Aborigines, Africa, American War of Independence, Australia, Botany Bay, Captain Arthur Phillip, Captain James Cook, crime, Georgian England, hulks, James Matra, Joseph Banks, London, Maoris, New Zealand, Norfolk Island, transportation, Transportation Act
To find out why Australia was colonized, it is necessary to go back to early Georgian England. Life in London and the other major cities was becomingly increasingly unbearable for a large repressed working class. Overcrowding meant several families lived in one tumbledown hovel, open sewers ran through the streets, disease was rampant, and children went to work at age six to help buy enough food for the family, as people took solace in vast quantities of gin and other liquor. More people were moving to the cities all the time as work in the country diminished, but jobs in the cities were scarce too, with the industrial revolution still a few decades away.
Not surprisingly, these factors led to a steady increase in crime, with tens of thousands of Londoners believed to be living off crime by the mid eighteenth century. The city was full of thieves, forgers, muggers and prostitutes. Crime was up in the smaller towns and the countryside too. Social and other government services were in their infancy. No mechanisms existed to relieve unemployment. Policing was largely in the hands of poorly paid parish watchmen who were often involved in crime themselves. England had a number of jails, but these were very expensive to build and maintain, and those that did exist were usually full.
The government was always looking for cheaper alternatives to deal with its felons. One cheaper but not always preferred option was hanging. As the century wore on, fewer wrongdoers received capital punishment. Hangings were always carried out in public as it was thought that this would deter others from committing crimes. But hangings attracted large unruly crowds and often finished in riots. The government’s other option for getting rid of offenders altogether was to transport them overseas.
Transportation of undesirables had long been an issue in England. Under an act of 1597, England expelled its law-breakers 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 in 1775. 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 Government converted old wartime sailing ships into floating jails called “hulks”. These too were soon full to the brim with prisoners, and disease ridden. England had to find a new land to send its thieves. Debtors, on the other hand, would be kept at home, although the difference between the actions of a thief and a debtor was sometimes slight.
In 1779, the House of Commons set up a committee to work out where to send convicts as America was no longer an option with the War of Independence dragging on. Joseph Banks was called on as a witness. Banks had been botanist on an expedition to Australia with Captain James Cook in 1768 to 1771. (Cook was on another voyage at the time of the hearing.) Banks gave a favorable report on Botany Bay on the eastern coast of Australia, talking about the availability of fresh water, abundance of fish, arable soil, good pasture, plentiful supply of wood and agreeable climate. He believed that a convict colony could be self-supporting within a year. He also spoke of the Aboriginal people, and how they were placid, disinterested in the visitors and few in number. They would pose no threat.
On the other hand, he told of the New Zealand Maoris greeting them with stones and haka (an aggressive war dance still used at the start of rugby union matches between New Zealand and Australia). For this reason, New Zealand was eliminated as an option for a convict settlement. Other witnesses before the committee argued for Gibraltar and Africa’s west coast as suitable places for a colony. In the end the committee made no decision, but the scene had been set.
A great deal of discussion on where England should establish a convict colony took place in the first half of the 1780s. Two main reasons were put forward for setting up a settlement in Australia. The first was England’s increasing trade with the Far East, particularly India, south-east Asia and China. The second was the need for a naval post to keep the French and the Dutch away. Australia, and especially Norfolk Island, had a good supply of tall pine trees and flax to keep the navy ships going. In 1783, James Matra, who had been a midshipman on Cook’s 1768-1771 trip, proposed a settlement at Botany Bay for strategic reasons, and for the pine and flax on Norfolk Island, a thousand miles east of the mainland. When his plan was largely ignored, he added convicts to it.
By this time, England was becoming desperate to sort out its convict problem. Prisons and hulks were chronically overcrowded. Parliament drafted a bill which became the Transportation Act (24 Geo. III, c. 56) in 1784. But it didn’t include a place to send the felons! Lord Howe Island, four hundred miles east of the mainland, was suggested, and so was Botany Bay and Norfolk Island. Several places in Africa were proposed too, including a spot 400 miles up the Gambia River in West Africa, Gromarivire Bay east of Cape Town, Madagascar, Tristan da Cunha and Das Voltas Bay at the mouth of the Orange River in south-west Africa. By 1785, Das Volta Bay was leading the race for trade and strategic reasons, and due to rumors of copper ore in the mountains. But a survey team came back with news that the place was too dry to be settled. With that, Botany Bay became the preferred place.
In 1786, just as the jails and hulks threatened to burst at the seams, the government chose Botany Bay. In the end, the reasons were to stake a claim on the new continent and as a place to send convicts rather than any trade or strategic issues. A proposal was drawn up and approved by cabinet, with Captain Arthur Phillip as expedition leader and governor of the new colony.