One of the prettiest islands in Port Jackson has the distinction of having given us our first bushranger, Black Caesar, whose story was in the August newsletter.

The principal and almost the only policy of the Government of New South Wales during its earliest years consisted mainly of finding something to eat for the thousand or so of people who were in its charge. The country itself produced next to nothing in the way of provisions — nothing beyond kangaroos, bandicoots and fish — and Governor Phillip’s desire to get all the available land under cultivation as soon as possible is doubtless the reason to which may be traced the first occupation of Garden Island.

In the log-book of H.M.S. Sirius, under date of February 11, 1788, is the following entry: “Sent an officer and party of men to the Garden Island to clear it for a garden for the ship’s company.”

This is the first record of the existence of the island under the name it has borne ever since. There would seem to be little doubt that an advance party had already landed with a view to determining the suitability of the soil for agricultural purposes, and it is probable that the island was one of the spots earliest surveyed in the harbour by Captain Hunter when, with Lieutenant Bradley and the Master of the flagship, he set out to explore Port Jackson. He probably came back from one of his daily boat excursions to express the opinion that this island might be utilised to produce vegetables for the ship’s company.

At any rate, within sixteen days of the landing in Sydney Cove, the preliminary arrangements were made and the garden actually started. Thus did the Royal Navy add another name to the map, for the Garden Island of H.M.S. Sirius retains the same title to-day, and with it will ever be linked the name of the flagship of the First Fleet.

There is no reason given in the records as to why the island was chosen for this experiment in agriculture, and it is not easy to imagine what it could have been. Whilst the island was by nature a beauty spot in the harbour, clothed as it was in its virgin state with indigenous trees, shrubs, and flowering plants, it could never have been a fertile bit of ground. When it is remembered that there is no natural water there, the handicap of the gardeners may be easily realised. On the other hand, it was imperative that fresh provisions should be grown, and there was little ground available for immediate use.

All the foreshores of the harbour were thickly timbered, and had to be cleared of trees before cultivation could be commenced. Implements and tools were scarce in the little colony, and so were practical farmers.

Whilst the two hummocks on the northern and southern ends of Garden Island were rocky, and fairly well clothed with trees, the saddle-back in the centre seems to have been comparatively free from growth. It was this fact, probably, which induced the officers of the Sirius to select the island. It must be remembered, also, that few men could be spared from the ship for this work, as so many were required for other duties in the settlement.

Garden Island before it was connected to the mainland

There is no record of the success or otherwise of the flagship’s garden, and only about one account of what was grown there has come down to us, at a later date, when the island had been handed over to the crew of another ship. In 1803 a blackfellow was shot, whilst robbing the garden, and at the subsequent examination it was found that “the canoe of the deceased was full of maize, melons, etc., taken out of the above grounds.”

The Fleet had brought from Rio de Janeiro a large quantity of plants which it was thought might flourish in New South Wales—coffee, cocoa, bananas, oranges, lemons, guavas, tamarinds. At the Cape of Good Hope, also, many different plants were taken aboard, such as the fig, sugar-cane, quinces, apples, pears and strawberries.

When Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King founded the settlement at Norfolk Island he mentions in his diary that “We planted upwards of 1000 cabbages, and every vegetable at the plantation was in a thriving state. We had turnips, carrots, lettuces, onions, leeks, parsley, celery, five sorts of cabbages, corn salad, artichokes, and beet.” It is quite likely that most of these were available for planting in the little farm on Garden Island.

In spite of difficulties and discouragements, the amateur gardeners stuck to their job, and that they were more or less successful in their efforts is to be taken for granted, since they continued the good work even after the Sirius was lost at Norfolk Island in 1790. When the ship sailed for the Cape to get supplies, Daniel Southwell, one of the master’s mates, mentions in a letter home that they did not give up their garden.

“When we left that place we left a man to look after a kind of kitchen garden, situated in a small island in the harbour, and appropriated to the service of H.M.S. Sirius. Should this succeed and yield increase, ’twill prove of good use and worth the labour it has cost. But though we may, at our arrival, be longing for refreshments of this nature, for my own part, I will not be sanguine, for not only our black, but our still more barbarous neighbours, the convicts, may have despoiled or destroyed it.”

This caretaker lived in a tent on the island, and his duties consisted as much in keeping off marauders as attending to the plants.

After the wreck of the Sirius there seem to have existed some doubts as to whom the island belonged, but these were settled by a “Government and General Order” of January 17, 1801, in which Governor King decreed that: “Garden Island being appropriated as a garden for the Lady Nelson, no person is to land there but with Lieutenant Grant’s permission, or the Governor’s in his absence.”

However, this did not altogether settle the question, for when Macquarie arrived he found it necessary to issue the following Government Public Notice and Order: “It being deemed expedient that the island situated in the harbour of Port Jackson, and near to Farm Cove, called Garden Island, shall be comprised in and considered in future as forming a part of the Government Domain.”

This order further lays it down that all the timber and produce of the island is to be regarded as wholly appropriated to the use of the Governor’s domestic establishment, and specifies various penalties to which people disobeying this injunction will be liable.

There is not space here to go further into the history of this cradle of the bushranging industry in Australia, save to mention that for the last century or so its possession has been frequently in dispute between the New South Wales Government and the naval authorities. A Privy Council decision of a few years ago laid it down that it is really the property of the State, from which it is at present held on lease by the Commonwealth Naval Forces.

(part of an article written by J.H.M. Abbott, novelist and poet.)

Initials carved into a sandstone rock on the site are believed to be the oldest colonial graffiti in Australia, comprising the letters “FM 1788,” representing Frederick Meredith who served as Sirius‘ steward.   Sandstone fortifications, built on the island during the 1820s to protect Sydney from a much-feared Russian attack, also survive. Garden Island also boasts what is claimed to be Australia’s first lawn tennis court. Built in 1880, it is still in use, although the lawn was replaced in 1960.

Garden Island was originally an island in Sydney Harbour, but extension of the base and the construction of a dry dock in the channel between the island and the mainland have resulted in its connection to the mainland shore at Potts Point from the 1940s. The wharves of the naval base now stretch the length of the eastern side of Woolloomooloo Bay, from the suburb of Woolloomooloo to the end of the original island.

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