Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sydney: First Fleeting Views

Almost exactly 220 years ago, the First Fleet commanded by Arthur Philip sailed into Port Jackson, and according to their own records of the event, decided that it was the most magnificent harbour they had ever set eyes on. They had spend a number of disappointed days anchored a little further south in Botany Bay, wonder where were the lush meadowlands, and safe landings Captain Cook had described. Although it looked a great deal more promising than Botany Bay, this new location proved to be a purgatory of disease, famine and mutiny for a number of years, until a dependable agricultural base took hold and the future of the city that was to be known as Sydney was assured.

Maybe it was because I has read up a little on the subject of the founding of Sydney (or maybe because I'm a pretentious git who can't just shut up and take in the sights) but the emotional impact of seeing Sydney Harbour Bridge and then immediately afterwards the Opera House, was on a different scale to anything so far on the trip. Much more intense, for example, than Tiananmen gate and the Forbidden City, though these have a longer and more powerful history. Perhaps it's precisely because the story feels so recent and so far away from the seats of power of the time, that it also feels so human and personal.

I tried to imagine (unsuccessfully) how the place would have looked back then to the sailors, and how the ships might have been observed from the perspective that I now occupied, Bennelong Point (named after the first of the Eora to befriend the arriving English - though they did have to kidnap the poor sod first in order to make the necessary introductions and initiate the relationship).

And then I found myself conjuring up the image of that same First Fleet sailing into present-day Sydney. Arthur Philip left the place in 1792 and never returned. He felt, with some justification, that he had done everything possible and necessary to sow the seeds of a successful outpost of the British empire. But what he left behind was still very fragile, and had a long struggle ahead of it. What would he have thought if he too had caught sight of Sydney Harbour Bridge for the first time today, springing out as it does from the location of his first settlement? He'd have seen ferries and jetboats churning up the water, skyscrapers stacked up in the background, and of course, if the view were not alien enough to his 17th century experience, the Opera House reflecting the sun from many points at once.

It'd be nice to think that after a nice warm cocoa, and a bit of a lie down (during which someone would have been kind enough to mention to the poor chap that not only was the British monarch still head of state of New South Wales, but had extended its power to cover the entire continent of Australia) he would have taken a deep satisfaction in the role he played in making the 'Botany Bay Experiment' into such a spectacular city.

Australia Day is on Saturday. The whole country - with the probable and understandable exception of Bennelong's people and the other Australian aboriginal groups - celebrates the landing of the First Fleet 220 years ago in Sydney Cove (named after Lord Sydney who was the Home Secretary at the time - though apparently nobody is quite sure why the man himself chose the name for the peerage which died with him). Officially sanctioned activities include BBQing and talking ill of British cricket. I'm up for a bit of that!

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