Don’t Stop The Rocks: Bawdiness & Bubonic Plague in Australia’s first Colonial Settlement

The Rocks are the birthplace of white Australia, the area where the First Fleet finally encamped after the long voyage from England

Don't Stop The Rocks: Bawdiness & Bubonic Plague in Australia's first Colonial Settlement

History Facts

Where: The Rocks, Around Sydney Harbour, Sydney, southeast Austalian coast
When: Settled in 1788, rebuilt in 1900
History: Australia’s first white settlement, where convicts struggled with the elements to set up home and ravaged the native tribe’s homeland

Finest Harbour in the World

The Rocks are the birthplace of white Australia, the area where the First Fleet finally encamped after the long voyage from England. The fleet had intended to settle at Botany Bay, but found that it was nowhere near as habitable as they had understood from the journals of Captain James Cook, the man who navigated the Australian coastline and claimed it as British territory. In Port Jackson, now known as Sydney Harbour, Governor Phillip found “the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride with the most perfect security”.

image: sydney harbour bridge

Despite these rhapsodies, little thought was given to the security of the original inhabitants, who were under threat from the white invasion. The Iora Aborigines of the Rocks area must have watched in astonishment as the European vessels sailed into the harbour and the white men staggered on to the steep sandstone ledges and rocky shores (from which The Rocks takes its name) to build their penal colony. It appears that relations were friendly between the groups at first, with the officers making conciliatory gifts of ribbons and beads, and the natives telling the invaders the names of things in their own tongue.

These coastal dwelling Aborigines had inhabited the Rocks for thousands of years as the constant availability of fish in the harbour meant that there was no need to leave the coast other than for trade and ceremony. The 1500-year-old remains of a campfire were recently discovered in the Rocks area, complete with the scraps of a meal of snapper and rock oysters. Other artefacts and objects used by the Iora, such as weapons and large flat baking stones, have been found in the area, as well as numerous rock engraving sites.

Setting up Home

Despite the presence of these inhabitants, the convicts were ordered to begin building crude shelters for the fledgling colony. The land to be cleared was hard and unfamiliar to the convicts, and the work difficult after long, inactive months at sea had made jelly of their muscles. It took two weeks before there were enough shelters ready for the female convicts, who had been kept on board in the harbour. By the time they had disembarked, a fierce thunderstorm had broken out, which turned the ground to mud and whipped many of the tents away. Unfazed, the convicts and marines, many drunk with celebratory rum and deprived of the mere sight of a woman for months, were intent on one thing only. And so the Rocks from which modern Australia grew provided the shelter and crevices for Australia’s first drunken orgy.

Because of a combined lack of skill and decent tools, the early convict shelters built in the Rocks were mere huts of cabbage tree palm, with roofs were made of insect-infested reeds which washed away in the rain – as did the mud sealing the walls. By 1790, bricks were being crudely manufactured and were used to build a two-storey government house. Mortar could only be obtained by collecting and burning oyster shells for lime – however, this was such an arduous task that the Government House was the only structure built with it. All other buildings were held together by a mixture of mud & sheep’s hair, which washed away in the rain and explains why, despite the relative youth of the area, no original buildings still stand in the Rocks.

No Room at the Inn

Despite early attempts at friendly relations with the Iora Aborigines, the clearing of land and hunting of game compromised their spiritual links with the land and destroyed the resources on which they depended for their survival. Bloodshed was soon common, as the convicts, reviled and exiled, sought someone to whom they could feel superior. Even more commonly, the introduction of European diseases like smallpox and influenza, to which the natives had no immunity, had devastating effects, as they spread and wiped out hundreds of the 1500 or so natives that Governor Phillip had estimated inhabited the area. Bodies were seen floating in the harbour and decomposing in the hollows of the Rocks as traditional burial practices were abandoned by those fleeing for their own survival, or too unwell to carry them out.

The absence of coinage in the early settlement led to the use of rum, over which the corrupt soldiers of the NSW corps had a monopoly, as currency. The Rocks, having been the dumping ground for England’s unsavoury and disadvantaged rejects, quickly gained a reputation for bawdiness, villainy and drunkenness, and the development of the area was further hindered.

The face of the Rocks changed somewhat as it became an important point of call on trading routes. Whaling and sealing bought sea-faring itinerants to the area and buildings became more permanent. The Rocks were still the slums of Sydney, where sailors and prostitutes exchanged favours, pubs and boarding houses contained mainly lower working class rabble, and gangs of hooligans roamed the streets. The discovery of gold in Australia had bought an influx of Chinese immigrants and the Rocks became Sydney’s first Chinatown where immigrants scraped about for a living in conditions of appalling squalor.

Cleaning up the slums

An outbreak of bubonic plague in the early 1900s gave the Government an opportunity to buy the Rocks outright and embark on a massive cleanup of the area, the first day of which resulted in 750 tons of debris being dumped in the sea or burnt on the streets. Sydney’s public hygiene was atrocious, with rampant rats, no proper sewage systems and a dependence on the nightcart to remove human filth, but Australia’s early racism manifested itself and blamed the Chinese community for the spread of the disease.

Once in government hands, the Rocks were soon modernised with the building of the Harbour Bridge causing hundreds of buildings to be demolished. The heritage of the area was only preserved in some part by campaigning in the 1960s which led to the restoration of existing buildings in the federation style of sandstone and iron lace. Walking through the Rocks today, with its cosmopolitan eateries, expensive boutiques, kitsch souvenirs, sleek pubs and slick locals, the area’s chequered past seems far more than only 2 centuries ago.



Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority 
Official website giving details of the heritage and conservation of the Rocks

Article By Sarah Rodrigues

main image: Southern approach of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with The Rocks to the left, by Corey Farwell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Related Content