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1788 – Settlement


‘A new continent was expected to display plants as useful as the incredible harvest which the Americas had produced in the preceding three centuries. It was assumed that Australia would probably yield its own version of the potato, peanut and maize, and the prized tobacco plant. Australia, when fully explored, was expected to provide drugs and medicines and ointments. Here, it was expected, Europe would find a capacious botanical garden with gaudy flowers, valuable food-plants, new fibres and dyes and ornamental, useful trees which could be transplanted to Europe. For this was an era in which Nature was still seen as the great creator and inventor.’

Geoffrey Blainey, 2015, p. 378

International context

In the second half of the 18th century Britain was at war with France, Spain and Holland. After the French Revolution Britain was drawn into a war with France that lasted from the 1790s until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Prisons were full and, after the American War of independence America could not be used as a dumping ground for convicts. It was not only the overflowing prisons that made a settlement in New Holland look attractive to the British Colonial Office. To maintain its dominance at sea Britain would need ready access to a source of timber to build its ships, especially the masts, and to the flax needed to make sails, ropes and cordage. Nearly all the hemp and flax required by the Royal Navy for cordage was imported from Russia and, since Empress Catherine of Russia had decided to restrict sales of hemp, new supplies were urgently needed. On Cook’s first voyage potential sources of both commodities had be spied on Norfolk island which was only a week or two’s sailing from New Holland. A new colony would have other advantages too. tea trade with China through Canton was proving extremely lucrative but was on a precarious trade route that passed through the Dutch waters of modern Indonesia, and the French waters of modern Indochina. A trading post in New Holland could be a safe stepping stone on a route to China that followed the New Holland southern and eastern coasts. The British East India Company 18th century monopoly of British trade through India and the Far East was looking precarious with other companies seeking a foothold. With a trading base in the Pacific Britain could probably stifle any French strategic ambitions for the region.

Cook and Banks on HMS Endeavour had reported lush green pastures on the east coast while the potential of straight pines (Araucaria heterophylla, Norfolk Island Pine), ideal for masts, had also been spotted on Norfolk Island along with plants having strap-like fibrous leaves (Phormium tenax, Flax) that could have great p[potential as a substtute for th current flax supply. With Britain’s navy in desperate need of timber for masts and flax for cordage, ropes and canvas sails. These sources might prove better than the current supplies from Russia and Scandinavia through unpredictable Baltic waters.


Over the years 1788 to 1820, the time it took for the new colony to become established, administrative decisions were made by a series of five Governors (see table) under instruction from the Colonial Office in London. Apart from the settlement at Sydney Cove (Sydney) (18 January 1788) there were also settlements on Norfolk Island under Philip King in HMS Supply (6 March 1788), and in Van Diemen’s Land under Bowen in the HMS Lady Nelson at Risdon Cove on eastern shore of the Derwent (Sept 1803), then Collins in HMS Calcutta at Sullivan’s Cove (Hobart) on the western shore (February 1804), and by William Paterson, who had returned from Norfolk Island, in the north at Port Dalrymple (Launceston) (5 November 1804).

For the first 20 years government maintained control of almost all economic activity, being the main purchaser of meat and grain from the local farms as well as the food and hardware purchased from trading ships. It was also government that set the prices to be charged by butchers, bakers, publicans, and moneylenders. Convicts initially working for the government gradually became independent by working for government officials, emancipists and freemen who were ordered to provide them with the equivalent of standard government rations.<sup[6]

On the mainland these early years, and especially the first five, were a time of extreme hardship with food shortages, the failure of Norfolk Island as a penal settlement, the breakdown of the anticipated new trade route to China, and a precarious relationship with the Aboriginal inhabitants.

Captn Arthur Phillip7 Feb 1788 – 10 Dec 1792
Major Grose & Major Paterson1792 - – 1795
Captn John Hunter11 Sept 1795 - – 27 Sept 1800
Captn Philip King28 Sept 1800 - – 12 Aug 1806
Captn William Bligh13 Aug 1806 - – 26 Jan 1808
Major General Lachlan Macquarie1 Jan 1810 - – 1 Dec 1821


In Britain many of the surplus convicts were housed in barely floating prison hulks along the Thames and in harbours at Portsmouth, Plymouth and the Irish ports of Cork and Dublin. Sentences were generally for about 7 years but sometimes as long as life. Of every 20 convicts arriving in Australia the proportion was 13 English, 6 Irish and 1 Scottish. The nature of their crimes differed widely but most were petty thieves. Many of the women were domestic servants caught stealing to relieve poverty and abbout one in five had resorted to prostitution.[5] Conditions on board were cramped and for the first part of the journey the convicts were in chains. Dysentery and fever were common. Once settled in the new colony additional crime was generally greeted with a flogging this being more severe in Van Diemen’s Land (so-named until 1856) as a place for hardened felons guarded at Port Macquarie on the west coast and Port Arthur in the east. Occupants at first came only from New South Wales but later from Britain.

First Fleet

The First Fleet consisted of 11 ships – two war ships, the frigate HMS Sirius and the runabout HMS Supply, six convict transports, and three store ships. Separated along the way they sailed into Botany Bay over a period of three days from the 18th to 20th January 1788, about 18 years after James Cook‘s first landing in HMS Endeavour on 29 April 1770. The ships were under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip who was to become the first Governor of the new colony. Altogether 1,030 people had survived the eight month voyage of close confinement: about 200 were uniformed marines and about 700 were convicts in the ratio of about three men to each woman. Along with the personnel were 44 sheep, 32 pigs, 7 horses, and 6 cows along with cats, dogs, poultry, and a year’s worth of supplies.

On the way provisions of vegetables and fresh water were carried on board at the Atlantic island of Tenerife and later a hopeful cargo of tropical plants including cotton, coffee and indigo at the port of Rio de Janeiro. The fleet then crossed the Atlantic to the thriving Dutch provisioning port of Cape Town with its orchards and gardens, filling any remaining spare room with livestock and poultry. The Cape harbour at this time was a provisioning station for ships from England, America, Denmark, Purtugal and elsewhere, loading up before setting out for India, China, and the East Indies.

For many years the lives of the convicts, soldiers and settlers would be at the mercy of the personality of the governors who had been placed in charge.

Australia had been divided into two along a 1350degree of latitude. The western segment was New Holland and the eastern segment the Colony of New South Wales.

From Botany Bay to Port Jackson
Botany Bay was Banks’s recommendation to a parliamentary committee specially convened to tackle the problem of Britain’s overflowing prisons. On arrival it was immediately apparent from the sandy soils, poor anchorage and lack of a reliable water supply made the site unsuitable for habitation and so, after a brief stay of eight days, the fleet sailed north to Port Jackson (which had only received a passing mention in Cook’s journal) and here they anchored in Sydney Cove where there was a ready supply of fresh water from what would later be known as the ‘Tank Stream’. This spring emerged through sandstone below what is now the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park, flowing through a marsh to a cove west of Bridge and Pitt streets and passing, in the early days, through an excavated storage area called the ‘tank’.[1]

Initial settlement

From a present-day perspective[9] it is hard to imagine the difficulties confronting the Berewalgal (as the Aboriginals called the new settlers) arriving to settle permanently in a totally unknown land. Initial choice of site could be critical later but there was also the construction of accommodation, delegation of duties, a plan for the rationing of the limited provisions, an assessment of local food supplies, maintenance of discipline, and the need to establish peaceful relations with the local Aborigines. These decisions devolved onto Arthur Phillip who drew on the colonial experience gained in Canada, America and India. After the location of a permanent and safe water supply it was food, and therefore agriculture, that occupied the settlers.

The introduction of European land management practices entailed the use of ‘the axe, the saw, and the hoe’.[8]

Civilising the inhabitants

Settlers regarded their new home as an uncivilised and primitive place awaiting civilisation through colonialism which was a process of ‘improvement’ that would raise the level of existence of the indigenous inhabitants from hunting and gathering to, first, pastoralism, then village agriculture, eventually culminating in the most advanced state of civilisation, the creation of cities and the enjoyment of the arts and commerce.[2]

Early European maritime explorers had, in new lands, planted European-style gardens of vegetables, fruit, herbs and crop plants and released domestic animals, not only to provide food for future crews or castaways but, by encouraging horticulture and agriculture, to begin the process of ‘civilising’ the native inhabitants.[3]

Aboriginal legacy

At the time of British arrival at Sydney Cove the region supported about 30 Aboriginal clans, each made up of 30 to 50 individuals.

Over many years the Aboriginals had formed trading trails along the coast and inland. Over time the settlers took over these Aboriginal trails which offered the shortest and most accessible routes between centres and eventually they would be transformed into roads and motorways. Trails generally followed rivers and creeks which served as both boundaries, corridors and a source of food, the high ground often having a ceremonial function.[1]

Initial relations were fairly cordial but soon deteriorated. An outbreak of smallpox in early 1789 killed about 50% of the Eora and Darug people.[4]

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

(Move and rewrite all this – Expectations of Australia’s botanical bounty were not met so before long the early enthusiasm generated by Cook, Banks and Solander had to be re-assessed. Certainly there were useful timbers: Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) and Huon Pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) for shipbuilding and the Red Cedar (Cedrela ciliata), which would eventually be logged all along the New South Wales coast. Wattle bark was highly effective in the Australian tanneries and Australian acacias were transported to Natal where they soon escaped to infest the local vegetation. Eucalypts would eventually find a place across the western world but chiefly in places with a conducive climate, like California and the warmer Mediterranean regions.[7]Despite later attempts to intruduce kangaroo meat to the world there were no new meats or table birds considered worthy of mass-production. And though kangaroos and koals always appealed it was only the budgerigar that would become a popular pet. Following the Macassan use the sea slug on the northern coast ‘The continent which had promised the world so many and useful creatures and products had hatched, after a century of British incubation, little more than the odour of eucalyptus oil, cages of bright budgerigars, wattlebark and the macadamia nut.’)

Media Gallery

Migration 1840-1915

CrashCourse – 2019 – 13:57

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