Today is January 26 in Australia. 231 years ago the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay, establishing the first permanent European settlement on the continent of Australia. At the time it was generally called New Holland by Europeans as the western portion of the continent had been explored by the Dutch more than a century earlier. There might have even been earlier explorers. There are unsubstantiated claims of very early Portuguese exploration. Some even claim early Chinese mariners landed on the shores of Australia. The discovery in the 1940s of ancient African and more recently of a Chinese coin remain unexplained. It’s possible they were left there by the Macassan people from Indonesia who were known to trade with Aborigines in Northern Australia, or perhaps they speak of more ancient contact. What we can say is that of all the groups that may have found Australia after the arrival of the Aborigines, only the British established a permanent presence.
James Cook embarked on three great journeys of discovery in the Pacific. The first of these, aboard HMS Endeavour, was ostensibly to establish an observatory on Tahiti in order to observe the transit of Venus in 1769 in which the planet Venus made a rare transit of the Sun. European Astronomers had determined that if they could gather sufficient data of this event they could accurately calculate the distance to the Sun. In an early example of international scientific co-operation, the great powers of Europe sent out missions all around the world to give the scientists as much data as they could.
The Admiralty were not ones to miss an opportunity. Cook turned to the secret orders he had been given, not to be opened until after the Endeavour left Britain. Cook was to search the Southern Hemisphere for a great continent known to Europeans as Terra Australia Incognita. Since Roman times Europeans had believed that a Eurasia sized continent must lay in the Southern Hemisphere to balance the world. Cook thoroughly explored the region and accurately charted the east coast of New Holland, along with other accomplishments. He established definitively that no equivalent of Eurasia existed in the Southern Hemisphere. In 1770 Cook did, however, claim the eastern portion of New Holland and called it New South Wales.
Britain had been sending its convicts to the Americas for decades when the start of the American War of Independence disrupted this practice. After American independence the British were, for a while, at a loss as to what to do with the prisoners it had formerly been shipping off to its American colonies. For a while they were housed in old ships, called hulks, along the Thames but this could only be a temporary solution.
Sir Joseph Banks, who had been with Cook in 1770, and others were pushing for the establishment of a British colony in New South Wales for strategic reasons. The need for a permanent solution to the convict problem in Britain gave them the opportunity they needed.
And so it was that in 1787 the First Fleet set sail for Australia under the command of Commodore Arthur Phillip. Phillip was an experienced naval officer and he had been given the task of assembling the fleet, obtaining all the provisions for an extended sea voyage for 1420 people as well as everything needed to establish the new colony, which he would then govern.
All eleven ships successfully arrived in New South Wales after a voyage of 24000 km (15000 miles) by way of Rio De Janeiro and Cape Town. It is a testament to the fine leadership that Phillip provided that only 69 people died, discharged, or deserted during the voyage with other later fleets travelling to Australia suffering far higher attrition rates.
Phillip was instructed to settle at a location suggested by Cook 18 years earlier, Botany Bay, but found it unsuitable. Phillip personally led a small contingent north to examine the nearby Port Jackson, where he established the new colony. Commodore Phillip later reported to the Admiralty “…we had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security…”. Under Phillip’s good leadership the new colony had been founded on one of the world’s great harbours.
Arthur Phillip realised from the outset that the new colony would become a community, with many of the convicts unable to return to Britain even after their sentences were served. He also declared that slavery would be illegal in the new colony, decades before it would be made illegal Empire-wide. Phillip required the colonists to treat Aborigines respectfully. Any colonists that abused the local Aboriginal population were harshly punished. When he was speared by a local Aborigine he believed this had been a result of a misunderstanding and ordered his men to not retaliate.
The early years of the colony were difficult. With few farmers among the settlers, poor soils and weather patterns very different from their home food rationing had to be imposed. In 1790 one of the original ships from the First Fleet, HMS Supply, was sent to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia) for food. Later ships were sent to Capt Town and Calcutta for further supplies. Arthur Phillip successfully led the nascent colony through these difficult times.
Phillip resigned as governor and returned to Britain as his health began to fail. By the end of his tenure as governor in 1792, the colony’s food supply had stabilised, freed convicts were establishing land claims, and the foundations of the nation that would become Australia had been laid. Relations with the Aboriginal population were largely peaceful, but unfortunately, that wouldn’t last.
After returning to Britain Phillip’s health recovered and he returned to having various sea commands, including during wartime. He was eventually promoted to the rank of admiral before retiring. Arthur Phillip continued to champion the new colony in England to the end of his life.
Eventually, five additional colonies split off from the original colony of New South Wales. In 1901 all six of these colonies joined together to create the Commonwealth of Australia. The modern nation-state of Australia can trace its origins directly from the moment that Arthur Phillip stepped ashore and proclaimed the establishment of the new colony 231 years ago.
Today Australia has one of the highest standards of living in the world and has been in the top three nations on the Human Development Index for many years. Australia is also a nation beset by feminist dogma and political correctness which are gradually eroding the character that has made this nation great. Australia’s founding fathers, Arthur Phillip among them, would no doubt be appalled that the country that started life as a penal colony and went on to become a great nation would be going down this road.
Only time will tell if we can change course and make Australia great again.