Britain Establishes Penal Colony in Australia

Great Britain established a penal colony in Australia at Sydney Cove not only to overcome inadequate prison facilities at home but also to secure naval resources and create an economic route to Asia.

Summary of Event

During the eighteenth century, a time of increasing economic and political expansion, European countries sent numerous expeditions to the Southern Hemisphere in search of the fabled terra australis incognita, and to discover new trading routes to Asia and establish watering and refurbishing stations for trans-Pacific shipping, particularly for the flourishing China tea trade. As early as 1596, the first Dutch commercial fleet reached the East Indies, after Abel Tasman and Dutch seamen had charted approximately two-thirds of Australia’s coastline; their observations revealed that the Australian Aborigines possessed no marketable goods, there existed no navigable rivers, and the coastal plains grew nothing of value. It was, therefore, concluded that Australia was of no economic significance. Eventually, a small permanent Dutch refreshment port was established at Cape Town in 1625. In 1629, the first criminals to be exiled to Australia were two mutinous murderers from the Dutch trading vessel Batavia, cast ashore on western Australia shores, approximately 150 years prior to the establishment of the first British penal colony at Sydney Cove. [kw]Britain Establishes Penal Colony in Australia (Jan. 26, 1788)
[kw]Australia, Britain Establishes Penal Colony in (Jan. 26, 1788)
[kw]Colony in Australia, Britain Establishes Penal (Jan. 26, 1788)
[kw]Penal Colony in Australia, Britain Establishes (Jan. 26, 1788)
Australian penal colony
[g]Australia;Jan. 26, 1788: Britain Establishes Penal Colony in Australia[2770]
[c]Colonization;Jan. 26, 1788: Britain Establishes Penal Colony in Australia[2770]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Jan. 26, 1788: Britain Establishes Penal Colony in Australia[2770]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 26, 1788: Britain Establishes Penal Colony in Australia[2770]
Cook, James
Banks, Sir Joseph
George III
Phillip, Arthur

There remains one major question still debated by historians: Why did Great Britain want to establish Botany Bay as the first British settlement in the Pacific, and as a penal colony when it was isolated from Britain by approximately fourteen thousand miles, or eight months of arduous and even dangerous sea travel? It is now assumed that there were four major reasons for this decision. First, the British government needed to alleviate the ever-growing problem of prison overcrowding. Second, it wanted to secure a dependable source of flax for the manufacture of rigging, hausers, and sails as well as pine for planking, spars, and masts as traditional sources were jeopardized by the Napoleonic Wars and loss of the American colonies. Third, Great Britain was seeking to establish a trade route to Asia. Fourth, Botany Bay could be used as a maritime base and refitting port for commercial shipping. It was assumed the colony would develop its own export trade.

The problem of overcrowded prisons was only too apparent during the reign of George III and into early Victorian England, when many rural people commenced migrating in great numbers to east London and other large industrial centers for work, which along with a rising trade in pauper children and orphans, secured from parish workhouses, helped create an alarmingly increasing “criminal class.” In London, approximately one of eight persons was living off crime, in a city with no centralized or organized police force. As a consequence, the profitable practice of thief-taker developed, the predecessors of later detectives who would track down and eventually inform upon the increasing number of felons. The best-known informant and thief-taker was Jonathan Wild, himself a noted criminal.

It was not until Peel’s Police Act of 1829 that an effective constabulary was established. Convicted felons were usually hung at great public spectacles, some for the slightest of infractions, their bodies often given to the Royal College of Surgeons for dissection. Despite the hangings, prison ship-hulks, privately owned jails, and public prisons were overcrowded and proved unprofitable even though prisoners often had to pay for their food, water, bedding, and drink. Prisons were not segregated by age, sex, or type of crime. Many convicts were sold to shipping contractors, who then sold them to American and Caribbean plantation owners. The prison situation became intolerable by 1776, when the American colonies were lost as a place to transport convicts.

The first search for a prison colony, in 1785, by the sloop Nautilus, recommended Das Voltas Bay, near the mouth of the Orange River, in temperate southwest Africa. After actual exploration, this site was rejected because it lacked water, had sandy soil, and was barren of vegetation. The decision to colonize Botany Bay was based on the journals of Sir Joseph Banks, writings that gave the impression that Botany Bay would be an environment conducive to settlement, an impression that later proved false.

The use of Botany Bay was further encouraged by the relatively close proximity of Norfolk Island (one thousand miles to the east) about which Captain James Cook’s 1774 account accurately described the abundance of flax (Phormium tenaxk) and impressive stands of tall spruce Norfolk pines. This offered a solution to the problem of the British possessing a sustained supply of flax, superior to Baltic flax, and abundant pine. Unfortunately, despite their stately appearance, the Norfolk pines were later found to be internally rotten, good only for firewood; and the flax was discovered to be too difficult to process.

On May 13, 1787, the First Fleet of eleven vessels, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, sailed for Botany Bay with 736 adult male, female, and child convicts, “all guilty of crimes against poverty.” This was the first shipment of more than 160,000 convicts to be transported. Commencing with the fleet’s arrival at an open and protected Botany Bay on January 18, 1788, the expedition experienced difficulty with an inhospitable environment, albeit one that adequately supported the Aborgines. Consequently, Captain Phillip and a complement of marines sailed seven miles north to explore an area more conducive for establishing a penal colony.

The new site, later to be called Sydney Cove, had adequate fresh water and an excellent deep harbor bordered by fertile soil. After five days, Captain Phillip returned to Botany Bay only to see on the horizon what later proved to be La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, commanded by the French explorer Jean-François de la Pérouse. The following day, after a cordial exchange with the French commander, the British set sail for Sydney Cove, but only after an embarrassing show of poor seamanship when the Friendship rammed the Prince of Wales, and the Charlotte nearly ran onto the rocks. Finally, after a four-hour journey, on January 26, 1788, the fleet cleared South Head, passed into Fort Jackson, and landed at Sydney Cove, later to be called Sydney Harbour. The presence of French ships forced Captain Phillip to colonize the more fertile Norfolk Island as well.


January 26, 1788, is now celebrated as Founder’s Day or Australia Day, marking the beginning of Australia’s existence as a commonwealth nation. From the point of view of aboriginal peoples, however, the day marks the beginning of the British invasion of their home. After the colony was founded, British convicts began to pour in from the mother country. These convicts, after building basic structures for protection, living, and administration, were, according to their offense, assigned to the construction of roads, bridges, and buildings and later assigned to private settlers as servants or laborers. Violent criminals were assigned to chain gangs to work in coal mines or build roads, or were sent to more distant penal colonies. Good behavior could earn a convict a ticket-of-leave and a conditional or full pardon.

Further Reading

  • Blainey, Geoffrey. The Tyranny of Distance. Melbourne, Vic.: Sun Books, 1970. Explores the various historical and contemporary theories as to why Great Britain decided to colonize such a distant country as Australia, particularly Botany Bay.
  • Erickson, Carrolly. The Girl from Botany Bay. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Erickson, who has written numerous popular histories, tells the tale of Mary Broad, who was arrested for robbery in England in 1786 and transported to a penal colony in Australia. She recounts the squalid conditions aboard ship and in the penal colonies and describes Broad’s escape and eventual recapture.
  • Frost, Alan. Botany Bay Mirages: Illusions of Australia’s Convict Beginnings. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1994. Frost examines newly discovered documents and other sources to refute many of the myths regarding the first twelve years of Australian settlement. He argues that previous histories have not accurately described conditions aboard ship, Britain’s relations with the colony, and the colonists’ treatment of Aborigines, among other aspects.
  • Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding. New York: Vintage Books, 1988. The most authoritative and comprehensive historical account as to why and how Botany Bay was selected as a penal colony.
  • King, Jonathan. The First Fleet: The Convict Voyage That Founded Australia, 1787-1788. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982. Uses the original diaries of British officials to suggest why Great Britain wanted to establish a British base in the South Seas.
  • Martin, Ged, ed. The Founding of Australia: The Arguments About Australia’s Origin. Rev. ed. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1981. Collection of papers and articles that present differing theories on the reasons for the founding of Australia.
  • Rudé, George. Protest and Punishment: The Story of the Social and Political Protestors Transported to Australia, 1788-1868. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978. A critical examination of the myth that all prisoners were innocent, crushed by an unjust society and a harsh penal code.
  • Shaw, A. G. L. Convicts and the Colonies: A Story of Penal Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and Other Parts of the British Empire. London: Faber & Faber, 1966. An account of demographic origins of convicts, their alleged crimes, and legal interpretations and sentences.
  • Taylor, Peter. Australia: The First Twelve Years. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1982. How an isolated community survived, and how after twelve years Sydney developed.

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