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The history of Australia from 1788–1850 covers the early colonies period of Australia's history, from the first British settlement and penal colony at Port Jackson in 1788 to the establishment of other colonies and the spread of settlers.

Colonisation and convictism

Following the loss of the American Colonies, American War of Independence 1775-1783, Britainmarker needed to find alternative land for a new British colony. Australia was chosen for settlement, and colonisation began in 1788. Rather than resorting to the use of slavery to build the infrastructure for the new colony, convict labour was regarded as a cheap and economically viable alternative. It is commonly reported that the colonisation of Australia was driven by the need to address overcrowding in the British prison system however it is simply not economically viable to transport prisoners half way around the world for this reason alone. Many convicts were either skilled tradesmen or farmers who had been convicted for trivial crimes and were sentenced to 7 years the time required to set up the infrastructure for the new colony. Convicts were often given pardons prior to or on completion of their sentences and were allocated parcels of land to farm. Sir Joseph Banks, the eminent scientist who had accompanied Lieutenant James Cook on his 1770 voyage, recommended Botany Baymarker as a suitable site. In 1787, the First Fleet of 11 ships and about 1530 people (736 convicts, 17 convicts' children, 211 marines, 27 marines' wives, 14 marines' children and about 300 officers and others) under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip set sail for Botany Bay. The Fleet arrived between 18 and 20 January 1788, but Botany Bay was found to be unsuitable and on 26 January—a date now celebrated as Australia Day—one of the ships in the fleet, the Supply, made a landing at the nearby Sydney Covemarker. Phillip named the settlement after the Home Secretary, Thomas Townshend, 1st Baron Sydney (Viscount Sydney from 1789). The only people at the flag raising ceremony and the formal taking of possession of the land in the name of King George III were Phillip and a few dozen marines and officers from the Supply, the rest of the ship's company and the convicts witnessing it from on board ship. The remaining ships of the Fleet were unable to leave Botany Bay until later on 26 January because of a tremendous gale. The new colony was formally proclaimed as the Colony of New South Wales on 7 February.
Map of Sydney from 1789
On 24 January 1788 a French expedition of two ships led by Admiral Jean-François de La Pérouse had arrived off Botany Bay, on the latest leg of a three-year voyage that had taken them from Brest, around Cape Horn, up the coast from Chile to California, north-west to Kamchatka, south-east to Easter Island, north-west to Macao, and on to the Philippines, the Friendly Isles, Hawaii and Norfolk Island. Though amicably received, the French expedition was a troublesome matter for the British, as it showed the interest of France in the new land. Nevertheless, on 2 February Lieutenant King, at Phillip's request, paid a courtesy call on the French and offered them any assistance they may need. The French made the same offer to the British, as they were much better provisioned than the British and had enough supplies to last three years. Neither of these offers was accepted. On 10 March the French expedition, having taken on water and wood, left Botany Bay, never to be seen again. Phillip and La Pérouse never met. La Pérouse is remembered in a Sydney suburbmarker of that name. Various other French geographical names along the Australian coast also date from this expedition.

In 1792, two French ships, La Recherche and L'Espérance anchored in a harbour near Tasmania's southernmost point they called Recherche Baymarker. This was at a time when Britain and France were trying to be the first to discover and colonise Australia. The expedition carried scientists and cartographers, gardeners, artists and hydrographers who, variously, planted, identified, mapped, marked, recorded and documented the environment and the people of the new lands that they encountered at the behest of the fledging Société D'Histoire Naturelle.

European settlement began with a troupe of convicts, guarded by second-rate soldiers. One in three convicts was Irish, about a fifth of whom were transported in connection with the political and agrarian disturbances common in Ireland at the time. While the settlers were reasonably well-equipped, little consideration had been given to the skills required to make the colony self-supporting – few of the first wave convicts had farming or trade experience (nor the soldiers), and the lack of understanding of Australia's seasonal patterns saw initial attempts at farming fail, leaving only what animals and birds the soldiers were able to shoot. The colony nearly starved, and Phillip was forced to send a ship to Batavia (Jakarta) for supplies. Some relief arrived with the Second Fleet in 1790, but life was extremely hard for the first few years of the colony.
Historical map of Australia and New Zealand 1788-1911
Convicts were usually sentenced to seven or fourteen years' penal servitude, or "for the term of their natural lives". Often these sentences had been commuted from the death sentence, which was technically the punishment for a wide variety of crimes. Upon arrival in a penal colony, convicts would be assigned to various kinds of work. Those with trades were given tasks to fit their skills (stonemasons, for example, were in very high demand) while the unskilled were assigned to work gangs to build roads and do other such tasks. Female convicts were usually assigned as domestic servants to the free settlers, many being forced into prostitution. Where possible, convicts were assigned to free settlers who would be responsible for feeding and disciplining them; in return for this, the settlers were granted land. This system reduced the workload on the central administration. Those convicts who weren't assigned to settlers were housed at barracks such as the Hyde Park Barracksmarker or the Parramatta female factory.

Convict discipline was harsh, convicts who would not work or who disobeyed orders were punished by flogging, being put in stricter confinement (eg leg-irons), or being transported to a stricter penal colony. The penal colonies at Port Arthurmarker and Moreton Baymarker, for instance, were stricter than the one at Sydney, and the one at Norfolk Islandmarker was strictest of all. Convicts were assigned to work gangs to build roads, buildings, and the like. Female convicts, who made up 20% of the convict population, were usually assigned as domestic help to soldiers. Those convicts who behaved were eventually issued with ticket of leave, which allowed them a certain degree of freedom. Those who saw out their full sentences or were granted a pardon usually remained in Australia as free settlers, and were able to take on convict servants themselves.

By 1790 convict James Ruse had begun to successfully farm near Parramattamarker, the first successful farming enterprise, and he was soon joined by others. The colony began to grow enough food to support itself, and the standard of living for the residents gradually improved.

In 1804 the Vinegar Hill convict rebellion was led by around 200 escaped, mostly Irish convicts, although it was broken up quickly by the New South Wales Corps. On 26 January 1808, there was a military rebellion against Governor Bligh led by John Macarthur. Following this, Governor Lachlan Macquarie was given a mandate to restore government and discipline in the colony. When he arrived in 1810, he forcibly deported the NSW Corps and brought the 73rd regiment to replace them.

  • 13 May 1787 – The 11 ships of the First Fleet leave Portsmouth under the command of Capt Arthur Phillip. Different accounts give varying numbers of passengers but the fleet consisted of at least 1,350 persons of whom 780 were convicts and 570 were free men, women and children and the number included four companies of marines. About 20% of the convicts were women and the oldest convict was 82. About 50% of the convicts had been tried in Middlesex and most of the rest were tried in the county assizes of Devon, Kent and Sussex

  • 1790 – the Second Fleet of convicts arrives in Sydney Cove

  • 1793 – the first free settler arrive in NSW.

  • 14 June 1825 – the colony of Van Diemen's Landmarker is established in its own right; its name is officially changed to Tasmaniamarker on 1 January 1856. The first settlement was made at Risdon, Tasmaniamarker on 11 September 1803 when Lieut John Bowen landed with about 50 settlers, crew, soldiers and convicts. The site proved unsuitable and was abandoned in August 1804. Lieut-Col David Collins finally established a successful settlement at Hobartmarker in February 1804 with a party of about 260 people, including 178 convicts. (Collins had previously attempted a settlement in Victoriamarker.) Convict ships were sent from England directly to the colony from 1812 to 1853 and over the 50 years from 1803-1853 around 67,000 convicts were transported to Tasmania. About 14,492 were Irish but many of them had been sentenced in English and Scottish courts. Some were also tried locally in other Australian colonies. The Indefatigable brought the first convicts direct from England on 19 October 1812 and by 1820 there were about 2,500 convicts in the colony. By the end of 1833 the number had increased to 14,900 convicts of whom 1864 were females. About 1,448 held ticket of leave, 6,573 were assigned to settlers and 275 were recorded as "absconded or missing". In 1835 there were over 800 convicts working in chain-gangs at the penal station at Port Arthurmarker which operated from 1830 to 1877. Convicts were transferred to Van Diemen's Land from Sydney and, in later years, from 1841 to 1847, from Melbourne. Between 1826 and 1840, there were at least 19 ship loads of convicts sent from Van Diemen's Land to Norfolk Islandmarker and at other times they were sent from Norfolk Island to Van Diemen's Land.

  • 21 January 1827Western Australiamarker was established when a small British settlement was established at King George's Sound (Albanymarker) by Major Edmund Lockyer who was to provide a deterrent to the French presence in the area. On 18 June 1829 the new Swan River Colony was officially proclaimed with Captain James Stirling as the first Governor. Except for the settlement at King George's Sound, the colony was never really a part of NSW. King George's Sound was handed over in 1831. In 1849 the colony was proclaimed a British penal settlement and the first convicts arrived in 1850. Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, became the colony's convict settlement in 1838 and was used for local colonial offenders. Around 9,720 British convicts were sent directly to the colony in 43 ships between 1850 and 1868. The convicts were sought by local settlers because of the shortage of labour needed to develop the region. On 9 January 1868, Australia's last convict ship, the Hougoumont brought its final cargo of 269 convicts. Convicts sent to Western Australia were sentenced to terms of 6, 7, 10, 14 and 15 years and some reports suggest that their literacy rate was around 75% as opposed to 50% for those sent to NSW and Tasmania. About a third of the convicts left the Swan River Colony after serving their time.

  • 1835 – the Proclamation of Governor Bourke, issued by the Colonial Office and sent to the Governor with Despatch 99 of 10 October 1835, implements the doctrine of terra nullius upon which British settlement was based. Reinforcing the British assertion that the land belonged to no one prior to the British Crown taking possession of it, it effectively quashes pre-existing treaties with Aboriginal peoples (e.g. that signed by John Batman). Its publication in the Colony means that from then on, all people found occupying land without the authority of the government would be considered illegal trespassers. Aboriginal people therefore could not sell or assign the land, nor could an individual person acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown..

  • 28 December 1836 – the British province of South Australiamarker was established. In 1842 it became a crown colony and on 22 July 1861 its area was extended westwards to its present boundary and more area was taken from New South Wales. South Australia was never a British convict colony and between 1836-1840 about 13,400 immigrants arrived in the area. 24,900 more arrived between 1841-1850. Some escaped convicts did settle in the area and no doubt a number of ex-convicts moved there from other colonies. There were also South Australian convicts who were convicted of colonial offences.

  • 1841New Zealandmarker is separated from New South Wales

  • 1851Victoriamarker is separated from New South Wales (formerly known as the Port Phillip District of NSW. Apart from castaways and runaway convicts in the 1790s, the first attempt at settlement was made on 13 October 1803 by Lieut. David Collins and his party of soldiers and convicts. Harsh conditions convinced him to abandon the settlement in January 1804. He moved on to Tasmania and it was not until the Henty brothers landed in Portland Bay on 19/11/1834 and John Batman settled on the site of Melbourne that the Port Phillip District was officially sanctioned on 10 April 1837. The first immigrant ships arrived at Port Phillip in 1839. Apart from those involved in early attempts at settlement in 1803 and 1826, the only convicts sent directly to Victoria from Britain were about 1,750 convicts known as the "Exiles" and they arrived between 1844-1849. They were sometimes called the "Pentonvillians" because most of them came from Pentonville Probationary Prison in England. Many ex-convicts and convicts on Tickets of Leave and Conditional Pardons also moved to Port Phillip from Van Diemen's Land.

  • 10 December 1859Queenslandmarker is separated from New South Wales. In 1824 the explorer Lieut. John Oxley took a party of 30 convicts and established a penal colony at Redcliffe. Known as the Moreton Bay Settlement, this later moved to the site now called Brisbane. The name Brisbane Town was in use by 1825 and the main inhabitants in the area were the convicts of the Moreton Bay Penal Station until it was closed in 1839. Around 2,280 convicts were sent to the settlement between 1824-1839 and at the end of 1836 the convict population numbered 337. The first free settlers moved to the district in 1838 and others followed in 1840.

  • 23 December 1862 – the area of Queensland is increased.

  • 1863 – control of the Northern Territorymarker is granted to the Province (later State) of South Australia. In 1825 the area occupied today by Northern Territory was incorporated into the colony of New South Wales. It was first settled by Europeans in 1824 at Fort Dundas, Port Essingtonmarker. Its capital city, Darwinmarker was established in 1869 and was originally known as Palmerston. On 1 January 1912, the Northern Territory as we know it today was separated from South Australia and became part of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Land exploration

The opening up of the interior to European settlement occurred gradually throughout the colonial period, and a number of these explorers are very well known. Burke and Wills are the best known for their tragic deaths in the crossing of the interior of Australia from Melbournemarker to the Gulf of Carpentariamarker. Such men as Hamilton Hume and Charles Sturt are also notable.Other notable events include the crossing of the Blue Mountainsmarker led by Gregory Blaxland in 1813. He was accompanied by William Lawson, William Wentworth and four servants.

In 1829-30, Charles Sturt performed an expedition that found the junction of the Murraymarker and the Darlingmarker before continuing on to the mouth of the Murray. This expedition also led to the opening of South Australiamarker to settlement.

Growth of free settlement

Australian colonies in 1846

The Second Fleet in 1790 brought to Sydney two men who were to play important roles in the colony's future. One was D'Arcy Wentworth, whose son, William Charles, went on to be an explorer, to found Australia's first newspaper and to become a leader of the movement to abolish convict transportation and establish representative government. The other was John Macarthur, a Scottish officer (and distant relative of General Douglas MacArthur) and one of the founders of the Australian wool industry, which laid the foundations of Australia's future prosperity. Macarthur was a turbulent element: in 1808 he was one of the leaders of the Rum Rebellion against the governor, William Bligh.

From about 1815 the colony, under the governorship of Lachlan Macquarie, began to grow rapidly as free settlers arrived and new lands were opened up for farming. Despite the long and arduous sea voyage, settlers were attracted by the prospect of making a new life on virtually free Crown land. From the late 1820s settlement was only authorised in the limits of location, known as the Nineteen Counties. Many settlers occupied land without authority and beyond these authorised settlement limits: they were known as squatter and became the basis of a powerful landowning class. As a result of opposition from the labour and artisan classes, transportation of convicts to Sydney ended in 1840, although it continued in the smaller colonies of Van Diemen's Landmarker (first settled in 1803, later remamed Tasmaniamarker) and Moreton Baymarker (founded 1824, and later renamed Queensland) for a few years more. The Swan River Settlement (as Western Australia was originally known), centred on Perthmarker, was founded in 1829. The colony suffered from a long term shortage of labour, and by 1850 local capitalists had succeeded in persuading London to send convicts. (Transportation did not end until 1868.) New Zealand was part of New South Walesmarker until 1840 when it became a colony.

Each colony was governed by a British Governor appointed by the British monarch. Most of the administration of the early colonies was done by the military. The military in charge of the colony of New South Walesmarker were known as the Rum Corps on account of their stranglehold on the distribution of Rum, the main currency in the colony at the time. There was considerable unhappiness with the way some of the colonies were run. In New South Walesmarker this led to the Rum Rebellion.

New Zealand was part of New South Wales from 1788 until 1840 when it was proclaimed as a separate colony.

  • 1788 – New South Walesmarker, according to Arthur Phillip's amended Commission dated 25 April 1787, includes "all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean" and running westward to the 135th meridian. These islands included the current islands of New Zealand, which was administered as part of New South Walesmarker.

  • 1836 – South Australiamarker is proclaimed with its western border at 132° E.

  • 1846 – The colony of North Australia was proclaimed by Letters Patent on 17 February. This was all of New South Wales north of 26° S. Although revoked in December 1846, the colony did formally exist.

Economy and trade

The colonies relied heavily on imports from England for survival.The official currency of the colonies was the British pound, but the unofficial currency and most readily accepted trade good was rum. During this period Australian businessmen began to prosper. For example, the partnership of Berry and Wollstonecraft made enormous profits by means of land grants, convict labour, and exporting native cedar back to England.

Religion, education, and culture

As a British colony, the predominant Christian denomination was the Church of England, however the high proportion of Irish convicts meant that Catholicism was also widely practised. There were presumably also Dissenters, Methodists, and so forth .

Education was informal, primarily occurring in the home.

Some Australian folksongs date to this period.

A number of early Australians wrote about their experiences, but these were mostly intended for the English audience.

The first Australian theatre was opened in Sydney in 1796 .

Aboriginal resistance

Aboriginal reactions to the sudden arrival of British settlers were varied, but inevitably hostile when the presence of the colonisers led to competition over resources, and to the occupation by the British of Aboriginal lands. European diseases decimated Aboriginal populations, and the occupation or destruction of lands and food resources led to starvation. By contrast with New Zealand, where the Treaty of Waitangi was seen to legitimise British settlement, no treaty was signed with Aboriginals, who never authorised British colonisation. Since the 1980s, the use of the word "invasion" to describe the British colonisation of Australia has been highly controversial. Australian historian Henry Reynolds, however, has pointed out that government officials and ordinary settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries frequently used words such as "invasion" and "warfare" to describe their presence and relations with Indigenous Australians. In his book The Other Side of the Frontier, Reynolds described in detail the Aboriginal peoples' armed resistance through guerilla warfare to white encroachments on their lands, beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing into the early twentieth.

In the early years of colonisation, David Collins, the senior legal officer in the Sydney settlement, wrote of local Aboriginals:
"While they entertain the idea of our having dispossessed them of their residences, they must always consider us as enemies; and upon this principle they [have] made a point of attacking the white people whenever opportunity and safety concurred."

In 1847, Western Australian barrister E.W. Landor stated: "We have seized upon the country, and shot down the inhabitants, until the survivors have found it expedient to submit to our rule. We have acted as Julius Caesar did when he took possession of Britain." In most cases, Reynolds says, Aboriginals initially resisted British presence. In a letter to the Launceston Advertiser in 1831, a settler wrote:
"We are at war with them: they look upon us as enemies – as invaders – as oppressors and persecutors – they resist our invasion. They have never been subdued, therefore they are not rebellious subjects, but an injured nation, defending in their own way, their rightful possessions which have been torn from them by force."

Reynolds quotes numerous writings by settlers who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, described themselves as living in fear and even in terror due to attacks by Aboriginals determined to kill them or drive them off their lands. He argues that Aboriginal resistance was, in some cases at least, temporarily effective; the Aboriginal killings of men, sheep and cattle, and burning of white homes and crops, drove some settlers to ruin. Aboriginal resistance continued well beyond the middle of the nineteenth century, and in 1881 the editor of the Queenslander wrote:
"During the last four or five years the human life and property destroyed by the aboriginals in the North total up to a serious amount. [...] [S]ettlement on the land, and the development of the mineral and other resources on the country, have been in a great degree prohibited by the hostility of the blacks, which still continues with undiminished spirit."

Reynolds argues that continuous Aboriginal resistance for well over a century belies the "myth" of peaceful settlement in Australia. Settlers in turn often reacted to Aboriginal resistance with great violence, resulting in numerous indiscriminate massacres by whites of Aboriginal men, women and children. Among the most famous massacres of the early nineteenth century were the Pinjarra massacre and the Myall Creek massacre.

Famous Aboriginals who resisted British colonisation in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries include Pemulwuy and Yagan. In Tasmaniamarker, the "Black War" was fought in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Representations in literature and film

  • Marcus Clarke's 1874 novel, "For the Term of his Natural Life", and the 1983 television adaptation of the novel.
  • Eleanor Dark's 1947 Timeless Land trilogy, which spans the colonisation from 1788-1811. The 1970s television drama, The Timeless Land, was based on this trilogy.
  • Willmott, E., 1987, Pemulwuy – the Rainbow Warrior, documenting the white settlement and resistance by Australian Aboriginal people, lead by Pemulwuy, a member of the Bidjigal clan in the Sydney area.

See also

History of Australia:


  1. David Hill, 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet
  2. [1]
  3. Timeline source: [2]
  4. For example the UK Act New South Wales Judicature Act 1823 made specific provision for administration of justice of New Zealand by the New South Wales Courts; stating "And be it further enacted that the said supreme courts in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land respectively shall and may inquire of hear and determine all treasons piracies felonies robberies murders conspiracies and other offences of what nature or kind soever committed or that shall be committed upon the sea or in any haven river creek or place where the admiral or admirals have power authority or jurisdiction or committed or that shall be committed in the islands of New Zealand".
  5. Reynolds, Henry, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia, 1981, ISBN 0-86840-892-1
  6. quoted in: Reynolds, Henry, Why Weren't We Told?, 1999, ISBN 0-14-027842-7, p.165
  7. ibid, p.163
  8. ibid, p.148
  9. ibid, pp.140-1
  10. ibid, chapter 9: "The Killing Times", pp.117-133
  • Lepailleur, François-Maurice. 1980. Land of a Thousand Sorrows. The Australian Prison Journal 1840-1842, of the Exiled Canadien Patriote, François-Maurice Lepailleur. Trans. and edited by F. Murray Greenwood. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver. ISBN 0-7748-0123-9.
  • Duyker, Edward & Maryse. 2001. Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791 – 1793. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84932-6.
  • Duyker, Edward & Maryse. 2003. Citizen Labillardière – A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration. The Miegunyah Press. ISBN 0-522-85010-3.
  • Horner, Frank. 1995. Looking for La Pérouse. Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0-522-84451-0.

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