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Why Great Britain Colonized Australia

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

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 at Botany Bay (as named by him) and briefly on the coast of what is now Queensland. He claimed the whole coastline for the British crown, but it was another 18 years before any attempt was made to site a colony at Botany Bay. 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

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.

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Convicts going to work near Sydney

Convicts going to work near Sydney

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!

Questions & Answers

Question: Why couldn't the Europeans make Australia like England?

Answer: The climate - the geography - the wildlife - all are very different and could never lead to "another England." However, conditions in parts of New Zealand do have similarities with Great Britain in several respects, and the settlers did tend to try to make their new home as much like their old one as they could.

Question: Who was Captain Cook?

Answer: That would be the subject for a different article! Captain Cook was an 18th century Navy captain who made several voyages to the Pacific and discovered many places that had previously been unknown to Europeans. He was killed by natives on Hawaii in 1779.


ik26e9 on April 28, 2020:

it's helpful to me with my history assessment, thank you, AUTHOR dude.

hola on March 24, 2020:

wow amigio

Someone on March 15, 2020:

It is helpful for doing tests and other assessments.

m on February 23, 2020:


Haya on January 11, 2020:

I have to write a newspaper about the Colonization of Australia and im like stuck on what to write

Sai on November 23, 2019:

Well written. Simple and interesting to read (for a 14 year old at least). Terra Nullius was also a major factor in British colonization. Basically, if there weren't any real buildings or structures, it was considered Terra Nullius, or No Man's Land and anyone can own it. We learn about this topic in school all the time.

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on November 02, 2019:

I get a lot of negative comments about this piece, mostly along the lines of "you've got it all wrong" - but nobody ever tells me in what respects I have done so!

It is therefore gratifying to get a positive response - thanks!

Readmikenow on November 01, 2019:

An excellent article. Much I didn't know about Australia. My wife's sister lives there now. I've visited there. It is a fascinating place. I enjoyed reading this.

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on November 01, 2019:

Would you like to say why?

#loser on October 31, 2019:

sometimes i wonder if you guys just make up stuff to make ur selfs look smart

some of us ARE actually smart and know this this is all WRONG

fortnite on August 12, 2019:

i love this

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on June 06, 2019:

In reply to "What de heck", let me just say that this article is looking at the reasons for colonization and not trying to justify it. It is also a historical piece - it is considering matters as they appeared to people at the time, which were exactly as I stated. We know now that the land was not empty - but the British Government at the time did not take that line, and that is why they saw Australia as ripe for development and a suitable place for the export of criminals.

It is always important to treat history as exactly that - the story of what happened in the past and the attitudes of people who lived in the past - and not overlay it with judgments based on what has been learned in more recent times.

What de heck on June 05, 2019:

this website is outrageous and very disrespectful towards indigenous australians as this information is false and misleading and i have no idea where you have collected your information as this is the worst and most offensive thing i have read today. what is especially disgusting is "What made Australia perfect for colonisation was that it was an untouched, empty continent that the British could occupy without opposition". w.h.a.t. do you have any idea what you are talking about!!? NO, they were not 'perfect for colonisation' NO, the land was empty. it indeed was not empty with over 60 000 people on this soil. you have no right to say what you say what you have and if this was released to the public of australia, i'm to say that the rest of the population would be outraged especially with indigenous australians. i suggest taking this down before i go further. the fact that the author is a pom is even worse, do not talk smack about this country and jam it.

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 05, 2019:

Apart from trade, there is the little matter of Australian support to the UK in two World Wars.

Help on May 05, 2019:

Hi I was just wondering if you knew what the British gained from having Australia in the British empire?

HELLO on April 30, 2019:

good job!!!!!

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on April 24, 2019:

I'm sorry that I do not have an answer to your question.

alex on April 23, 2019:

I'm interested in what impact did British land use laws have in Australia when colonizing it? taking agrarian land and controlling mining points

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on April 18, 2019:

At first, Australia was only a colony in the sense of being a penal colony - somewhere to send England's undesirables. Later discoveries of mineable deposits - including precious metals and gemstones - made the place more attractive in the traditional colonial sense.

jkk on April 17, 2019:

what items did Britain take from Australia when they colonized it ?

ashton on March 27, 2019:


John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on March 20, 2019:

Are you referring to Europeans other than British people?

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on March 20, 2019:

That begs the question as to whether it improved or the opposite after the Europeans arrived. The modern view is the latter, and that was especially true of the natives of Tasmania who were wiped out as a matter of deliberate policy by the white settlers.

australia on March 19, 2019:

Why did the Europeans settle in Australia?

josh on March 19, 2019:

what was life like for aborigonals and torres strait islander people before the arrival of the europeans?

i never knew this on March 19, 2019:

I never knew this

wesley on March 07, 2019:

that was great help for my assingment

kcauQ on March 02, 2019:

Nice! Really helped with my essay; thanks very much!

~ a Duck

crickit on February 22, 2019:

good for social studys tests

Keith R. Dawson on February 10, 2019:

You start out on the wrong foot by stating that Cook only set foot on Australia once.After that you are not worth reading,

John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on January 25, 2019:

What does any country gain from colonizing another?

Initially, Britain solved a problem in being able to dispose of its unwanted criminals, but when the penal colonies evolved into colonies there would have been the benefits gained from cheap imports of goods that included agricultural products - notably sheep meat and wool - and mining products including gold.

anonymous on January 24, 2019:

what were the benefits Britain received from colonizing Australia??

somebody on December 04, 2018:

this is not exactly true, it is slightly biased

cat1232 on August 28, 2018:

this is crule

23 cats on August 22, 2018:

thx a lot

James M on August 19, 2018:

More info

Real_Donald_Trump on July 23, 2018:

This was for good causes

Me 2018 on July 02, 2018:

So much to read

me on June 11, 2018:

Thank you so much.

watsobb on June 03, 2018:

need more info

rather not say on May 13, 2018:

It was great thx!

yada on May 10, 2018:

this is ok info

PeRsOn on April 24, 2018:


person on April 08, 2018:

i need more info on what factors influenced where they settled

ex. environment

john on March 27, 2018:

thanks this was helpful

Jenny on March 13, 2018:

Thx a bunch really ment it!!

tekashi69 on March 13, 2018:

this didnt help at all because it didn't give distinct resons on why they settle ffs.

john jacob on February 12, 2018:

you are amazing it the best thing i have ever read

Volpop on January 26, 2018:

I need information for a project but am not sure this is true

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 23, 2017:

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

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