Sydney is the largest city in Australia & was also the first settlement here. This area was first visited by Captain Cook around 1770. He sailed past Sydney harbor without entering & anchored a little way to the South in a place he named Botany Bay (now the location of Sydney’s airport). He submitted glowing reports about Botany Bay. Meanwhile, some 17 years later, Great Britain had a growing problem with its criminal underclass. The Enclosure movement had driven many peasants off the land and into the cities where they had no way to earn a living. This led to large growth in petty crime. At that time any theft worth 40 shillings was a hanging offense, and the prisons filled up with people convicted (usually in very summary trials) of petty theft. Criminal overcrowding had for many years been eased by deportation to the American colonies where the convicts were sold into indentured servitude, usually for seven years. But the American Revolution cut off deportation there, and overcrowded prisons were supplemented by “hulks,” ships denuded of masts anchored in the Thames & at Plymouth where prisoners rotted away in the unrelieved filth with little fresh air or food.
Something had to be done, so ultimately the government decided to begin transporting convicts to Botany Bay, which was as far from England as it was possible to go & which Cook had assured them would be a good place to live. Many convicts were given a choice between the gallows and transport to Botany Bay, so you can imagine how many “volunteers” there were for transport. The “First Fleet,” headed by Arthur Phillip, arrived in Botany Bay at the beginning of 1788, but it quickly became apparent that Cook had been wrong about the living conditions, particularly because of the lack of a source of fresh water. After a few days Phillip set out to explore the other bay to the North & found it to be extraordinarily good for settlement. He wrote that it was the best harbor in the world, in which the entire British navy could be harbored with room to spare. So the fleet moved there & they began to build a settlement at a place near where the Opera House now sits that is called “the Rocks.”
The Aboriginals at Botany Bay were glad to see them go. When Cook had been there, they had gathered on the shore and shouted to him to “go away.” Of course, Cook had no idea what they were saying but he did go away. So when the First Fleet arrived there the Aboriginals again told them to “go away,” and they had every hope that this tactic would work again. But when the British began building a settlement on their land, and catching their fish to eat, they began to realize that this was a lot more serious. This led to a lot of strife.
Our plan for Day 2 was to explore the Rocks area, the oldest section of the city situated between the Harbor Bridge & the Opera House. It is a very interesting area, with old buildings, some built by the original convicts, intermingled with glass skyscrapers. The old Victorian buildings had a lot of interesting architectural detail of the kind not seen anymore (too expensive I guess).
Our first target was the State Library built in 1906, which was quite magnificent with a domed reading room. The floor in the entrance was an amazing stone inlay copy of a map of this part of the world drawn by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in the middle of the 17th century. I think he was the first to reach this part of the world, which is why it was known as New Holland into the 19th century. The island of Tasmania (which he called Van Damien’s Land) is named for him, as is the Tasman Sea between Australia & New Zealand. There is a tunnel leading to a modern library building that is mostly glass and very light & airy.
Outside the library is a statue of Matthew Flinders who we met before in Melbourne, the first circumnavigator of Australia at the beginning of the 19th century. On his way back to England he was detained in Mauritius, a French territory that was at war with England at the time. It seems he had obtained a pass, but it was in the name of his ship rather than his own name. He had lost his original ship and was returning on a different one, so the officials on Mauritius refused to recognize it and imprisoned him as a spy. He spent several years locked up there before clearing up the matter and obtaining his release. In England he wrote a book about his exploits, but he died on the very day it was published. Through all of this he was accompanied by his cat, Trim, who even stayed with him in prison on Mauritius. But when they were freed, Trim was nowhere to be found as he prepared for departure. It turned out that a group of ravenous locals had eaten him. Behind the Flinders statue out side the library is a separate statue of Trim, the first cat to circumnavigate Australia
We walked past Sydney Hospital, built in 1814. In front is Il Porcellino, a bronze copy of a well known statue in Florence, donated by the Florentines in 1968. Its nose is rubbed shiny & there is a plethora of small animals sculpted into its base.
Next we came to the Hyde Park Barracks, built in 1819 and designed by a convict turned architect, Francis Greenway. This was built to house convicts, not soldiers.
We walked through Hyde Park, lush with trees & flowers. In the center is a very elaborate fountain built in 1932, on one side is St Mary’s Cathedral and at the end is the ANZAC Memorial (but we didn’t walk that far). There was a sign warning to watch out after a rain for “failing trees.” The park is also home to a large number of Ibis, an awkward looking bird with a long beak that we were told are considered pests hereabouts.
The Queen Victoria Building was erected in 1898 as a market hall & after years of neglect it was restored in the 1980’s into a really glorious indoor mall. It has four stories with a large variety of stores & kiosks, and a huge hanging clock on which, when it strikes the hour, small figures emerge and behead Charles I (or so we have read . . . sadly, we didn’t see this happen). We rode down from the upper floor in an old fashioned cage elevator, & in front of the building is a large statue of Queen Victoria.
Over the last few decades Sydney has developed into a cosmopolitan & ethnically diverse city (it has only been a few decades since Australia abandoned its narrow racial immigration restrictions). This month it is celebrating Chinese New Year over a period of several weeks & the city was decorated with some delightful displays. Our favorite was the rabbits in front of the old Customs House, built in 1845 & remodeled in 1885, whose first three floors house the city’s public library (which we didn’t visit because we only learned about it later). We also passed a fellow playing the Digeridoo; not just for Chinese New Year, he looked pretty permanent (and other passengers mentioned they had seen him on previous visits). We have had a digeridoo player on board since we left New Zealand, teaching passengers how to play. His scheduled performance was, unfortunately, canceled because he injured his eardrum shortly after boarding the ship.
Well, after seeing all this, doing some shopping & consuming huge cones of gelato it was time to return to the ship for the sail-away. It had been a sunny & warm day, but at sail-away it turned cloudy & overcast, so the views were not as great as they could have been. Pretty good still, though. There was a big party on the aft deck as we left & HAL provided free wine & food so everyone was feeling happy, including moi. We passed by all the icons one last time: the Opera House, the Harbor Bridge & Luna Park. There was a group of bridge climbers on top as we passed under the bridge & there were shouted greetings on both sides. We had to wait about an hour at the mouth of the harbor for a boat to come out and pick up two passengers with medical issues that required hospital care, then we sailed up the Eastern coast of Australia. This was too short a stay in this special city, which left quite a lot to do and see next time.