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Britain transported its criminals from its overcrowded jails to the British colonies in the Americas, until the American Revolution (which lasted from 1775 to 1783). After the Revolution, the United States refused to accept prisoners, so Britain had to find another place to send them. Joseph Banks suggested Botany Bay, and this was accepted. Settlement of Australia would not only be a place to send prisoners but would keep rival powers, such as France, away from Australia. Captain Arthur Phillip was chosen to command the convict fleet, as he had experience transporting African slaves. The fleet, known as the First Fleet, set sail for Botany Bay on 13 May 1787.

The First Fleet

The First Fleet consisted of 11 ships and about 1500 people in all. There were over 700 convicts, 290 marines, 400 sailors and some women and children. On the way, the fleet stopped at Tenerife (Canary Islands), Rio de Janeiro, and the Cape of Good Hope to pick up food, animals, plants and other supplies before heading to Botany Bay. The fleet landed at Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788. Refer Image 1

Botany Bay

It was the middle of summer, so there was little fresh water or fertile soil at Botany Bay. Captain Phillip decided to take some crew and sail north to find a better location. They found the clear waters of a protected harbour that Phillip named Sydney after the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. On 26 January 1788 (Australia Day), Captain Arthur Phillip and a group of officers and marines landed in Sydney Cove and raised the Union Jack (the British flag) to proclaim New South Wales as a British colony. Refer Image 2

Establishing a colony

On 27 January 1788, the male convicts began to arrive and started to clear the trees, put up tents, unload stores and animals, and sow vegetable seeds and corn. On 6 February 1788, the female convicts arrived from Botany Bay and the colony was established. Refer Image 3

Captain Phillip became the governor of the colony and began to establish permanent structures and farms. Huts, storehouses, a hospital and a church were built and a brick residence was constructed for the governor, called Government House. In November of 1788 a new settlement was founded at Parramatta, where the soil was more fertile. Another settlement was soon established at Toongabbie. Norfolk Island was also settled so that timber and flax (to make sails) from the island could be used in the new colony.

The first years were very hard and the colony almost failed. The first harvest came to nothing and food had to be strictly rationed. Governor Phillip sent HMS Sirius to the Cape of Good Hope for more supplies. In June 1790, the Second Fleet arrived with more convicts and food supplies, and in 1791 the Third Fleet arrived. Food was still in short supply, but by 1792 the colony was well-established. Trading ships were starting to visit Sydney and the whaling industry had begun. Sheep were being imported to grow wool, and released convicts were taking up farming. The colony of New South Wales was starting to grow.

The first settlers and the Indigenous peoples

The region around Sydney Cove was not uninhabited or unoccupied, as the British had declared. Its land belonged to the Eora and Dharug peoples. When the Union Jack was raised on 26 January 1788, all Indigenous land had been declared British territory. In addition, all Indigenous people had been made British subjects and would be expected to obey the laws of Great Britain. This was despite the fact that Indigenous people had their own laws, considered the land an essential part of their lives; and had their own families, clans and language groups.

The arrival of the British was the start of a process which resulted in Indigenous groups losing their land, their hunting grounds and their way of life. Contact with the British brought diseases such as smallpox that Indigenous peoples had never known before. These diseases killed thousands and thousands of Indigenous people. There was also competition between the British and Indigenous peoples for clean water and food. The British settlers cut down trees, destroyed sacred sites, stole weapons and rapidly extended their control of the land.

The British settlement of Australia has become known as the European invasion of Australia. In the following chapters the effects of the British colonisation on the Indigenous peoples will be explored.


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1. Who was chosen to command the First Fleet?

Arthur Phillip

James Cook

Lord Sydney

Joseph Banks

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