Birth of a nation: Historical sketch [1 January 1901]

[Editor: An article regarding the Federation of Australia. Published in The Brisbane Courier, 1 January 1901.]

Birth of a nation.

Historical sketch.

Though the first discovery of Australia is still to a large extent in the region of uncertainty, it has generally been accepted that the honours of early exploration belong to the Dutch; Dirk Hartog, Edel, Peter Nuyts, Carpenter, Tasman, De Witt, and Pelsart being among the navigators who first visited its shores. The first Englishman to reach Australia was the celebrated William Dampier, who visited the Western Coast in 1688, and ten years later explored some 900 miles of the same territory. On the 28th April, 1780, Captain Cook, in the Endeavour, after having explored a considerable portion of the Eastern coast, dropped anchor in Botany Bay in front of a peaceful group of natives, and with this visit of the great navigator Australian history begins. His favourable reports made British statesmen look upon the new country as a suitable place for settlement. The sending of convicts to Australia was probably the least of the inducements which led to the sending of the first fleet under Captain Phillip, for, as has been pointed out, equally suitable places for convict .settlement could have been found nearer home. To understand the significance of the event it should be borne in mind that ten years previously the American colonies had been lost by the declaration of independence, and the future allegiance of Canada was still doubted if not doubtful. New South Wales was occupied under the Pitt Ministry, and the name of Thomas Townsend, Lord Sydney — the name given to the capital city of the mother-colony — was associated with the enterprise.


The first fleet left England in May, 1787, and reached Botany Bay at the beginning of January, 1788. The botanical wealth of the Bay had delighted Sir Joseph Banks, but it was found unsuitable for settlement, and the search for a better site led to the discovery of the grand harbour of Port Jackson, the entrance to which only had been noted and named by Captain Cook. Here on the sandy inlet of Sydney Cove, through which flowed a clear stream of fresh water, Captain Phillip selected the site of the first Australian settlement. Some of the scrub was cleared away and on the 26th January the Union Jack was hoisted in presence of the motley crowd of which the first colonists was composed. In his address, Captain Phillip spoke kindly words of encouragement to the prisoners, and, if the address be recorded correctly, it was as prophetic of the future greatness of Australia as were Darwin’s fine lines of the grand city of the South.


The first settlement was from the outset surrounded by great difficulties. To begin with, the colonists were brought to the verge of starvation, and the arrival of another batch of colonists without stores added to the distress. The attempt to raise wheat at Farm Cove was a failure. The Sirius was sent to Cape Colony and the Supply to Batavia for stores, which were obtained but in small quantities. It was only the subsequent arrival of three store-ships that saved the destruction of the whole settlement by famine. The early days of the colony were also darkened by the convict system. The most desperate efforts were made to escape; the convicts in their ignorance thinking they could reach China or their own country by an overland route. Governor Phillip wrote home that if fifty farmers were sent out with their families they would do more to benefit the colony than a thousand convicts. The first emigrant ship, the Bellona, arrived in 1793, with a number of free settlers, and two years later more came with Governor Hunter. Their first place of settlement was soon afterwards the rich alluvial lands of the Hawkesbury, where there were soon 6000 acres under crop and maize. The existence of the New South Wales Corps, a military body enlisted for services in the colony, was the cause of unmitigated trouble. The officers were induced to go out by promises of land and fortune. The import trade was in their hands, and they had the monopoly of the infamous traffic in rum, which was purchased for 10s. per gallon, and bartered at from 20s. to 25s. a quart. Wages were sometimes paid in rum, and farmers’ produce sold for rum. Governor King, who used strong measures to repress the traffic, was brought into conflict with the military class, and this conflict, with other causes, which need not be mentioned here, led to the deposition of his successor, Governor Bligh, and the assumption of the Government by Captain Johnstone.


Under the humane and progressive rule of Governor Macquarie, the brighter era of Australian history begins. The New South Wales Corps was disbanded, and the stoppage of the rum traffic was at once marked by improvement in the moral and religious condition of the people. Schools were established, the children taught useful handicrafts, and churches and public buildings were erected. Until now the impassable barrier of the Blue Mountains had confined settlement to the coastal district; but in 1813 the range was successfully crossed by Wentworth, Blaxland, and Lieutenant Lawson. A road was at once constructed by convict labour as far as Bathurst, the site of which was selected by Macquarie himself. The broad Western plains gave new scope for the pastoral industry, which had already been started with great success by Mr. John Macarthur. The same progress was made under Sir Thomas Brisbane. Moreton Bay was discovered, and the Brisbane River named in honour of the Governor. The explorers Hovell and Hume discovered the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. Trial by jury was first introduced into the colony in 1824, and in the same year the first Legislative Council of seven members was appointed. This was the first step made in the constitutional government which to-day is consummated in the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth.


To secure the political rights of the colonists, the Patriotic Association was formed in 1833. The name of William Charles Wentworth is forever stamped on the records of Australia because of his patriotic activity in this political movement. The way for Constitutional Government was steadily prepared by successive measures. The principle of religious equality was recognised by the Church Act of 1836, and municipal government was granted in 1842, when Sydney and Melbourne were incorporated. In 1843 under Lord Stanley’s Act, a Legislative Council was appointed, consisting of thirty-six members, twenty-four of whom were elected by the people; but it was not until several similar tentative experiments had been tried, that the Constitution Act, which is the basis of all the Constitutions now enjoyed by the several States of the Commonwealth, was finally passed on the 21st December, 1853. It is hardly possible to overestimate the influence which the discovery of gold in 1851 had on the later stages of the political movement. With the influx of population from all parts of the world the modern history of Australia begins. It became no longer possible to regard the colonies as far-off dependencies of Great Britain, and the later history of Australia is that of peaceful internal progress in the several States, culminating in the Commonwealth, and reaching forward to a closer federation with the mother-country, and other countries of the same tongue and race.

The Brisbane Courier (Brisbane, Qld.), 1 January 1901, p. 13

Editor’s notes:
Darwin’s fine lines = a reference to the poem “Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove, near Botany Bay”, written by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin)

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