The first officer to step ashore at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 was Major George Johnston. Although most of those steps were instead taken by Cornish convict James Ruse on whose back George clung to as he transferred from rowboat to the white sands of Camp Cove. (Ruse himself would later gain some fame as the first ex-convict to receive a land grant in the new colony. He has been referred to as the ‘Father of Australian agriculture’).
Governor Arthur Phillip and other officers of the First Fleet than gathered around a hastily erected flagstaff to drink to the King’s health and to the success of the new settlement.
George Johnson enjoyed a comfortable 3-month voyage to the new settlement as a senior officer on board the all female convict transport the Lady Penrhyn. One pretty teenage convict, Esther Abrahams, caught George’s eye and they continued their relationship after arrival, later to marry raising seven children.
Over the next few decades the anniversary of this first landing at Port Jackson would pass largely unnoticed, although the newer migrants and emancipated convicts would privately often recognise the date to ‘celebrate their love of the land they lived in’ with ‘drinking and merriment’.
But by all accounts, the 20th anniversary of the founding of the first European settlement at Port Jackson was a boisterous and lengthy celebration beginning after sunset on 26 January and continuing in various forms well into the night. On this day, 26 January 1808, George assumed the rank of Lieutenant Governor and led his troops in a military coup against Governor William Bligh in the only successful armed takeover of a government in Australia’s recorded history. George Johnson would later be court martialed.
And the Batemans Bay connection…?
Youngest son of George and Esther was Robert Johnson. Robert, the first Australian born commissioned officer, was determined to forge his own career separate from the infamy of his father. In 1820 and 1822, in the company of Hamilton Hume (of Hume & Hovell fame) and Alexander Berry (who later settled in the town that bears his name), became the first to explore Batemans Bay and to name the Clyde River. Johnson anchored his ship the Snapper in the protection of a small tree covered island he named after his vessel. His exploration of the region extended 40kms upstream to Shallow Crossing and further north as far as Pigeon House Mountain and to the summit of the Budawang Mountains.
As a result of these expeditions, Lieutenant Johnson initiated an awareness of the potential that would lead to the later settlement around Batemans Bay and to the link extending through to the rich inland agricultural communities of Goulburn, Queanbeyan and Braidwood.
In an interesting footnote to this story, George’s great-great-great-grandson, Rear Admiral Sir David Martin, would become Governor of New South Wales in 1988 without the drama of a Rum Rebellion.
E. Phillips Fox, Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, 1902