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A series of articles on Australia’s First People discusses the c. 65,000 years of Aboriginal occupation, their arrival, migration, and relation to plants and the land prior to European settlement. The pre-European human introduction of plants is discussed in a separate article, with further articles on plants and the pre-settlement maritime voyages of Spanish and Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English. Articles in this Australian history series are a chronological history of Australia’s European occupation outlining the social, environmental, and economic influence of plants on the history of the continent and its landscape, beginning with the sequence of governors of the Colony of New South Wales. A contextual overview is given in plant introduction to Australia

1788-1792 – Governor Arthur Phillip

Arthur Philip

Arthur Phillip – 1738-1814
First Governor of New South Wales
Painted 1786 by Francis Wheatley
National Portrait Gallery London
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons



Reciprocal plant exchange

In retrospect we can see that though interest at settlement was concentrated on the short-term scientific and commercial potential of the novel plants passing from Australia to England, long-term it would be the plants passing from Europe to Australia that would be of far greater commercial and environmental importance. This is discussed further in the article on plant introduction to Australia.

From England

Banks had also decided on the plant cargo to be sent from England with the First Fleet:

‘While incomplete the list of vegetables and grains is substantial (and, incidentally, is one thing to give the lie to the idea that the colonists were poorly equipped for their coming task). Seeds of every common vegetable and salad green were included, and some (e.g. beans), several varieties; of grains were wheat, barley, oats; of herbs were basil, fennel, marjoram, thyme, chives, mint, parsley, among others. Among the vines and shrubs were raspberry, gooseberry, strawberry, grape. Of citrus there were orange, lemon, lime. The other fruit trees included apple, peach, nectarine, pear, plum, apricot, cherry. ‘For Commerce’, Banks included hemp, flax, rhubarb, tobacco, potatoes. And we know from other sources that maize and acorns went too’


This was just the start because at Rio de Janeiro he took on board ‘every Seed I think likely to grow in NSW & likewise fruits and plants, particularly the Indigo, Cocoa, coffee, Jumbo or Pomme Rose, Cotton, Tobacco, Vines &c., with the Cochineal I hope to cultivate‘. Later correspondence refers to sugar cane obtained in Rio at this time. Then at the Cape of Good Hope in addition to livestock he added ‘trees, plants, and seed of every sorts which the season would admit‘. Here they were assisted by Francis Masson a Kew gardener working at the Cape where he had been sent by Banks, who noticed that Phillip’s cabin was also stocked with rarities ‘like Ipecacuana, Jalapa, & Cactus Tuna with Cocus cochinilifera breeding on it‘.[34]

To England
Early settlement was still imbued with the sense of plant novelty and the possibility of some profiteering. Nelson remarks that:’There are no easily computable figures for the quantity of natural history specimens leaving Port Jackson in those early days – certainly each ship returned to Europe with some curiosities‘. There was probably some clandestine plant trading that has not been caught in the official record.

In retrospect this preoccupation with plants was likely influenced by the desire to please and accede to the authority and interests of Banks, the man who Phillip fell back in his correspondence with his complaints and appeals for support. Banks, esconced at Kew, had amassed at least 126 collectors working outside Britain and Europe from 1770-1820 including some 38 horticulturists, gardeners and botanists.[28] On this list should be included the Governor himself, Surgeon-General John White, and the Colonial Chaplain Reverend Richard Johnson.[30][32] Other Banksian suppliers (of seed, stuffed animals and the like) included surgeon Dennis Considen, Major Ross of the marines, and George Bass. Some went to other people like A.B. Lambert and botanist J.E. Smith.[36] The catalogue of plants held in the collections at Kew, Hortus Kewensis,[26] credits Banks with 76 Australian species, most from New South Wales.[26]. The 1813 edition listed about 300 species altogether from Australia.

The first dispatches and seeds from Governor Phillip reached England on 25 March 1789 aboard the Prince of Wales most going to Banks but some also to Lee and Kennedy, their first plants offered for sale being Banksia serrata, B. oblongifolia, Leptospermum laevigatum, Lambertia formosa, and Melaleuca armillaris.[38]

Just after Phillip left, in the last decade of the 18th century, a nursery garden for indigenous plants destined for England was established.[32]

Impressions of the region

First impressions, illustrations, and general observations of the land, vegetation and people come to us from the well-educated officers in the First Fleet.[26] From such descriptions various attempts have been made to map the vegetation of the day and the open nature of much of the country, the presence of fires (soon related to the Aboriginals) and bracken are frequently noted.[26] There were various expedition and after 18 months the country to a radius of about 100 km had been reconnoitred, possible sites of cultivation noted and, sensitive to the now established scientific tradition, specimens of plants and animals were collected and preserved ready for return to the naturalists back in England.[27]

Surprisingly, the First Fleet had not included any recognised botanists, horticulturists of naturalists. Local plants were called on immediately as timber for construction but the possibility of their use for scurvey and dystentery was also considered.[26] The foreshore grew ‘Wild Spinach, Samphire & other leaves of Bushes which we used as Vegetables

The first five years

Botany Bay had been Banks’s recommendation to a parliamentary special committee convened to tackle the problem of Britain’s overflowing prisons.

On 18 Jan 1788, after sailing for eight months across half the globe, boats were unloaded from HMS Supply. First ashore at Botany Bay was Cornish convict James Ruse who waded onto the north shore carrying red-uniformed Lieutenant Johnston on his back followed by the others including Governor Phillip, second in command Lt Gidley-King, and astronomer William Dawes. The British perceived themselves not as invaders but as guests and their mission not as dispossession but as peaceful establishment of a small colony among the natives. In fact the British thought that their presence could be of great benefit as Phillip wanted ‘no dispute with the natives, a few of which I shall endeavour to persuade to settle near us, and who I mean to furnish with everything that can tend to civilise them, and give them a high opinion of their new guests’.[18]

But on arrival it was immediately apparent to Governor Phillip from the sandy soils, poor anchorage and lack of a reliable water supply that the site was unsuitable for habitation and so skiff was sent to reconnoitre to the north and within about 20 km locating an eminently suitable beautiful and secure harbour. 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’.

On 26 January 1788 (now known as ‘Australia Day’) the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove. As a settled colony, a dominion of the Crown, and under British Common Law Aborigines had the dubious benefit of becoming British subjects while losing any proprietary rights to the land they inhabited, all land title passing to the Crown.

First actual contact with the indigenous people was on 29 Jan when Phillip landed at Spring Cove just inside North Head meeting 12 Aborigines as a friendly occasion with dancing and amusement, John Hunter noting that they were ‘a very lively and inquisitive race’.[19]

Australia was now divided along a 1350 degree line of longitude: to its west was New Holland and to its east the Colony of New South Wales.

Though Australia’s first governors were issued with strict government instructions concerning the conduct of the new colony, much depended on their personal character and for many years the lives of the convicts, soldiers and settlers would be at the mercy of the temperament and policies of these men.

Governor Arthur Phillip

Arthur Phillip was born within earshot of London’s Bow bells and therefore a cockney. At the age of 12 he was sent to study eamanship at Greenwich his first experience being as an apprentice on a whaler in the Arctic, then enlisting in the Royal Navy at the commencement of the Seven Year’s War, seeing action at the Siege of Havana as Britain began to exert its naval supremacy. Returning home he married in 1763 and started life as a ‘gentleman farmer’ at Lyndhurst in Hampshire’s New Forest – but the marriage did not last and in 1769 he was back at sea, at first essentially as a spy, observing the activities of the French navy, but subsequently obtaining a captaincy by joining the Portuguese navy in 1774 which was at war with Spain and in need of experienced seamen. He served in South America charting the coast off Brazil his time ending in 1777 when the Spanish-Portuguese conflict ended and he was called by the British to serve during the American Revolutionary Wars. With the build-up of prisoners at home and with America no longer available as a dumping ground, Botany Bay had been selected as a site for a new colony with Phillip, now 49, as governor.

Phillip took six months of careful preparation, carefully planning how he would build the colony through land cultivation and the convict incentive of emancipation, and eventually leaving Portsmouth in May 1787 with Philip Gidley-King his second in command. His careful preparation paid off as he lost only 2% of the people in his care, an extremely low figure for those times ([Of the 1,026 convicts embarked, 267 (256 men and 11 women) died during the voyage (26%).. He had been appalled by what he had seen of the treatment of slaves in South America and was determined to treat the convicts humanely, effectively abolishing slavery 20 years before Britain, although these humane intentions were not appreciated by his marines.

From a present-day perspective it is hard to imagine the difficulties to be overcome by the Berewalgal (as the Aboriginals called the new settlers) arriving in a totally unknown land. Apart from ensuring a lasting and judicious selection of site for the contingent there was 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 establishing peaceful relations with the local Aborigines. These decisions devolved onto Arthur Phillip who inherited a few lessons from British 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.

Immediately upon arrival of the First Fleet ‘tents were pitched, scrub was cleared, trees were chopped down and defensive ditches were dug‘. Occupied land quickly extended inland and out to sea, the Aboriginals hardly resisting but taking fish from the English nets and boats.[15] Phillip had decided that two crimes were punishable with death – murder and sodomy – and with a surfeit of men Phillip had hoped that convict men might marry Aboriginal women to produce a multiracial society – but this did not eventuate as scuffles broke out on the margins of the camp with Aboriginals shot, convicts speared, and both sides viewing one-another with curiosity and suspicion. When in 1789 six privates in the Marines raided the food store they were quickly led to the gallows and a public execution.[16]

Cultivation begins

On a simple practical day-to-day level the official plans for the colony were to establish subsistence agriculture using convict labour – a task to be achieved in two years with convict farmers working 30-acre lots. Upon expiry of their sentence single men were given a grant of 12 ha, a married man with 5 children 40 ha along with farming tools, food for a year and some livestock. Military, naval and civilian officials could not own land until five years after settlement. Phillip, who had 10 years farming experience, began by establishing government farms. These were intended as a stop-gap before moving on to the proposed system, but they were to remain for 40 years as experimental and training farms that produced the earliest stores of grain.[1] Already in October gardens were cleared and sown and animal pens constructed and by April the farm giving Farm Cove its name was established. However the best times for planting cereals needed to be proven and the soft-grained wheat from England was not really suitable for New South Wales. Authority was both military and civil and gradually brick buildings were constructed for the civil officers, each with its own garden.

To the east of Sydney Cove over a hill lay what would be known as Farm Cove and here on the hilly eastern slope on 30 Jan 1788 the first convict work party was issued with tools and unenthusiastically set about turning over sod in the European style of land cultivation. Arthur’s intention was a government farm and garden. Ideally he wanted the convicts to work from 7am to 3pm on government duties – the rest of their time was for useful occupations like growing vegetables. Saturday afternoons were to be holidays, and Sundays a day of rest. In preparation for the future Phillip allocated an island off Farm Cove to the crew of Sirius for vegetable production soon becoming known as Garden Island and another island, further down the harbour, later named Clark Island after Lieutenant Ralph Clark of the Friendship, was put to similar use.

At first there was hopeful anticipation. Phillip’s personal servant Henry Dodd (1748-1791) had been a farmhand on his Lyndhurst estate and was the only free man who could be employed ‘in cultivating the lands on the public account‘ and it was Dodd who in February 1788 supervised the clearing and hoeing operations at the head of Farm Cove and the planting of corn. Then in November he was placed in charge of convicts employed at the military outpost that had been created at Rose Hill. He was an imposing figure and commanded convict respect, achieving some vegetable garden success at Rose Hill, sending an 11.8 kg cabbage to Government House in 1789, a few days before Christmas. By February 1790 the industrious Dodd was in charge of 100 convicts with 36 ha (of a potential 81 ha) cleared and sown with wheat, barley, oats and maize. Sadly Dodd died in January 1791, his funeral attended by all the free people and convicts at Rose Hill, being buried in the corner of the stock reserve which later became the burial-ground of St John’s, Parramatta (where a stone still stands). David Collins (deputy judge advocate of the new colony) suggested that Dodd’s death ‘was accelerated by exposing himself in his shirt for three or four hours during the night, in search after some thieves who were plundering his garden‘ and complimented Dodd with the tribute ‘He had acquired an ascendancy over the convicts which he preserved without being hated by them; he knew how to proportion their labour to their ability, and, by an attentive and quiet demeanour, had gained the approbation and countenance of the different officers who had been on duty at Rose Hill.’ Henry Dodd was Australia’s first resident gardener.[22]

However, the enormity of the task ahead soon became apparent. Attempts to create a government garden had revealed earth that was rocky and unyielding, with lumps of sandstone. Much of the stock brought on the ships had died or wandered into the bush. Trees initially intended for ship repairs and the construction of wood cabins proved knotty and unworkable, the wood being too hard for the adzes and planes that they had brought. On the voyage out seeds of lemons, limes, coffee, ginger, figs, grapes and oranges – even firs and oaks – had been purchased at Rio de Janeiro, but they were not successful and nor were the vegetables grown in the private vegetable plots set up by the officers. Limes, lemons, oranges, figs and grapes collected at the Cape were planted hopefully on the farm but were soon eaten at night by marsupial rats.[20] Farms and gardens where the convicts worked during the week gave a poor yield as did the attempts at fishing. Fish, birds and kangaroos that occasionally supplemented the diet became increasingly scarce and only small quantities of native greens were used. One of the few successes was a local tea called Sweet Tea, tasting of liquorice root and brewed from the bay-like leaves of Sarsparilla Vine (Hardenbergia violacea) which, later, enjoyed limited commercial success in London and China.[8] What few vegetables were raised were stolen and food was also rifled from the storehouse so, as a last resort, a vegetable garden was attempted on Garden Island a couple of kilometres offshore from Sydney Cove.

From the correspondence between Phillip and Banks[34] it is possible to record changes over time:

1788 26-Sept. Farm Cove 20 ac. tilled. Farming activity moved from Farm Cove to Rose Hill in Parramatta in late 1788, land of the Dharug people. 1791 Mar. Rose Hill 290 ac. cleared – 80 ac. gardens & buildings, 210 in winter corn (to be converted to maize which proved better in the heat). Nov. 558 ac. -wheat, barley, maize, vines, potatoes, vegetables

Following the demise of HMS Guardian a full but unlisted second cargo of plants arrived from Banks with HMS Gorgon on 21 Sept. 1791 including 200 fruit trees, Watkin Tench reporting at the end of the year that:

‘Vines of every sort seem to flourish: melons, cucumbers, and pumpkins, run with unbounded luxury; and I am covinced that the grapes of New South Wales will, in a few yars, equal those of any other country.’


So, by the time of Phillip’s departure in 1792 he could report six acres of garden around Government House Sydney. At Government House, Parramatta, there were six acres under maize and other grains, four under vines and two planted with potatoes and spread about the vllage about 1000 ac. of government run fields and 400 ac. of private ones: the convicts of Parramatta were being fed a daily ration of vegetables.[34]

Settlement at Parramatta

It was clear that kitchen gardens would not support the settlers and so rivers were explored in a search for the sedimentary soils needed for arable land – the most promising being about 22 km away by water and named Parramatta and in late 1788 a small township was established and another at Toongabbie. With the move to Parramatta Phillip tried to establish closer government control of both land and buildings. Each convict hut would have a garden space.

Phillip’s plan was to recreate the gentleman’s country estate that was so fashionable in England at this time with symmetrical streets that accentuated the manor house and its grounds. In Parramatta this vision translated to whitewashed wattle-and-daub thatched convict huts (not unlike the village cottages on the English estates) leading up to Government House and the Domain.[2] Nevertheless, Sydney eventually held sway with Parramatta becoming the rural centre of the new colony and after 1792 this region comprised an expanding private sector of emancipists with land grants, soldiers whose service had been completed and, finally, the first free settlers who arrived in 1793. Here he used the services of Henry Dodd a former gardener at his Lyndhurst property. But only a small harvest was taken from the upper Parramatta River as the colony fell back on stored provisions until the first supply ship Justinian anchored in June 1790.

James Ruse, a Cornish convict and farmer arrived with the First Fleet and was given an allotment, the first land grant in the colony, on rising ground at Ruse Hill (now Rose Hill near Parramatta, and source of the parrot name Rosella) along with pigs and chickens. In 1789 he produced the first successful wheat harvest with enough seeds for the next year’s crop and by February 1791 had demonstrated that he could support his family, prompting a further grant of 30 acres (120,000 m2) eventually yielding a crop of 600 bushels of corn to sell, later. After Ruse’s sentence expired in 1792, the title of his land was deeded to him as the first land grant in the colony. Selling his land to Dr John Harris in 1793 for £40 he then took up more fertile land on the Hawkesbury River. Harris’s property can now be visited as the Experiment Farm Cottage Museum of the National Trust of Australia.[39]

James Ruse was the first industrious convict to be given a land grant but this was sacred Dharug land on the Cumberland Plain between Parramatta and the Blue Mountains and when the new settlers met resistance, soldiers were sent as a guard.[21]

In 1791, three years after settlement, Sydney was run down and unappealing, the wheat crop at Farm Cove had been abandoned and building had ceased. As the cases of scurvy and dysentery mounted there seemed little interest in Aboriginal means of survival. Livestock had to be conserved so that stocks could be built up over time. With a limited food supply there was a weekly food ration of salted beef, salted pork, rice, peas and flour which was progressively reduced over the first two years. There would be occasional additional food and drink but there was an urgent need to explore the culinary potential of the local vegetation and begin cultivation as soon as possible. Mid-year Phillip attempted yet again to build up food supplies by opening up more cultivated land – this time by releasing grants of arable land beyond Parramatta to 37 convicts who had served their sentences and they set about clearing all the timber. A daily boat service between Sydney an Parramatta was set up and ‘the boats be furnished with at least four oars, in case the passengers may wish to assist with the rowing, and with one mast and sail‘ and early roads followed Aboriginal bush tracks. New arrivals were sent directly to Parramatta.


A watercolour sketch of Sydney Cove Port Jackson drawn by a convict on 16 April 1788 nearly 3 months after settlement gives us a ground plan of the new settlement.[24] The layout is rectilinear with clearly bounded areas allocated to particular functions: observatory, hospital, bakery, barracks, governors house, storehouse, commissary, builders, officers, judge advocate, cleric, smithey, stone quarry, saw pits. The farm, site of today’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, consists of 10 fields. There are four substantial gardens each further subdivided: adjacent to the Marine Guard House, Governor’s Mansion, Governor’s temporary lodging and the Marine Barracks. Small gardens are also adjacent to the hospital and the house of Lt Ball of the ‘Supply’.

Already in this simple plan we can contrast the European mode of existence – its attitude to land, space, and social administration – with that of the indigenous people.

Moving from temporary tents to permanent dwellings was more difficult than anticipated. Tools brought on the ships were inadequate for clearing and though timber was plentiful, that of the gum trees had a grain that would split and warp when green and therefore totally inadequate for the much-needed convict and soldier huts, storehouses and hospital. Cutting down trees and splitting them into planks would take days, even for a team of men.[3] It took a year to build four timber-walled and thatched buildings. Even after two years most settlers were only living in crudely constructed leaky shacks. Surgeon White in his journal noted that:

‘ … it is the worst wood that any country or climate ever produced” and “ … no wood in this country, though sawed ever so thin, and dried ever so well, will float’


Governor Phillip was perhaps thinking of Banks when he wrote to British Home Secretary Lord Sydney:

‘ … being myself without the smallest knowledge of botany, I am without one botanist, or even an intelligent gardener in the colony; it is not therefore in my power to give more than a superficial account of the produce of this country, which has such a variety of plants that I cannot with all my ignorance help being convinced that it merits the attention of the naturalist and the botanist.’


From the start, seed and specimens were collected sent to Banks for the ‘King’s garden’. In July he sent off six boxes of seeds and plants in HMS Alexander, in September two tubs on HMS Sirius, and a further shipment in November on HMS’s Golden Grove and Fishburn. Shipments continued, the last on HMS Gorgon in Dec. 1791 when, under the eye of Captain Parker he sent 60 tubs containing 221 plants assembled by the new Superintendent of Convicts David Burtin who had arrived in September on a salary of £20 p.a. paid by Banks for the exclusive supply of seed (also probably going to the Lee & Kennedy nursery). Among the cargo were also three tubs from Parramatta, as well as seeds and a set of ‘… fine young Norfolk Pines …’ and a promise to provide drawings of plants an animals of which about 200 were already completed. [34][35]

nd later John Hunter:

‘ … I am wholly unqualified to describe the different sorts with which we find the woods to abound.’

Stone and clay was plentiful but, in the absence of lime, crushed and burned oyster shells taken from Cockle Bay’s shell heaps were used as a cement, the first secure stone building completed being the two-storey, double-fronted governor’s residence opened on the king’s birthday in June 1789 about eighteen months after the fleet’s arrival: it would last for 57 years.11

There are two paintings of the two-storey Governor’s residence and garden in the Natural History Museum in London with cultivated land extending almost to the water’s edge, the earlier painted by Raper (official artist with the First Fleet) in 1789 or 1790 with land apparently furrowed, the later by Thomas Watling c.1790-1792 showing an added formal garden within a fenced enclosure and with distinct outhouses.[14] A further somewhat clearer painting dated January 1791 by William Bradley in the National Library of Australia shows a path to the front door from the shore with the land between broken into blocks that are either furrowed or planted out in rows.


Joseph Banks’s report the the English government on the lush green meadows of the east coast had been made whil recalling its most favourable time. Governor Phillip had paid the price for this poor decision and his first communication to England was a report lamenting his many woes. Written four months after arrival it was sent back with the returning ships, arriving in England in March 1789 nearly two years after the First Fleet had set out.

Phillip’s second report back to England in July 1788 warned of the lack of housing and cement, the need for improved military supervision of unmotivated convicts, the loss of cattle, poor storehouses (stores still needed to be unloaded from the ships) with notification that provisions from England would be needed for some time yet. He was keen for land to be given to a new breed of motivated free settlers. Reports from some officers back to England even recommended that the site be abandoned. By September 1788 stores were running dangerously low so in desperation Phillip ordered John Hunter with the fleet’s flagship HMS Sirius to Cape Town for more provisions: he also ordered the settlement of Rose Hill about 25 kilometres west of Sydney Cove where there was more fertile soil.

At the end of 1789 food rations had been cut several times although Rose Hill was now managing to provide a little respite (200 bushels of wheat and 35 bushels of barley, a bushel being about 36 litres by volume).[9] However, two years in the colony was enough for the disillusioned surgeon White who wrote a letter to England that was taken up by the newspapers:

‘From what we have already seen we may conclude that there is not a single article in the whole country that in the nature of things could prove of the smallest use or advantage to the mother country or the commercial world’

HMS Guardian

In response to Phillips earlier concerns the supply ship HMS Guardian, a vessel larger than any in the First Fleet, was dispatched in early 1789. Loaded with food the 1000 ton cargo also included agricultural equipment, livestock, poultry and a quarter deck converted to store 93 pots of herbs, vegetables and fruit.[10] There were also 25 much-needed tradesmen, agricultural supervisors and two Kew-trained gardeners, George Austin and James Smith, sent specifically by Joseph Banks to mind the plants. They had instructions to train a sailor to care for the plants in preparation for the return journey as they were to stay in the colony collecting plants and seed for Banks and the gardens at Kew. Supplying collections to others could be a lucrative business and, it seems, Austin in defiance of Banks had promised to collect seed for nurserymen in England. He could not persuade Smith to join his scheme, Smith even writing to Banks to tell him of Austin’s plans.[11]

More cattle, provisions and 150 fruit trees were added at Cape Town but shortly after leaving, and while trying to gather ice in the Southern Ocean (as a water supply for the thirsty crew and demanding stock) the ship struck an iceberg. Captain Edward Riou gave the passengers a choice of taking to five small boats or staying on the ship the two gardeners took to the boats and were never being heard of again, only one boat surviving. Over the next two months the waterlogged vessel limped back to Cape Town where some of the salvaged cargo was loaded on to ships of the Second Fleet that had in the meantime arrived at Cape Town. Only five of the artisans made it to Port Jackson on HMS Lady Juliana which was the lead ship of the Second Fleet carrying more than 200 female convicts. The first plough to till Australian soil did not arrive until 1796.[16]

Arrival of the Second Fleet (3 June 1790)

At Sydney, with HMS Sirius apparently lost (it was wrecked on Norfolk Island) the last ship, the Supply, with Henry Ball in charge, was sent by Phillip to Batavia to get supplies. Finally, on 3 June 1790 the Lady Juliana sailed into Port Jackson. She was the first of five ships with one quarter of the total 1038 convicts dying on the voyage. Responsibility for transportation had been given to neglectful private contractors. Three months later the Supply returned and relief provisions were now sent to Norfolk Island where the additional occupants and depleted supplies of cabbage tree and birds were extending resources to the limit.

Second Fleet a/some store ships were lost and simply more mouths to feed an already starving population

With the Second Fleet came instructions from King George III that the settlement was to be converted from penal colony to permanent settlement. Specifically, non-commissioned officers could take up to about 40 ha of land, the privates about 20 ha and that land be granted to émigrés from Britain. Convicts could be allocated to the new farmers provided they were cared for.

Third Fleet and after (9 July 1791)

On 9 July 1791 the first of another 11 ships and more than 2000 convicts arrived as the Third Fleet together with the announcement that in future at least two fleets of convicts would arrive per year. Although the increased number of people brought its own problems, the arrival of provisions with each fleet removed the potential for starvation and as shipping became more regular the sense of isolation diminished.

Into the fourth year and rations were again cut although Rose Hill was certainly producing improved harvests which stimulated the establishment of more farms on fertile soils – at Parramatta and on the Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers.

This phase of the colony’s history ended when Phillip left the settlement on 11 December 1792, with an intervening gap of three years before the next appointment to the post of Governor.

During the three-year period before the appointment of John Hunter as Governor the colony was administered by Majors Francis Grose and William Paterson who had arrived in 1791 with the NSW Corps, a permanent regiment of the British army sent out to relieve the marines. No coinage had been provided by Britain to the settlers, it being assumed that the colony would become self-sufficient, but the soldiers were paid in pounds sterling and could bargain with visiting traders before selling goods within the colony at huge profit. The NSW Corps flourished by establishing various trading monopolies (using convicts as middlemen as they were not permitted to trade themselves) importing goods from round the Pacific and exploiting the whaling and sealing industries and cornering the rum market. Convicts were encouraged to earn a living themselves, Grose providing land grants to officers and emancipists (freed convicts) who now had a strong incentive to make the land ‘pay’. Early freedom and land grants were given to convicts if they proved themselves, thus relieving the administration of its compulsory food ration and other legal obligations while the remaining convicts were cajoled into work by paying them with rum.

Settling Norfolk Island

Settlement of Norfolk Island

Kingston – Norfolk Island
Site of Philip Gidley King’s landing
The first settlers arrived on 8 March 1788
Image Roger Spencer

Governor Phillip was acutely aware of his brief to settle Norfolk Island as soon as possible, both as a deterrant to the French (the presence of La Pérouse in L’Astrolabe and Boussole in Botany Bay within three weeks of the arrival of the First Fleet had given Phillip a shock) and to secure the island’s supply of flax and ships’ masts[5] Phillip had, within a week of arrival at Sydney Cove, sent Philip Gidley King as th first Commandant of the island. He travelled in HMS Supply under the Command of Lt Lidgbird Ball along with a detachment of 23 people. Ball was the first European to discover Lord Howe Island during the crossing. The specially selected group of industrious and reliable convicts included a surgeon, carpenter, weaver, two marines, eight male and six female convicts along with six months provisions to tide them over the initial settlement.

On 6 March 1788 (the Supply had actually arrived on the 29th February but circled the island for six days looking for a suitable landing place) they put ashore on a densely vegetated island with a matted and near-impenetrable understorey; but by the end of their first day all the tents had been set up to the west of present-day Crankmill, their belongings were ashore, and the colours hoisted. The following day the first and difficult task was to grub out a spot for crops on elevated land now occupied by the Lions Club. After a week’s work King could report planting potatoes, yams, turnips, onions, lettuce, spinach, parsley and cabbage. Overall the island enjoyed a pleasant climate with plentiful fish stocks and sufficient rain for the crops.

By the 17 March the first Norfolk Island Pine, Araucaria heterophylla, had been felled and it was being hand-sawn into planks for the construction of a store-house: King had also at last realized that his ‘iris’ was Cook’s ‘flax’ (Phormium tenax) and set about preparing it in the same way as the vastly different European flax, Linum usitatissimum, source of fibre and linseed oil.[13]

Pine and flax

Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
and Flax (Phormium tenax)
Norfolk Island
Cook’s landing site – Duncombe Bay
Image – Roger Spencer

On the two-week outward journey Henry Ball, who commanded the vessel, passed what he later called Lord Howe Island which he visited on the return journey, the Supply setting out on March 8 with a report on th island’s settlement from King to Phillip:

Norfolk Island is ‘one entire wood, or rather as a garden overrun with the noblest pines, in straightness, size, and magnitude, far superior to any I have seen. Nothing can exceed the fertility of its soil. Wherever it has been since examined, a rich black mould has been found to the depth of five or six feet …’

King supervised the island for two years and, in spite of set-backs, managed to work the fertile soil, taking a while to find the flax plants noted by Cook. Not knowing what the flax (it looked totally different from European flax) King had initially mistaken it for ‘iris’.

Another 42 persons were sent from Sydney in October by which time both grain and vegetables were performing well and there were good supplies of birds and fish, King’s assessment being that self-sufficiency would be possible with the addition of some cattle. By mid June 1789 17 acres were being cultivated and wheat was being ground for flour. The settlers had quickly explored the various island plants finding useful timbers to use for fencing, boat-building and general construction, the heart of the indigenous palm Rhopalostylis baueri was edible as ‘cabbage’ and the roots of the native Pepper Tree Macropiper excelsum were used, following methods of the Pacific Islanders, as a potent drink.

With more convicts sent out in the third year the island population had swollen to about 700 and by 1792 had risen to 1,200 virtually self-sufficient in agriculture, fishing and forestry, a population almost equal un number to that of Sydney at this time. Efforts to grow and process the flax were abandoned. By 1796 the island was self-sufficient in grain and was exporting pigs and other goods to Sydney.[6] Constantly ill, in 1796 King obtained permission from Hunter to return to London briefly where he proved popular with the returned Phillip and also Banks who had received botanical specimens from him:[7] by 1800 King was back in New South Wales replacing Hunter as Governor.

All in all the original commercial intentions had failed as the pines were often rotten at the base and the knots where the whorls of branches emerged from the trunk had proved weak and untrustworthy. Flax continued to be cropped but stubbornly resisted processing. Only 22 people were still working to convert the tough-leaved flax to canvas sails and convict clothes in 1796. Though tests showed it compared favourably in strength to the Russian rope in use at that time but with production difficulties and the tyranny of distance interest waned. Mostly because there was no safe harbour the settlers were eventually evacuated to Van Diemen’s Land in 1807, Norfolk island being re-settled as a penal colony in 1824.

Trade with India & China

With the loss of the supply ship Guardian only four years after settlement Governor Philip turned to Calcutta for help, the fully laden Atlantic[41] arriving in Sydney Cove in winter 1792 with its cargo of ‘rice, sougee and Dholl’. The Atlantic was one of eleven vessels of the Third Fleet; it had left England from Plymouth. For another fifty years the most immediate point of exchange for Australia was India rather than London as, by 1840, on average, a ship was leaving Sydney for India every four days with Calcutta merchants profiting from the exchange. Calcutta was a thriving and elegant city (known as the City of Palaces and St Petersburg of the East) and it was here that Australia obtained many of its provisions in the early days of settlement and, indeed, a proportion of its English colonial families.

By the end of the 18th century there was also a brisk trade with Canton (Guangzhou) which constituted almost all the profit of the British East India Company (EIC) making up about one tenth of England’s total revenue. From China and India Australia imported tea and porcelain water bottles, chamber pots and tea bowls. Among the luxuries were silks, furniture, floor coverings, wallpaper, trinkets and toys as Indian and Chinese products were used to decorate the rooms of antipodean homes. They included ‘ivory knick-knacks and tortoiseshell fans; papier-mache and bamboo hats; lacquered tea caddies and inlaid furniture; ivory canes and fancy textiles’.[40]

The British East India Company was infamous for its prominent strategic position on the Indian sub-continent, and the Boston Tea Party of 1773 as a precursor to the American War of Independence that lasted from 1775 to 1783.

A Royal Charter conferred an exclusive right on the British East India Company (EIC) to trade to and from the penal Colony. Governor Phillip was instructed to prevent any private trade with India, China, and the colonies of other European nations – and thid included the construction of craft capable of such trade. All this was ignored as officials turned a blind eye and record-keeping was clearly manipulated. For example, Lieutenant Governor Major Francis Grose in 1792 ignored a consortium of NSW military and civil officers when they privately chartered the British supply ship and whaler Britannia to obtain foodstuffs, livestock and general goods from the Dutch-controlled Cape of Good Hope, even though this was an obvious breach of the EIC’s charter. Chairman of the British East India Company Sir Francis Baring was concerned about “. . . the serpent that we are nursing at Botany Bay.” as Lieutenant John Macarthur. From a speculative shipment of 100 fecund Bengal sheep that had arrived illegally from Calcutta in February 1793 aboard the Shah Hormuzear, John Macarthur received 30 he also likely received unrecorded and expensive thoroughbred stallions. Little of this was in the official record.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

A simple plan of the new settlement after about three months illustrates the stark difference in world views between the British and Aboriginals – their different approaches to spirituality, living space, land management, and human administration. The British settlement reflected the outlook of those familiar with localized urban living, of people used to being in large communities.

Aboriginals did not accumulate their resources within a permanent settlement they accessed them from nature itself by moving around: they were nomadic. The spiritual world of the European was monotheistic with a single God ordaining a code of behaviour and priest-cleric serving as an intermediary between the human and divine and located in an urban unit, a church. The spiritual world of the Aboriginal was more animistic with nature deeply personified and anthropomorphised, infused by spirit in many different ways: nature itself was a place of worship. The social specialization evident in city life was reflected in the allocation of settlement space to allocated functional tasks. Aboriginals, though having specialized skills, these were more generally distributed through the community.

Large communities required a hierarchical system of administration this being reflected in dress, buildings, behaviour and social deference. Small communities of native peoples did not have such a marked hierarchy and its various manifestations although there were seniors, or ‘elders’ to facilitate decision-making. Complexity of culture (commercial trade transactions with unfamiliar people, the need for widely known contracts and agreements, people ofetn with diverse histories, values and knowledge) and human interaction encountered in large communities had revealed the cumulative benefits made possible with written symbolic languages. Small groups leading less complex did not have the same need for contractual agreements and could achieve much through oral, not written, tradition.

City dwellers now lived behind walls that both separated and protected them from what lay beyond. The distinction between nature and culture (as civic space) had been literally set in stone. Though nature was accessible outside city walls, plant cultivation in urban surroundings would become more and more the way of engaging with nature and the natural seasonal biological rhythm of growth, maturation, death, decay and renewal.

Even in the earliest phases of urbanization we can recognise at least six kinds of special human spaces – all potentially containing cultivated plants and all with counterparts today. These are structural or bounded spaces that suggest values as well as functions:


• space for domesticated plants and animals as grazing land and cereal crops, also orchards, vegetable plots, and vineyards
• space for domestic housing
• communal space: a city square or forum for discussion generally including a place for trade, places for recreation, relaxation, and entertainment
• an administrative centre, usually the ruler’s palace and its grounds
• religious space for temples and various monuments associated with the dead
• connecting space for the passage of people and goods


What is not so obvious is that urbanization created not only functional physical enclosures but an associated conceptual world of words and ideas comprising categories and distinctions relating to these spaces and to the distinction between human space and natural space – categories that were absent from the Palaeolithic mind. The new mental categories, though hardly exclusive boundaries of separation were certainly assertions of difference expressed as a dialectic between objects of nature and objects of culture. Those relating directly to plants included: natural/man-made, wild/cultivated, urban (town)/rural (country). Other distinctions that related to cultivated plants were public/private, formal/informal, sacred/secular, work/pleasure, utility/luxury. As cities grew, so too did the corresponding agricultural space needed to feed them and this produced a trichotomy urban/rural/wild in which enclosure, a feature of urban space, would become of increasing significance in rural space.

Plants were critical to the British in the early years of settlement, not as the Enlightenment curiosities giving rise to the name Botany Bay, but as the source of sustenance of building and other materials and a potential source of sustenance to supplement the deteriorating and diminishing provisions that had been brought with them from England. Settlers regarded New Holland as an uncivilised and primitive place awaiting civilisation. Colonialism was seen as 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.[Karskens, p. 70] 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, begin the process of ‘civilising’ the native inhabitants.( Mulvaney, 2005 Ch. 4. Botanising)

Arthur Phillip was one of the last officials of the First Fleet to leave the colony having helped the colony survive five unbelievably difficult and precarious years. Flax and pine had proved unsuccessful, the value of Botany Bay as a trading port was uncertain, and with 4,300 convicts arriving between 1788 and 1792 the English government was footing a costly bill for provisions and clothing. With Phillip on the voyage back to England in HMS Atlantic were two Aboriginals, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne who were introduced to English society, the 19-year-old Yemmerrawanne dying in [23]. There were also four kangaroos, several dingoes, a few plants, some rare birds and a few convicts whose goal term had expired and who had chosen to return home.[17] A survey completed just before Phillip left the colony reported that less than 1,700 acres was under cultivation about 1,000 acres being public farm, the remainder being use by settlers and ex-convicts who had been given small grants of land. Almost all the farming was now around Parramatta and Toongabbie.[12] Phillip always maintained that the lack of progress was due to the lack of convict motivation.

Arthur Phillip left the settlement resigning his commission on 11 December 1792 returning to England exhausted by his time in the new colony. Marrying again he retired and joined society in Bath, probably with every intention of regaining his strength and returning to finish his task but called on once again to serve in defence of the English Channel. He died in 1814 aged 85 and was buried in a small church at Bathamton. He is commemorated in the name Port Phillip Bay and in recent times by a plaque in Westminster Abbey. An enlightened invader he is one of the great figures of early Australian history: honest, reliable, idealistic and humanitarian. There would be a hiatus of three years before the appointment of another Governor.

Meanwhile life continued as businesses began and trade sources were explored: pork from Tahiti, timber and sandalwood from Fiji, rum and flour from India and Cape Town. Skins and oil from the slaughter of seals and sea elephants in Bass Strait were sent to China, Atlantic whalers from England and America moved to the seas between the two great southern Capes and they frequently heaved to in Sydney.

Surgeon White’s journal provided a detailed account of the new settlement, especially its natural history which was later illustrated by a convict Thomas Watling. Another valuable illustrated journal is that of Bradley now held in the Michell library.


Pre-European (by several hundred years) The first confirmed and uncontested naturalised alien plant was introduced to the Arnhem Land coast by Macassan trepang (sea cucumber) fishermen. Tamarind trees (Tamarindus indicus – Arabic tamr-date, Indian hindi-Indian hence Indian Date) now mark the location of trepang fishermen campsites that occur from the Kimberley east to the Gulf of Carpentaria
1642 – 24 Nov. Dutchman Abel Tasman sights west coast of present-day Tasmania (claimed for the Netherlands and named Van Diemen’s Land). Landed in SE at Blackman’s Bay, his journal recording tall trees (presumably eucalypts) and samples of gum brought back to his ship. This is the first European record of vegetation on present-day Australia
1688 – 14 Jan. William Dampier a crew member of the privateer Cygnet. No plants were gathered on this first visit but his 1697 account gives us one of our earliest descriptions of Australian vegetation
1697 – 4 Feb. Willen de Vlamingh lands at Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia. A report of the expedition notes ‘a small chest containing shells collected on the beaches, fruits, plants, etc. …’ received by the Dutch ship Gentlemen XVII of the Dutch East India Company returned to Holland as well as 11 drawings executed by Victor Victorsz on the voyage. The fate of this collection is unknown but the first recorded botanical collections may have been made on this expedition. Two plants, now called Acacia truncata and Synaphea spinulosa, remained undescribed in the herbarium at Geneva for about 70 years and were eventually the first Australian native plants to be given Linnaean binomials by Dutch botanist Nicolaas Burman in 1768 but there is some doubt about the collector, date of collection, and collection site of these specimens so it may be Dampier’s 1699 collections that were the first, even though they were not the first to be given binomials
1699 Aug. – William Dampier now captain of the Roebuck on an expedition of the Royal Society collecting plant specimens now held by the Fielding-Druce Herbarium at Oxford University. About 40 survive, 18 collected from Shark Bay including Sturt’s Desert Pea, Swainsona formosa. Nine of these Australian specimens were described by leading English botanists: John Ray the ‘Father of British botany’ in Historiae Plantarum (1704) and Leonard Plukenet in Amaltheum Botanicum (1705), some of the descriptions also being illustrated. These were the first illustrations of Australian plants. Descriptions at this time had phrase names that pre-dated Linnaean binomial nomenclature which is taken to begin on 1 May 1753. Twenty four sheets remain in the Dampier Herbarium (17 from New Holland) along with a solitary Brown seaweed (now named Cystoseira trinodis) which figured in Ray’s 1704 publication as the first published record of an Australian seaweed
1770 – the number of alien (non-native, human-introduced) species present in Australia in 1770 was about 150 (less than 5% of the present-day naturalised flora). There are no unambiguous records of Aboriginals bringing plants into Sahul
1770 – 29 Apr.- Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander enjoy botanising for 8 days in a cove later named Botany Bay by James Cook’s on his first global circumnavigation in HMS Endeavour
1788 – 18 Jan. – The first ships of the 11-ship First Fleet, under the command of Arthur Phillip, put in to Botany Bay
1788 – 26 Jan. – The British flag was raised at Sydney Cove to signify that it had become an official settled colony and dominion of the British Crown. Under British Common Law Aborigines had the dubious benefit of becoming British subjects while losing any proprietary rights to the land they inhabited since all land title now passed to the Crown (‘Australia Day’)
1788 30 Jan. Arthur’s intention was a government farm and garden. Over a hill east of Sydney, on what would be known as Farm Cove, the first convict work party was issued with tools and unenthusiastically set about turning over sod in the European style of land cultivation. The mode of land cultivation that had originated in the Mesopotamia had arrived on the other side of the world
1788 – Jan.-Feb. A ‘French Garden’ was established at Botany Bay by crew of the La Pérouse expedition and maintained by the British. It was still providing vegetables at the time of Governor Macquarie
1792 – Phillip arrives back in England with 82 tubs and boxes of plants

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


Elizabeth Farm
On-site reconstruction of site developed in 1793
Image – Roger Spencer – 28 June 2018

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