Australia in the 1780s


Summary of the decade

In 1787 Lord Sydney (1733–1800) of the British Colonial Office in Great Britain gave instructions to Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) to establish a penal colony on the Dutch-named land, New Holland. He was also ordered to open friendly communications with the local Indigenous peoples and encourage the convicts and marines to show them kindness. His instructions required giving protection to Indigenous people and punishing those who harmed them. There is no evidence of any acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples' ownership of the land.

At this time, the Indigenous population of Australia is estimated to have been approximately between 500,000 and 750,000 people. The size and distribution of populations are always an informed estimate. There were more than 250 distinct language groups across Australia, each group with their own land, language and culture.

The First Fleet left England on 13 May 1787, comprising a flotilla of ships with convicts and marines. There were nine ships and two naval vessels with enough supplies to keep the 759 convicts, their marine guards, some with families, and a few civil officers until the colony became self-sufficient. Since the War of American Independence (1775–83), Great Britain had wanted an alternative place to 'transport' its convicts. Captain James Cook (1728–79) had reported that the land was lush, well watered and fertile, suitable for growing all types of foods and providing grazing land for cattle.

In 1788 the lives of the Eora people, living near the harbour they called Warrang, were about to change forever with the arrival of the First Fleet. The Cadigal people of the Eora nation are the original occupants of the Sydney region. Once they encountered the foreigners they realised that the intruders had come to stay, so they fought to survive, to retain their land and their cultural identity.

After arriving at Botany Bay, the First Fleet deemed it to be unsuitable for settlement, so they moved north, arriving at Port Jackson. Phillip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, taking possession of the land through the concept of terra nullius, meaning 'land belonging to no-one'. Indigenous peoples' lores were not considered and they were left with no rights. Their rich, diverse and complex lifestyles were not understood or acknowledged. For this reason the date 26 January is also known as 'Invasion Day' or 'Survival Day'.

From the start, the colony was beset with problems. Very few convicts knew how to farm and the soil around Sydney Cove was poor. Everyone, from the convicts to Captain Phillip, was on rationed food. Contrary to Cook's reports, they found a hot, dry, infertile country unsuitable for the small farming necessary to make the settlement self-sufficient.

A snapshot of 1788

  • January
    • Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson.
    • The wife of Sergeant Thomas Whittle of the marines gave birth to the first non-Indigenous child born in the colony.

  • February
    • The first female convicts arrived at Port Jackson.
    • The Court of Criminal Justice Jurisdiction sat for the first time in the colony.

  • March
    • Lieutenant Philip Gidley King took formal possession of Norfolk Island.

  • June
    • The last of the cattle that arrived on the First Fleet strayed from the settlement. Some of the animals were still being found seven years later.

  • November
    • A colonial settlement was established at Rose Hill.

  • December
    • Governor Phillip ordered the capture of Arabanoo, a Cadigal man, to find out about Cadigal language and customs.


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