back to the reign of Charles II when on the 28th October 1664, a new regiment, “The Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foote” was raised. The intention was to produce a unit which would be seasoned to sea travel and therefore be able to withstand the disabling effects of seasickness after long sea voyages. Over the ensuing years, these early Marines saw extensive service in theatres of operation as far afield as North America, India and the Caribbean. They fought successfully in a wide range of conditions, and were instrumental in adding a number of important new territories to the empire including Gibraltar, Nova Scotia and Canada.
By the conclusion of the American War of Independence in 1783, the Marine Corps had established a reputation for steadfastness and loyalty not often matched by their army counterparts. This was highlighted by their highly disciplined behaviour during the army riots of the same year. Unfortunately, in spite of their excellent service, the Marine Corps was still considered by most military men as being the poor cousin to the army, particularly as Marine Officers could not even rise to command their own Corps. This position had always been held by a naval officer. As a result, many senior Marine Officers were seeking a means of proving the worth of the Corps and establishing at least an equal place in the military hierarchy.
Also in 1783, Mr. James Matra first sent his “Proposal for Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales” to the British government suggesting that the new southern colony would provide a useful commerce base and a home for dispossessed American loyalists. In his later discussions with the Secretary of State, Lord Sydney, it was observed that establishing Botany Bay as a penal colony would also alleviate some of the chronic overcrowding in Britain’s goals. Matra had recommended using Marines rather than soldiers, probably due to their previous experience at sea and in guarding convicts on board prison hulks. Small detachments of British Marines had also previously accompanied Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook and others on voyages of discovery between 1770 and 1779 and proven their worth as soldiers and their flexibility in a variety of other situations. When finalised the NSW Marine Corps Detachment consisted of approximately 20 Officers, 24 NCO’s and 168 men under the command of Major Robert Ross. The Marines were placed on each transport to guard the convicts during the voyage and, once ashore in NSW, formed a military establishment for the dual purpose of maintaining law and order and defending the colony from external attack. The lack of any formal orders requiring Marines to guard convicts ashore was to be the source of considerable tension between Ross and the Governor and in part led to the establishment of a unit raised especially for this purpose.
The Marines remained as the first garrison of Sydney Town between 1788 and 1792 when they were at last relieved by this specially formed army unit – the NSW Corps. Unlike the NSW Corps, the Marines of the First Fleet were all hand picked volunteers, lured by offers of discharge and land grants in the new colony after 3 years service. As a result, they were well disciplined and well behaved throughout their service, earning the trust and respect of convicts and indigenous Australians, and the praise of the Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, RN. They shared most of the privations and fears of the convicts they guarded, particularly when famine threatened to extinguish the fledgling colony throughout 1789 and into 1790, however they never became oppressive or tyrannical. Their many expeditions into the hinterland also opened up much of the Sydney plain for further settlement.
Many of the First Fleet Marines were former tradesmen displaced by the Industrial Revolution, and their skills helped to build the young colony. Some thirty married men were permitted to bring their wives and children with them and other Marines and Officers took convict wives and mistresses for the duration of their time in Sydney. The last detachment of First Fleet Marines left Sydney in December 1792. Some remained behind, having discharged and become free settlers and at least 38 transferred to the NSW Corps. One Officer, one NCO and 25 Privates had died in Australia. In recognition of their excellent service, both in Australia and in other theatres of operation, the British Corps of Marines was granted the title of Royal Marines in 1802.
The hobby of historical re-enactment has come a long way since its earliest beginnings in Britain in the late 1960s. There are now many groups in Australia representing all periods from the Roman Legions to the Second World War. Australian Colonial Marine Enactments (ACME) was formed in 1994 to recreate the Marines, Royal Navy and NSW Corps of early colonial Australia. Our aim is to both educate and entertain the general public about this early period of Australian history and to enjoy ourselves doing it!
We predominantly wear period Marine uniforms consisting of white shirt and `small clothes’ (waistcoat and trousers or breeches), black canvas or wool gaiters with pewter buttons, brick red swallow tailed coat with white cuffs and collar (known as facings), a black leather or felt `stock’ around the neck and headgear consisting of a black bicorn with an extended front. The correct weapon for Marines is the sea service version of the famous Brown Bess musket complete with its seventeen inch bayonet. This musket was different from the various land pattern versions in service with the army in that it was slightly shorter and had a wooden ramrod to counteract the effects of rust from seawater. We use full working replica Brown Bess muskets manufactured for the world re-enactment fraternity by the Italian company Pedersoli. Crossbelts complete the uniform by providing a stowage for cartridges and bayonet. If worn, the pack is the same pattern of goatskin knapsack then in use by the army, however Marines were generally not expected to be ashore for extended periods of time.
Rank is indicated by means of various items on the uniform and in some cases even by the weapons used! Corporals wore a braided or worsted `knot’ on their left shoulder – a deviation from the days of matchlock muskets when the corporal kept a spare matchcord to reignite the matchcords of his men should they blow out. Sergeants also wore a knot on the left shoulder and were further distinguished by a scarlet sash with a central 12 mm white stripe worn around the waist, silver lace around the bicorn, a hangar or small sword and the use of a halberd rather than a musket. A halberd is a type of polearm with an axe head and was a useful tool in checking the dressing of the men and as a means of encouraging the less courageous men in the rear ranks! Officers were identifiable from their tailored uniforms, a magenta sash worn around the waist, the silver braiding on their bicorns and from the silver bullion epaulettes on their shoulders. Lieutenants and below wearing one on the right shoulder, Captains and above wearing two. Officers were also the only men to carry swords. Drummers were easily identifiable by their reversed colour jackets (ie. white with red facings) and tall mitre caps.
Australian Colonial Marine Enactments parade regularly at Old Sydney Town and at historic houses and festivals throughout Sydney. We can provide period drill and musket firing displays, honour guards, period encampments and cannon firings with our original 8 pound naval carronade.
`The First Fleet Marines 1786- 1792′ by John Moore, University of Qld Press 1987
`Nelson’s Navy’ by Philip Haythornthwaite, Osprey Publishing Ltd 1993