Saturday, July 10, 2010

Initial English Settlement, 1788–1799

The motivation behind the British settlement of Australia is often described as the establishment of a penal colony, to replace Britain’s loss of the American colonies in 1776. Certainly, many of the first Britons to reside in Australia were prisoners who had been transported to the new colony at Port Jackson for theft, prostitution, and other crimes. Nevertheless, to give primacy to this motivation is to ignore British leaders’ geopolitical impulse at that time to prevent their European rivals from expanding their own empires.

After Britain’s loss in the American War of Independence in 1781, during which France, Spain, and the other European powers had sided with the Americans as a way of weakening their British enemy, the British government under William Pitt, the younger, needed to secure Britain’s influence in Asia and the Pacific region. Certainly part of the motivation for sending Cook to claim land in the South Pacific that the Dutch had previously rejected was to prevent the French from claiming it first. One of the clearest signs that this was the impetus behind the sailing of the First Fleet to Australia in 1788 was that the governor of the new colony, Arthur Phillip, had risen to prominence in Britain as an international spy in France and South America (Clarke 2003, 44, 47).

The First Fleet, under Phillip, sailed from England in May 1787, after a drunken night of revelry of the ships’ sailors and officers, with 443 sailors, 759 convicts (191 of whom were women), 13 children of convicts, 160 marines, 51 officers, 27 wives, 19 children of free parents, and nine staff members for Governor Phillip (Clarke 2003, 49). Interestingly, among the convicts were not only people of English and Scottish nationality but also Germans, Norwegians, and both black and white Americans (Molony 2005, 33). The 11-ship contingent took just over eight months to arrive at Botany Bay on January 19–20, 1788, only to be bitterly disappointed at what they found. Instead of the green fields and forests described by Cook and Banks, the First Fleet arrived in the middle of summer, when heat and lack of rain made the entire landscape appear dry as dust and as infertile as the desert. Most distressing was the lack of freshwater. In less than a week, Phillip was forced to transfer his small colony to the slightly more promising region of Port Jackson, contemporary Sydney. On the second day of this short move, January 26, British flags and musket fire announced the establishment of Britain’s newest colony. January 26 continues to be celebrated throughout much of the country as Australia Day, except in many Aboriginal communities, where the day is marked as Invasion Day or Survival Day to denote the beginning of the disease, violence, and invasive government policies that destroyed life as they knew it.

The early years of the colony at Port Jackson were very difficult for everybody involved. The Aboriginal population, which was vastly larger than Cook and Banks had reported, began dying of introduced diseases almost immediately. The worst epidemic was smallpox, which killed an estimated 50 percent of the population in a matter of months in 1789. Despite its emergence in New South Wales at the time of settlement, the source of this epidemic was actually contact between trepangers from the Indonesian archipelago and Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land rather than the First Fleet (Hiscock 2008, 13). The convicts and soldiers of the settlement also suffered, from lack of food, clothing, and shelter and from violence at the hands of the Aboriginal people; even Governor Phillip suffered a fairly serious wound to the side from an Aboriginal spear in a formalized retaliation for some wrong (Perkins 2008, episode 1).

The worst problem faced by the colonists during the first several years of settlement was lack of food. Following the First Fleet, which lost one of its supply ships off Norfolk Island, the British sent a provision ship to provide extra food and support. Unfortunately, after loading with supplies at the Cape of Good Hope, the ship, HMS Guardian, crashed into an iceberg and was destroyed trying to return to the cape. As a result, the Second Fleet pulled into Port Jackson in June 1790 with its human cargo of 733 convicts and many hundreds of others akin to those who sailed with the First Fleet, before any additional supplies arrived to support the burgeoning colony.

Producing food in the harsh climate around Sydney was almost as great a challenge as the lack of imported supplies. The First and Second Fleets arrived on Australia’s shores with very few agricultural implements; the first plow arrived only in 1796, eight years into the life of the colony (Clarke 2003, 52). The hoes, shovels, and axes with which the convicts tried to break the dry, dusty earth and fell the heavy eucalyptus trees were woefully inadequate to the task. Seeds carried from the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope were so barren that the new colonists began to believe the Dutch had purposefully sold them shoddy goods. As a result, rationing and protecting limited food stores became a top priority for Phillip throughout his four-year tenure as the colony’s governor. It was even possible to be sentenced to hang for stealing food in these first, crucial years, though one of the first to be convicted of this crime was pardoned on condition that he become the colony’s hangman. His first act was to hang his accomplice (Clarke 2003, 54).

Once the fundamental problem of food was solved, just prior to Phillip’s departure in 1792, the New South Wales colony had to establish basic social and economic structures in a land where about 80 percent of adults were technically prisoners and thus outside the normal functioning of society. One of the most important things that all governments in the colony did was to encourage marriages among all the single people in residence, convicts or otherwise. Female convicts who received an offer of marriage were usually freed in order to take up that offer, and, after 1816, male convicts could apply to have their wives and families transported to New South Wales at no cost. If the husband was not eligible for his ticket of leave, parole, or freedom, he was “given” to his wife to serve out the end of his sentence (Hirst 2005, 109). These marriages, the authorities believed, would improve both the morality and the industriousness of the colony’s population.

Despite the emphasis on morality, one institution that had only nominal support from the colonial structure was the church. The First Fleet sailed with a chaplain, the Reverend Richard Johnson, who was “a product of the evangelical revival in England” (Clark 1995, 13), but neither Governor Phillip nor his officer corps had any real belief in the Protestant mission. Unlike the early settlements in the Pacific established by Spain, Portugal, and France, England’s Australian colony was little interested in saving souls. Ecclesiastical leaders from both the Anglican and, after 1791, the Roman Catholic traditions were welcomed in the colony, but only for the purpose of maintaining order among the convicts, if possible. References to God do not occur in any of the documents related to the founding of the colony, either those produced in England before sailing or those produced in the colony after settlement (Molony 2005, 32–33). For a large number of convicts as well, the religious hierarchy in the colony was seen as merely an extension of the British class structure that kept them poor and indentured, and most saw the priests and vicars as merely “civil servants in cassocks” (Clark 1995, 13).

Although the First Fleet is recorded to have had passengers from a variety of nationalities, the dominant majority were English, who were at least nominally Protestant. This changed in 1791, when Port Jackson received its first boatload of Irish Catholic convicts, the first of more than 26,500 convicts sent directly from Ireland to New South Wales between 1791 and 1853. While some members of this group were thieves and other common felons, a large number were actual or reputed revolutionaries who had participated in various uprisings against the British. These differences in religion and loyalty to Britain between Irish and English convicts caused considerable conflict in the colony. The major problems from the point of view of the colonial leadership in the early years, as the judge advocate David Collins wrote in his journal, were the supposed ignorance and folly of Irish convicts, who believed they could escape and walk to China, or that the French were going to arrive to liberate them, or even that Ireland had finally overthrown the British and the Irish were thus no longer bound to the terms of their sentences (O’Farrell 2000, 22–23). Rather than seeing these fantasies as the result of generations of struggle for freedom by the Irish, the British considered them further signs of Irish stupidity and superstition.

A second important structural commitment made by the colonial government was to provide land grants to officers and convict labor to work that land in order to promote self-sufficiency in food and other products. Free settlers who arrived in New South Wales were also eligible for land and convict labor. As part of this deal, Francis Grose, Phillip’s replacement prior to the arrival of the second governor, allowed convicts to be paid in rum, which motivated many of them far more than had other goods (Clark 1995, 20). As a result of their control of labor through their control of rum, the New South Wales Corps gained the nickname the Rum Corps; their later rebellion against Governor Bligh is called the Rum Rebellion for the same reason (Clarke 2003, 59).

Portrait of Bennelong, circa 1795 (ink on card) by Lt. George Austin Woods (19th century) (Dixson Galleries/State Library of New South Wales/The Bridgeman Art Library)

A third issue that had to be worked out for the smooth functioning of the new colony was the relationship between the settlers and the Aboriginal people. According to both his orders and, seemingly, his disposition, Governor Phillip was more humane than subsequent colonial governors. His intention, according to Manning Clark, was “to open an intercourse with the natives, and to cultivate their affections, enjoining all his subjects to live in amity and kindness with them” (1995, 12). Phillip was so taken with the civilization and striking behavior of the Indigenous people that he gave the place-name Manly to their home by the cove. At the same time, the two Aboriginal men with whom Phillip had any kind of relationship, Bennelong and Arabanoo, were both kidnapped by white soldiers and presented to him to serve as potential translators and intermediaries between their people and the governor. Arabanoo quickly succumbed to smallpox and died while being held captive, but Bennelong survived the epidemic and went on to learn English and even travel back to England with Phillip when he returned home in 1792. Upon his return to Australia, Bennelong found adjusting to the conditions of his life very difficult. While living in Sydney he was often drunk and finally he rejected white society entirely and returned to his own people and former way of life. When he died in 1813, his rejection of the white world was deemed by the Sydney Gazette to be the result of his being “naturally barbarous and ferocious . . . a thorough savage” (Perkins 2008, episode 1).

Whether or not Phillip himself sought friendly relations with the Aboriginal people is a matter for debate, but certainly not all of the governor’s charges were concerned about maintaining “amity and kindness.” Among convicts and officers, stealing Indigenous implements, canoes, and other objects became a sport. In conjunction with this theft, the realization that the settlements at Port Jackson and later Rose Hill (Parramatta) and elsewhere were going to be permanent moved a significant number of Aboriginal people to oppose them with force. From 1790 until 1802 Pemulwuy led a band of fighters from the Bidjigal tribe in the Eora Resistance, which frequently attacked settlements along the Hawkesbury River and the Port Jackson area more generally (Clarke 2003, 56; Australian Museum 2004). One of the people attacked by the fighters was Phillip’s personal gamekeeper, McIntyre, who had probably killed a number of Aboriginal people as part of his role as a hunter.

At this provocation, in 1790 Phillip sent a punitive expedition against the Aboriginal people, the first of many over the next century and a half (Australian Museum 2004). While Pemulwuy escaped capture for a dozen years, in 1802 he was killed and his head removed from his body, preserved in spirits, and sent to Joseph Banks in England for research purposes (Molony 2005, 36). For three years after his death, Pemulwuy’s son, Tedbury, continued the Eora fight against the white settlers, until he too was killed in battle (Newbury 1999, 13).

A final problem that emerged in these early days of the colony and continued for more than 100 years was that of bushrangers; Murray Johnson estimates that about 2,000 of these characters roamed the Australian countryside between 1790 and the 1920s (2007, 31). While a few of these individuals, such as Ned Kelly and Jack Donohue (of “Wild Colonial Boy” fame), have become famous for the Robin Hood– like mythology that emerged around them, many were simply thieves who preferred cattle rustling to working. During difficult economic times, bushranging was also the only choice for some individuals; the same was true for escaped convicts. The first bushranger in Australia was John “Black” Caesar, whose nickname was derived from his race as either a West Indian or a “native of Madagascar” (Johnson 2007, 32). Caesar was a convict who escaped from Port Jackson numerous times between 1790 and 1796. While on his many leaves from his captors he generally lived by stealing from settlers’ and the government’s gardens, an act that could not go unpunished. He was captured in 1796, having been mortally wounded, earning the bounty hunters a reward of five gallons of rum.