1 – Captain Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770 – but then nobody came back for nearly 20 years
“If a Colony from Britain was established in the large Tract of Country, & if we were at war with Holland or Spain, we might very powerfully annoy either State from our new Settlement. We might with a safe, & expeditious voyage, make Naval Incursions on Java, & the other Dutch Settlements, & we might with equal facility, invade the Coasts of Spanish America . . . This check which New South Wales would be in time of War on both those Powers, makes it a very important Object when we view it in the Chart of the World, with a Political Eye.” James Mario Matra
The story of Captain James Cook, a humble Yorkshire sailor, and the voyage of the HMS Endeavour from Plymouth to Botany Bay is well known. The ship left England for Tahiti with orders to document the transit of Venus from the Pacific, and once that mission was completed, with a second set of orders that instructed the crew to try and find the Terra Australis Incognita, the presumed southern continent. They achieved this in 1770, landing at Botany Bay and documenting the whole eastern coast all they way up to Cape York in Far North Queensland. So far, so obvious.
What happened thereafter, however, is something that many Australians are unaware of. Between the “discovery” of Botany Bay and the arrival of colonists, 17 long years passed, in which absolutely nothing was done. Captain Cook, and especially his botanist, Joseph Banks, recommended that a colony should be established on the new discovery, but the government back in London paid little heed to them. Banks envisioned a society made up of American loyalists – that is, British people in America who remained loyal to the Crown during the ongoing American War of Independence – and free settlers from China and the Pacific.
Banks lobbied for Australia as a new settlement alongside James Matra, a New York-born loyalist who had also travelled aboard the Endeavour. Matra saw New South Wales as a replacement for the lost American colonies – home to “those unfortunate loyalists to whom Great Britain was bound by every tie of honour and gratitude and with visions, perhaps, of a reproduction of the life of the planters of Virginia and Carolina”. Matra’s plans did not initially include convict labour, though penal transportation to the Americas had long been a facet of the English judicial system, but later amended his proposals to include it.
Arguably what swung the argument in favour of New South Wales (there had been discussions about founding penal colonies in Africa too) was the perceived strategic location of Australia. With the jewel in the British imperial crown still India, it was thought that an outpost in the Pacific might be used to help support that major colony from incursions by the French and the Dutch. A major problem was finding a safe harbour for ships to be refitted, and, given the maritime technology of the time, such a place had to be abundant in pine trees and flay, as they were the chief components of 18th-century ships. Previously, America had been ideal for this, but with George Washington et al ruining both Britain’s wood supply and their dumping ground for miscreants, a new option for both had to be found.
Norfolk Island, a thousand miles east of Australia, was designed to be the provider of pine wood and flax (a scheme that never worked) and New South Wales the staging post for both ships and criminals. The government agreed to the scheme and engaged Arthur Phillips, a semi-retired naval captain, to be the leader of the expedition. On May 13, 1787, he set off from Portsmouth with 11 ships, packed with somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred convicts, for the shores of Botany Bay.
How Britain had come to be in possession of quite so many felons, however, is another question altogether – one that we will answer on the next page.