Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania

After the British established a settlement on mainland Australia, they moved to occupy Tasmania, motivated partly by their fear of French annexation, and brought devastation to the island’s native peoples.

Summary of Event

Tasmania, the Australian island first called Anthony van Diemensland, or Van Diemen’s Land, was claimed soon after it was sighted in 1642 by the Dutch Netherlands;and Pacific exploration[Pacific exploration] navigator Abel Tasman. Tasman formally proclaimed the island to be under the flag of the Dutch prince Frederich Henry, but the Dutch did little to further that claim. More than a century later, the English navigator Captain James Cook explored the eastern coast of mainland Australia. On April 30, 1770, he anchored in Botany Bay Botany Bay , where British colonization work began after the British government took up James Maria Matra’s Matra, James Maria proposal to colonize the continent in 1783. In 1787, the British sent eleven ships to Australia. The little fleet included six transports carrying about seven hundred convicts Australia;convict immigrants , and the colony of Sydney Sydney, Australia was founded in 1788. Tasmania
Australia;colonization of
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]
[kw]Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania (Sept. 7, 1803)
[kw]Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania, Great (Sept. 7, 1803)
[kw]Begins Colonizing Tasmania, Great Britain (Sept. 7, 1803)
[kw]Colonizing Tasmania, Great Britain Begins (Sept. 7, 1803)
[kw]Tasmania, Great Britain Begins Colonizing (Sept. 7, 1803)
Australia;colonization of
British Empire;and Australia[Australia]
[g]Australia;Sept. 7, 1803: Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania[0200]
[g]British Empire;Sept. 7, 1803: Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania[0200]
[c]Exploration and discovery;Sept. 7, 1803: Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania[0200]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Sept. 7, 1803: Great Britain Begins Colonizing Tasmania[0200]
Tasman, Abel Janszoon
Cook, James
King, Philip Gidley
Bowen, John
Collins, David

Relics of Tasmania’s convict era housed in a Hobart museum. The items include whips, shackles, guns, and an iron ball.

(Library of Congress)

At that time, Australia was not known to be a single landmass and Tasmania was believed to be connected to the eastern part of the continent, which the British called New South Wales New South Wales;colonization of . That theory was dashed when George Bass Bass, George and Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Tasmania in October, 1798. The large ocean passage separating Tasmania from New South Wales became known as Bass Strait Bass Strait . The island then became popular to European seamen because of its nearness to offshore seal and whale colonies. However, the decision to claim Tasmania for Great Britain arose from the race for strategic strongholds against the French.

British fears of French territorial expansion were strong at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Britain and France were engaged in a large-scale war. The appearance of French navigators, such as Thomas Nicolas Baudin, in Australian waters in 1802 therefore fostered fears that France French Empire;and Tasmania[Tasmania] had designs on Tasmania. Soon afterward, Philip Gidley King King, Philip Gidley , the British governor of New South Wales, appointed Lieutenant John Bowen Bowen, James to establish a British colony on Tasmania.

The date the first new settlement was established on the island is generally given as September 7, 1803—the day on which the Lady Nelson dropped its anchor in Risdon Cove, an inlet on the eastern shore of Tasmania, by the mouth of Derwent River. Bowen’s party was small. It consisted of a medical officer, Jacob Mountgarrett; a store-keeper named Wilson; a small body of soldiers; a number of free settlers; and an assortment of male and female convicts Australia;convict immigrants . In February, 1804, Lieutenant Governor David Collins Collins, David decided that Risdon Cove was a poor landing site, so he moved the site to Sullivan’s Cove, on the eastern bank of the Derwent River. The colony established there later became Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart Hobart, Tasmania .

On December 5, 1804, William Paterson Paterson, William founded a second settlement at Port Dalrymple, on the Tamar River. Like Risdon Cove, it too was shifted to another site more conducive to the development of a productive town. That settlement later became the city of Launceston. Meanwhile, in August, 1804, Collins took over Bowen’s Bowen, James command and became the first governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Bowen’s colony had not fared well. In May, 1804, while Bowen was away from his colony, a violent clash between European settlers and local Aborigines Aborigines had left many dead and wounded. The conflict was made more disturbing because until that time, the Aboriginal community had appeared shy, if not suspicious of the colonials, but never aggressive. What triggered the attack and how many people died can only be guessed because contemporary eyewitness reports accounts are contradictory.

From that time, violence between settlers and indigenous communities became more frequent. Aboriginal people responded to settler violence with violence of their own, and reports of convicts being speared were made in 1805 and 1807. However, Aboriginal spears offered little protection against the more lethal firearms of the settlers. Colonial authorities of the day tried various strategies to counter the negative effects of European settlement. In 1810, Governor Collins Collins, David ordered that any settler found recklessly firing on Aborigines would be legally punished. However, the fact that many offenders, particularly those known as bushrangers, remained outside the law meant that Collins’s order carried little force. Later, European sealers Sealing industry and whalers also attacked Aborigines as the trade in skins and oil became more lucrative.

In March, 1829, the Tasmanian government engaged George Augustus Robinson Robinson, George Augustus to establish a mission at which all indigenous Tasmanians were to reside. Robinson’s intentions were benevolent, and his Calvinist beliefs assured him he was accomplishing God’s will. However, the period during which he undertook his challenge fell during a particularly turbulent time in Tasmanian history. The consequences of European settlement on the indigenous populations of both Tasmania and Australia were devastating. Violence and resettlement, coupled with introduced diseases and infections, took a deathly toll from which the Aboriginal Aborigines communities never fully recovered.

European settlers in Tasmania also eventually turned against one another. Some settlers hired convicts Australia;convict immigrants to work as hunters; the knowledge of the Tasmanian landscape that the convicts acquired while hunting helped train them for criminal bushranging activities after they escaped from their overlords. Some fugitives voluntarily turned themselves in and endured severe floggings and imprisonment, but others mobilized in groups. Two men remembered only as Lemon and Brown were among the first recorded bushrangers in Tasmania. In 1808, they were captured after killing three soldiers and an indentured convict. Lemon was shot and decapitated, and Brown was forced to carry the head of his companion to Hobart. He was later tried and hung in chains in Sydney. Bushranging eventually threatened the Tasmania colonies to such an extent that Governor Lachlan Macquarie Macquarie, Lachlan offered clemency in 1814 to all the absconders—except murderers—who returned to their duties within six months.


Great Britain annexed Tasmania principally because of its fears that France would seize the island. Modern place names in and around the island, such as D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Furneaux Islands, and Freycinet Peninsula, attest to the important contributions made by French navigators in the region. However, there is little documented evidence to suggest that the French actually intended occupying Tasmania themselves.

British colonization policy fostered trouble. The British government initially saw settlement of Tasmania as a means of ridding the British Isles of convicts Australia;convict immigrants and rebels—who were mostly Irish. Consequently, a large portion of Tasmania’s first colonists were proven troublemakers. Violence was thus a natural by-product of European settlement, and the island’s indigenous peoples paid a heavy price for colonization.

Further Reading

  • Bonwick, James. The Bushrangers: Illustrating the Early Days of Van Diemen’s Land. Hobart, Tasmania: Fullers Bookshop, 1967. Facsimile of the original edition published in 1856; a colorful account of the early years of British settlement of Tasmania.
  • Cox, Robert. Steps to the Scaffold: The Untold Story of Tasmania’s Black Bushrangers. Pawleena, Australia: Cornhill, 2004. Revisionist account of indigenous communities, bushrangers, and European settlers in Tasmania.
  • Giblin, R. W. The Early History of Tasmania. 2 vols. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1939. Extensively researched account of the early history of Tasmania.
  • Tardif, Phillip. John Bowen’s Hobart: The Beginning of European Settlement in Tasmania. Sandy Bay, Tasmania: Sandy Bay Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 2003. Important examination of Bowen’s role in the settlement of the island.
  • Twain, Mark. Following the Equator. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Facsimile reprint of Twain’s 1897 account of his round-the-world lecture tour, during which he spent more than two months in Australia. Quoting freely from earlier published sources, Twain offers a scathing indictment of British mistreatment of Aborigines in Australia and Tasmania but praises the work of George Augustus Robinson. Chapter 29 contains Twain’s own first-hand description of Tasmania in 1895.
  • West, John. The History of Tasmania. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1971. Reprint edition of a history of Tasmania first published in 1852.
  • Windschuttle, Keith. The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Paddington, Tasmania: Macleay Press, 2002. Modern thesis examining the effects of Tasmanian settlement on the island’s indigenous peoples.

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