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Governor for a Day

Key Inquiry Question #1: 
What ‘work’ was done by male and female convicts of the First Fleet?

Student activities

Task no. 1

Governor for a Day

The Governor, Arthur Phillip, had close to absolute power over the settlement. There was a strict hierarchy: the Governor was at the top with complete authority, then the officers, other colonists like the chaplain and their families, soldiers and marines, and the convicts, at the lowest level. 

Look at this painting of Governor Arthur Phillip.

[Captain Arthur Phillip, 1786] / painted by Francis Wheatley, 1786
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Vote or assign one student in the class to be Governor for a day.

Although we don’t know the actual number of people who arrived in the colony on the First Fleet, there were nearly 1,500 people on the ships. These included:

  • the Governor, a chaplain, a surveyor, a judge, several surgeons
  • about 16 officers, 192 marines, 42 wives and their children
  • approximately 548 convict men, 188 convict women and their children. A few of the convicts were children too.

Divide the class into similar proportions as the First Fleet. One Governor is chosen and approximately one quarter of the class is in Group 1 (Officials and Military + wives and their children) and three quarters of the class are in Group 2 (convicts + their children). Perhaps have a badge/sticker to identify everyone in Group 1 so the ‘Governor’ knows who is in that group.

As Arthur Phillip was in charge of the colony, the ‘Governor’ makes all the decisions for the rest of the class for the whole day. The ‘Governor’ decides (out of Group 1) who goes to recess first, who gets first access to the reading books, who answers the question, be class leaders etc. Obviously, the convicts never get picked for the fun stuff and have to do the hard work - pick up rubbish, sweep the classroom, clean the board and empty the bins (or whatever your class doesn’t like doing!).

Discuss this experience at the end of the day.

Before answering the following questions, consider which group of people living in Warrane/Sydney Cove has been overlooked in this task? [Answer in Additional Information.]

Answer these questions:

  • How did it feel to have someone with all the power make decisions for you?
  • How did the ‘convicts’ (Group 2) feel having to do all the work with no privileges?
  • What was it like to be the ‘Governor’? Discuss both positives and negatives of the role.
  • How was the experience different for the ‘Officials/Officers/Marines’ (Group 1)?
  • How did it feel for the ‘convicts’ (Group 2) to have no say in what happened to them? (Imagine that happening for years!)
  • Which group of people living in Sydney has been overlooked in this task?