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.

More Reasons Convicts Were Transported

Last time I mentioned that transporting convicts to Australia was because of overcrowding in the prison ships and the prisons in England. I also mentioned that this was not the only reason.

After Captain James Cook returned to Britain he gave a detailed report on how he had discovered a wonderful land that was very fertile with fresh water streams in abundance. This was Australia, of course, and Cook went on to describe how at Norfolk Island he had seen massive trees (Norfolk Pines) that were tall and straight and would make excellent masts and stays for ships. On Norfolk there were also an abundance of flax seeds that could be processed into material for sails and rope.

When this information was received by the Admiralty they made a decision that a southern Naval base could be established in Australia which would not only secure the colony that could be established there but support the whalers in the southern ocean that were procuring the precious whale oil. At the time, whaling was big business, and it is known that numerous companies involved in whaling had actively supported the exploration of the South Pacific, obviously with a view to setting up business operations there.

Everything seemed to be in place with an abundance of timber for masts and stays, a good supply of flax seed for sails and rope and a naval prescence that would discourage any future plans from France, Spain and Portugal from trying to form a colony there themselves. These countries had all been to Australia in some form or another. Add to the fact that Australia for all intents and purposes, from Cook’s discovery, appeared a rich, fertile land with an abundance of fresh water then the plan had merit. This was not the case, of course, but more of that later.

With an Act of Parliament thought necessary, a bill was drawn up in January 1787, by which officers of the army or navy could be empanelled. A procedure for granting land was developed and a surveyor to administer this was appointed (a retired German military man, Augustus Alt). Between October 1786 and April 1787, Arthur Phillip’s commission was written, and more and more Phillip’s role began to look like that of a day-to-day administrator.

On 1st September, 1786, the British Government placed the first of a series of advertisements in the London The Morning Herald for the hiring of the required shipping. The offer was taken up by William Richards Junior, a little-known Navy broker who had business interests in America which appear to have commenced from a ship brokering business he established during the American Revolution. He promoted himself as a ‘prominent’ shipbroker, mostly for the Navy.

No other tenders were received from merchants, indicating that London’s commercial class was not excited by the new opportunity to explore and develop trade in the Pacific, in spite of the bonus of having the outward voyages paid for by the government. Richards would be paid almost 54,000 pounds for organising the First Fleet.

To be continued.


The answer is not as easy at it appears.

When I was a lot younger I believed that our convicts were the result of Britain dumping them out here because they had nowhere else to go, at least that was what I was taught. In part that is true but there was a lot more to it than that.

To understand the true story we must go back to Britain’s, ‘Hulk Act’, of 1776. This was the start of the terrible prison ships that Britain employed for nearly eighty years. The act enabled them to house prisoners convicted of criminal offences in converted ships moored in the Thames River and other places as the need arose. The act was instigated because of the War of Independence in America that started in 1775 and went through to 1783. Prior to this time most of the convicts transported were sent to America at the rate of nearly 1,000 per year. This figure was disputed by Thomas Jefferson in 1786 by claiming the number would have amounted to only 2,000, total. He should have known better because by the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence about half of the 52,200 total transported ended up in his own state of Virginia.

So, when America shut the gate on convicts Britain had to resort to prison ships because their prisons were overflowing. This was the result of judicial leniency on executions. In the 1750’s 70% of convicts were being hung but by the time the First Fleet set sail convicts being hung were barely 25%.

By 1788 there were 60 prison hulks made up of about 40 ex-Royal Navy and 20 private hulks and all of them were bursting at the seams with convicts. More convicts died of disease in captivity than were ever exucuted.

If Cook landed in Australia in 1770 and within 12 months had reported his findings to the powers that be in Britain, the Battle of Independence commenced in 1775 and the ‘Hulk Act came into being in 1776 why did it take more than a decade to arrange the First Fleet?

There was a lot going on in England at the time with the ongoing war with France and Spain, the American War of Independence and of course the mounting problem of what to do with the convicts.

If it was just a matter of what to do with the convicts then it would have been far easier and cheaper to build more prisons than to transport convicts to Australia. The First Fleet cost 84,000 pounds ($153,620 Australian) which would have been 9.6 million pounds ($17,556,278.07 Australian) at 2015 figures. That’s a lot of money by anyone’s standards and when you consider that that was for only one fleet and there were many more to follow, then surely, they would have been able to build a number of prisons for that cost particularly since they had such a huge labour force readily available, the convicts themselves.

Britain transported more than 160,000 convicts to Australia. From the 11 ships of the First Fleet that left in 1787 and arrived in NSW in January 1788 to the Hougoumont that left Britain in 1867 and arrived in Western Australia in January 1868. That’s a span of almost exactly 80 years.

I had no idea that transportation of convicts to Australia went on for that long, particularly when at the time of the Hulk Act’s inception it was only expected that the prison ships would be in use for about two years.

Did you know that the convicts were given a choice? Either transportation or hanging! Tough choice aye!

So, there was a need to reduce the over-crowding in the prisons and prison ships and that is certainly one reason to transport the convicts to Australia but, as mentioned, it was not the only one.

To be continued so stay tuned.


How far back does our history go?

We already know that the indigenous Australians go back somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 years but in actual fact an unprecedented DNA study has found evidence of a single human migration out of Africa and confirmed that the Australian Aborigines are the oldest known civilisation on earth with ancestries stretching back roughly 75,000 years.

It’s true there has been, historically, a small number of claims that there were people in Australia, before the Australian Aborigine, but these claims have all been refuted and are no longer widely debated. The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the idea that Aboriginal people were the first Australians.

So, our history, effectively, goes back 75,000 years.

Aboriginal people formed one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world when they first arrived in Australia. The way they adapted to our country’s challenging conditions is a testament to Aussie inventiveness. It was once a widely held belief in Australia that before contact, Aboriginal culture stood still. But forming the kinds of agricultural societies typical of English settlers just wasn’t the right strategy to endure Australia’s harsh conditions. Even with imported English technology, agriculture was a precarious business in Australia.

The Aboriginal people refined their societies, not over a few hundred years as we have done, but over 75,000 years. It may have seemed that the culture had stood still from the first European contact but remember that their culture goes back to a time when the rest of the world were living in the Stone Age. You don’t fix something that is not broken.

Just to give you an idea as to how good their technology was, here I’ll list some Aboriginal inventions: 10 enduring innovations. These inventions and innovations are among the earliest known in the world and helped Aboriginal people survive Australia’s harsh conditions, (by Lynda Delacey 12th March 2015).

The Boomerang

The Boomerang’s distinctive sound and remarkable return has made it famous throughout the world. Other cultures invented throwing sticks with controllable motion and spin, but the boomerang was a purely Australian Aboriginal invention. The angled shape with asymmetrical curves makes use of one of the most complicated principles of aerodynamics : asymmetrical lift.


The woomera is another uniquely Aboriginal invention that uses leverage to allow a spear to be thrown up to three times further. Witnesses report seeing spears thrown with enough force to skewer the trunk of a full grown eucalyptus tree!

Thermoplastic Resin

Aboriginal people made a powerful thermoplastic resin from porcupine grass and grass trees. They beat the resin out of the grass, then cleaned it and heated it over fire to create a sticky, black substance. The resulting resin hardened as it cooled and was strong enough to bind rock to wood. This resin was used to create tools such as spears, woomeras and axes.

Weirs and Fish Traps

Aboriginal people demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of engineering, physics and aquaculture in the design of elaborate stone fish traps in NSW, and the 100 square kilometre eel farm at Lake Condah in Victoria. They made these fish farms by creating complex systems of canals, linked weirs and ponds out of river stones. Lake Condah shows evidence of a very large, settled community that harvested and smoked eels to trade. Some of the Australian Aboriginal fish traps are thought to be up to 40,000 years old. They may be some of the oldest surviving human-made structures in the world.

Water Bags

The Coolgardie Safe, which used capillary action and evaporative cooling to keep food from spoiling , was the ‘household fridge’ of Australia from the 1890’s until the mid-twentieth century. It is thought to have been partly inspired by watching Aboriginal people carry water in special bags made of wallaby skin, which used the same principles of heat transfer to keep the water cool.

Stone and Natural Glass Tools

Aboriginal stone tools were highly sophisticated in their range of uses. Stone and natural glass were fashioned into chisels, saws, knives, axes and spear heads. Stone tools were used for hunting, carrying food, for making ochre, nets, clothing, baskets and more. Aboriginal people are thought to be one of the first to use stone tools to grind seeds and the first to create ground edges on stone tools. They could grind a precision edge from stone that was as sharp as any metal blade found in England in 1788.

The Didgeridoo (didjeridu)

Played by men in ceremony and thought to be the world’s oldest wind instrument. Simple in design but a complicated instrument to play the didgeridoo was termite-hollowed and tends to be wider in diameter at the bottom than the top. It creates unusual resonant frequencies.

Bush Foods and Medicines

Aboriginal people fished, hunted, rendered poisonous seeds edible, turned certain moths and grubs into delicious meals, made sweet drinks from native honey and nectar, ground grass seeds to bake an early form of damper. They used tannins to treat inflammation and alkaloids to relieve pain; extracted antiseptics such as tea tree oil to cure infections and harvested latex to treat ulcers and skin conditions.


Aboriginal adults made rattles, dolls, spinning tops and balls for their children to play with, as well as small scale, harmless models of tools and weapons. Children made toy propellers out of strips of long leaves, which they launched into the air in throwing competitions.

Fire-stick Farming

When the first settlers arrived in Sydney they found fields of open grass that seemed ideal for farming sheep. They didn’t know that Aboriginal people made and actively maintained these fields through a form of, controlled burning, called, ‘firestick farming’! Aboriginal firestick farming was incredibly precise. They could aim the fires in a specific direction to clear tracks through the bush or create open parklands. Firestick farming flushed out animals that could be killed instantly for food. New grasses grew in the burned off areas, creating ideal conditions for game animals, such as wallabies, and encouraging low-growing food plants to grow. Some Aboriginal people have warned that low intensity burning is necessary to prevent more serious fires in Australia.

It’s a pity the European settlers didn’t take a leaf out of the Aboriginal’s book on how to treat the environment. They saw themselves as the custodians of the land not the owners because they believe they came from the land , everything they needed came from the land and they eventually went back to the land. For at least 74,768 years the Australian landscape hardly changed but look what’s happened in the last 232 years.

That’s about it for this week, stay tuned to find out what the, real, reasons were for England to send more than 160,000 convicts to our shore.


Is Australia in danger of losing its unique language and culture? I think so!

Think about some of the conversations you may have had over the past couple of days and say, truthfully, have you heard something like this :

You – ‘Hey mate, owyagoin?’

Them – ‘Good buddy, how bout you?’

Do you see anything wrong? If you don’t then that’s exactly what I’m talking about. If you do then congratulations, there’s hope for us yet.

Since when has the word ‘BUDDY’ ever been part of the Australian language. The word is, ‘MATE’, always was and always will be. I know what you’re thinking and , yes, it has become automatic and in the past I have been guilty of the same thing and have had to consciously think sometimes before I speak, it has become so common, but we must make a concerted effort to eliminate it.

Through social media, television and the movies we have been bombarded with Americanisms. Even the spelling ; tire for tyre, center for centre, putting, ‘z’, where there should be, ‘s’, like authorize instead of authorise, the list goes on and on and what about when your computer programme (not program) is American, which most of them are, and you have to constantly put up with a red line under spelling mistakes. Yes, I know you can change it to English but why should we have to and in fact I just ignore it or sometimes I have to check a dictionary to see if I have it right. Maybe I’m just being a cranky old man but surely we have to draw a line somewhere. I have some people I know who speak with an American accent and have never been there, how bizarre is that?

I don’t expect everyone to go around saying , ‘You bewdy oker ol’ mate ain’t that a bottler of a sheila over there, makes a bloke wanta flamin throw down ‘is schooner an’ go over there nflipinchaterup.’ But at least stick to some semblance of the Australian language.

It’s not only our language that’s taken a hit but our culture as well. In my day end of school meant a, ‘muck-up day’, where the students leaving school could play the larrikin. Now it’s not only semi-formals and formals at the end of high school but at the end of state school as well!

When my son finished state school a few years ago they held a formal, yes for twelve year olds for goodness sake! What happened was the girls were done up like fashion models and some were over done, which was not a good look in my opinion, and they had music where the girls danced with each other and what did the boys do? Skidded around on the floor and quite rightly did what boys do, acted like larrikins. A bit pointless really.

Need I mention the Australian custom of a 21st birthday party where the recipient accepts the symbolic key to the door for becoming an adult. Now, the 18th birthday party has become the norm to be the big coming of age and they’re still a teenager. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against Americans, I have made many friends over the years with Americans I even dated a couple of American girls in my youth, but I just don’t want to become one.

Anyway we need to make a conscious effort to retain our unique language and culture or it will be lost forever. One way to preserve it, I feel, is to embrace the history that formulated it all in the first place. You may think that as a young country we only have 232 years of history to fall back on when other countries have thousands of years. You’d be wrong because our country has been occupied for between 40,000 and 60,000 years and believe it or not it has all contributed to who we are and how we live.

The USA had a civil war, a war of independence against England. Europe including England goes back thousands of years worth of history with wars, royalty, invasions, colonisation and just about anything you can imagine. What does Australia have?

Well, our history is far better and more interesting than you could have imagined. We had our own civil war, many internal wars as a matter of fact. We had a rebellion that ended up in treason. We had a guerrilla war that lasted for nearly thirty years. Our government was formed around transported convicts of many nationalities who built our language and culture.

That’s what I will be concentrating on in this blog over the coming weeks so stay tuned if you’re interested. I can’t finish without relating a short story that personifies the Australian humour. It can be seen as a joke but knowing some of the Australian characters I have met over the years I’d like to think it is true.

An Aussie was showing a Yank the sites around Sydney when the Yank noticed a rather tall imposing building. ‘What’s that?’ he asked pointing at the building.

The Aussie said with pride. ‘That’s the Chifley Tower, the tallest building in Sydney. It took three years to complete and at a cost of $1.2 million.’

‘Hah!’ said the Yank. ‘We have buildings in the States twice as high, cost twice as much and were built in half that time.’

‘Really!’ answered the Aussie as they walked down to the harbour.

‘What’s that then?’ asked the Yank pointing at the bridge.

‘That’s the Sydney Harbour Bridge, started in 1923 and finished in 1932 at a cost, then, of 10 million pounds.’

‘Bah!’ said the Yank. ‘We have the Golden Gate Bridge, twice as high, double the cost and finished in a quarter of that time.’

‘Whatever!’ said the Aussie becoming frustrated as they walked south down the harbour foreshore.

‘Okay then, so what the hell is that?’ asked the Yank pointing at the Sydney Opera House.

‘Buggered if I know!’ said the Aussie. ‘ The bloody thing wasn’t there yesterday!’

Be back again soon.