Australia – The European Invasion begins – 1788 to 1801

The following excerpt provides an interesting overview of the young colony of New South Wales from when the First Fleet arrived in 1788, to the dawning of the new century (1801):

” . . . From 1788 to 1801, as mentioned previously, naval captains maintained solitary and peremptory rule, with the New South Wales Corps secondarily as a closed aristocracy or corporation for exclusive privilege.  The constant defect was bad mothercraft – the infant colony was continuously underfed, but over-indulged in rum to an extent that would have astounded even Hogarth.  The earlier inhabitants were always on the brink of starvation:  had it not been for occasional supplies from the Cape of Good Hope and from Batavia, the settlement might, indeed, have collapsed.  When the Second Fleet arrived, for example, the situation was desperate:  they had lost 200 of their thousand convicts by disease and landed nearly 500 sick; a store ship, the “Guardian,” was lost; the “Sirius” ran ashore and was a total wreck; the Third Fleet landed one-third of its complement too ill to work!

The other defect was the inefficiency and the spirit of indifference that was typical of convict labour.  Phillip, Hunter and King began State agriculture – corn, flour, hemp, grapes, hops – and pastoral pursuits – cattle raising, in particular – but only when private enterprise ousted the State did these pursuits progress spontaneously or adequately.

Fresh mutton became available in 1793 through the trading of the officers of the New South Wales Corps, and two of these, in 1797, imported Spanish sheep from “the Cape” to resell – but the State refused them twice.  They then sold to other officers of the Corps (Foveaux, Lt. John Macarthur, and the Rev. Chaplain Marsden), who crossed them with the hairy sheep that had, until then, been the only kind in Australia, and began wool growing.  State pigs, goats, etc., dwindled in number, and finally the ‘first epoch ended with private enterprise replacing what Rogers [JD Rogers, author, ‘Historical Geography of the Colonies, Vol. VI] called, correctly, State socialism – the State control of the production, distribution and exchange of wealth.

The officers of the New South Wales Corps played openly for their own hand, granting each other large plots of land that had been proved good, and assigning to their areas the best of the convicts, and other accessible facilities.

During the first fifty years of the “Colony of New South Wales” the rule was “devil take the hindmost.”  The Army Officers of the New South Wales Corps were attracted to the Colony largely by the desire to make a fortune quickly.  Stories of vast riches acquired in a couple of years repeatedly came back from India and China:  why might not equal opulence be acquired in the new settlement in New Holland?

If they had desired renown or glory a world at war was wide open to them – the world war sparked off by the ambition of Napoleon kept France and England at each other’s throats almost continuously from 1793 to 1815,m when Waterloo wrote “finis” to the French fantasy of world empire.  But they preferred in those years to exploit the new land for their own advantage.

Phillip left – worn out by worries – in 1792,m and the administratorship fell almost automatically into the hands of the Commander of the N.S.W. Corps, Major Grose, who with his successor Paterson represented autocratic authority for two years and nine months – a period of increasing disaster in a social sense.  The entire community was debauched.  Degradation by drink, corruption, and general iniquity required years to mitigate.

Phillip had imposed restrictions on the distribution of spirits (all lumped under the term “rum”), for he well knew what one might expect from free access to raw liquor by a convict population.  But Grose gave the greatest freedom to its importation, distillation, distribution and sale and, in the hands of his officers, it became the curse of the Colony.  The ease with which officers acquired land and convict labour to work it, killed work for public purposes and, indeed, virtually none was done after Phillip left.  The Government “fed and clothed the convicts, the officers had their labour for nothing, and the Government purchased the commodities they produced by it, at prices fixed by the same officers.”  They secured also a monopoly in spirits and other goods imported, and hugely increased retail prices for their own gain.  The House of Commons Committee on Transportation, sitting in 1812, asked a witness on oath:  “Do the majority of the officers to whom the Government of the Colony is entrusted, embark in trade?”  He answered:  “All, to a man! – it consists first of all of monopoly; then of extortion; it includes all the necessaries of life which are brought to the colony.”  In 1797 they combined to keep prices up and neither to underbuy nor undersell each other.  Macarthur, who was appointed inspector of public works (1793-1796), guarded the interests of the State, say Rogers acidly, as a cat guards cream!

Mrs. John Macarthur blandly explained:  “The officers in the colony, with a few others possessed of money or credit in England, unite together and purchase the cargoes of such vessels as repair to this country from various quarters.  Two or more are chosen to bargain for the cargo offered for sale, which is then divided among them in proportion to the amount of their subscriptions.”

As a corollary to this corrupt state of affairs, Grose suppressed the civil magistracy and placed the entire administration of “justice” (so-called) in the hands of the military officers.

When, after his assumption of office, the second Governor, Captain Hunter, insisted on the restoration of the justices to their rightful functions, insult and annoyance were visited upon them to the verge of tolerance, so that he reported to the Secretary for State that “for these shameful and unpardonable purposes the most improper means which a mischievously fertile imagination, a malicious, restless and vindictive disposition could invent” had been employed.  Ernest Scott, from whom much of the above is paraphrased, says that Grose frankly dislike all in the community whom he could not pamper as soldiers or control as convicts; and he spoke testily also of having been “much plagued with the people who become settlers.”

These military jackals grew strong enough in time to overthrow the power they were commissioned to support . . . “


” . . . In 1800 the first customs duty, the first rates, and the first volunteer force were raised! . . . “

Source:  Excerpts – ‘Triumph in the Tropics’ – by Sir Rapahel Cilento – published 1959 – pp 47-49


” . . . There had begun to be a considerable amount of settlement both in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land by ex-convicts.  In 1803 there were (including officers) 328 free settlers in New South Wales, of whom nine-tenths had been convicts; these were especially the farmers and corn growers of the Hawkesbury River area.

At the outset, and for twenty-five years, the Blue Mountains walled the Sydney area in, and as grants used up the available area, land soon became a crying need.  The naval captains, indeed, regarded the mountains 40 to 140 miles west of the coast as a useful wall to keep their prisoners from straying, rather than as a strangling barrier to be broken for the sake of survival.  They were sea men, the ocean was their element, and they clung to its shores.  Both Phillip and Hunter, it is true, had made some personal trips of exploration and authorised others.  In 1789 Lieut. Dawes had failed to cross the mountains; Captain William Paterson in 1793 had attempted to find a passage with a party of Scottish Highlanders; in 1794 Henry Hacking made an attempt; in 1796 Surgeon George Bass, of Bass Strait fame took rope ladders and grappling irons to storm the wall, but failed.  When, however, in 1799, Wilson, a convict, struck south-west across the high Mittagong tableland and reached what was later to be called the Lachlan River, Governor Hunter was embarrassed by the discovery and refused to make any use or public advertisement of it.

In 1804 George Cayley, a man of great physical strength and enthusiasm, with excellent equipment and some of the strongest men in the colony to assist him, “had to admit he was beaten,” and Governor King asserted that to persevere in the endeavour to cross “such a confused and barren assemblage of mountains, with impassable chasms between, would be as chimerical as useless!”

The earlier explorers (except Wilson) had tried to make their way up the valleys of he Grose and Nattai, and had found themselves face to face with cliffs towering above them, or had come to the edge of cliffs with sheer drops far below them and no forward way.

But there was, of course, a way, and it was found during Lachlan Macquarie’s regime . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘Triumph in the Tropics’ – by Sir Rapahel Cilento – published 1959 – pp 51-52


View other important events in Australia’s History . . .

View other important information on Discovering Terra Australis . . .

View other important information on Founding Pioneers, Governors of Aus . . .

View other important information on The Evolution of Australia (formally New Holland) . . .

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.