Updated: Sep 19
Presented by Fellowship of First Fleeters, President Jon Fearon at First Fleet House on 24th July 2022
As President of the Fellowship of First Fleeters, I have been invited to give you a lecture! I'm sure you don't deserve that. How about a miscellany of thoughts, ancestral and contemplative? With a gathering in front of me of two comparable organisations, steeped in heritage and honouring their esteemed forebears, I greet you with the words, Good Morning, descendants and your kin, and welcome to First Fleet House.
Some of you can perhaps remember back to your school and study days and the challenges your teachers gave you at exam time. You may even recall being taught how to answer essay questions by careful analysis of the sentence in front of you to find the key verb which would tell you what to do.
One of my favourites, not only as a student but also some years later as a teacher, was the old Compare and Contrast question, one that my son, currently working in the secondary education field, tells me is not so common in school assessments these days.
Nevertheless, with that in mind and without going into detail, I share with you some comparisons and contrasts between the Mayflower and the First Fleet. We will start with obvious Contrasts, the earlier voyage and its travellers mentioned first. Here are some differences in tabular form
King James I
Stuart Kings (Scottish) Early 17th Century
2 Ships, then 1
102 travellers: Privately arranged: We want to go away heading west
A turning back
Deep-thinking pilgrims: A voyage of two months
Arrival in a cold northern winter. Original destination not reached. Not the first colonial settlement
Needed local food to survive
George Ill House of Hanover (German) Late 18th Century
12 Ships, then 11
About 1500 travellers. Organised by the State. We'll send them away. Heading east
No turning back. Put-down convicts
A voyage of eight months. Arrival in a hot southern summer
Original destination reached but not taken up.
First colonial settlement
Needed brought rations to survive
Let's now look at the Comparisons and see what the two journeys have in common. Those who travelled were representative of a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, most of them certainly not from the upper levels of society. Both journeys included planned stopovers, and despite sickness and death on board, storms and leaky vessels, good seamanship got them through.
Significantly, descendants of both pioneering voyagers have seen fit to form societies to honour their ancestors and to emphasise and maintain the correct rendering of history. In the 21st Century, despite being challenged by so called 'cancel culture' campaigners, our shared high ideals allow us to rest in the knowledge that the resilience of those who have gone before has laid firm foundations for the nations that followed.
Pioneering life in the first settlements of Plymouth and Sydney Cove is well documented and all of us have probably studied such historical records to gain an insight into the tough conditions that needed to be personally and collectively mastered to ensure survival.
Today, however, I want to take you in another direction, back to the lands our travellers came from and to share some aspects of the culture they left behind. I have been investigating the 'high culture' that was long established in their countries of origin, namely Britain and the Netherlands. While our ancestors were pitting themselves against natural and human elements in forest and bush to make a livelihood, their more sophisticated cousins at home may have been well into 'the Arts', attending concerts in grand music halls and cathedrals, admiring impressive artworks in purpose-built galleries, reading the latest poetry and novels purchased from bookshops, or being entertained by dramatic and musical performances at the new theatres in the busting and rapidly growing towns.
Taking my cue from the learned social commentators who know about these things, I agree that various forms of Literature, such as Poetry, Fiction, Essays and Drama, along with Music, both Religious and Secular, and Art, such as Painting and Sculpture, all come under the heading of 'the Arts'.
What follows is a brief 'layman's' look at the so-called high culture in both centuries and with it a suggestion that you join me in investigating what aspect of that culture, if any, our ancestors took with them to enhance their lives in their new settlements across the seas.
England, particularly during the reign of King James, was marked by religious ferment, as separatists and puritans increasingly criticised the excesses seen in the established church. Three quarters of the population were the common people, most of whom were illiterate and usually so poor that in struggling to make ends meet they would have had little time to engage in high cultural pursuits. However, if given the chance, they did enjoy the theatre, especially the comedies and the retelling of histories filled with action.
This was a Literary Age, the age that gave us the Authorised Version of the Bible, but also the age of writers and poets such as William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, both masters at their craft. Playhouses were established on the outskirts of the growing towns but for a long time they were considered beneath the standards of the refined urban establishment lauded by the upper classes of the nobility and gentry.
The middle classes, the professionals and merchants and even the yeomen-farmers, described by one historian as 'the backbone of England', were able to make time to marvel over great works on the stage. The 17th Century was rich in literature and poetry, an especially high calling, had many worth exponents of the art. John Donne's works show the full range between his early sensualism and his later religious poems, while his contemporary, George Herbert concentrated on personal issues that related to his calling as a priest and wrote no secular works. Donne and Herbert represented the established church of England while puritan poets such as John Milton and John Bunyan writing later in the century, were from the other side of the religious divide.
High culture Music during the reign of King James was well represented in both church and secular circles, the former mainly supported by the royal court and its attendant nobles and gentry. James, like his parents and grandparents and the monarchs before that who had been awarding doctorates to composers, was an accomplished lute player and major patron of the arts. He rebuilt the Scottish Chapel Royal and then established the same in London for which composers such as William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons were employed to arrange settings of Anglican services and anthems.
Secular music included English madrigals (part songs) based on what was popular in Italy, and one of the main composers of these was Thomas Morley. Also, widely sung at the time were solo songs for lute accompaniment and consorts of instruments, both genres of which were often written for court masques. These were elaborate performances, often designed to flatter a noble or royal person, that involved music and dancing, singing and acting, all within a complex stage design, the playwrights, William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson often wrote masque-like sections into their plays and the general public would have appreciated these lighter interludes with music, jokes and dancing when they were used to break up the heaviness of the histories and tragedies. Up to an hour of instrumental music (organs, lutes, viols and pipes) often preceded dramatic performances in the theatre.
While literature and music dominated the high arts and flourished in the British Isles during the first years of the 16th century and on into the reign of James 1, Art, painting and sculpture, did not. There was no native British painting tradition, just as occasional copyist of foreign styles whose work may have been destined for the home of a wealthy benefactor.
Across the North Sea, however, in the Netherlands, the picture was very different. The main high artistic focus was Painting which had already been flourishing for over 100 years from the time of Jan van Eyck who invented oil painting and Peter Breugel the Elder with his glowing landscapes and impressions of peasant life. The
latter part of the 17th century saw the golden Age of Dutch art, with many types and styles represented. Early in the century, at the time the Pilgrims left, there were artists living and working in Leyden who were still painting religious themes. Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leyden in 1606, but his most productive years were yet to come, with his portraits and depictions of Biblical scenes.
While painting may have flourished in the Netherlands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Music did not. Jan Pieterz woen Sweetlinck was a famous organist and as a state appointed musician, he was able to give organ recitals in town churches and public halls. For the Calvinists and Huguenots, the ruling was no organs in church, as they were considered too worldly. The Synod of Dordrecht in 1574 had ruled that the 'playing of organs in church should be completely abolished according to the teaching of Paul.' Accordingly, music in church services was limited to unaccompanied singing, usually Psalms. There was however a music college in Leyden at that time.
Jacob van Eyck who lived from 1589 to 1650 was an expert bell tuner and the carillon, a form of musical culture, was quite prominent in his lifetime. He also wrote works for and was skilled at playing the soprano recorder. There was some private music making and young people of the wealthy upper classes spent their leisure time playing music. The lower and peasant classes gathered and made music on ceremonial occasions such as weddings and seasonal feasts. Taverns were the places where brash worldly music was enjoyed by some. Song books were published with words by Dutch Poets and their instrumental settings were often for Lutes and cittern (a guitar-like zither).
As for Netherlandish Literature, there were several poet-dramatists making a living at that time, their style similar to those across the North Sea in England. Gerbrand Bedero's comedies and dramas have been likened to those of his contemporary, Ben Jonson. The best known of all Dutch writers, Joost van den Vandel, as a playwright gave his people dramas in a similar style to those of William Shakespeare.
Before moving forward two centuries, I leave you with a challenging question: Were the Pilgrims familiar with any of these artistic endeavours, and if so, what did they take with them to enhance their lives as they settled in North America?
In 1787 when the First Fleet set sail form Portsmouth, those on board the various vessels included naval officers and their crews, the military (marines), the convicts, a few private citizens and the crews of the merchant ships hired for the voyage. The high culture existing in the United Kingdom at the time, particularly as seen in the towns and growing cities, would have impacted the travelers to a variable degree depending on their social class and educational background.
For the educated, Literature was the mainstay, and throughout the 18th Century there was a wealth of publishers eager to reach the public with new works that reflected not only the social conditions of the time but also the morality and high ethics of classical antiquity. The Century has been designated as 'the most diverse and innovative period in literary history.'
Prose works often had political undercurrents and Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift, was widely known, as were many pamphlets, essays and biographies. Novels were becoming popular and widely read. Many of them, such as Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, and Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne, were written in comic style and featured unvirtuous heroes.
Poetry was also undergoing changes, with the moralistic and satirical tones of the earlier 18th century poets Alexander Pope and Thomas Grey leading on to the nostalgia of Oliver Goldsmith (The Deserted Village) with its critique of society's move from agriculture to industrialisation. The romantic and nature poetry of William Wordsworth and John Keats was only just beginning to become popular by the end of the century. Drama, especially the comedies of Richard Sheridan (School for Scandal) and others were not so much read by the literati but rather watched and performed many times by and for all classes of society. They were the equivalent of comedy series much loved by television viewers today.
The Music scene in 18th Century London was dominated by foreign composers such as George Frederick Handel (Messiah), and by visiting performers. Concerts, operas, oratorios and chamber music were the main forms. England was the first country to develop the concert as a popular event, and over a hundred venues were in regular use in the middle of the century, the most important being Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Concerts could all be
heard in halls, taverns, clubs and private residences.
The rising middle class, with their social mobility and status consciousness, drove the expansion of music, helped by the publication of sheet music for songs and chamber works that could be performed in the private homes of the upwardly mobile. Popular songs, many from folk traditions, were loved by all classes and were often sung with gusto in the taverns and coffee houses of the time. From formal religion came many carols, with hymns and chants well known by the church faithful. Their popularity was no doubt an outcome of the earlier evangelical revival led by John and Charles Wesley.
Unlike the earlier centuries when the British Visual and Fine Arts were limited to church architectural decoration and symbolic ornamentation and occasional visits by foreign painters, the 18th century saw the full flowering of home-grown genres in a particular British style.
Artists from various parts of Europe had extended times in the country to develop their skills, especially capturing different forms of light. Portrait painting dominated throughout and was probably considered the highest form of art by the public who now had galleries to visit and works to critique. Some decorative allegorical scenes were still used to adorn public buildings.
The greatest painter of the mid-century was William Hogarth whose satirical scenes of English life and character were highly popular and bought as engravings and prints by the Protestant middle classes. Sculpture was also greatly admired although its sculptors were usually visitors from Europe, especially Italy. Local porcelain production, silversmithing and estate landscaping were all highly developed by British craftsmen and advances in these arts were copied offshore by others in the same fields.
After the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, the classical age of English painting 1750-1790 was dominated by four artists of great repute and skill in many genres, Joshua Reynolds (portraits}, George Stubbs (animals}, Thomas Gainsborough (portraits and landscapes) and Joseph Wright of Derby (industrial scenes). Painters such as these were the wealthiest men in the country, familiar to newspaper readers and to the talk of the town. With such examples it's little wonder that the upper and middle classes were taking lessons and dabbling in painting and other fine arts, refined hobbies as befitting their status.
Having just described some of the cultural life of Britain in the second half of the 18th Century, we can see that for those who could afford it, the 'good life' of the time would have involved diverse cultural pursuits. Most of the working class would have had to forgo such privileges, working long hours so they and their large families could survive. Even so, my question remains, what aspects of that high culture of origin came with the First Fleeters to be reborn in their newly settled communities?