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How convicts conquered a new world

By Rex Drabik - posted Thursday, 17 September 2020

Surveying the glittering metropolis of Sydney today, it is tempting to assume that the development of New South Wales into a thriving and prosperous place was foregone. Yet early New South Wales could have easily become another failed new world colony, a forgotten experiment in a remote and inhospitable part of the South Pacific. In the first volume of his sweeping The Story of Australia’s People, Geoffrey Blainey speculates that in the years ahead the most contentious question in the history of early European Australia may cease to be why Britain decided to establish the New South Wales colony and instead shift to why it did not abandon the struggling settlement within its first few decades.

Here was a far-flung colony, inhabited largely by convicted criminals, situated on the edge of a dry and unforgiving continent little understood by the newcomers. Early harvests failed and the colony was initially unable to feed or clothe itself, precariously relying on supply ships. In 1799, the colony’s second governor, John Hunter, noted in correspondence to London that clothing had become so scarce that “labouring men have been working in the fields and other places literally naked.”

Extracts from letters and other primary sources appear frequently in David Hill’s new history of the earliest British settlement in Australia. In Convict Colony, Hill provides a brisk and lucid account of New South Wales during its first three decades, from the voyage of the First Fleet – described as the world’s biggest single migration fleet– to the steadying governorship of Lachlan Macquarie. Chronicling epic and disastrous voyages, hardship and privation, daring convict escapes, rebellion and power struggles, British-Aboriginal encounters, and threats from other European powers, Hill’s book comprehensively dispels the notion that early Australian colonial history is dull.


Hill writes that when naval captain Arthur Phillip was plucked in 1786 from semi-retirement at his Hampshire farm to lead the expedition to establish a new colony at Botany Bay, there was “nothing particularly outstanding in his career to recommend him but he would prove a good choice.” Hill asserts that the eight-month journey from England to New South Wales was meticulously planned, right down to the precise number of bricks, chisels and fishing lines required. After arriving at Cape Town – the last stop before the long, difficult haul across vast ocean to New South Wales – more than 500 animals were brought on-board the already heavily-loaded First Fleet ships, inviting comparisons with Noah’s Ark.

What did Britain hope to achieve by planting a settlement in this distant corner of the globe? Hill echoes the conventional view that the British decision to establish the colony was “largely because it needed a solution to the huge increase in the number of prisoners in its gaols in the second half of the eighteenth century.” However, this interpretation has been challenged by historians such as K.M. Dallas, Geoffrey Blainey and, more recently, Alan Frost, who have argued that there were deeper strategic motives behind the decision.

Unsurprisingly, many of the convicts loaded onto the First Fleet ships were not particularly enthusiastic about taking part in this giant experiment. Marine Captain Watkin Tench was responsible for censoring the convicts’ letters to their loved ones while the fleet was at Portsmouth preparing to sail to New South Wales. According to Tench, a common theme in the letters was worry about “the impracticality of returning home, the dread of a sickly passage and the fearful prospect of a distant and barbarous country.” Nearly all of the First Fleet convicts had been convicted of theft. Some were hardened and serious criminals, while others were genuine victims of circumstance. Hill draws attention to John Hudson, the youngest known convict to sail with the First Fleet. An orphan, Hudson was only nine when he was first convicted.

Although the First Fleet carried a two year supply of provisions, Governor Phillip became concerned about a looming food crisis shortly after establishing the colony. The land proved difficult to cultivate, barley and wheat supplies were destroyed by weevils, and many of the farm animals brought with the settlers either died or wandered off. The arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790 brought desperately-needed supplies and averted the threat of starvation. But while the Second Fleet may have saved the infant colony, it was also a living hell for those on-board the ships. Known as the ‘Death Fleet’, almost a quarter of the 1038 convicts travelling with the fleet perished during the journey. Of the remaining 756 wretched souls who made it to New South Wales, 124 would die during their first days in the colony. Hill points out that the ultimate death toll would have been higher if not for the help rendered by the existing settlers when they arrived at Sydney. This raises an interesting question: how would have the First Fleet passengers fared if they had arrived in the same condition?

Hill dedicates successive chapters to two uprisings that shook the colony during its second decade: the 1804 Castle Hill rebellion, led by Irish convicts, and the 1808 Rum Rebellion which overthrew Governor William Bligh, who had been appointed two years prior with explicit instructions to clean up the rum trade. A well-known propaganda cartoon, sketched shortly after Bligh was arrested by the colony’s military, depicts the deposed governor being dragged from underneath a bed by red-coated soldiers. However, Hill argues that there is no solid evidence that the formidable Bligh acted in a cowardly manner.

On the topic of Bligh’s successor, Lachlan Macquarie, Hill credits him with stabilising New South Wales and transforming the colony into a nascent nation. The chapter on Macquarie is named “The Father of Australia” – the same words inscribed on Macquarie’s grave in Mull, Scotland (Macquarie was the second Scot to serve as governor, the first being Hunter). Hill argues: “The view that convicts could become respectable and acceptable members of society would isolate Macquarie from many in the colony and ultimately put him on a collision course with the British government.” Macquarie sought to elevate the standing of emancipists but also the moral character of the colony through the promotion of Christian principles. Although Hill mentions that religion was envisaged to play a prominent role in the colony from the outset, he never really delves into the subject.


Some readers may find the chapter on settler-Aboriginal relations particularly gloomy. While noting that Phillip carried with him written instruction from King George III to establish good relations with the local indigenous people, Hill spends a large chunk of the chapter focusing on episodes of frontier conflict and violence. Yet, the interaction between these vastly different peoples was neither a tale of constant kindness nor one of unremitting warfare. There were arguably more instances of co-operation and co-existence than one is likely to read about in some contemporary accounts. Hill briefly touches on the devastating 1789 smallpox epidemic, which is estimated to have killed around half of the Aboriginal population in the Sydney area. This is a topic that warrants more attention.

In sum, Convict Colony is an easy-to-read account of early New South Wales, designed to appeal to a general audience which may not be familiar with this remarkable and important chapter in Australia’s history. Hill writes in a compelling manner, although at times he sacrifices nuance and papers over complexity in order to construct a clear-cut narrative. Nevertheless, he succeeds in bringing to life the fascinating story of how a lonely settlement initially composed largely of felons survived and eventually thrived in the face of adversity.

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This is a review of Convict Colony: The Remarkable Story of the Fledgling Settlement That Survived Against the Odds by David Hill, Allen & Unwin, 2019.

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About the Author

Rex Drabik is a former regional and rural journalist based in Western Australia.

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