An Australian History

Early settlement map orientated east/west of Sydney.


Australia Day, 26 January, is celebrated in remembrance of the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788.  Today, in Australia, the date is often associated with invasion and is quite often referred to as Invasion Day.  Is this a fair assessment of the events of 1788 or more a reflection of where Australian history stands today?

When the First Fleet, consisting of eleven ships, sailed into Botany after 252 days at sea, having left Portsmouth, England, 13 May 1787, the greatest voyage of immigration up to that point in history had been achieved.  Some 1373 officers, sailors, marines, passengers, including women and children, and convicts had survived. Remarkably, there had only been forty-eight deaths recorded while there had been twenty-eight births during the voyage south. 

The First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip, had initially arrived at Botany Bay as planed but it was quickly found that the site lacked suitable water. Phillip ordered the party moved to Port Jackson where suitable water was found at Farm Cove while the fleet could ‘shelter in the finest harbour in the world where  ‘a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security …’  After transferring from Botany Bay to Port Jackson and the inlet now known as Sydney Cove, the First Fleeters stepped into a landscape that was as vast and empty as the ocean that they had recently crossed. There was no familiar signposts by which the First Fleeters might orientate themselves.  Apart from Captain Arthur Phillip  and the masters of the other ships and perhaps the odd crew member, none of the passengers, and certainly none of the convicts, would have seen foreign land let alone stepped onto its soil.  

Phillip had asked for experience craftsman, farmers, and builders but this was rejected by the Lordships in London.  In the end, Phillip arrived with fifteen civil servants and 245 marines to manage some 800 convicts most of whom were convicted of petty thievery in the slums of London.  The crews of the eleven ships would remain with the ships.   The effect was that when the immigrants arrived they had little in the way skill or expertise in undertaking the business of surviving in a strange land.

Along with officers, civil servants, seamen marines, convicts, and their families, there were three ships loaded with supplies. The convict carrying ships had surgeons on board and the store ships carried basic agricultural implements, camp equipment, clothing and baggage along with seven horses, seven cattle, twenty-nine sheep, five rabbits, eighteen turkeys, twenty-nine geese, and 209 fowls.  Specifically, there was no plough, nor any who knew much about agriculture on board with the result that early attempts at farming where a failure. The result was that initially farming attempts at Farm Cove proved dismal until the area upstream was explored, now known as Parramatta, where suitable land for agriculture was found and where corn, wheat and barley were successful grown. 

To over come the initial food problem a ship was despatched to Norfolk Island partly as a strategic move but more importantly to establish farm production to support the struggling immigrants.

By November 1788, apart from His Majesty Armed Tender (HMAT) Supply, all the vessels comprising the First Fleet were to leave on other missions.  Four of the ships of the First Fleet set sail for England no doubt carrying reports, communiques, and correspondence, along with letters for those left behind, informing their Lordships in the Admiralty and Home Office in London of the progress of the settlement.  While we do not know the extent of that correspondence we can intuit that there were requests for supplies and agriculture implements and particularly for skilled workmen.  However there in one thing we do know that was not included on the return trip, any form of treaty with the local indigenous people.  The unfortunate result is that in 2021 the matter haunts both Indigenous and European Australians to this day and something to which I will return with some frequency.

At the time of the arrival of the First Fleet there were some one million First Nations people inhabiting what was to become known as Australia.  Their arrival is a debated issue among archaeologists.  Given that there always existed a water division between the landmass of Australia and Asia any early settlement of Australia would have had to involve a water crossing.  The second thing is that Aborigines, and Torres Strait Islanders, are homo sapiens, the same genus as the First Fleeters, that is, fully modern humans beings.  The third thing is that given the lowering of sea levels during the last Ice Age many places where the early settlers would have lived are now submerged and the archaeological dates found in Australia (40,000 years) therefore represent a time after the rising of the sea level.    

There is one further aspect to consider.  There is every likelihood that the ‘early’ settlers who arrive in Australia as early as 60,000 years ago were followed by later groups of settlers (5,000 years ago) who then intermarried with earlier group/s.  In any event it is evident that modern humans inhabited the continent well before Europeans set eyes on the country.  It is not my intention to enter into the debate whether about timings of settlement or the genome sequencing of homo sapiens but simply to flag what was to happen after 1788. 

It is not that there had not been any contact with the local indigenous people of Botany Bay or at Farm Cove.  In fact when Captain James Cook landed in what he then called Stingray Bay, later changed to Botany Bay in 1770, spears were thrown and muskets were fired injuring one indigenous male.  

When the First Fleet arrived under Captain Arthur Phillip, there were any number of encounters with the local indigenous Cadigal and Eora peoples resulting in Phillip befriended one Eora man, Bennelong.  In another incident on the beach at Manly a misunderstanding arose with the local Aborigines resulting in Phillip being speared in the shoulder. Phillip ordered his men not to retaliate which went some way in winning trust. 

Unfortunately, there is no record that any attempt was made at forming a treaty with the local inhabitants. Without war or treaty the great continent of Eastern Australia that was claimed for Britain in 1770 by Captain James Cook, has unending ramifications. The result is that the status of the Aboriginal Nations were left undefined, opening the door to the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ meaning Australia was ‘no man’s land’. Native title was not recognised in law until the Mabo Judgement of 1992.

It is often argued European deemed the land could be put to better economic use, was justification enough in contemporary British politico-legal thought.  

The situation with the indigenous population was anything but improved with the landing of the Second Fleet arriving in 1789.  Sailed, not under the authority of any naval command, the ships, five under control of contracted captains and crew. The only naval vessel in the fleet, the converted gun ship, HMS Guardian, struck an iceberg and returned to the Cape of Good Hope where it was wrecked on the coast.  The others ships carrying 1038 convicts continued with the captains practiced such a regime of cruelty and starvation on the convicts that 273 died while 486 landed classified as ‘sick’.  There is an unconfirmed report that those too sick to walk off the ships were simply thrown overboard. Given the times and the desperate straits in which the Sydney Cove population found themselves such report is conceivable. 

The Reverend R. Johnson went among them as soon as the ships reached port and later wrote, 

… the misery I saw amongst them is indescribable … their heads, bodies, clothes, blankets, were all full of lice. They were wretched, naked, filthy, dirty, lousy, and many of them utterly unable to stand, to creep, or even to stir hand or foot.

(Note) Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol I, Part 2, Phillip, 1788-1792, Charles Potter Government Printer: Sydney, 1892: 387.  Lockhart Review and Oaklands Advertiser (NSW : 1910 – 1954), Tuesday 5 March 1940, page 7 Trove (Accessed 29 August 2020)

For a struggling community this was all but overwhelming threatening the existence of the fledging community.  Of those who made it ashore eight-six died in the following weeks.   The ‘news’ of this atrocity would have spread quickly throughout the struggling community and one may ask, if such indifference to human life likewise extended to the local indigenous people?

With the arrival of the Europeans also arrived a host of diseases which were quickly transmitted to the indigenous population.  The most devastating of these was smallpox which claimed the life of those who had not immunity to such diseases. Ironically perhaps, I am writing this at a time when CoVID 19 is ravaging the world but which has yet to impact of First Nation communities.

By 1790 there was the very real prospect that the Port Jackson settlement was facing starvation itself.  Although fishing and hunting did provide some food, supplies were problematic.  The arrival of the Second Fleet, what became known as the Death Fleet, imposed addition constrains on an already stretched food supple. The situation of food supply was not adequately resolved until land grants were given to ex-convicts in 1792 in the Ryde area which essentially became the food basket for the struggling community.

The Second Fleet however did carry a passenger that would go on to change the fortunes of what was to become Australia, one John Macarthur.  Macarthur, a fiery character, went on to establish the wool industry thereby coining the phrase, Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’.  Land and wool were to become the the economic and political capital of Australia.

In 1791 a Third Fleet left from various ports in England and delivered much needed supplies along with 1716 male and 169 female convicts.  Some 182 convicts died at sea.       By 1793 some 85% of the convicts that arrived on the First Fleet had become free mainly because they were needed as unpaid workers in the colony.  Small grants of land were made to ex-convicts with the idea that they had something to work for and would settle and become part of the economy.  It was a good policy but quickly became corrupted.

The year was 1822, thirty-four years after the arrival of the First Fleet, when the little known Bigge Report changed the internal dynamics of the colony.  The simply fact was the  being a convict in New South Wales was perceived as a whole lot better than being a destitute in Britain.  As a result, their Lordships in England sent John Thomas Bigge and his secretary, Thomas Hobbes Scott, to the colony to conduct a Commission of Inquiry. The outcome involved changes to the way the colony was administered along with convicts being assigned to free settlers and the introduction of chain gangs to assist in the expansion of the pastoral industry.  The concept was designed to attract investment in the wool industry while treatment of convicts became systematically brutalised.

It is perhaps not unexpected that the essence of the Bigge Reports (there were three) had John Macarthur’s fingerprints all over them.

The result of his careful cultivation of Bigge was the official promotion by the commissioner of Macarthur’s vision of New South Wales as an extensive wool-exporting country controlled by men of real capital, with ‘estates of at least 10,000 acres (4047 ha) each’ who would maintain transported convicts as their labour force and keep them landless and ‘in proper subjection’. A colonial aristocracy would thus provide a necessary bulwark to the ‘furious democrats’ and their corroding influences. (

Macarthur had demonstrated the wool was a viable industry for the struggling economy and one that would relieve their Lordships from the burden of financially support.  The expansion of the wool industry allowed the colonial government to grant leases of land of increasing size.

Dr Doyle’s sketch book, ca. 1862-1863 / John Thomas Doyle & Samuel Thomas Gill. f.41 Squatter of N.S.Wales Monarch of more than all he Surveys 1863

Once passed the seemingly impenetrable Blue Mountains (1813) Australia was to become a giant sheep run as it took, on average, around six acres to run one sheep.  However, this grab for land and quick profits by men who simply sat, squatted, on the land adversely impacted on indigenous people who were increasingly marginalised as the sheep, and later cattle, ‘squattocracy’ gobbled up the Australian landscape.

Tension was building and it was not long before the quest for land exploded into violence.  I will explore this unsavoury aspect of Australia’s history in a further article.