Australia in the late 18th century was nothing more than a dumping ground for the refuse of Britain’s jails. But the first consignment of convicts to Botany Bay in 1788, founded much more than a prison annexe: it was the start of a new nation. The early years were near disastrous ones of quarrelling, starvation and despair, but under tough leadership the diminutive colony grew into a great rich country, which, in little more than a century attracted millions of vigorous settlers.
In May 1787, eleven ships packed with convicts set sail for Botany Bay, Australia. Years of controversy had preceded over the use of the country - partially charted by Cook in 1772 - as a dumping ground for criminals, and thus ease the crowded conditions of Britain’s prisons.
Lord Sydney, Secretary of State for the Home Office, had finally promulgated the ‘Kings Ruling’ in favour of transportation. ‘The jails’ Lord Sydney said ‘Were so crammed with prisoners that the greatest danger apprehended, was not only from their escape, but the infectious distempers which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’. But Botany Bay proved disappointing. It was nothing at all like the Garden of Eden that had been conjured up in the London newspapers. It was flat, barren and hostile, and Capt. Arthur Phillip, in charge of the expedition, and the colonies first Governor, decided that it was altogether unsuitable - even as a dumping ground for London’s sweepings
Phillip dispatched a ship a few miles north to investigate Port Jackson which had been sighted but not charted by captain Cook nearly 20 years earlier. The report was good, and on January 26th 1788, after a nine month voyage halfway around the world the first ‘fleet’ sailed into what Phillip described as “the finest harbour in the world”, an expanse of wonderfully blue, deep water, contained like an inland lake by narrow heads and fringed by dozens of beautiful little bays and coves. He was enthusiastic about what he saw “I have no doubt that the country will prove a most valuable acquisition to Great Britain”.
The next day Phillip began to discharge his notorious cargo, 736 convicts, the first of 160,000 who would be transported to Australia during the next 70 years.; men and women who, whatever the nature of of their crimes, shared a common fate - the terrible sentence of a Judge in a British court “I sentence you but to what I do not know, perhaps to storm and shipwreck, perhaps to to infectious disorder, perhaps to famine, perhaps to be massacred by savages, perhaps to be devoured by wild beasts”.
Traditionally historians held the view that Botany Bay was chosen for settlement because its absolute isolation guaranteed the permanent removal of criminal elements from Britain. But some contemporary Australian historians argue that the decision was primarily influenced by the need for a maritime base as a support for the rich British trade with China and throughout the Pacific. It is certainly a strong possibility that the decision to settle Botany Bay was taken - “in the twin hopes of giving England the supplies it needed and ridding England of the people it did not need.
The growth of crime in Britain ran parallel to the general social upheaval that marked the beginning of the industrial revolution. There was a dramatic increase in population, less work, frequent famine and higher prices. Dispossessed rural labourers drifted into the already hopelessly overcrowded towns, where the great majority lived, poverty stricken in decayed hovels, surroundings in which a life of crime was often the only means of survival.
Crime became endemic and the only deterrent parliament could devise to halt violence and crime was to increase the number of capital offences. In 1688 there were 50 crimes punishable by death; in 1819 there were nearly 200, ranging from murder arson and rape, to stealing an heiress, sodomy, forgery, housebreaking, pick-pocketing, stealing goods worth more than five shillings, stealing linen etc.
It was poor material indeed, with which to build an empire (if that had ever been the intention), and against the awesome setting of the vast continent in to which it was dumped it looked even poorer.
The first load of convicts were chosen at random. Little regard was given to whether the convicts had previously been farmers, or artisans, whether they had skills which could be utilised by the colony. No regard was given to sex, age or health. The convicts were ‘the dregs of society’ nameless, soulless
The horror most of the white settlers experienced in the presence of the Aborigines was due partly to a shock of recognition - the Aborigine was in no way similar to the Polynesian or South American Negros the Europeans had encountered elsewhere in the Pacific; he was a Caucasian, who’s ancestors had probably crossed the seas from Asia at some time now lost n pre-history (the Tasman Aborigines, a separate race now extinct may have come from the Pacific): the mainland aborigines were as Alan Moorehead puts it “a European stone-age man, a living fossil of ourselves as we were in the beginning”. The Aborigines lived an apparently simple and uncomplicated existence. They were semi-nomadic people: they had no permanent settlements, but lived in primitive makeshift huts as they moved from one territory to another in search of food. The had no knowledge of agriculture, and their diet was determined by natural supply - fish, kangaroos, with chetty grubs (beetle larvae), wild honey and yams. They had few (though very effective) weapons - a spear or boomerang or a club - and even fewer utensils; what meagre possessions they did have were sacred and could not be bought by curious white men for a handful of coloured beads.
Ancestor worship directed the entire life of the tribe and the elaborate rituals and ceremonies around which the tribal structure was built were based on ancestral myths and legends.
Captain Cook, who recognised that the Aborigines had achieved a rare harmony and balance to their lives, wrote of them “they may appear to some to be the most wretched people on earth, but in reality they were far more happy than we Europeans”. The first encounters between the Aborigines and the white men were reasonably friendly, since the British Government had directed that the settlers “live in amity and kindness with them. But increasingly familiarity bred contempt in the white settlers and their repulsion was too frequently expressed in acts of physical violence.
The year 1790 had begun disastrously, “Famine was approaching with gigantic strides” quoth a captain of marines in March. No ship from England had called for 32 months and the original provisions were nearly exhausted when the governor packed half the convict settlers into the warships Sirius and Supply and sent them to distant Norfolk Island, where, they could at least find an abundance of vegetables, fish and birds.
There was still too many mouths to feed and finally on April 1st, Phillip, the Governor, ordered rations to be halved. From then everybody in the settlements at Rose Hill and Sydney had to subsist on a meagre diet of salt pork, rice, and flower. As the days passed and no relief ship arrived, Phillip resolved that when the Sirius returned from Norfolk Island, he would send her to China for provisions.
Soon starving convicts ere breaking into stores and gardens for food. Phillip was forced to deal savagely with offenders, sentencing one convict to 300 lashes for stealing a few potatoes. With nothing to nourish them, the ragged pale emaciated convicts began to die of starvation. The colony seemed about to pass into history as a particularly ill-starred endeavour, when on June 3rd a sail was sighted, the Lady Juliana sailed into harbour after an 11 month voyage from Plymouth. For the colonists of Botany Bay the ordeal was over.
In the 1830’s as British interest in Australia grew, a colony of free settlers - South Australia was founded. The first buildings and wharves of its port Adelaide named after King Wlliam IV’s queen, were erected in 1835 and within a decade the town became a bustling capital city. One man who observed South Australia’s burgeoning affluence in the mid 1840’s and painted the picture opposite, was the 22 year old artist George Agnas, who's father was one of the colonies leading founders. Young Agnas’s work stands as a fitting tribute to his father’s achievement - which settlers themselves honoured by naming one of the settlements Agnastown. (Continued below)
None of the settlers who arrived in South Australia in the 1840’s dawdled long on the quays of Adelaide. Carrying only their hopes and a few possessions they strode off to carve out new lives as farmers and grazers. Soon neat, picturesque settlements mushroomed up among the eucalyptus groves, sheep dotted the landscape and men began to sow wheat and prospect for minerals.
All work ceased however when it was time for the settlers favourite pastime - kangaroo hunting. With all the abandon of an English hunt, they used packs of greyhounds to run their quarry to earth. Good dogs usually brought down the bounding kangaroo after a dash of two miles or so, but cornered bucks frequently killed their snarling attackers with a viscous blow from their paws or hind legs. Infuriated kangaroos trapped by a water hole sometimes even seized dogs with their forepaws and held them under the water till they drowned.
For ladies who were too ungainly, unattractive or impecunious to catch husbands in William IV’s Britain, Australia was a godsend; it teemed with strapping men starved of female company. The task of uniting those unfortunate but nubile women with Australia’s lusty settlers fell to a philanthropic committee in London, which, despite consistent ridicule from cartoonists, undertook to ship young ladies for a £5 fare, and find them jobs in domestic service.
Despite assurances that every arrangement would be made for emigrants comfort, the voyage to Australia was a frightful ordeal. The “respectable person and his wife” who looked after the prospective brides usually treated them little better than cattle. Racked by seasickness and barely sustained on a diet of moulded biscuit and water, they were locked in their sleeping quarters from 7 pm to 10 am.
It became the practice for Aborigines to ‘disappear' from the settled areas and as more land was seized by the crown and given to settlers the Aborigines were inevitably driven back into the interior “as though they were dogs and kangaroos”. There were violent clashes and often acts of terrible savagery on both sides. Natives were killed but they killed back, and the settlers reacted by banding together and sending out expeditions into the bush to punish the blacks. No one knows how many Aborigines there were in Australia when the first white man arrived, perhaps 500,000, perhaps only 150,000 today there are less than 50,000 Aborigines of full blood.
On April 5th, this hope too was dashed, he learned to his horror that the vessel had ripped out her bottom on one of the island’s reefs. That night a grim Phillip, called his officers together, dispatched the Supply to The Dutch East Indies for stores, and cut rations still further.