~ British Settlement ~


Captain Cook's account of his discovery aroused much interest in England but Britain did not try to colonise Australia until its American colonies achieved independence. On 13 May 1787, the first fleet of 11 ships sailed from England under the command of Capt. Arthur Phillip. They reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788 with 1530 people, 736 of them convicts. Finding the bay a poor choice, the fleet left eight days later to establish a settlement at Port Jackson, a few kilometres north. Here, Phillip began the first permanent settlement on January 26, now known as Australia Day. The settlement grew to be Sydney, Australia's biggest city with one of the world's best natural harbours. It was named Sydney for Britain's home secretary, Lord Sydney, (1733-1800), who was responsible for the colony. Phillip's domain covered half of Australia (from the eastern oceanic waters to as far west as the 135th meridian), but his human resources were limited.

Three major problems confronted the early governors: providing a sufficient supply of foodstuffs; developing an internal economic system; and producing exports to pay for the colony's imports from Britain. Land around Sydney was too sandy for suitable farming, and the colony faced perpetual food shortages through the 1790s. (Natural food sources were largely limited to fish and kangaroo.) Phillip established farms on the more fertile banks of the Hawkesbury River, a few miles north-west of Sydney, but this land was often flooded or still used by the Aborigines. Food supplies came mainly from Norfolk Island, nearly 1,600 km (about 1,000 miles) away, which Phillip had occupied in February 1788; the island later served as a jail.

In 1792 the Royal Marines were replaced with the New South Wales Corps, which had been specifically recruited in Great Britain. Given grants of land, members of the corps became the colony's best and largest farmers, but they also posed a serious threat to the governors by their power over the economy. With a sharp eye for enhancing their income, they specialised in controlling the price of rum, which served largely as the colony's internal means of exchange.

Phillip's successor as governor, Capt. John Hunter (1738-1821), who arrived in 1795, tried in vain to gain control of the rum traffic. The next governor, Capt. Philip G. King (1758-1808), who served from 1800 to 1806, was no more successful.



The island settlement at Hobart in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) was established in 1803 to accommodate convicts and to quash any possible French claims to the island.

In 1806 Capt. William Bligh replaced King. Bligh had gained notoriety earlier, when the crew of his ship, the Bounty , had mutinied in the Pacific. Bligh threatened the corps with the loss of their monopoly. He was met with the so-called Rum Rebellion, and on Jan. 26, 1808, Lieutenant Colonel George Johnston (a relative of mine) arrested him.

Bligh was later sent to London, where he successfully defended his policies, but he was not restored to his governorship. The Rum Rebellion thus gave the leaders of the corps immediate victory.

Meanwhile, one of its ringleaders, John Macarthur (1767-1834), had found the solution to the colony's lack of valuable exports; in 1802 he had shown British manufacturers samples of Australian wool. It was only after 1810, however, with the breeding of the merino sheep, with its long staple wool, that sheep grazing gradually developed into a major economic activity.

Bligh's replacement, Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824), served as governor from 1809 to 1821. The New South Wales Corps was sent home, and because the economy had improved, the government gained stability. Macquarie began an extensive public works program, employing the ex-convict Francis Greenway (1777-1837) to design churches, hospitals, and government buildings in Sydney. The population of the colony also increased after Britain's defeat of Napoleon in 1814.

The arrival of more free settlers brought increased claims to farmland on which more convicts could serve as labourers. These two groups of colonists, however, reflected a growing tension within New South Wales. As convicts completed their sentences or were eligible for release due to good behaviour, they sought land and opportunities. They were known as the emancipists, and their leaders urged that they be given more rights. The free settlers, like the corps before them, maintained that convicts, even after their release, should not be treated as equals. These opponents to the emancipists were known as the exclusives. Macquarie, as had Bligh, tended to support the emancipists, granting them land and appointing them to minor offices. The exclusives became critical of both Macquarie and the emancipists.

Macquarie's government was expensive, and most of the burden had to be carried by the British treasury. Overseas punishment, however, did not appear to have reduced the number of convicts, and many wondered if New South Wales was the proper solution to Britain's crime problems. In 1819, the British Colonial Office sent Judge John Thomas Bigge (1780-1843) to inspect and report on Macquarie's administration. He recognised the colony's growing importance to the British Empire as a home for wealthy free settlers, and he popularised the name Australia for the southern continent. Bigge's reports resulted in a major change in the constitution for New South Wales in 1823.

New South Wales was granted the first constitutional charter by a British law, authorising the creation of a Legislative Council with limited power. In 1825, by an executive order of the British government, the island settlement of Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) became a separate colony.


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