Tag Archives: First Fleet

From Captain Cook to the First Fleet: how Botany Bay was chosen over Africa as a new British penal colony



‘The Founding of Australia 1788’, an oil painting by Algernon Talmage.
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

John Gascoigne, UNSW

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here, and an interactive here.


After Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage in 1770, the east coast of Australia was drawn on European maps of the globe for the first time. Yet, in terms of European contact with the continent, there was an 18-year lull in between Cook’s 1770 landings and the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

The main reason for this was Britain’s preoccupation with subduing its rebellious colonists in the War of American Independence from 1776-83.

Britain’s defeat in that war brought forth an urgent problem that eventually led to the colonisation of Australia: what it saw as a need to dispose of convicts who were overflowing the available prisons at home.

Previously, many British convicts were transported to the American colonies but after independence this option was no longer available.

Cook’s chart of Botany Bay.
British Library

The next penal colony: let the search begin

Discussions about alternative penal colonies meshed with Britain’s larger strategic and commercial goals at the time. Many hoped a new convict settlement would provide a base for extending British power in the wake of the American debacle and be “advantageous both to navigation and commerce”.

The search began in 1779 when the House of Commons established a committee under the chairmanship of British politician Sir Charles Bunbury. Various locations were considered, in particular, Senegal and Gambia on the west African coast.

But a new destination soon emerged with the testimony of Joseph Banks, the botanist on board the Endeavour, who had recently been elected president of the Royal Society. Botany Bay on the Australian coast, he contended, would be the best site for a penal colony since it had a Mediterranean climate and would be fertile. Banks added, too, that

there would be little Probability of any Opposition from the Natives

It was a prediction that would ultimately prove incorrect.

Why Botany Bay?

The search for a penal settlement lost momentum during the war, but regained some sense of urgency with its end in 1783.

James Matra, an American-born seaman aboard the Endeavour, circulated a proposal among policy-makers about establishing a new settlement at Botany Bay. It was based on his own first-hand knowledge of the coast, as well as his discussions with Banks, who remained the most influential advocate for the site.

Matra’s most immediate concern was to provide a home for the American loyalists – those, like his own family, who had lost their property in the new United States because of their loyalty to the British crown during the war.

Matra’s proposal also appealed to some key strategic and commercial concerns:

  • flax and timbers could be brought from New Zealand to grow in the new colony, providing the British navy with much-needed supplies;

  • the planting of spices and sugarcane would reduce Britain’s reliance on the Dutch East Indies;

  • the site could be used as a base for those engaged in the lucrative fur trade in America; and

  • the settlement could act as a strategic base to challenge the Dutch in the East Indies and the Spanish in the Philippines and even South America.

Another serious contender emerges

After Matra submitted his proposal, another House of Commons committee was established in 1785, chaired by Lord Beauchamp. Both Matra and Banks gave evidence in favour of Botany Bay, with Banks arguing,

from the fertility of the soil, the timid disposition of the inhabitants and the climate being so analogous to that of Europe I give the place the preference to all that I have seen

The committee, however, opted for an African site. It believed Das Voltas Bay, in southwest Africa, could reduce British dependence on the Dutch Cape of Good Hope in what is now South Africa and serve as a refuge for the American loyalists.

Before venturing down the path of establishing a colony, however, an exploratory voyage was sent to the African coast. It concluded the site was unsuitable as it lacked an effective harbour and fertile land.

Botany Bay was back in serious contention.

Dreams of Pacific trade

Other supporters soon emerged to sing the praises of Botany Bay.

Sir George Young, a naval officer and former East India Company officer, argued a colony at the site could serve as a base for trade with South America and underlined its strategic importance. If war broke out with Spain in the region, Botany Bay could be a place of refuge for British naval vessels.

Another advocate, John Call, an engineer with the East India Company, saw the advantages of a secondary settlement on nearby Norfolk Island. Flax grew in abundance on the island, he said, and the mighty Norfolk pine tree would be ideal for the masts of ships.




Read more:
Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and absent presence in First Nations art


These observations were based on reports from Cook’s second and third Pacific voyages. The second included a visit to Norfolk Island, while the third ventured to the northwestern coast of America and traded furs in China, further fuelling British aspirations for Pacific trade.

Such arguments eventually led Prime Minister William Pitt and his Cabinet to accept the proposal to establish the settlement at Botany Bay.

A drawing by John Webber depicting the arrival of Cook’s ship in Nootka Sound in April 1778 on his search for the Northwest Passage.
British Library

A costly endeavour

Such a settlement demanded an unprecedented degree of state planning and financing.

The First Fleet, for example, consisted of 11 ships (no larger than the Manly ferry) that carried, among other things, a supply of seeds from Banks to help establish a “new Europe” on the other side of the Earth.

The convicts sent to New South Wales also incurred considerable state expense compared to those sent to America. From 1788-89, the new colony accumulated expenses of over 250,000 pounds, which equated to 100 pounds per convict per annum.




Read more:
Cooking the books: how re-enactments of the Endeavour’s voyage perpetuate myths of Australia’s ‘discovery’


The fact it cost considerably more to transport a convict to New South Wales than to keep him or her in a British jail supported the view held by some in England that the penal colony was a subterfuge for broader strategic goals.

Rival nations also thought the British were trying to deceive them. Alejandro Malaspina, who captained a Spanish expedition that visited Sydney in 1793, thought the settlement could be a potential naval base for an attack on Spanish America.

A list of female convicts onboard the Lady Penrhyn in the First Fleet.
Wikimedia Commons

A repository for convicts

And yet, in the end, the settlement at New South Wales did little to advance British strategic goals.

The site lacked a naval base and its defences were so weak, François Péron, a naturalist aboard the French Baudin expedition that circumnavigated much of Australia from 1801-03, thought it could be easily captured.

In fact, no naval expedition was mounted from New South Wales during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-15. Nor did New South Wales live up to the commercial benefits some had invested in it. Tropical fruits and spices would not grow in Sydney, and Norfolk Island proved a disappointment as a source for naval supplies.

The American loyalists also chose to resettle in nearby Canada instead of distant New South Wales.

But New South Wales proved to cater to the most immediate reason for British settlement: a repository for convicts.The Conversation

John Gascoigne, Emeritus Professor, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Black skies and raging seas: how the First Fleet got a first taste of Australia’s unforgiving climate


File 20180329 189807 1pskccq.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The British First Fleet knew little of conditions in Port Jackson, later Sydney Cove, before their arrival.
George Edwards Peacock, State Library of New South Wales.

Joelle Gergis, University of Melbourne

The women screamed as the huge waves crashed loudly on the wooden deck. Horrified, they watched the foaming torrent wash away their blankets. Many dropped to their knees, praying for the violent rocking to stop. The sea raged around them as the wind whipped up into a frenzy, damaging all but one of the heavily loaded ships.

The severe storm was yet another taste of the ferocious weather that slammed the First Fleet as it made its way across the Southern Ocean in December 1787. Now, after an eight-month journey from England in a ship riddled with death and disease, the passengers’ introduction to Australia was also far from idyllic. The unforgiving weather that greeted the First Fleet was a sign of things to come. More than once, intense storms would threaten the arrival of the ships and bring the new colony close to collapse.




Read more:
Modern Australia’s defining moment came long after First Fleet


So how did the early arrivals to Australia deal with such extreme weather? Have we always had a volatile climate? To answer these questions, we need to follow Australia’s colonial settlers back beyond their graves and trace through centuries-old documents to uncover what the climate was like from the very beginning of European settlement. By poking around in the settlers’ old diaries, letters and newspaper clippings, we can begin to piece together an idea of what the country’s climate was like long before official weather measurements began.

When the British sailed into Australian waters, they had no idea of what awaited them. Eighteen years before the arrival of the First Fleet, Captain James Cook had barely spent a week in Botany Bay. He didn’t even stop in for a quick stickybeak at Port Jackson, the settlement site that eventually came to be known as Sydney Cove. HMS Endeavour had only briefly skirted past modern-day Sydney Harbour in May 1770, so the British knew next to nothing of the land, its climate or its people. Perhaps they expected that life would resemble their other colonial outposts like India, or an undeveloped version of England. With enough hard work, surely the land could be tamed to support their needs. But when the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Cove, they unknowingly entered an ancient landscape with an unforgiving climate.

Violent storms

Even before Governor Arthur Phillip set foot in Botany Bay, violent storms had battered the overcrowded ships of the First Fleet. During the final eight-week leg of the journey from Cape Town to Botany Bay, the ships had sailed into the westerly winds and tremendous swells of the Southern Ocean. Ferocious weather hit the First Fleet as it made its way through the roaring forties in November–December 1787. Although the strong westerlies were ideal for sailing, conditions on the ships were miserable. Lieutenant Philip Gidley King described the difficult circumstances on board HMS Supply: “strong gales … with a very heavy sea running which keeps this vessel almost constantly under water and renders the situation of everyone on board her, truly uncomfortable”. Unable to surface on deck in the rough seas, the convicts remained cold and wet in the cramped holds.

As Christmas approached, King noted the surprisingly chilly conditions off the southwestern coast of Western Australia: “The cold is in the extreme here as in England at this time of year, although it is the height of summer here.” Aboard HMS Sirius, Judge David Collins wrote about how the crew tried to celebrate in “mountains high” seas, to no avail. On New Year’s Day 1788, Arthur Bowes Smyth, a surgeon aboard the Lady Penrhyn, described how the sea poured into his cabin:

Just as we had dined, a most tremendous sea broke in at the weather scuttle of the great cabin and ran with a great stream all across the cabin, and as the door of my cabin happened not to be quite closed shut the water half filled it, the sheets and the blankets being all on a flow. The water ran from the quarterdeck nearly into the great cabin, and struck against the main and missen chains with such a force as at first alarmed us all greatly, but particularly me, as I believed [the] ship was drove in pieces. No sleep this night.

In a letter to his father, Sirius crew member Newton Fowell described the terrible weather that greeted the new year: “This year began with very bad tempestuous weather, it blew much harder than any wind we have had since our leaving England.” As the atrocious conditions continued, the First Fleet was forced to slow down to prevent the ships’ sails from tearing. Earlier in December 1787, the Prince of Wales had lost its topsail and a man washed overboard in what a sailor on the Scarborough described as “the heaviest sea as ever I saw”.




Read more:
Explainer: the wild storms that lash Australia’s east coast


Captain John Hunter described how the rough seas made life on the Sirius very difficult for the animals on board:

The rolling and labouring of our ship exceedingly distressed the cattle, which were now in a very weak state, and the great quantities of water which we shipped during the gale, very much aggravated their distress. The poor animals were frequently thrown with much violence off their legs and exceedingly bruised by their falls.

It wasn’t until the first week of January 1788 that the majority of the First Fleet sailed past the southeastern corner of Van Diemen’s Land, modern-day Tasmania. As his boat navigated the coast, surgeon John White noted: “We were surprised to see, at this season of the year, some small patches of snow.” The fleet then began the 1,000-kilometre struggle up the coast of what would soon be called New South Wales, against a strong headwind and the East Australian Current. Newton Fowell wrote:

The wind variable and weather dark and gloomy, with a very troublesome high sea. About two o’clock p.m. we had one of the most sudden gusts of wind I ever remember to have known. In an instant it split our main-sail; and but for the activity shewn by the sailors, in letting fly the sheets and lowering the top-sails, the masts must have gone over the side… Fortunately for us the squall was of short duration, otherwise the ships must have suffered considerably from the uncommon cross sea that was running; which we had found to be the case ever since we reached this coast.

According to Bowes Smyth, faced with a “greater swell than at any other period during the voyage”, many of the ships were damaged, as were seedlings needed to supply the new colony with food. Bowes Smyth continued:

The sky blackened, the wind arose and in half an hour more it blew a perfect hurricane, accompanied with thunder, lightening and rain… I never before saw a sea in such a rage, it was all over as white as snow … every other ship in the fleet except the Sirius sustained some damage … during the storm the convict women in our ship were so terrified that most of them were down on their knees at prayers.

Finally, on January 19, the last ships of the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. But after just three days there, Phillip realised that the site was unfit for settlement. It had poor soil, insufficient freshwater supplies, and was exposed to strong southerly and easterly winds. With all the cargo and 1,400 starving convicts still anchored in Botany Bay, Phillip and a small party, including Hunter, quickly set off in three boats to find an alternative place to settle. Twelve kilometres to the north they found Port Jackson.

View of Dawes point at the entrance of Sydney Cove, described by one voyager as the ‘finest and most extensive harbour in the universe’.
Joseph Lycett, State Library of New South Wales

When the Endeavour had sailed past the location 18 years earlier, Cook had simply noted: “About two or three miles from the land and abreast of a bay or harbour wherein there appeared to be safe anchorage, which I called Port Jackson.” Early in the afternoon of the second day of their exploration, Phillip and his party discovered a large sheltered bay with a freshwater stream flowing into it. As Phillip later relayed to England, they “had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world”. It was decided that their new home would be here, not Botany Bay. It was named Sydney Cove after Lord Sydney, the home secretary of England at that time. John White was even more blown away by Port Jackson, gushing that it was “without exception, the finest and most extensive harbour in the universe”.

On 23 January 1788, Phillip and his party returned to Botany Bay and gave orders for the entire fleet to immediately set sail for Port Jackson. But the next morning, strong headwinds blew, preventing the ships from leaving the harbour. On 25 January, King wrote: “The wind blowing strong from the NNE prevented … our [the Supply] going out,” adding that they were obliged “to wait for the ebb tide and at noon we weighed and turned out of the harbour”. In the meantime, the rest of the fleet was still trying to sail out of Botany Bay. A surgeon, George Worgan, wrote about “the wind coming to blow hard, right in to the bay, the Sirius and the transports could not possibly get out”. A huge sea rolling into the bay caused ripped sails and a lost boom as the ships drifted dangerously close to the rocky coastline. According to Lieutenant Ralph Clark:

If it had not been by the greatest good luck, we should have been both on the shore [and] on the rocks, and the ships must have been all lost, and the greater part, if not the whole on board drowned, for we should have gone to pieces in less than half of an hour.

Finally, as Bowes Smyth described, the ships left the bay: “With the utmost difficulty and danger [and] with many hairbreadth escapes [we] got out of the harbour’s mouth … it was next to a miracle that some of the ships were not lost, the danger was so very great.” By 3 p.m. on January 26, 1788, all 11 ships of the First Fleet had safely arrived in Port Jackson. Meanwhile, while waiting for the others to arrive, Phillip and a small party from the Supply had rowed ashore and planted a Union Jack, marking the beginning of European settlement in Australia.

After such an epic journey, the whole ordeal was washed away with swigs of rum. Unknowingly, it marked the start of our rocky relationship with one of the most volatile climates on Earth.


The ConversationThis is an edited extract from Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change by Joelle Gergis, published by Melbourne University Publishing. An edited version of this article has also appeared on Pursuit.

Joelle Gergis, ARC DECRA Climate Research Fellow, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: 26 January 1788


Australia Day

This day is the day that Australians celebrate as Australia Day.

On this day in 1788, the First Fleet had arrived and the first landing was made inside Port Jackson (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) by the pioneering first settlers from Britain.

For more on Australia Day visit:
http://www.australiaday.org.au/


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