European Settlement

European settlement of Australia occurred gradually throughout the colonial period. Initially, the first settlers were convicts transported from overcrowded gaols in Britain but over time, some earned their freedom and eventually free settlers and migrants chose to take up land in Australia.

First Settlers

In 1788, the first non-native inhabitants of Australia arrived from Britain at Botany Bay upon Cook’s feasibility reports from 18 years earlier. They came in eleven ships led by Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy. The intent of their arrival was two-fold – to establish a naval base in the Pacific in order to better defend British interests against the French, and to solve the problem of Britain’s overcrowded jails. Under Phillip’s charge as Governor, was around 1000 people – ¾ of which were convicts, a ¼ were marine guards. The convicts would serve out their punishment as labourers to prepare and build the British colony of New South Wales and to also quickly claim and occupy nearby Norfolk Island before the French. They chose Sydney Cove as the site for the first settlement.

Early efforts at agriculture were fraught with failures and supplies from overseas were scarce. It took many years to understand the different environment of the new colony, and disease and malnutrition were widespread during the first decades of settlement. Governor Phillip sent exploratory missions to the Parramatta region in search of better soils. As more convicts became emancipated some were granted land and these people, along with soldiers, whose military service had expired, pioneered a new non-government private sector economy.

When Governor Arthur Phillip returned to England for reasons of ill health in 1792, Lieutenant-General Francis Grose held the post of colonial administrator. In 1793 Phillip returned to New South Wales with the first wave of free settlers (and sheep), and he resigned his post as Governor to also take up land. Phillip’s recommendation for Philip Gidley King to be his successor was denied and it was another 2 years until John Hunter took over as Governor from 1795 – 1800. Meanwhile, the colony had become rife with drunkenness, gambling and crime under Grosse’s administration. Officers gained control of the rum trade to form what became known as the Rum Corps. Throughout this period, John Macarthur, the first successful pastoralist, was also becoming known an as outspoken political activist. Aside from being recognised for being the first man to clear and cultivate 50 acres of land, Macarthur was instrumental in the fall of Governor Hunter. Hunter was eventually recalled as Governor, being blamed for the ineffective management of the army officers who had taken control of lands, stories, labour and trade.

This was the beginning of a political unsteadiness that would challenge the leaders of this new society. As the population of free citizens increased, there came a demand for democratic change.

Phillip Gidley King replaced Hunter to become the third Governor of New South Wales in 1800. He had originally arrived with the First Fleet but had spent 12 years on Norfolk Island leading the setup of a settlement there. Returning to New South Wales to take charge as Governor, he recognised the importance of changing the system of administration. He attacked the misconduct of officers of the New South Wales Corps in their illicit trading of alcohol but was thwarted by their military arrogance and he failed in his attempt to court-martial John Macarthur. He did have some successes however in the development of farming, mining, education, whaling, and even launched the colony's first newspaper. But conflicts with the military wore down his spirit, and they were able to force his resignation in 1806.

Meanwhile, Great Britain and France were at war, which prompted the settlement of a 2nd colony to protect the southern passage (Bass Strait) in 1803. In 1803, Lieutenant John Bowen led the establishment of a little colony at Risdon Cove, in Tasmania and in 1804 Hobart Town was created by Colonel David Collins.

Around this same time, Mathew Flinders and George Bass made important voyages of discovery and Flinders is credited with not only proving Australia was a continent but for suggesting it’s new name “Australia” (officially changed from New Holland in 1824).

In 1806 William Bligh was made governor of Australia however his rule was short-lived with officiers refusing to accept his attempts to bring an end to the rum trade and he was eventually overthrown. Bligh's replacement, Lachlan Macquarie, served as Governor from 1809 to 1821. Considered the most talented Governor since Phillip, he also became the most powerful. He disbanded The New South Wales Corps, returning them to England, and the government finally gained some stability. Macquarie began an extensive public works programme employing an ex-convict, Francis Greenway, to design buildings in Sydney, many of which remain standing today.

The Spread of British Colonies

The requirement for future colonisation was initiated by the British to protect its new South Pacific claim from potential invasion from the French. The exposed shores between the southern point on the east coast of the mainland and the island Van Dieman's Land posed the most threat, hence Tasmania was chosen as the site for the second colony. There was also the need to find ways to feed the colony so expanding industry, farming and mining was undertaken in the new colonies with mixed results. By the end of the 1850s there were six separate Australian colonies, which eventually became governed independently of each other.

1788 - New South Wales (brief history above)

1803 – Tasmania. The first British settlement in Van Diemen’s Land was made at Risdon Cove (Hobart). Numerous other convict settlements established, including Launceston, Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour (Sarah Island). In 1825, Van Diemen's Land became an independent colony from New South Wales and was led by Governor George Arthur. Transportation from Britain to NSW ended in 1840, causing heavier influx of convicts to Tasmania and in 1847 all prisoners from NSW are transferred to Tasmania. Transportation to Tasmania finally ended in 1853.

1829 – Western Australia. The Swan River Colony was founded as a "free settlement", but later struck a deal with Britain to receive assistance in return for accepting convicts in 1850. Over the next 18 years over 9000 convicts were transported there on 43 ships and in the final years, this was the only penal colony in Australia. Transportation to Australia ended completely in 1868.

1836 – South Australia. Governor Hindmarsh proclaimed the unique province of South Australia in 1836. The colony was based upon the South Australia Colonisation Act 1834 that saw Britain allot 800,000 square kilometres of land for a self-sufficient, non-convict colony to establish itself as an upstanding society with political and religious freedoms, and opportunity for wealth through business & pastoral investment. The wool industry was the basis of the economy, but by 1840 the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley wine growing regions were established, and finds of copper in Kapunda and Burra saw the start of mining, and widespread wheat farms flourished. In 1856 South Australia became a self-governing colony with a population over 100,00.

1835 – Victoria. When Melbourne was founded by John Batman, it quickly flourished by opportunists however there were already other existing settlements in the region. The Henty family (originally from Van Diemen’s Land) had established fertile farms in Portland, and many Aboriginal groups were disposed from their lands by an invasion of wealthy squatters who seized the “empty” plots. Within a decade all Victorian pastoral licences were owned by a small group of wealthy Europeans that granted political and economic power for many generations to come. The colony was formally founded in 1851 when it was separated from New South Wales under the British Act of Parliament.

1824 – Queensland. Originally established as a penal colony by John Oxley, the settlement was first called Edenglassie (now Brisbane). In 1842 free settlement was permitted and in 1851 Queensland was formally separated from New South Wales and was Governed by George Ferguson Bowen.

With the ending of transportation of convicts to Australia in 1868, and the increase of free migrants attracted by agricultural prospects and the Gold Rush, the people entered the start of the 19th Century with much enthusiam. But it was the need for trade, communications and transport routes between colonies, along with the search for resources and the desire to solve the riddle of the great inland sea that spurred the greatest period of land exploration.

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