How Australia Was Born

Captain Phillip steps ashore in a new land. Photo: Sydney Living Museums
Captain Phillip steps ashore in a new land. Photo: Sydney Living Museums

by Ray Setterfield

May 13, 1787 — Living conditions in the United Kingdom in the 1770s and 1780s were appalling. The Industrial Revolution meant that many workers had been replaced by machines, and small farmers had been forced off their land as the rich and powerful used the Enclosure Acts to expand their agricultural holdings.

There was no welfare state, of course, so huge numbers of people just lived in poverty and squalor. Without work or food for their families, many turned to crime.

The result was that prisons across the country were bursting at the seams and the authorities started to use specially renovated ships – known as hulks – to house prisoners. They were moored outside ports and major coastal cities.

But it didn't solve the problem and transportation – the enforced deportation of criminals to another country – was seen as a possible answer. The American War of Independence had closed off that country for such uses so new destinations had to be found.

In 1770, explorer James Cook on board the sailing ship HMS Endeavour arrived off the east coast of Australia and came ashore at a spot that he named Botany Bay – now part of the city of Sydney. He named the area New South Wales and claimed the land for Britain, totally ignoring the fact that it was already occupied by native inhabitants, the Aborigines.

Sailing with Cook aboard the Endeavour was scientist, botanist and explorer Joseph Banks and it was he, in 1784, who suggested to the British Government that Botany Bay would make an ideal spot as a penal colony.

And so on 13 May 1787 a fleet of eleven ships sailed from Portsmouth with about 750 convicts on board. They were to set up the first British colony in Australia.

The small fleet, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, sailed from Portsmouth to Tenerife, then to Rio de Janeiro and from there across the Atlantic through the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town and on to Australia. The 24,000 km – nearly 15,000 miles – journey took eight months and during that time there were said to be about 100 deaths and 20 births on board the ships.

After they arrived at Botany Bay Captain Phillip soon realised it wasn't a suitable place for settlement. The soil was of poor quality, the supply of fresh water was inadequate and the bay was too exposed, the strong winds denying safe harbour for the ships. But he found what he wanted – an excellent natural harbour and a stream with a reliable water supply – 12km to the north.

He named it Sydney Cove in honour of Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney, the British Home Secretary of the day, and on 26 January 1788 he raised the British flag there, taking possession of the area in the name of the British government.

The convicts on the First Fleet had been found guilty of a variety of crimes. Most of them were thieves, pickpockets, forgers, petty criminals and ordinary people just struggling to survive and driven to steal food. There were no murderers and no-one convicted of a violent crime.

But along with the ships' officers and soldiers sent to guard them, they found the climate very different to that in England. The days were unbearably hot and the nights were also hot and sticky. Summer storms would whip through without warning, dumping rain and hail upon the convicts who had never experienced such weather. Many of them simply downed tools and refused to work in those conditions.

But the work had to be done and soon they were tilling the tough Australian soil and planting the first crops. They were also set construction projects, as there were no roads, bridges or buildings.

In the end, it all came good and the city of Sydney began to grow and flourish. Later, the day that Captain Phillip raised his flag – 26 January – came to be celebrated as Australia Day.

Footnote: In 1806, William Bligh, the Navy commander who provoked the 1789 mutiny on the Bounty, was appointed governor of New South Wales. True to character, Bligh alienated military officers and leading citizens, challenging their vested interests and arousing intense opposition. A group of officers mutinied and deposed him in 1808, declaring him unfit to rule.

Published: April 30, 2018

Related Articles and Photos

Related Famous People

Articles on Events in May