20. Bonds of Friendship

Photo: Isobel Holling

In 1787 the First Fleet of British ships brought the first British colonists and convicts to Australia. It was made up of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports. On 13 May 1787, the fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, with over 1400 people (convicts, marines, sailors, civil officers and free settlers), left from Portsmouth, England and took a journey of over 24,000 kilometres (15,000 mi) and over 250 days to eventually arrive in Botany Bay, New South Wales, where a penal colony would become the first British settlement in Australia.

The majority of the people travelling with the fleet were convicts, all having been tried and convicted in Great Britain, almost all of them in England. Many are known to have come to England from other parts of Great Britain and, especially, from Ireland; at least 14 are known to have come from the British colonies in North America; 12 are identified as black (born in Britain, Africa, the West Indies, North America, India or a European country or its colony). The convicts had committed a variety of crimes, including theft, perjury, fraud, assault, robbery, for which they had variously been sentenced to death, which was then commuted to penal transportation for 7 years, 14 years, or the term of their natural life.

This memorial sculpture, which now sits at the Wolfson minibus stop and has been seen by thousands of students, is a version of the piece which commemorates the links between Australia and Britain, and in particular between Portsmouth and Sydney, the start and end points of that first fleet which sailed to Australia in 1787 and arrived in 1788. It was unveiled in each of those two cities in 1980.

It consists of two large bronze rings joined together as in a chain, suggesting both links between the two countries, and the chains which bound the first convicts. Symbolically, the chain extends from Portsmouth to Sydney over the route travelled by the First Fleet. The surfaces of the sculptures are also rich in symbolism; the Portsmouth one has a dull painted surface to denote the ‘old country’ and the links of the chain in Sydney, like those at Wolfson, are highly polished brass to represent the ‘new country’.

The sculptor, John Robinson, was living and working in England when he created these works. John Robinson was born in London in 1935 and lived in Australia from 1940-1943 and from 1952-1969. During these years Robinson worked as a jackeroo, trekked on horseback 1,100 kilometres through the King Leopold Ranges in the Kimberley and farmed land in the South Australian Ninety Mile Desert, an experience that formed the basis of some of his later work.

The artist himself donated this piece to Wolfson in 1985-6. The instigator of the generosity was the College Bursar at the time, Geoffrey Garton, who had seen the artist’s work during a visit to Australia. John Robinson died in 2007.

The original work in Sydney has this wording carved onto its plinth:

“This memorial commemorates the voyage and arrival in Sydney of the First Fleet which brought to Australia its first European settlers under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, R.N. The fleet sailed from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787 and anchored in Sydney Cove at a spot just north of this memorial on 26 January 1788. At departure they carried a total complement of about 1487 that embarked at Plymouth, Portsmouth and the Thames.”

Photo: Isobel Holling

As a symbol of international connections, and as both a starting point and a terminus, the sculpture is very appropriate to mark the electric minibus stop!

Tim Hitchens