Chapter 4 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter IV

The foundation of Sydney

Effect of the revolt of the American colonies — The problem of the loyalists — Stoppage of the transportation of criminals to America — Banks suggests founding a convict settlement in New Holland — Matra’s plan — Young’s plan — Determination of Government to establish a settlement in New Holland — Pitt’s policy — Phillip appointed Governor — Sailing of the First Fleet — Phillip rejects Botany Bay and selects Port Jackson — Lapérouse in Botany Bay — Phillip’s task and its performance — His faith in the future — His retirement.

Just as the discoveries made by the Dutch upon the west and north coasts of Australia were closely connected with the Reformation in Europe, so the settlement established by the English at Port Jackson in 1788 was related to other events of great importance in world history.

The War of Independence which resulted from the revolt of the American colonies ended in 1782; and it produced two kinds of complications, both of which turned the attention of British ministers to the vast empty continent in the south seas. The first was the question of the American loyalists; of those colonists who had remained faithful to the British connexion during the dark days of the war, and were now in dire straits. The triumphant Americans behaved very harshly towards fellow-countrymen who had fought against them. Their property was confiscated, debts owing to them could not be recovered, and thousands of them were driven from the land. The greater number of the loyalists, over 50,000, went to Canada, Nova Scotia, and the West Indies, but many accompanied the British troops to England at the conclusion of the war. Most of these were herded together in utter destitution in London; and what to do with them was a problem which the Government had to face.

The second complication rose out of the unsettlement of the English penal system by the stoppage of the transportation of convicts to America. It had been the regular practice during the eighteenth century to ship large numbers of offenders against the law to the colonies. There was such an eager demand for labour there that contractors were willing to take convicts at no expense to the Government, knowing that they could sell them to planters for as much as £20 per head. Between 1717 and the War of Independence at least 50,000 English convicts were received into America. Several colonies protested against the traffic, and their legislatures even passed laws to put an end to it, but in such instances the home Government exercised its power of vetoing colonial statutes.

Now that America had separated from the British Empire this means of disposing of criminals was no longer available. But the English law still prescribed transportation as a punishment, and judges continued to inflict such sentences. The prisons were wholly insufficient to hold the condemned persons. Edmund Burke, speaking in Parliament in 1786, said that the jails were crowded beyond measure. ‘There was a house in London which consisted at this time of just 558 members; he did not mean the House of Commons, though the numbers were alike in both, but the jail of Newgate.’ Reform in one, he added, would not be less agreeable than reform in the other. Thousands of prisoners were crowded into wretchedly insanitary hulks which were purchased to serve as receptacles. Every month saw more and more sentences of transportation inflicted, more hulks filled with offenders, and still there was no place to which they could be exiled. There were said to be 100,000 persons in England under sentence of transportation. That must have been an exaggeration; but still, the problem was acute. The Government caused an examination to be made of sites in South-west Africa, where it was suggested that penal settlements might be founded. Some hundreds of convicts were in fact landed in Africa, but the places chosen were simply abodes of plague, pestilence, and famine. Burke eloquently asked the Government how they could reconcile it with justice that persons whom the rigour of the law had spared from death ‘should after a mock display of mercy be compelled to undergo it by being sent to a country where they could not live, and where the manner of the death might be singularly horrid; so that the apparent mercy of transporting those wretched people to Africa might with justice be called cruelty — the gallows of England would rid them of their lives in a far less dreadful manner than the climate or the savages of Africa would take them.’

Thus the problem of settling the American loyalists and that of dealing with the convicts occupied the attention of the Cabinet of William Pitt at the same time.

Sir Joseph Banks was the first to make the suggestion that in New Holland could be found a suitable place for convict settlement. In 1779 he gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons appointed to consider the convict question; and he then recommended that Botany Bay would be ‘best adapted’ for the purpose. He remembered Botany Bay with pleasure because of the plants he had collected there. But the Government was too much engaged with other pressing business at that time to act upon the suggestion.

Four years later another man, a Corsican who had been with Cook in the Endeavour, directed attention to the suitableness of Botany Bay with a view of relieving the Government of their second embarrassment. James Maria Matra, in a letter to Lord Sydney, Secretary of State for the Home Department, in 1783, pointed out that the distress of the American loyalists might be relieved by sending them out to populate the empty spaces of New Holland. There was plenty of room for them; there was scope for commerce with India, China, and Japan; and they might, under British protection, build up in the south estates and fortunes to replace those of which they had been deprived in America. The subject had been discussed with some of the Americans, who agreed that the proposal offered the most favourable prospects that had yet occurred to promote their happiness.

Lord Sydney had an interview with Matra, and discussed the scheme with him. It would seem that he viewed the convict trouble as more serious than that affecting the loyalists, and Matra saw that he would be more likely to attain the settlement of New Holland by amending his scheme. He therefore added to it a postscript, wherein he pointed out that in New Holland there were abundant possibilities for the founding of a colony for the reception of convicts.

In 1785 Admiral Sir George Young submitted to the Government a detailed plan for the settlement of both loyalists and convicts in New South Wales. The fact that New Holland was such a long distance from Europe appeared to him to be a particularly strong argument in favour of it. He thought that, by sending the convicts there, England would get rid of them ‘for ever.’

The failures on the west coast of Africa and the arguments in favour of New Holland induced the Government in 1786 to resolve to make an experiment in this country; and the King’s speech to Parliament in January 1787 definitely announced that a plan had been formed for transporting a number of convicts ‘in order to remove the inconvenience which arose from the crowded state of the jails in different parts of the kingdom.’ About the fate of the loyalists nothing was said. The Government missed the opportunity of conferring advantages upon a number of people who had brought distress upon themselves by following their consciences in supporting a losing side, and at the same time of peopling a new country with a stock experienced in colonization.

It would be pleasant if we could attribute to so great a man as Pitt the vision of a far-seeing Imperial statesmanship in the deciding of this issue; but in truth there is no evidence that he had even a glimmering idea that England was founding a great new nation in the southern seas. He was a practical politician immersed in the problems and perplexities of the hour. One of the vexing questions confronting his Cabinet was that of the disposal of the felons, and the Minister responsible, Lord Sydney, recommended the plan of sending them to New Holland. Pitt assented, and showed just such a measure of interest in the project as the head of a Government might be expected to take in a scheme projected by a colleague. Once, in the House of Commons, he apologized for not having furnished some information about transportation which had been asked for on the ground of ‘a very great hurry of public business.’ On another occasion he defended the scheme because ‘in point of expense no cheaper mode of disposing of the convicts could be found.’ ‘No cheaper mode’ — there was no imperial imagination in that; but it was eminently practical. It would have been eternally to Pitt’s honour if, remembering the plight of the American loyalists, he had given precedence to their claims, and had heeded the warning of Bacon that ‘it is a shameful and unblessed thing to take the scum of people and wicked condemned men to be the people with whom you plant.’ But he was not consciously planting a colony so much as disposing of a difficulty. Yet, if we estimate the importance of political things by their endurance, their ultimate value, their large and expanding effect upon human affairs, the founding of New South Wales was the most important of all the policies taken in hand by Pitt’s Government at this time. Out of the settlement authorized in 1786 grew the Commonwealth of Australia.

It is very remarkable that, even after the new colony had been founded, the Government had not entirely abandoned the sending of convicts elsewhere. It had not apparently made up its mind that Botany Bay was to be the only receptacle. The correspondence of Grenville, Pitt’s Foreign Minister, contains a letter written by him as late as November 1789, wherein he said (Dropmore Papers, vol. i. p. 543): ‘The landing convicts in the territories of the United States, even if the masters of the ships perform their contracts for so doing, is an act highly offensive to a country now foreign and independent; and as such very improper for this Government to authorize. And it is, besides, an act of extreme cruelty to the convicts, who, being turned ashore without any of the necessaries of life, are either left to starve, or (as has sometimes been the case) are massacred by the inhabitants. And as to transporting to the King’s American colonies, you may depend upon it that, after the example set them by Admiral Milbanke, none of our governors will suffer any of these people to be landed in their governments.’ The case referred to by Grenville related to the sending of eighty Irish convicts to Newfoundland, where the Governor, Milbanke, refused to allow them to land, ignoring an Irish Act of Parliament of 1786 which authorized the sending of convicts to America or to such place out of Europe as should be appointed. The significant fact is that these Irish convicts were sent to Newfoundland after the new colony in Australia had been established.

Arthur Phillip, a captain in the Navy, was selected to be the first Governor of New South Wales, the limits of which were stated by his commission to extend from Cape York to the southern extremity of Van Diemen’s Land, and westward as far as the 135th degree of longitude. The territory thus defined embraced about one-half of the continent, and it did not include any of the western portion which the Dutch had named New Holland. Indeed, at this time it was not known that the country was one great island. Many considered that a strait would be found dividing New Holland from New South Wales. The Government may well have considered that they were acting with caution in placing the western boundary of the colony at the 135th degree. There was no desire as yet to appropriate the whole of Australia.

On May 13, 1787, the ‘First Fleet’ sailed from England. It consisted of the Sirius, the Supply, three store ships, and six transports carrying the convicts: eleven vessels in all. Phillip arrived in Botany Bay on January 18, 1788, and two days later the whole of the ships were safely at anchor there. The total company which arrived was over 1,000. The staff of officers, marines, and extra hands, with women and children, numbered 290, and the convicts who reached Botany Bay were 717, of whom 520 were males. This was the stock with which the new colony was settled.

An examination of Botany Bay speedily convinced Phillip that the place was unsuitable. The openness of the bay, the inferior quality of the soil, and the swamps with which the coastal land was surrounded, would have made settlement there unsuccessful. Phillip therefore determined to go north and inspect Port Jackson, the harbour which Cook had marked down upon his chart, but had not entered. There his seaman’s eye was delighted with the prospect, and his administrative intelligence perceived that the required conditions were fully met. He found what he described as ‘the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security,’ and a deep cove in proximity to a supply of fresh water. To this he gave the name of Lord Sydney; and it became for many years to come the place of exile of many thousands of offenders who, as the poet Campbell wrote, were ‘doom’d the long isles of Sydney Cove to see.’ A little later Phillip found a place which he considered worthy to bear the name of the Prime Minister. To the north of Port Jackson he entered Broken Bay, and there looked upon ‘the finest piece of water I ever saw, and which I honoured with the name of Pittwater.’

The position chosen by Phillip was in every way worthy of the enthusiastic praise which he bestowed upon it. It lay upon the south side of a great sheet of water, which, broken into many deep and sheltered bays, and surrounded by timbered terraces, was beautiful to the eye, and offered illimitable scope as a seat of commerce. The shores had a deep-water frontage of 200 miles. In ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’ it had been the estuary of a river flowing into the ocean many miles east of the present coastline, but the sinking of the floor of the sea in the course of ages had brought it to its present level, and made it a many-fronded harbour.

While the First Fleet was lying at anchor in Botany Bay, just after the return of the Governor from Port Jackson, two strange vessels were seen approaching. Their appearance aroused much curiosity. Some thought they might be Dutchmen prepared to dispute the landing of the British, and speculated as to whether there would have to be a fight. Phillip guessed that they were French exploring ships under the command of the Comte de Lapérouse, and he proved to be right. He was at that time, on the morning of January 24, making plans for transferring his whole company to the site which he had chosen at Sydney Cove, and did not consider it expedient to wait for the strangers, but hurried off to complete his preparations.

Lapérouse brought his two vessels into Botany Bay, and came to anchor there just as Captain Hunter of the Sirius, whom Phillip had left in charge, was sailing out. The reason for the visit of the French to Botany Bay is quite clear from the letters and journals of Lapérouse. He had been pursuing discovery work in the Pacific, and at one of the islands of the Samoa group two boats’ crews had met with disaster. They had all been massacred by natives, and the longboats had been smashed. Lapérouse carried in the holds of his ships the frames and planks of two new boats, and desired to find a quiet harbour where he could fit them together. He wished to avoid a landing at any South Sea island where natives might be encountered, because his men were very angry about the loss of their companions, and if there had been another encounter, with loss of life, he would have been left with insufficient strength for the manning of both his ships, and would have been compelled to beach and destroy one of them. Having been a close student of the voyages of Cook, he remembered that navigator’s description of Botany Bay, and decided to go there and build his new longboats. The idea that Lapérouse entertained any intention of claiming the place for the French, or of founding a settlement anywhere, is pure fable. The French remained in Botany Bay till March 10, on excellent terms with the British officers who visited them, and then sailed again into the Pacific, to meet their death upon the coral reefs of Vanicoro.

On January 26 Phillip unfurled the British flag at Sydney with simple ceremony, the King’s health was drunk, and work began. The process of clearing the ground and erecting shelters was taken in hand with the utmost vigour. The Governor himself, while the work progressed, lived in a small canvas house which was neither wind nor water proof. The officers, marines, and convicts camped in tents made principally from old sail-cloth which had been brought from England for the purpose. Spaces were cleared for the sowing of corn, trees were cut down for the building of wooden huts, stores were landed from the ships, labour was organized for shaping a disciplined community out of fractious elements and replacing wild forest and scrub with a planned, orderly township. On February 7 the Governor’s commission was read, and he took the oaths required by law before an assemblage of the whole population, civil, military, and convicts. One of the oaths which he was required to take was that abjuring the Pretender. This was the last occasion when there was any need for it to be taken, for Charles Edward Stuart had died on January 31, 1788, a week before Phillip solemnly abjured him and his claims to the British throne.

To few men has been given so great an opportunity as that which fell to Arthur Phillip. He was the founder of a new European State in a land where civilized man had never lived before. There was not one among all the subjects of King George III whose place in history was more assured than his. The ambition to live in the memory of posterity for ages is common among mankind. Monuments of bronze and marble, public bequests and endowments, gifts and foundations, are favourite modes of cheating oblivion; and the age in which this history was being worked out saw many great reputations made and many efforts to perpetuate fame by various means. But who amongst them all did a piece of work to compare with Phillip’s? And who amongst them all overcame such difficulties with such imperfect material, and reaped so small a material reward?

The difficulties arose chiefly from the character of the men with whom he had to work, and the irregularity and insufficiency of the supplies while the infant colony was dependent upon outside resources. The very defects which had made many of the convicts offenders against the law at home made them a wretchedly inefficient stock with which to found a colony. They were lazy and incapable. ‘Numbers of them have been brought up from their infancy in such indolence that they would starve if left to themselves,’ Phillip reported. As more convicts were sent out he had to complain that the healthy and those who were masters of trades were retained in English prisons, whilst the useless were transported. ‘The sending out of the disordered and helpless clears the jails and may ease the parishes from which they are sent,’ Philip wrote, ‘but it is obvious that this settlement, instead of being a colony which is to support itself, will, if the practice be continued, remain for years a burthen to the mother-country.’ He laboured to encourage his colonists to reform by granting liberal concessions to the deserving; and he pleaded with the Government to send out also honest, intelligent settlers, whose example might act as an incentive. ‘We shall want some good characters to whom these people might look up.’

The difficulty as to supplies was constant during the first few years of settlement. The colony was dependent upon provisions sent from England, and a mishap to a single supply ship meant imminent starvation. There were times when the labourers complained of hunger when called forth to their work. In March 1792 Phillip stated that his community had been on a reduced ration since November 1789, a period of over two years; and if a ship became overdue, people were alarmed at the prospect of supplies failing. At another time he had to send 200 to Norfolk Island — where a settlement had been founded in 1788 — to relieve the pressure upon the resources of Sydney. The live stock in the beginning increased very slowly; many cattle died from disease; ants and field-mice ate the seed-corn; the rice went bad, but had to be eaten nevertheless. During times of distress Phillip added his own private store of provisions to the common stock, and did not permit himself to take more than the ordinary ration which was received by all alike.

Moreover, with the menace of positive starvation stretching its shadow over the settlement, with wretched human material to use, with the feeling which must have been often with him that the home Government looked upon Sydney as little better than a rubbish-tip, Phillip not only never lost heart, but never wavered in his view of the essential nobility of his mission. Others might despair of the future of the colony; he never did. One of his officers wrote that it would be cheaper ‘to feed the convicts on turtle and venison at the London Tavern than to be at the expense of sending them here.’ But we never find that note struck in Phillip’s letters and despatches. For him there was no doubt of the future. At the end of a despatch wherein he had had to chronicle the loss of cattle, conflicts with savages, insufficiency of food, illness among the convicts, and even earthquake, he trumpeted his conviction as to the future: ‘Nor do I doubt but that this country will prove the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made.’ ‘I am serving my country and serving the cause of humanity,’ he said in another despatch.

Apart from the occupation of Norfolk Island there was a little extension of settlement during Phillip’s governorship. The first township out of Sydney was established at Parramatta, at first called Rose Hill, where farming was encouraged and the experiment was tried of placing industrious convicts on land with the promise that, if they behaved well, free grants should be made to them.

Before Phillip resigned office he had the satisfaction of seeing close upon 2,000 acres of land under cultivation at Parramatta. Indeed, the soil along the Parramatta River was so good that he acknowledged that, if he had seen it when first looking for a site, he might have been induced to make the main settlement there.

Late in 1792, just as he saw the colony approaching to a state of self-dependence in the production of the necessaries of life, ill-health compelled Phillip to resign his governorship and return to England. He left in December of that year, hoping to be able to resume the work at a later date. But he did not see Sydney Cove again, and he died at Bath in 1814, slipping out of life so quietly that his burial-place was not discovered till over eighty years afterwards.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 38-50

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