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The Colonization of Australia

How did the continent become home to British convicts?

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  • Lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson in 1788, by Edmund Le Bihan.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Australia’s unique English-speaking culture seems so ingrained in the modern day that it’s easy to forget just how bizarre and far-fetched the idea of its colonization once seemed. Australia’s distance from England provoked doubt, derision, and ridicule at the idea of its colonization—and yet it eventually succeeded to such a degree that the far-flung penal colony grew beyond self-sufficiency to eventual independence. The colonization of Australia is an unlikely story, written in the blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds of thousands of British-born convicts and Aboriginal Australians. 

It was the reign of King George III, and crime rates were soaring. Those born into England’s working class were expected to start working long days in perilous sweatshops at the age of six; it’s no wonder many of them turned to a life of crime. The British justice system had once punished most offenses by hanging, and so had little need for prisons. However, that practice was falling out of favor, and what few privately-owned penitentiaries existed in England were filling up. Prisoners had previously been transported to work on plantations in the Americas, but with the United States’ burgeoning independence, that was no longer an option. The House of Commons convened a committee to hear options and, in 1786, voted Australia the most suitable location for prisoners, and Seven Years’ War Navy veteran Arthur Phillip the most suitable captain—to be declared governor after their arrival.

The Australian coast had already been partially mapped, mostly by Captain James Cook on his 1770 expedition, but no one in Britain knew what lay beyond its immediate shores. Australia had been occupied by diverse groups of Aboriginal people, who first arrived by boat from the islands of Southeast Asia, for at least 50,000 years by that time. To the British legislature, however, Australia, which had a population of at least 300,000, lacked a Christian culture and therefore was as good as empty. There was no talk of reconnaissance.

The First Fleet of 11 ships bore over 700 prisoners to Australia; 48 of them never made it. The average convict was a rural tradesman between the ages of 16 and 35. The youngest was a nine-year-old boy, and the oldest was an 82-year-old woman. Most of them had been convicted of theft, burglary, or highway robbery. The voyage was poorly provisioned, the ships rife with pests, and the pests rife with typhus. But finally, on January 19, 1778, the First Fleet sailed into Australia’s Botany Bay. 

Captain Cook’s log, which had reported long, unbroken stretches of fertile grassland, was wrong. Eucalyptus trees huddled together on the shores, while the space between them was overgrown with thick, tangled brush. Forming a self-sufficient, agrarian community here would be difficult, even with the intended regular arrival of supplies. On a brief northward expedition, Phillip found land more arable, water more potable, and a harbor more suitable just a few miles from the landing site. He called the area Sydney Cove. 

The convicts disembarked and received work details; most of the labor in those early days went toward building houses for officers and tilling farmland. The fertile soil around Sydney Cove, while preferable to that of Botany Bay, was concentrated in small, separate patches; clearing the brush and trees to expand it proceeded slowly. Phillip was forced to pare down rations repeatedly, until officers and convicts were getting the same amounts of food.

Absent the promised provisions, Phillip sent a group of convicts and officers to nearby Norfolk Island to try farming there, but they fared no better. He dispatched his flagship, Sirius, to Cape Town in South Africa twice for resupply; she never returned from the second voyage. Many convicts had sold their clothes in exchange for parts of the officer’s rations. Some swiped salt pork and peas from food stores or vegetable gardens, an offense punishable by hanging. Finally, in June of 1790, the Lady Juliana arrived with the long-awaited supplies, along with more convicts’ mouths to feed. The original supply ship, the Guardian, had struck an iceberg and sank. From then on, ships laden with food and convicts appeared more regularly; over 160,000 prisoners would be transported by the time the practice ended in 1868.

Relations with Aboriginal people were relatively peaceful in the early years of the colony, despite the devastating effects of smallpox and influenza on the Eora population. Some Aboriginal people even helped guide European explorers, probing Australia’s inland on both surveying and naturalistic expeditions. Phillip encouraged friendship and free trade, and punished convicts who lashed out at the Indigenous population. And they often did, especially as the colony expanded inland and convicts stole Aboriginal people’s tools to sell as souvenirs. Conflict with the Darug people in 1795 resulted in raids that destroyed many of the settlers’ crops in the first of the Australian frontier wars. 

Governor Phillip returned to England in 1792, bringing with him two Aboriginal friends, Woollarawarre Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne. The colony he left behind had survived years of famine and was well on its way to self-sufficiency. He had a series of ineffectual successors, allowing New South Wales Corps officers to claim power for themselves and briefly rule the colony as a military junta. Much would change, however, with the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.

Macquarie set precedents for the future of Australia in many ways. He believed in equal treatment for emancipists—freed convicts—and gave many of them jobs in his government. He offered land grants to attract rich Europeans to the colony. Macquarie hired city planners to lay out the streets of Sydney, and commissioned public buildings, banks, and hospitals. In 1813, he issued the very first unique Australian currency, paying contractors in punched-out Spanish dollars. Macquarie was Australia’s last autocratic governor; two years after his resignation in 1821, New South Wales formed its very first Legislative Council under imperial supervision.

For all the goodwill he extended toward emancipists, Macquarie had none for Aboriginal Australians. By April of 1816, skirmishes with the Darug had escalated into an all-out war, involving the Eora, Dharawal, and Gandangara peoples. Under Macquarie’s orders to punish and exile the Dharawal, Captain James Wallis and his party of 37 grenadiers found and attacked one of their camps near the town of Appin. They killed at least 14 people in the massacre, including the elderly and children. The following month, Macquarie issued a proclamation in the Sydney Gazette encouraging settlers to attack any Aboriginal people who refused to vacate their land, providing them with government support.

Policies of family separation also emerged during the 19th century. 1869’s Aboriginal Protection Act in Victoria established a government board with the authority to regulate many aspects of Aboriginal people’s lives, including their employment, residence, and custody of children. Similar policies would follow later in other regions. Government agents, mostly targeting mixed-race children, would remove them from their homes and parents, sometimes with the use or threat of force. Many children were sent to boarding schools or foster homes, where they were severely punished for acknowledging their own culture or speaking their native language. Although it began earlier, forcible removal of Aboriginal children peaked after 1910, and continued in some parts of Australia into the 1970s. 

So the colonization of Australia proceeded; settlers and soldiers violently pushed Aboriginal people from their land across the six colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania. Wealthy Europeans received grants of rural land, urban planners laid out the streets of new cities, and contractors built them. Prospector Edward Hargraves’ discovery of gold sparked a rush, bringing hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the colonies. Industry developed around Australian wool, which became the colonies’ top export. All the while, Australia’s free population grew. Each colony formed its own legislature and elected officials. 

With the exception of a depression in the 1890s, Australia’s economy boomed throughout the 19th century. But with high customs restricting trade between them, representatives of the six colonies agreed tentatively to a constitutional convention and, eventually, a federation in 1890. Delegates from the Australian colonies eventually presented their case before the British government, and Australia officially declared its independence on January 1, 1901. 

In just over a century, the unlikely, agrarian penal colony on the shores of Botany Bay had grown into a fully independent, urbanized nation, and had done so without going to war with its sovereign. Still, it had been no easy task; colonial expansion killed hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal Australians, while their children were stolen and forced to assimilate. The modern Australian government has begun to recognize historical wrongdoings; as of 2022, all six Australian states had redress programs for survivors of the child removal policy. Many convicts had died on the journey over, others starved in the famine years, and those who survived built the nation under forced labor. From their experiences emerged a national identity that is still part of Australian culture today.