The First Fleet

As a shipping enterprise, the First Fleet quickly lapsed into virtual chaos, due in no small part to opportunism, aggression, badly-directed energy, budgetary illogic and a lack of involvement by the British East India Company, which had the expertise to handle the task with ease had it chosen to assist in the project. As the Government had previously given the Company a monopoly on trade in the Far East, the enterprise could have been logically and profitably organised with the creation of a convict colony at New South Wales as a major element in an organised opening-up by Britain of new commercial and strategic opportunities in the Pacific.

By using more naval experience than it did and the goodwill of sensible shipping contractors, the government could have created the perfect environment for, and an excellent opportunity to, create a successful new Pacific colony. Instead, jealousy, pomposity, protectionism and negativity on the part of the East India Company saw to it that this was not to be. So, with the East India Company out of the equation, it was left to private merchants to supply the vessels for the First Fleet.

Alexander Dalrymple strongly opposed the establishment of New South Wales in A Serious Admonition to the Public on the Intended Thief-Colony at Botany Bay (London, 1786). He insisted that the whole scheme was only an attempt to carry on illegal trade in violation of the monopoly of the East India Company, of which he was a hydrographer, and ridiculed transportation there as punishment. He continued his opposition to the Botany Bay penal settlement which he had found out about long before it had become law, his criticism was ignored.

That Dalrymple should be remembered as one who engaged in constant disputes with the East India Company and the Admiralty, who pursued a foolish and unnecessary vendetta against James Cook and who supported erroneous geographical theories is perhaps inevitable. Although the latter often reflected skilful deduction, Dalrymple invariably postulated them with a dogmatism unjustified by the evidence. He was over-bearing, opinionated and cantankerous, but also intelligent, enthusiastic and determined. He made major contributions to marine cartography and his writings on mercantile and public affairs show the breadth of his interests.

Considering the turmoil that was going on over the First Fleet it’s a wonder that it got off the ground at all, and then where would we be? However, get off the ground it did and the task of managing the fledgling penal colony of New South Wales was assigned to Arthur Phillip, a little known naval captain engaged in survey work for the British Admiralty, at the time of his appointment. During an enforced retirement, Phillip had sought and was granted permission to serve on a Portuguese ship during Portugal’s war with Spain. He gained a wealth of experience at this time, his duties including the successful transportation from Lisbon to Brazil of some 400 convicts. This, his farming experience and the fact that a near neighbour was the Treasurer of the Navy, Sir George Rose, are widely believed to be the major contributing factors in his selection for the post of Governor of the colony of New South Wales.

References – The History of Sydney: The First Fleet and from an article published in – Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 1, (MUP), 1966.

More next week.

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