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Transportation of undesirables had long been an issue in Britain. Under the Vagabonds Act of 1597, England expelled its lawbreakers across the Atlantic. Banishment to the New World accelerated with the Transportation Act of 1717, before coming to a halt with the outbreak of the American War of Independence or American Revolutionary War between Britain and the 13 former colonies in 1775. Transportation may have stopped soon after this time in any case. The American economy already relied on slave labour from Africa, and British convict labour was no longer required.

English prisons were soon overcrowded with paupers caught stealing food and clothing, as well as debtors without the means to discharge their obligations. As a temporary solution, the British Government converted old wartime sailing ships into floating jails called “hulks”, mooring them on various rivers and harbours. England thought the war in America would soon be over and transportation would be resumed.

But the war dragged on and, in 1779, the House of Commons set up a committee to decide where Britain should send its convicts. It called upon a number of witnesses. One was Joseph Banks who was the botanist on Captain James Cook’s first expedition of 1768 to 1771, which had sailed along the previously unexplored east coast of Australia in 1770. Cook was unable to attend the hearing as he was on his third voyage. Banks reported favourably on Botany Bay, just to the south of Sydney Cove. He mentioned the availability of fresh water, abundance of fish, arable soil, good pasture, plentiful timber and warm climate. He felt that a convict colony would be self-supporting in a year. Banks spoke of the Aboriginal people and their placid, disinterested nature, presenting little threat.

The expedition had also visited New Zealand, and Banks told the committee how the Maoris had greeted them with stones and the “haka”, an aggressive war dance still used at the start of rugby union matches between New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand was eliminated as an option for a convict settlement. Other witnesses presented cases for Gibraltar and western Africa. In the end, the committee made no decision, but the issue wouldn’t go away, especially due to chronic overcrowding and disease in prisons and on the hulks.

Much discussion took place in the first half of the 1780s on where Britain should set up a convict colony. Three main reasons were suggested for establishing a settlement in Australia. There was of course the problem of large numbers of convicts and nowhere to send them. The second reason was to do with economics. Britain had increased its trade substantially with the Far East, in particular India, south-east Asia, and China. The third reason was for defence purposes. A naval post would help keep the French and the Dutch away. Also, Australia, and especially Norfolk Island, 1000 miles or 1600 kilometres east of the mainland, had a good supply of tall pine trees and flax for replacing navy ship masts. In 1783, James Matra, who had been a midshipman on Cook’s first voyage, proposed a settlement at Botany Bay for strategic reasons and the pine and flax on Norfolk Island. When his plan was largely ignored, he suggested that convicts could be sent to this outpost.

The British Parliament passed the Transportation Act of 1784, once again allowing convicts to be sent overseas, but it didn’t specify an actual location. Plenty of suggestions were made at the time, including Botany Bay, Norfolk Island, and Lord Howe Island, 400 miles east of the mainland. A number of places in Africa were also proposed, such as Gromarivire Bay east of Cape Town, Madagascar, Tristan da Cunha, Das Voltas Bay at the mouth of the Orange River in south-west Africa, and 400 miles up the Gambia River in West Africa. By 1785, Das Voltas Bay was leading the race due to strategic and trade reasons. There were rumours of copper in the mountains. But a survey team found the location too dry for settlement.

Botany Bay became the government’s preferred option. A proposal was drawn up and approved by cabinet to transport convicts to this place, with Captain Arthur Phillip as expedition leader and governor of the new colony. The First Fleet of about 1400 convicts, crew and officers left England on two naval vessels and nine convict ships on 13 May 1787. They reached Botany Bay on 19 January 1788. But no one had visited the area in 18 years and it was found to be too open to offer protection. The soil was poor, fresh water was lacking, and the convicts’ tools broke when they tried to chop down the hardwood trees. The colony moved to Port Jackson, just to the north, on 26 January, to a spot that is now part of downtown Sydney. This date is now celebrated as Australia Day each year and is a public holiday.

Colonisation soon expanded outside the initial area. The main reason for this was to grow enough food for the colony. Settlements were established at Parramatta and to its north and west, as well as along the Hawkesbury River. The Hunter Valley to the north was opened up in 1797 when coal was found. The first of the penal colonies for convicts who had committed another crime since their arrival in Sydney was set up at Newcastle, 100 miles to the north, in 1801. John Macarthur launched the wool industry at Camden, 35 miles from Sydney, in 1805.

By the 1810s, reasons for further colonisation turned to growth of a successful, prosperous and expanding colony. Governor Lachlan Macquarie encouraged settlers to grow extra crops, go to church, and get married. He closed many of the public houses, and undertook an extensive program of public works, such as a market place, public storehouses, a new hospital, convict and military barracks, and better streets and roads. He sent an expedition to find a way over the Blue Mountains so that the vast interior could be opened up to farming and industry.

The reasons for colonisation were not solely economic and social. In the 1820s, more colonies of secondary punishment were established at Wellington Valley, Port Macquarie, and Moreton Bay. The latter is more than 500 miles north of Sydney and became the city of Brisbane. A separate convict colony had been set up at Hobart, Tasmania in 1803. Norfolk Island hosted convicts on two separate occasions. A settlement was established on Melville Island, Northern Territory in 1824 to open up trading with Indonesia and ward off the French.

A military settlement was started at Albany south of Perth in 1825, also to keep the French away. The colony of Swan River was established in Western Australia in 1829, on the site of present day Perth. This settlement was established to receive convicts and also due to a rumor that the French were about to set up a colony somewhere along the western coast. This part of Australia had been explored by several countries over a period of nearly 200 years but colonisation did not occur, probably as it was so far away from anywhere and largely desert.

A primary reason for colonisation continued to be as a place to send convicts. Over a period of 80 years from 1788 to 1868, Australia received 158,829 convicts, consisting of 134,261 males and 24,568 females, mainly from England and Ireland. They were employed on public works or assigned to free settlers, many of whom were farmers. Most convicts were transported for theft. Sentences were usually seven or fourteen years. Only about 5% of convicts ever returned to Britain. Convicts were instrumental to the colonisation and development of Australia.

Two major free settlements were started in the 1830s. The Port Phillip colony and the town of Melbourne commenced in 1835. A gold rush to the north and north-west of the town in the 1850s brought large numbers of migrants to the region. A colony at South Australia was formed in 1836, also without convict labor. Here, systematic colonisation was based on the plan of Edward Wakefield. Land was sold to settlers rather than given as grants, as in other colonies. The proceeds would be used to ship laborers to the colony rather than using convict labor.

In summary, the colonisation of Australia took place for various reasons. The underlying reason was to establish colonies where Britain could send its lawbreakers. Economics and defense also played their part in the decision to choose Australia over other places. Further colonisation was due to these three reasons plus additional factors such as the desire to build successful and prosperous communities, and the discovery of gold.