Before the moment I actually landed on Australian soil to live and work here, I had only a superficial understanding of Australia--mostly originating from Crocodile Dundee films. I knew there would be much more to the country and people than that, but really had no idea what to expect.
Fast forward to the present, more than 2 years later, and my knowledge and familiarity of Australia (primarily Melbourne) has grown considerably. Around the middle of last year, I decided that I needed to begin some self-education of Australian history going back to its 'discovery' by Captain James Cook in 1770. I feel that, as a foreigner in Australia, I have some responsibility to study its origins and culture through the lens of history. Like citizens in the U.S., there are many Australians here who admittedly know little detail regarding their nation's history, but the reality is that their behaviour, mannerisms, and approaches to life are rooted in certain aspects of Australian history. My aim here is to understand the heritage of the society and overall context within which I now work and live everyday.
My desire to actually sit down and make a concerted effort at the study of Australian history was spurred by finding a book called 'A New History of Australia' in a second-hand book store. It nicely dissects Australian history into approximate 20-year periods up until 1974 (when the book was first published). Each of these chapters is written by a different contemporary, Australian historian. In a running series, I will touch on each of these periods as I read and take notes. However, it is important to emphasize that my summaries are not comprehensive of historical opinion or reasearch.
Like the United States, the Anglo-history of Australia is relatively short. Unlike the United States, however, Australia was the most distant colony ever undertaken by the British Empire, and as a result, the strain of physical isolation weighed heavily on the country. Frankly, pure survival was the key theme of this period in Australia.
Settlement was concentrated in the region of New South Wales, as is pointed out in the map below:
At its core, the first colony at Port Jackson was founded primarily as a military penal colony and thus commerce was controlled by the military, which ruled harshly over the mostly convict population transported from Great Britain. Even before the time of the First Fleet's arrival in 1788 with the first convicts and occupants of Port Jackson, the British Empire had essentially lost its American territory and looked to the East for additional lands to continue its ongoing transportation policy for convicts. Only later did the plan for Australia and its role in the British Empire become more comprehensive as Great Britain tried to remain competitive against the interests of other nations in the East. As noted by historian A.G.L. Shaw:
"The advantages were based not on commerce or imperial development, but on economy. It was said that the land was so fertile that the settlement would be self-sufficient in two years; it was so isolated that 'return would be difficult', and the cost of guarding the prisoners would therefore be small. Thus while 'no man could doubt' that it was 'necessary...to send...incorrigible criminals out of the Kingdom', as Pitt said in defending the settlement in the House of Commons in 1791, 'no cheaper mode of disposing the convicts could be found'; he apparently disagreed with the opinion of the 1784 committee that the cost of a penal settlement was so great that it could only be justified if there were compensating 'Political and Commercial Benefits'."
While Governor Philip and his successors in this period--Hunter, King and Bligh--oversaw the gradually expanding convict population transported from Britain, they all struggled with ensuring colonial survival and the responsibility of managing some sort of governing system. Due to the limited size of the colony, its evolution in this period is best described through the character and actions of each governor.
Governor Arthur Philip, a captain in the British Royal Navy, "received commission in April 1787 that mandated the governor to maintain law and order and was given power to grant land, control commerce, pardon criminals, raise armed forces, and issue regulations and orders." However, it was understood that any back-and-forth communication with Britain could required up to 2 years at a time. There was also "no Council or Assembly to restrict the governor's power" like which had been established in the American colonies. For Philip, however, there was much to be done before any refinement of the wheels of governance. The "first problem was to make sure that his settlement would survive. Not only were many of the early inhabitants put up in tents due to lack of means in building solid structures, there was a shortage of food due to insufficiently imported supplies as well as no local means to develop agriculture and sustain some kind of livestock. As conditions and diets worsened, the only hospital was overwhelmed and the population was soon so weak that little could be done in terms of building and infrastructure. When the Second Fleet finally arrived with new supplies 1790, the colony was much relieved. It was only due to "Philip's patience, dignity and perserverence" that "enabled him to lead the settlement successfully in its battle for survival" and which raised the legitimacy of the colony in the eyes British leadership.
In 1795, when Governor Hunter arrived to formally replace Philip, who had left in 1792, "he was amazed at the transformation which had taken place since he had left the colony more than four years before." In the intervening years, military officers had been empowered to take land and develop it into sustainable farms and grazing pasture for livestock upon which the colony would survive. The most famous of these officers was John Macarthur (pictured), who will be discussed in more detail shortly. Hunter "sympathized with the officers who were developing thier farms, and he refused to carry out his instructions to remove thier convict servants or to increase the public cultivation." In fact, these officers used their clout to prevent any interference by the government, which was weak and still quite disconnected from British empire. They controlled not only the colony's sustenance but also the trade of imported goods from Britain, as well as any goods that could be obtained from the Asia-Pacific or East Indies.
In his passion for the natural sciences, Hunter expanded exploration of Australia, employing the services of seaworthy explorers such as Matthew Flinders and George Bass. It was at this time that Van Dieman's Land, known today as Tasmania, was sailed in full and confirmed to be an island. Other discoveries included many of the well know river valleys of the Southeast as well as a number of now well-known Australian animals.
In the end, however, Hunter was recalled by the higher authorities in England towards the end of 1799 due to his failure to "control the liquor traffice, stop the military officers trading, and worst of all, had not brought about economical efficiencies in the colony." Of course, there was no note that he had had very little support from both England and the locals in the first place.
Governor King took over in September of 1800 with the economy being the major issue. At this point "nearly half the men and three-quarters of the women and childern were being supported by the government." Some of the enactments King made between 1800-1804 included reducing "the price the commissariat paid for grain, enforcing the payment of debts owing to the Crown, reducing the number of convict servants allowed to officials at public expense from 356 to 94, and cut the numbers being victualled by the government from about 60% to 40% of the population." On top of this, there a number of port fees and import duties imposed to help cover government expenses as well as contribute to funds for an orphanage and local infrastructure.
During this time, regular and unhibited trade struggled to gain a foothold in the colony due to pressure from East India Company interests suppressing what support might have existed in England and regionally in the Asia-Pacific. In the midst of this, the colony attempted to find its niche with which it could produce something of value in trade with the homeland--establishments of coal, timber, flax, cotton, tobacco and wine exports failed to take hold.
Having been earlier sent to England for his antagonistic role in government affairs in the colony, the enterprising John Macarthur had been gaining favor in some circles in England and was encouraged to return to Australia with sheep drawn from the Crown's royal flock, to establish a breeding ground from which England could rely on in future trade. Although cattle had surpassed sheep in numbers, Macarthur returned to Australia with renewed enterprising vigor and the same eagerness to challenge Governor King as he was before being arrested. This would be the fire the sparked the future wool-boom.
Although King struggled with his responsibilities towards the end of his governorship, he had put Australia on a stronger footing. Where Philip had helped the colony to simply survive, King had built in it the resilience and viability required to continue on and sustain itself. He had expanded England's claims to officially colonize Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) as another penal colony and while he could not control it completely, he had considerably brought the liquor trade down to a reasonable volume as compared to that under his predecessor.
Unfortunately, the arrival of Governor Bligh (pictured) in 1806 had a dampening effect on the colony to end its first 20 years. Although he intended to continue King's reforms, he overreached and drew the ire of the leading constituents of the time--the existing officers, entreprising former officers, such as Macarthur, and the remaining trading community. He restricted the options through which soldiers could be paid and in addition banned the use of rum as an article of barter or incentive payment, from which officers and former officers had profited considerably, including Macarthur.
His problems with Macarthur culminated in a series of confrontations in both business and in court. The first was ruling against Macarthur in a court case where Macarthur had attempted in 1806 to convert an 1805 promissary note that, common practice with debts at the time, had its value denoted in both currency and wheat. This was a problem given that floods had caused wheat prices to quadruple in 1806, an event which Macarthur aimed to take advantage of with his promissary note. Bligh reinforced the ruling against Macarthur.
Up until this point, Bligh had remained within his legal boundaries, despite whatever he lacked in competence. What brought him down completely was a final confrontation with Macarthur in the courts where a ruling by presiding officers was in favor of Macarthur's demand to remove a certain government official, a ruling Bligh opposed and refused to implement. Macarthur proceeded to convince the involved officers of the need to rebel and depose of Bligh, who was promptly put under arrest. As the author notes in final reflection on Bligh's governorship:
"His temperament was against him, he lacked patience and ability to oppose the intolerant, intriguing and ever discontented if always self-righteous Macarthur, whose ambitions were aided by the malcontent officers in a corps which had been too long in the colony."
When Governor Macquarie arrived to restore order and governorship of the colony on December 31st, 1809, Bligh had already been released to return to England. Macarthur himself went to England to answer for the events and responsibility of the rebellion and its after effects. He would not return until after 1817, when he was assured he would not be arrested upon arrival in Sydney.
The population in Australia of this period reached up to 12,000 inhabitants, of which 1,500 were in Van Dieman's Land and of which 1,000 were soldiers. Macquarie described "the colony he found as 'barely emerging from infantile imbecility', the population depressed by poverty, agriculture languishing, and public buildings delapidated." But the change from the colony's birth in 1788 could not be disputed. As was noted by one Dr. Arnold, "...'thirty years ago this place was entirely a forest', but in 1810, 'a person coming into Sydney Cove would think himself in the midst of a large city; if he dines on shore he finds all the luxury and elegance of the finest English tables'."
What is to be taken from this period in Australian history? There is much to deride in this period as an illustration of the worst characteristics of colonial conquest and imperial rule. The horrible treatment of convicts as part of the transportation policy, the reckless abandon with which Aborigines were treated in Van Dieman's land and elsewhere, and the imposing and often indifferent nature of military rule--these served to limit colonial progress in many ways. But the conditions under which everyone involved had to live and survive--the distance from all that anyone ever knew, the foreign landscape and wilderness, the poor condition of the most basic supplies--had no equal in the Empire at the time. Once in Australia, in many respects, it was every man for themselves up to the level of governor. And thus, one must appreciate the development of a resilience, a tenacity, and a will to 'give it a go' in the face of such adversity.