Australia History: Convicts and Settlement

Following the American Revolution, Britain was no longer able to transport convicts to North America. With jails and prison hulks already overcrowded, it was essential that an alternative be found quickly. In 1779 Joseph Banks suggested New South Wales as a fine site for a colony of thieves and in 1786 Lord Sydney announced that the king had decided upon Botany Bay as a place for convicts under sentence of transportation. That the continent was already inhabited was not considered significant.

Less than two years later, in January 1788, the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, who was to be the colony's first governor. Phillip was immediately disappointed with the landscape and sent a small boat north to find a more suitable landfall. The crew soon returned with the news that in Port Jackson they had found the finest harbour in the world and a good sheltered cove.

The fleet comprised 11 ships carrying about 750 male and female convicts, 400 sailors, four companies of marines and enough livestock and supplies for two years. It weighed anchor again and headed for Sydney Cove to begin settlement.

For the new arrivals New South Wales was a harsh and horrible place. The crimes punished by transportation were often minor and the sentences, of no less than seven years with hard labor, were tantamount to life sentences as there was little hope of returning home.

Although the colony of soldiers, sailors, pickpockets, prostitutes, sheep stealers and petty thieves managed to survive the first difficult years, the cruel power of the military guards made the settlement a prison hell. At first, until farming could be developed, the settlers were dependent upon supplies from Europe and a late or, even worse, a wrecked supply ship would have been disastrous. The threat of starvation hung over the colony for at least 16 years.

The Second Fleet arrived in 1790 with more convicts and some supplies, and a year later, following the landing of the, Third Fleet, the population increased to around 4000.

As crops began to yield, New South Wales became less dependent on Britain for food. There were still, however, huge social gulfs in the fledgling colony: officers and their families were in control and clinging desperately to a modicum of civilized British living; soldiers, free settlers and even emancipated convicts were beginning to eke out a living; yet the majority of the population was still in chains, regarded as the dregs of humanity and living in squalid conditions.

Little of the country was explored during those first years; few people ventured farther than Sydney Cove, and though Governor Phillip had instructed that every attempt should be made to befriend the Blacks, this was not to be.

Phillip believed New South Wales would not progress if the colony continued to rely solely on the labor of convicts, who were already busy constructing government roads and buildings. He believed prosperity depended on attracting free settlers, to whom convicts could be assigned as laborers, and in the granting of land to officers, soldiers and worthy emancipists (convicts who had served their time).

This had begun by the time Phillip returned to England and his second in command, Grose, took over. In a classic case of 'jobs for the boys', Grose tipped the balance of power further in favor of the military by granting land to officers of the New South Wales Corps.

With money, land and cheap labor suddenly at their disposal the officers became exploitative, making huge profits at the expense of the small farmers. To encourage convicts to work, the officers paid them in rum. The officers quickly prospered and were soon able to buy whole shiploads of goods and resell them for many times their original value. New South Wales was becoming an important port on trade routes, and whaling and sealing were increasing.

Meeting little resistance, the officers did virtually as they pleased. In particular, one John Macarthur managed to upset, defy, outmaneuver and outlast three governors, including William Bligh of the Bounty mutiny fame.

As governor, Bligh actually faced a second mutiny in 1808 when the officers rebelled and ordered his arrest. The Rum Rebellions, as it became known, was the final straw for the British government, which dispatched Lieutenant-Colonel Lachlan Macquarie with his own regiment and orders for the return to London of the New South Wales Corps.

John Macarthur, incidentally, was to have far-reaching effects on the colony's first staple industry, wool. His understanding of the country's grazing potential fostered his own profitable sheep breeding concerns and prompted his introduction of the merino, in the belief that careful breeding could produce wool of exceptional quality. Though it was his vision, his wife, Elizabeth, did most of the work - Macarthur remained in England for nearly a decade for his part in the Rum Rebellion.

Governor Macquarie, having broken the stranglehold of the Corps, set about laying the groundwork for social reforms. He felt that the convicts who had served their time should be allowed rights as citizens, and began appointing emancipists to public positions.

While this meant the long-term future for convicts didn't appear quite so grim, by the end of Macquarie's term in 1821 New South Wales was still basically a convict society and there were often clashes between those who had never been imprisoned and those who had been freed.

During the 1830s and 1840s the number of free settlers to the colonies of New South Wales, Western Australia, Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) and Port Phillip (Victoria) was increasing, although it was the discovery of gold in the 1850s that was truly to change the face of the young country.

By the time transportation was abolished (to the eastern colonies in 1852 and to the west in 1868) more than 168,000 convicts had been shipped to Australia.