- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
(Courtesy Australasian Pioneers’ Club, lecture given by the late Brigadier John Howard 1988)
Many history books used in schools and universities and for general reading and even some Bicentennial handouts say quite arbitrarily that the only reason the settlement in New South Wales was established in 1788 was because British gaols and prison hulks were overcrowded because transportation to America was no longer possible after the War of Independence. This has led to New South Wales being called a convict colony or a penal colony. This concept is nonsense.
Let me give you a surprising analogy. The Americans landed on the moon in 1969. If they now said because of overcrowding in Federal prisons in the United States they were going to establish a convict settlement on the moon who would believe that this was the true reason?
Yet those who say that New South Wales was settled as a convict colony ask you to believe that solely to relieve overcrowding in British gaols a colony was established in an unknown part of the world over 12,000 miles away and 6-9 months by sea at a place only known to have been visited by one European explorer since some 17 years before. Even in this Bicentennial year we have not given full recognition to the hazardous voyage of the First Fleet. Although they were not called at, the only two British possessions on the route were the tiny islands of St Helena and Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. The Spanish port of Santa Cruz, the Portuguese port of Rio de Janeiro and the Dutch port of Cape Town were vital for supplies not only for the voyage but for the two years reserves of food deemed necessary. After leaving Cape Town the 11 tiny ships carrying some 1500 souls and crammed with livestock and supplies battled through uncharted waters in the roaring forties for just over two months to reach Botany Bay.
The convict colony concept results from the announcement of the decision to establish the settlement. This was done in an inter-departmental memorandum from the Home Secretary to the Treasurer in August 1786 which, after summarising the situation in the gaols and hulks, requested that the ships be provided ”for the conveyance of 750 convicts to Botany Bay together with provisions, necessities and implements for agriculture as may be necessary for their use after arrival”. An enclosure to this memo began ”Heads of a plan for effectually disposing of convicts and rendering their transportation reciprocally beneficial to themselves and the state by the establishment of a colony in New South Wales”. This is the main basis of the concept and it is obviously strengthened by the fact that out of the 1030 persons in the first settlement 736 were convicts.
But this concept has also gained enormously from apathy, lack of interest and that radical form of nationalism – the more squalid the British motive in establishing the colony and populating it the greater the Australian achievement.
If the British government was solely concerned with the problems of the prisons why choose a place so far away from the mother country? There must have been a reason to prefer Botany Bay to somewhere else. With Africa hardly colonised and places like Bermuda, eastern Canada, Newfoundland, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falklands and many other places available it is hard to accept that all the other options for a purely convict colony had been exhausted. If great distance was required to prevent prisoners returning after release, what about New Zealand? It was far better known than the east coast of Australia – it had been circumnavigated by Cook who had visited it twice and favourably reported on it for settlement and it had flax and timber, two strategic items that Phillip was ordered to procure from it. But what about more guarded prisons in Britain or elsewhere which had been recommended for years?
In August 1786, when the decision was made, Britain was officially at peace with France and Holland but their increasingly friendly relations and the possibility that the French might use Dutch bases in the East Indies were worrying the British government.
If Britain had not established herself in Eastern Australia at that time, some 16 years after Cook had formally taken possession, there was a good possibility that someone else – most probably the French – would have done so.