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First European gardens

Landing at Botany Bay with the First Fleet in January 1788, Arthur Phillip found the site unsuitable for settlement, so sailed north to Port Jackson. Here he set up the new colony at Sydney Cove and Farm Cove, on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, but he was soon seeking more productive farmland upstream at Parramatta.

First recorded European garden

It is not certain whether it was the British or French who established the first recorded garden on mainland Australia.

In 1783 the French government decided to mount an expedition to the Pacific to complete Captain James Cook’s unfinished work, King Louis XVI himself helping to craft the plan and itinerary for captain La Pérouse.[1] After visiting Norfolk Island La Pérouse had entered Botany Bay on 26 January 1788 just as the first ships of the British First Fleet were setting out with Phillip for Port Jackson. La Pérouse and Phillip did not meet, but French and remaining British officers mixed happily as the French lingered in Botany Bay for six weeks refitting their ships and planting a vegetable garden, later known as the ‘French Garden’ .[2] This garden would supply later British colonists with vegetables for many years. The only description we have of the garden is by a Frenchmen aboard Coquille under captain Duperrey in 1824, who noted the remaining reputation of the garden along with some physical traces of the garden itself. The site was always respected by the British, Governor Macquarie intending to plant a beautiful garden on the site and to retain the name ‘French Garden’ which, at this time, still provided vegetables for the British soldiers quartered a short distance away.[2]

Meanwhile, to the north, as soon as Phillip’s tent was pitched in Sydney Cove, a garden was established, known as the Governor’s Farm, at Farm Cove, on land now occupied by Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Phillip had set aside the Sydney Domain as his private reserve where the First Government House was built in 1788.[3] Plant expertise was lacking, although Phillip’s manservant Henry Dodd (1748-1791), who had been a labourer on Phillip’s property in Hampshire, England, was placed in charge of a team of convicts trying, unsuccessfully, to grow wheat and corn on 3.6 ha of land at Farm Cove. The first harvest of grain from the site occurred in July 1788. However most of the crop failed due to being planted out of season in poor soil – and being eaten by rats.

In February 1788, Dodd established functional rectilinear plots at Farm Cove at a site that would later become the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. It was a makeshift utilitarian and eclectic mix of kitchen garden, ornamental garden and plant introduction/acclimatisation centre, a crude but practical experimental example for others to follow. By January 1789, Dodd had moved to Parramatta.

The situation improved when James Ruse (1760-1837), another convict with farming experience, was allocated land upstream on the richer soils at Rose Hill (Parramatta) where fresh water met salt. So, by 1791 a farm was also established at Parramatta and the colony could boast 920 acres (372 hectares) of land under cultivation, the plants including maize, wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, grapes, and turnips. [4] as well as vegetable gardens, orchards, and vineyards.

1794-1807 Private leases allowed around Farm Cove despite Phillip reserving the land for the Crown. One lessee was Joseph Gerrald, a ‘Scottish Martyr’ transported for sedition. 1802
The old Government House (now the site of the Museum of Sydney) had a ‘fine’ garden, with a mix of exotic and native species.

Norfolk Island

Within five weeks of settlement at Port Jackson, Philip Gidley King (1758-1808) sailed for Norfolk Island in the hope of discouraging any French strategic ambitions, and to explore the commercial potential of the flax and Norfolk Island pines spied previously by Cook.

Sydney Cove

Governor Phillip had sent letters to Banks pleading for plant expertise ‘being without the slightest knowledge of botany, without one botanist, or even an intelligent gardener, in the colony’. Banks had responded in 1789 by sending Kew-trained gardeners George Austin and James Smith as seed collectors with the Second Fleet, on the transport ship HMS Guardian with about 300 people and a cargo of agricultural seeds, plants, farm machinery and livestock. The cargo, along with most of the crew (including the gardeners), was tragically lost when the ship, while collecting ice to supplement the freshwater supply (depleted by the needs of plants and animals on board) struck an iceberg in the Southern Ocean off southern Africa, limping back to the Cape where it was beached, then wrecked in a subsequent cyclone, with few survivors. It later emerged that the two gardeners had, against Banks’s expressed wishes, entered into commercial agreements with London nurseries. [5]

Banks responded to requests for plant expertise and Kew-trained gardeners were soon in charge of horticulture in New South Wales. David Burton arrived in September 1791 but was tragically killed in a shooting accident. He was followed by George Suttor and George Caley in 1800. George Caley (1770–1829) arrived at Port Jackson in April 1800 on a salary of 15 shillings a week, to collect plants and seed for Banks at Kew. He was given government rations and a cottage at Parramatta. Governor King, writing to Banks in September 1800, expressed the intention to establish a botanical garden near this cottage. Caley was assisted by Daniel Moowattin an Aboriginal man of the Darug people. Daniel was Caley’s interpreter, bush guide, gatherer of plant and animal specimens, bird-trapper, servant and companion on expeditions around Sydney. Specimens collected by Moowattin are housed in the Sydney herbarium.[6] There were also the seed collections of residents including Governor William Bligh.[7]

Brown & the Investigator

Banks persuaded the Admiralty to undertake a thorough coastal survey of the newly settled continent with Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator. Following the Enlightenment tradition of including botanists on such expeditions Robert Brown was selected as naturalist with ex Kew gardener Peter Good as his assistant. A further scientific complement included botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer, landscape painter William Westall, along with a geologist and astronomer. Brown was an accomplished Scottish botanist who had befriended Banks’s librarian Jonas Dryander, the friendship leading to Brown’s appointment as an associate of the Linnean Society in 1798. Then, in December 1805, he was appointed the society’s clerk, librarian and housekeeper, and eventually a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1811.

Following the death of Dryander in 1810 Brown was librarian to Banks, a position he held until the death of Banks in 1820 when he became Keeper of the Banksian Herbarium at the British Museum in 1827.[8]. The scientific investment in this survey was impressive but meagre when compared to the French Baudin expedition.

Between 1801 and 1803 HMS Investigator circumnavigated Australia. Brown collected 4,788 specimens including 3,400 to 3,900 species, of which more than 2,000 were new to science.[9] and many, we must assume, were collected by Peter Good himself who later died of dysentery in Sydney. Robert Brown, after Good’s death, continued to collect in Tasmania and New South Wales.

Settlement gardens

By 1810, as the new colony developed, the utilitarian rectilinear garden plots established at Farm Cove were becoming more elaborate. The Governor’s wife, Elizabeth Macquarie, cleared away the old Government House to create a picturesque landscape resembling a gentleman’s estate and the ‘farmland’ had now become a holding nursery for incoming and outgoing plants. But it would not be until the late 1820s that the use of ornamental plants gathered momentum as the military colony evolved into a civil society boosted by early pastoral wealth.

Gradually substantial homesteads began to take on the character of gardens in the classical style, influenced by British publications and following European fashion in a tradition that has continued until recent times. Sydney’s Farm Cove had taken on the role of rudimentary colonial botanic garden, acting as an acclimatization centre for incoming exotic plants and a holding bay for outgoing indigenous plants that might be of economic or ornamental interest – servicing both agriculture and horticulture during the difficult process of settlement. In 1816 the site included a carriageway, Government House, three garden plots, and a well-stocked nursery.[10] This was the year that part of the Governor’s Domain was designated by Governor Macquarie as the Sydney Botanic Garden.

In the 1830s Australia had its own trend-setting social elite with the gardens of Scotsmen Colonial Secretary Alexander McLeay and pastoralist William Macarthur established in the Gardenesque style as promoted in the journal, Gardener’s Magazine, of their fellow Scotsman John Loudon back in England. The rest of the colony had small gardens in a comfortable but formal geometric style combining kitchen and ornamental gardens.[11]

Australia’s first botanic garden

After an unsettled beginning involving many difficulties with personnel, John Bidwill was appointed first director of the Botanic Gardens in 1847, quickly followed by Charles Moore (trained in the Botanic Gardens of Trinity College, Dublin) who would hold the post from 1848 to 1896. Moore’s successor at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Joseph Maiden (1859-1925; Director 1896-1924) declared that ‘In no other part of the world can we point to a spot and say – here is the site of the beginning of horticulture and agriculture of a continent’.[12] A more circumspect view would be that the landing of the First Fleet marked the arrival of European-style plant cultivation and land management with a stronger case for the claim that ‘The Royal Botanic Gardens [Sydney] became Australia’s first scientific organization’.[3]

First published on the internet – 15 September 2020

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