Unfortunately the logs of the Second Fleet ships no longer exist so information about the voyage is limited to letters written by those on the ships, a few diaries and reports written about the large death toll resulting from the voyage.
The Neptune was the largest ship in the fleet at 809 tons (according to the contractors), had a crew of 83 and was built on the Thames in 1779. Flynn describes the conditions on the ship (pp 32 -33). Most of the male convicts were housed on the orlop deck which was the third deck from the top and measured 75 feet by 35 feet and the height of the convict quarters varied from 6 feet six inches to 5 feet seven inches. There were four rows of probably open ended cabins (a row on each side of the ship with two rows in the middle).The convicts slept in bunks or hammocks in very crowded conditions. There would have been no portholes. Lights burned in the aisles until 8 pm and then all was dark.Convicts were chained by wrists, legs or ankles and in some cases a convict was chained to another convict. Six men formed a mess with one being released to collect the rations for the week and to cook meals for the mess in communal coppers below deck provided that there was no heavy weather. Consequently the convicts had to do without hot food for days at a time. Life was a little better for the 78 female convicts who lived in a section of the upper deck and were released from their chains. They were allowed on the Quarter Deck during the day while at sea. The female convicts were kept separate from the male convicts and the crew were also not meant to have access to them though, as some of the female convicts became pregnant during the voyage, this order was not always observed. Conditions were bad aboard the Neptune but they did not have to contend with additional problem on the smaller ship, Surprize, which shipped large quantities of water during heavy seas and were therefore confined in a wet as well as an unhealthy prison.
On 15 October 1789 the three transport ships left Deptford where they had been fitted out in order to embark the soldiers who were to replace the marines at Port Jackson and the convicts. On 19 October the Neptune had embarked two officers, 43 men forming the New South Wales Corps and two wives. One of the soldiers was John Macarthur who sailed with his wife, Elizabeth. On 11 November four male and 27 female convicts left Newgate Gaol to board the Neptune while 61 female convicts from country gaols, including Kezia, were the next to come aboard. The next day 83 male convicts from the Justia hulk and 41 from the Censor hulk at Woolwich were brought aboard. The ship then sailed to Plymouth where, on the 28th November, 300 convicts from the Dunkirk hulk embarked. The Neptune then sailed from Plymouth to Portsmouth but on this short journey a number of the convicts died and were buried at sea. Some bodies which were apparently just thrown overboard without being weighted down, washed up along the coastline near Portsmouth. By 21 December a number of free women who had lived with male convict plus children of convicts were also aboard the ship. D'Arcy Wentworth also travelled as a passenger on the Neptune.
The departure of the Second Fleet was delayed by stormy weather. Reports on the conditions on board the ships had been circulating via government communications however they were generally ignored. The ships arrived at the Motherbank on 12 January 1790 but the storms delayed the sailing of the fleet until Sunday 17 January when the skies cleared and a westerly wind enabled sailing.
Three days after departure the ships, now in the Bay of Biscay, encountered a storm lasting all day. The rest of the 84 day journey to the Cape of Good Hope was reasonably good but the temperatures in February were often very high. The ships crossed the Equator on the 25th February and arrived at the Cape on 13 April. By this time many aboard the ships were suffering from scurvy. Consequently supplies of fresh meat and vegetables were ordered to be served on each of the sixteen days they were in port to try and counter the condition. However it was reported that on the second leg of the voyage rations on the Neptune were cut to compensate for the purchase of fresh food at the Cape. The ships left the Cape of Good Hope on the 29 April with the Surprize arriving at Sydney Cove on 26 June 1790 and the Neptune and the Scarborough arriving on the 28 June.
The length of the journey, compared with the journey of the Lady Juliana, was relatively short stopping at only one port for just over two weeks en route. However this meant that the amount of fresh food available to those on board was limited resulting in illness, particularly scurvy for a large proportion of convicts and crew. The male convicts were also kept in irons for much of the journey whereas the irons were removed after the first week unless a punishment was being imposed for the the convicts of the Lady Juliana and the Neptune.
The arrival of the ships at Port Jackson with their cargo of sick passengers and reports of the the many deaths during the voyage caused concern among many in the colony and also in some quarters when news of the voyage reached England. Although reports were written and investigated and articles written in the press, those responsible were not punished. However from 1792 conditions on the convict ships were improved. Contracts stated that an initial payment would continue to be paid for each convict embarked but an additional payment would be made for each convict arriving at the colony alive. Each ship would also have a naval surgeon to ensure that the welfare of the convicts was protected.
- Bateson, Charles. The convict ships 1787-1868. Library of Australian History, 2004
- Flynn, Michael. The Second Fleet: Britain's grim convict armada of 1790. Library of Australian History, 1993