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Why Great Britain Colonized Australia

Updated on March 26, 2017
Captain James Cook. Portrait by Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Captain James Cook. Portrait by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Captain James Cook had sailed along 2,000 miles of the east coast in 1770, landing only at Botany Bay (as named by him). He claimed the coastline for the British crown, but it was another 18 years before any attempt was made to site a colony there. He thought that the southern coastline was reminiscent of South Wales, and “New South Wales” it has been ever since.

A Perfect Colony?

What made Australia perfect for colonization was that it was an untouched, empty continent that the British could occupy without opposition. Although Dutch navigators had discovered parts of Australia long before Cook arrived, their countrymen made no attempt at settling there. Cook had noticed that there was a native population, but they proved to be largely docile and to have no intention of resisting any incursions by Europeans.

On the other hand, as the first settlers soon discovered, this new continent proved to be an unfriendly host. The natives were hunter-gatherers who had made no attempt to cultivate the land or build settled communities, so there was no infrastructure to take over or imitate. The wildlife was impossible to tame or farm (you can’t milk a kangaroo), and there were many species of snake, spider and scorpion that were armed with deadly venom. The climate was baking hot away from the coast, and although several fairly large rivers disgorged into the sea close to Botany Bay, others proved to be highly seasonal, drying up completely for many months of the year. There were no obvious natural resources that anyone would want to exploit and send back to England. So what reason could there possibly be for wanting to colonize this place?

The answer was precisely its remoteness and harshness. These properties were exactly what were needed when the old country wanted to export its most troublesome commodity, namely its criminals and undesirables. Australia was perfectly suited to becoming a penal colony.

The Founding of Australia. Painting by Algernon Talmage
The Founding of Australia. Painting by Algernon Talmage

Somewhere to Send British Criminals

This function had previously been taken by the American colonies, particularly those of Georgia and the Carolinas, although Newfoundland was also used for this purpose. With American independence, a new convict settlement was needed, and Botany Bay sounded just about right, although nearby Sydney Cove turned out to be more suitable for building a settlement.

The Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 25 April 1785 stated that: “Michael Dennison (from Poole), for having broken open a sloop, from which he stole several articles, was sentenced to be transported for seven years”. He made the journey aboard the Alexander, which was one of the ships of the “First Fleet” that arrived at its destination in January 1788 with its thousand or so convicts, soldiers and officials. Although 28 convicts died on board the Alexander during the passage, Michael Dennison survived to become one of the first white Australians.

The First Fleet Entering Port Jackson
The First Fleet Entering Port Jackson | Source

Who Were The Convicts?

The convicts were, generally speaking, from the lowest rungs of the English social ladder, who were used to living hard lives and settling disputes with their fists.

Although the convicts were often tough people, and were transported for having committed offences, many of the crimes would strike us today as being mild in the extreme. Stealing as little as a shilling, for a first offence, could land someone in Australia. There was a case in my wife’s family history of a girl of fifteen who was asked to a hold a horse for a man who had just ridden up and dismounted next to where she was standing. The horse had been stolen, and when the constable arrived she was arrested for being in possession of stolen property. The girl later became one of Australia’s matriarchs and the ancestor of a great Australian dynasty.

In the 19th century, many transportees were political prisoners, notable among which were the “Tolpuddle Martyrs” from Dorset who were transported in 1834 for organising themselves into an agricultural trade union. They were later reprieved and returned to England.

The Landing of the Convicts at Botany Bay
The Landing of the Convicts at Botany Bay

Staying On

In Australia, discipline was often harsh, although there were other colonies, such as nearby Norfolk Island, where life was even tougher due to the brutality of the regime. If anyone could survive and make a living in Australia, the English criminal courts had chosen their candidates well. It was soon apparent to the convicts that, because escape was impossible in that there was nowhere to escape to, they might as well make the best of a bad job. Although transportation was not usually for life, seven years being the almost universal term, convicts who had served their sentence often chose not to return, preferring to make a new life for themselves in a new country.

The suggestion has been made that the penal colony was in fact originally planned as a colonial establishment, and that it was always the intention to build an outpost of Empire on the far side of the world. That is hard to establish, given that at the time of the First Fleet nobody knew anything about the conditions that would be found there, or even whether survival was possible at all. The officials and soldiers who travelled with the prisoners must have been every bit as apprehensive as their charges.


Convicts going to work near Sydney
Convicts going to work near Sydney | Source

Building New Colonies

Later fleets took supplies with them that made it more likely that permanent colonies would be established. These supplies included cattle and sheep, which proved to be far more adaptable to the conditions than might have been imagined. There is a story that, when explorers tried to find a route to the interior through the notoriously difficult Blue Mountains, they discovered a herd of wild cattle on the other side, these being descendants of the original cattle that had found their own way round the mountains rather than across them!

In time, Australia did reveal its natural resources, such as gold, sapphires, opals, coal and iron (much later discoveries included uranium and natural gas). These made the early colonies much more valuable than simply a place to dump exiles from the home country. It did not take long before Australia became a place of voluntary emigration for people who wanted to make a fresh start, with more than 500,000 colonists arriving from the United Kingdom between 1851 and 1861. Many incentives were offered down the years to persuade people to go there, and it has only been relatively recently that immigration has had to be capped.

Transportation to New South Wales ended in 1840, by which time the colony was well established as the home of free people.

The Australian continent was never the scene of colonial rivalry between the European powers, with non-British immigration being unknown until the 20th century. The Australian colonies became an untouchable British preserve, with Britain as their sole export market and the one source of commodity imports. The way of life of the colonists was British in all but name, and they also became annoyingly good at playing cricket!




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      Louise Powles 6 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I love reading your articles John, I always learn so much.