Australia in the 1780s


When the War of American Independence (1775–83) ended, Great Britain lost its American colonies and was deprived of a place to dispose of its convicts. During the war, Great Britain could not transport convicts and their numbers had increased significantly. The convicts were jailed in the hulks of old dilapidated warships moored in Plymouth and on the Thames estuary. Pressure to find another site for transportation mounted.

In July 1783, James Matra (1746?–1806), who had visited Botany Bay in 1770 as a junior officer on the Endeavour, produced A Proposal for Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales. He was supported by Sir Joseph Banks, and together they set out reasons to establish a colony composed of American loyalists, Chinese people and South Sea Islanders (but not convicts). In March 1784, following an interview with the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, Matra amended his proposal to include convicts as settlers, as this would benefit the economy, the people and the individual. The government also wanted to colonise Norfolk Island because of its timber and flax resources.

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain changed the fabric of society and work, particularly in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transport and technology. Inventions that assisted farmers to plough and harvest crops meant that thousands of farm labourers were unemployed and left for the city to find jobs. Returned soldiers from the War of American Independence also found it difficult to make a living and some turned to petty crime to survive. Increased unemployment, overcrowded cities and poverty were incentives for the poor and destitute to steal food or clothing. Penalties for theft and burglary were severe, and included transportation.

The British government's fear that other imperial powers such as France, Holland and Spain might expand their territories and claim the great southern continent or part of it for their territories also motivated their desire to establish the colony of New South Wales.

In 1787 Botany Bay on the eastern coast of New Holland was chosen as the site for a new penal settlement. Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820), a botanist who had travelled with Captain James Cook (1728–1779) on his exploration to find the new land, had suggested that Botany Bay could be both a place for convicts and a British trading port in the Pacific.


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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