Australia began as a British Penal Colony over 230 years ago

Depiction of the British landing at Botany Bay, Australia
Depiction of the British landing at Port Jackson, Australia

It’s no longer a well-hidden fact, nor even an embarrassment, that Australia was founded as the Botany Bay Penal Colony in the late 18th century.  But how exactly did an entire continent come to be settled by British convicts?

Botany Bay is an inlet on the eastern coast of Australia, just south of Sidney.  In 1770, the bay was discovered by the famous British explorer Captain James Cook in his ship, the HMS Endeavour. It was named Botany Bay because of the abundance of plant life noticed by the ship’s naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks.

A decade later, recently deprived of its American colonies, Britain was desperate to find another territory to ship its criminals to.  At the time, criminals were considered defective, could not be rehabilitated and must be in fact be separated from its law-abiding citizens.  So prisoners had to either be executed or exiled! Cook’s Australia seemed to fit the bill as it was inhabited by only native Aborigines and no other European power had established a colony.  Based on Captain Cook’s report, Botany Bay was selected by parliament.

The first fleet of 11 ships, filled with 736 convicts, set sail from England in 1787.

They sailed for 8 long months, around Africa’s Cape Hope of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean.  Captain Arthur Phillip, a tough but fair naval officer, was in charge of the fleet and with setting up the first penal colony in Australia. The 736 convicts were chained beneath the decks for the entire hellish voyage.  While the journey claimed the lives of just 39 prisoners, later trips would see up to a third die of disease and malnutrition along the way.

Interestingly, only a small minority were hardened criminals convicted of violent crimes.  Women made up 15% of the convict population.  Those ships carrying females inevitably became floating brothels.  The poor women were exposed to varying degrees of degradation with younger women lined up for inspection.  The prettiest were taken to the officers’ cabins, while the others were thrown in with the all male crew.

Discipline aboard ship was brutal, with the crew themselves often cruel drunks, recruited from dockside taverns. Most were thugs who didn’t shrink from doling out the most brutal punishment on any convict who broke a rule. Dysentery, scurvy and sea-sickness were also rife, making conditions below decks most foul indeed.

The fleet of ships finally sailed into Botany Bay in January of 1788.

Upon inspection though, the large bay was deemed uninhabitable due to a lack of fresh water and marshy soil.  Captain Philip’s surprise and disappointment must have been palpable.  This is where they sent him?  What was he to do now, with 6 ships full of 700+ convicts?  Based on Cook’s records, he took the fleet up the coast next, landing 9 miles away at Port Jackson in Sydney Cove, six days later.  Here all worries vanished as Phillip had just discovered one of the finest harbors in the world.

The night the first male convicts started landing, 26 January 1788, the Union Jack was hoisted, a succession of volleys fired from the ships, many toasts of rum were drunk, and Captain Philip led his officers in three cheers of “HUZZAH!”  Australia Day commemorates this first landing of white settlers on the continent.

For the convicts who disembarked in Sydney Cove, that 1st Australia Day, it was a bit bewildering. Unused to land after 8 months below deck, they stumbled through the cove’s alien forest.  It was 2 weeks before enough huts could be built for the female convicts to leave the ships.  In the midst of a storm, they held the first Australian Bush Party – dancing, singing and drinking into the night.

Though no longer confined behind bars, the convicts still had an extremely rough life ahead of them. The guards who signed up for duty in Australia were driven by cruelty bordering on sadism.  Governor Phillip was strict and even small violations could result in 50 lashes with a cat o’nine tails. Blood was usually drawn after the fifth, so the conditions of their backs after 50 was more like raw meat.

The female convicts were often reported as low-class, foul mouthed women with loose morals.

But women were often imprisoned in Britain as a punishment for simply misbehaving to a man, or having illegitimate children.  At Sydney Cove, they were forced to perform the more menial tasks like sewing clothes or toiling over wash-tubs. Punishments for women was not the whip, but rather having their head shaved as a mark of disgrace.

So who exactly were all these convicts forced to “the Land Down Under?”  They were prisoners yes, but only a small fraction were dangerous murderers.  Most were common poachers or thieves, while others were radical Luddites, Catholic Ribbonmen or Scottish Jacobites.  Regardless, all were treated the same by Phillip.

Those early days were perilous as their food stocks dwindled and rations were frequently cut. It was only the arrival of supply-ships that enabled the colony to avoid starvation those first years.  Two more fleets arrived in what was now called New South Wales in 1790 and 1791. Now called “transportees” rather than convicts, the average age was 26, and also included children.

Plus they now included emigrants and their wives, attracted to dreams of a better life than in England.  

And it was not just the poor who headed down under.  Australia became a place where Britain sent unacceptable members of all its classes, including the gentry. It was an ideal place to send a young man who had gambling debts, or who wasn’t particularly good academically, or who had gotten the family maid pregnant. The famous author Charles Dickens sent his two sons to Australia!

Whether they arrived as convicts or emigrants, the settlers faced a forbidding, unwelcoming landscape. In a continent with little water and poor soil, growing crops proved extremely difficult. The western interior, or Outback as it came to be called, offered no great river and many yeomen who ventured there perished in the brutal desert.

Nevertheless,  in the end most stayed and endured.  The emigrants went out beyond colonial control and squatted on huge tracts of land. While farming was hit or miss, the settlers soon realized the climate was perfect for sheep.  The animals, both the wool and meat, would become a mainstay of the Australian economy.

As settlements expanded, they came into conflict with the Aborigines, who had lived there for thousands of years.

Map of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, 1790
Map of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, New South Wales, 1790

Phillip ordered they must be well treated, and anyone killing Aborigines would be hanged.  The natives considered the continent theirs, so they began killing the settler’s livestock … or the settlers themselves.  This is when the guns came out and British firepower ultimately won.  Frontier wars, massacres and the introduction of European diseases, devastated the Aborigines, much like the Native Americans.

In 1851, gold was discovered in New South Wales, sparking a Gold Rush similar to California’s. Melbourne went from a small fishing village to one of the greatest cities of the empire in just 20 years.  Gold brought wealth to the continent and hastened an influx of even more migrants. The Gold Rush also sparked the beginning of the end for convict transportees, due to a growing resentment from the new population.

Over the next 80 years, from that first fleet, more than 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  After 1868, when convict transfers ended, Australians tried to hide their founder’s legacy, considering it a disgrace and embarrassment.  But over the centuries, Australia’s shame has been transformed into national pride. The truth about who the “convicts” really were has helped remove the stigma.  Some were just kids, some did little more than steal a bag of flour, some were political prisoners. Today, about 20% of Australians are descended from those founding convicts, including many of its most prominent citizens.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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