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To the 18th century AD
18th century
     Voyages of Captain Cook
     The Aboriginal perspective
     Proposals for a penal colony
     The First Fleet
     Second and Third Fleets

19th century
To be completed

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Three voyages of Captain Cook: 1768-1779

The voyages of James Cook are the first examples of exploration undertaken on scientific principles. His first expedition, sailing in the Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768, has a scientific task as its central mission. It is known to the astronomers of the day that in June 1769 the planet Venus will pass directly between the earth and the sun. An international effort is made to time the precise details of this transit, as seen from different parts of the world, in the hope of calculating the earth's distance from the sun.

Cook first mission is to sail to Tahiti, set up a telescope for this purpose and take the necessary readings.


Cook's second purpose is exploration. He is to continue the search for the supposed southern land, Terra Australis, and he is to chart the coast of the known territory of New Zealand. He has among his passengers scientists of another discipline. The botanists Joseph Banks and his Swedish colleague Daniel Solander are eager to collect specimens of Pacific flora.

Cook observes the transit of Venus in the summer of 1769 and then spends the next eighteen months charting the entire coast of New Zealand's two main islands and the east coast of Australia. The Endeavour is back in Britain in July 1771.


The original astronomical purpose proves the least significant part of the voyage (the data proves inadequate for the intended purpose). But Cook's charting of these important coast lines is carried out to a scientific standard previously unattempted.

As the first Europeans to visit Australia's congenial eastern coast, the reports of Cook and his distinguished passengers are also instrumental in encouraging the notion of forming British settlements.


The prospect of visitors: 18th century

By the mid-18th century the inhabitants of Australia probably number about 300,000, spread thinly across the entire continent in an interconnecting pattern of tribal territories.

In 1770 newcomers from Europe begin visiting the most temperate and habitable region of the continent, the east coast. Captain Cook, arriving in that year, is the first. In the early 1770s French explorers land on Tasmania. From 1788 Europeans begin to settle. The original Australians acquire the name by which they have subsequently been known - the Aborigines. Their lives are not about to improve.


Proposals for a penal colony: 1779-1786

In 1779 Joseph Banks appears before a committee of the House of Commons in Westminster and suggests that the eastern coast of Australia, which he has visited with Captain Cook nine years earlier, would be an excellent destination for convicted felons transported from Britain. The landscape and the climate are such that a penal colony could survive.

Transportation is a political issue of some urgency. In 18th-century England, with a vast divide between rich and poor, the laws protecting property are draconian. Theft on even a quite trivial level is a capital offence.


Yet although such laws remain on the statute book, they are widely recognized as being unjust. More than half those condemned to death have their sentences commuted to imprisonment, and the trend is accelerated after a law of 1768 specifically grants judges this option of leniency. As a result Britain's prisons are bursting at the seams.

The preferred solution is transportation abroad. The American colonies are ideal for the purpose, and many criminals are shipped there to work as indentured servants and labourers. But after the American Revolution in 1776 this outlet is no longer available. Australia, as Banks points out, seems a viable alternative. In 1786 parliament resolves to establish a penal colony.


Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet: 1787-1788

Arthur Phillip, a naval captain, is given command of the first fleet transporting convicts to Australia. He is also to be governor of the colony of New South Wales.

The fleet which sails from Portsmouth in May 1787 consists of eleven ships carrying some 750 convicts (nearly 200 of them women), 400 sailors and 200 marines to keep discipline. By October they are at the Cape of Good Hope, their last contact with civilization. Here they take on board a large number of animals of various kinds for the proposed settlement. On 20 January 1788 they reach their intended destination, Botany Bay. It has been given this enticing name by Cook and Banks, but those expected to settle here find it barren and unprepossessing.


On January 21 Phillip sails a few miles north and finds the great natural harbour of Port Jackson. Here he selects an inlet with a good water supply as the site for the new colony. He names the place Sydney Cove in honour of the home secretary, Viscount Sydney.

A prefabricated house of wood and canvas, designed in London for the governor, is erected at the centre of the settlement. Tents are put up for the marines and the convicts, with a separate encampment a little distance away for the women - who are kept on the ships until everything is ready. On February 6 they disembark. After a pep talk from the governor and a religious service there are festivities of celebration.


One of the difficulties of this particular colony immdiately becomes apparent. At the inaugural party some of the convicts are caught stealing food. They are flogged, and one of them is banished to a rock in the harbour on a diet of bread and water.

The harsh reality is that this community, lacking agricultural skills and accustomed to living by theft, is ill equipped to till the virgin soil and produce food to sustain the colony. By the end of the year the situation seems desperate. It is compounded by deteriorating relations with the native Australians, the Aborigines. Friendly at first, their attitude to the newcomers changes once it seems evident that they intend to stay.


The Second and Third Fleets: 1790-1792

Somehow, under Phillip's leadership, the colony survives the first two desperate years - extending the land under cultivation, building houses and even establishing a second settlement at Parramatta. A turning point comes in June 1790, though it hardly seems so at the time.

Three ships, known now as the Second Fleet, arrive in the cove with their human cargo in an appalling state. More than 1000 convicts began the journey outwards from England; only 750 now reach Australia; 500 of these need nursing back to health before they can play their part. However this second fleet also brings a new contingent of great signficance in the early fortunes of the colony.


A regiment known as the New South Wales Corps has been formed in London to police and guard the colony. Its officers and their families are on board these ships. These men intend to make a prosperous new life for themselves, and they will prove ruthless in pursuit of their interests.

They establish a trading monopoly (with the exclusive right to board visiting ships, buying the cargo for resale on land) and they shamelessly exploit the free labour of the convicts. Their actions bring frequent conflict with successive governors. But sheep farming, bringing New South Wales its early prosperity, is developed entirely by this group, Australia's first gentry.


By the end of 1792, when Phillip sails home after nearly five years as governor, the colony seems well established. It numbers now about 1000 free citizens and twice as many convicts. Families arriving of their own free will are automatically allocated land and convict labour to work it. Comfortable brick houses are being built. The Third Fleet has arrived, bringing out more officers' wives. Social life is developing, with boating parties, picnics and music. The place begins to seem, like the American colonies before it, a convincing outpost of Britain.

Soon exploration is being being undertaken along Australia's coastline to discover what other places may be most suitable for settlement.


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