Why Botany Bay?

Several misconceptions have arisen about whether the colony of New South Wales was actually established to solve Britain’s convict problem in the late eighteenth century leading to a tendentious ‘Botany Bay debate’. The history is actually far more complex and the convict problem had been an issue since Tudor times. The transportation of thousands of convicts abroad after 1597 provided a good source of cheap labour in Africa, the Caribbean and India, and from 1666 North America, although the latter destination came to an abrupt end after 1776 with the American War of Independence.[1]It was only then that Australia gained importance. However, historians have agreed that the decision to transport large numbers of convicts to eastern Australia in the late eighteenth century was unexpected and sudden.

Why Australia? America was no longer an option. Canada refused to take any more convicts owing to poor previous experiences, although this time the convicts were to be guarded and this might have made a difference. British Honduras was not an option as the settlers preferred coloured slaves to convicted white slaves. The West Indies were not viable as the influential slave traders did not want their profitable slave market, already in decline, to be further weakened by competition from the English gaols. Western Africa already had sufficient cheap labour and so the state could not send its convict labour there. A survey ship was sent to Das Voltas Bay on the south-west coast of Africa in the hope that its strategic position on a major trade route could be made profitable. However, the investigation found its climate and fertility unsuitable. As Africa and America were inappropriate, the whole of the South-West Pacific was available. New Zealand was disregarded owing to Joseph Banks’ dislike of the area. This left the area including Australia. The argument that Australia was chosen as no alternative could be found has been stated by Shaw[2], David Mackay[3] and Mollie Gillen[4]. They argue that convicts were unwanted and a remote site was advantageous. Gillen has suggested that New South Wales had always been a back-up plan since 1786. However, this is not widely accepted. Blainey[5]rightly states there were closer alternatives, such as the uninhabited islands of the Bermudas or the West Indies and the availability of other lands implies that there was deeper reasoning to the decision.

So what were the real reasons for the British Government’s plans to establish a colony there? The traditional view maintains that desperation played a major role in the decision to send convicts to Australia. The mounting numbers of convicts in gaols and hulks was at a dangerous level. Martin has suggested that the attempted assassination of the King by Margaret Nicholson in August 1786 played a part in hastening the decision. [6]Though this may not have been crucial, the influence of pressures at home cannot be underestimated. Most historians accept this was critical in forcing a decision; for example, a survey ship was not sent to investigate Botany Bay before settlement as there simply was not enough time. The traditional view in the debate is that Botany Bay was chosen as a ‘dumping ground’ for convicts and in 1976 Norman Bartlett wrote

There is no evidence that either William Pitt or any member of his cabinet thought of Botany Bay as anything more than a convenient place distant enough for the safe disposal of social waste. [7]

This traditional approach is also supported by Atkinson who believes that ‘Botany Bay was chosen as a convict settlement not because of, but in spite of the possibility that it might become a trading post.’ [8]

The idea of establishing a colony at Botany Bay started with the ‘Matra proposal’ in August 1783, even before the end of the War of Independence between America and England.[9]James Matra who travelled with Cook to the South Seas in 1770, spoke of New South Wales as having good soil, advantages of flax cultivation, the possibility of trade with China, the availability of timber for ships masts and had Sir Joseph Banks’ support. Matra’s idea was that the new colony could be used by ‘those Americans who had remained loyal to Britain in the War of Independence’ such as himself; this idea was, however, rejected. Initially Matra did not mention convicts, but later amended his proposal to ‘include transportees among the settlers but as cultivators in their own right rather than as forced labour’ after an interview with the Home Secretary Lord Sydney.

Did the British government consider the type of labour force that would be required to establish a colony or was Botany Bay just seen as a solution to the ever growing number of convict hulks along the River Thames? Soon after arriving in 1788, Governor Phillip requested ‘carpenters, masons, bricklayers’ to help with the setting up of the colony along with many tools of the trades. Yet the proposal for the establishment of the new colony in the ‘Heads of a Plan’[10]addressed the effective disposing of the convicts to the new colony, along with the cultivation of flax, required stores and provisions, clothing for convicts, how the objective of the convict colony overrides the costs involved, naval staff and such.

However, the tools sent with the First Fleet were of poor standard, with only twelve carpenters among the initial convicts. Women’s clothing was also of poor quality and quantity plus aged and ailing convicts were sent. Poor planning does not support the belief of the non-traditional view of the reasons behind the decision to colonise Botany Bay: The ‘great southern port’ and the ‘development of a flax industry for naval use’ suggested by revisionist historians as the reason for the settlement rather than for the disposal of unwanted convicts seem to have been somewhat negated by the account of inadequate supplies of even the most elementary equipment. The traditionalist may well ask that if Botany Bay was planned to be the ‘great southern port’ why then did free settlers not arrive until 1793 on the Bellona, five years after the arrival of the First Fleet. Governor Phillip was given instruction to cultivate flax

And as it has been humbly represented to us that advantages may be derived from the flax-plant which is found in the islands not far distant from the intended settlement…excellence of a variety of maritime purposes…an article of export…that you do send home…samples of this article…instruct you further upon this subject.[11]

Norfolk Island, some thousand miles east of Botany Bay, offered the prospect of both a timber and flax industry. These orders form part of the non-traditionalist justification for their point of view. Traditionalist historians feel the possibility of the flax industry at Botany Bay was just an additional benefit to England when options for the convicts were being decided. Yet contracted tradesmen were still being sent to New South Wales in 1792 to help with the colony at Norfolk Island and others. Sparse flax producing equipment was sent out with the First Fleet ‘which hardly indicates strong encouragement for any flax enterprise or faith in the success of the new venture’[12].

Traditionalists stand firm to the opinion that Botany Bay was only colonised to ‘rid the nation’s (Britain) prisons and hulks of convicts’. Frost believes the opposite is true approaching the Botany Bay debate from a broader perspective and arguing that there were strategic considerations in Pitt’s Cabinet decision to set up the colony; naval trade, supply of flax and naval timber from Norfolk Island and the fact the use of Britain’s excess convict labour might serve these purposes. [13]Botany Bay had already been surveyed by Cook in 1770 with its supposed ability to shelter a fleet of ships. By colonising New South Wales, Britain would protect Cook’s ‘right of possession’ over Botany Bay from the French and Dutch, thus giving them more positional power over the seas and any possible trade.

The loss of the American colonies came as a great shock, especially to George III who had never taken the threat seriously. In order to re-establish itself as a great power, Britain needed to consolidate its empire and the acquisition of a new colony could do this. In the 1770s, France, keen on becoming a world power, allied itself with every other major nation in Europe, including Russia, against Britain. The threat to Britain and its empire, particularly to its colonies in the Far East and India, forced the government to consider options that would allow Britain to maintain its position and continue to compete on the world stage. A strategic location needed to be secured from that could support its empire from French invasion. A safe harbour was also needed for the British fleet in the Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, from where, at short notice, supplies of food and other materials to its colonies could be obtained cheaply. In addition, plantations were needed to grow hemp to supply rope to the Navy and a new source of wood to counteract the effects of depleted English supplies, primarily for naval mast and spar repairs. The strategic argument is perhaps supported by the choice of Phillip as the first governor and Frost points out that both Phillip and his two successors were naval officers.

In 1952, Ken Dallas suggested that Britain wanted to establish a trading post to spearhead British penetration of the Pacific and to service an alternative sea route to China. [14] In his subsequent book, he maintained that it was the fur trade of the north Pacific, trade opportunities with China and South America and the development of sealing and whaling in the Pacific that combined to make British settlement of Australia a viable economic project. There is evidence to support his case: demand for whale and seal oil was in big demand in Britain and many of the shops from the Second Fleet were converted whalers that were reconverted to their original use after the voyage. This has been criticised, but the work of Margaret Stevens[15] and HT Fry[16] indicated that the British were concerned over the security of trade routes to China and that Pitt’s policies in the 1780s were dictated primarily by commercial considerations. David Mackay disputes this by stating that the First Fleet was not sufficiently equipped to provide the protection and manpower to defend the strategic position of Botany Bay. [17]Mackay has also argued against the strategic position of Botany Bay in relationship to naval trade. Like many, Mackay feels that the establishment of the colony was rushed and poorly done and ‘crisis orientated’ not a good start if the motives were really for naval trade and timber supply. After viewing many of what seems to be a circle of comments and opinions that formed the Botany Bay debate, he then accused the non-traditionalists of: ‘Distorting our records of the past, and sought to create a myth of a better national origin.’ They have also overestimated the capacity of governments in the late eighteenth century. Mackay stills acknowledges that regardless of the ‘shoddy’ way in which Botany Bay was set up that ‘from such inauspicious beginnings Australia grew to maturity and nationhood’.

Geoffrey Blainey shared Dallas’ belief that there was a positive reason for the choice of colony. He emphasised Lord Sydney’s announcement that the choice of colony was to be ‘reciprocally beneficial’. This is the only reason given in official documents as to why such a remote land was chosen. This dearth of official information has greatly fuelled the debate surrounding the Botany Bay decision. He reported that an export trade was to be started in flax, hemp, and in wood for mainmasts. This would strengthen Britain’s naval power in the event of a Baltic blockade preventing England getting flax from its usual supply in Russia. Blainey even suggested that the convicts were a convenient smokescreen for gaining strategic materials. The validity of sources used to formulate this hypothesis has been questioned. It has led to Alan Frost’s modified theory[18]that the British sought supplies for their ships in eastern waters that needed to refit without sailing home if they were to defend British lands in India against the French. Another commercial advantage was that the empty convict ships could carry cargoes of tea back, although whether this was realised before the decision-making or not has been disputed. However, during the debates in the 1960s, the fact that New South Wales was almost entirely a convict settlement tended to be overlooked. Both the ‘flax and timber’ theorists and the ‘China route’ party have had to admit that the early years of the New South Wales colony did not triumphantly vindicate their arguments.

In reality, it is likely that there was a jumble of motives. Transportation resolved the convict problem by expelling them from England. It helped the whaling industry that needed a secure base in the Pacific and secured a route for those who wanted to expand trade with China. It limited the territorial ambitions of the French and the claims of the Spanish and Dutch to the continent. It helped repair the damage done to British imperial prestige by the debacle in America. Above all, it was economical since convict labour was expected to become self-funding after initial financial help from the Exchequer. For British politicians, colonising Australia appears to have satisfied many of the different interests that were clamouring for action.


[1] Innes, Joanna, ‘The role of transportation in seventeenth and eighteenth century English penal practice’, in Bridge, Carl, (ed.), New Perspectives in Australian History,(Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London), 1990, pp. 1-24.

[2] Shaw, Alan, Convicts and the colonies: a study of penal transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other parts of the British Empire, (Faber), 1966.

[3] Mackay, D., A Place of Exile: European Settlement of New South Wales, (Oxford University Press), 1985.

[4] Gillen, Mollie, ‘The Botany Bay decision, 1786: convicts not empire’, English Historical Review, Vol. 97, (1982), pp. 740-766 but see also her The Search for John Small: First Fleeter, (Library of Australian History), 1988 and The Founders of Australia, A Biographical Dictionary of The First Fleet, (Library of Australian History), 1989

[5] Ibid, Blainey, G.C., The Tyranny of Distance, pp. 20-39.

[6] Martin, Ged, ‘The founding of New South Wales’, in Statham, P., (ed.), The Origins of Australia’s Capital Cities, (Cambridge University Press), 1988, pp. 37-51.

[7] Bartlett, Norman, 1776-1976: Australia and America through 200 years, (Ure Smith), 1976.

[8] Atkinson, Alan, ‘A Counter-Riposte’ in Martin, Ged, (ed.), The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, (Hale and Iremonger), 1978, pp. 265-269.

[9] Matra, James Mario, ‘Proposal for establishing a Settlement in New South Wales’, 23 August 1783, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 1-8, in ibid, Martin, Ged, (ed.), The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, pp. 9-15.

[10] ‘Heads of a Plan’, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 17-20, in ibid, Martin, Ged, (ed.), The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, pp. 26-29.

[11] Phillip’s Instructions, 25 April 1787, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 89.

[12] Abbott, G.J., ‘Staple theory and Australian economic growth’, Business Archives and History, Vol. 5, (1965), pp. 142-154 and ‘The Botany Bay decision’, Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 16, (1985), pp. 21-41 are particularly useful on this issue.

[13] Frost, A., Convicts and Empire: A Naval Question 1776-1811, (Oxford University Press), 1980 but see also his ‘The Decision to Colonise New South Wales’, Mulvaney, D. and White, Peter, (eds.), Australians to 1788, (Fairfax, Syme & Weldon Associates), 1987 and his synoptic Botany Bay Mirages: Illusions of Australia’s Convict Beginning, (Melbourne University Press), 1994.

[14] Dallas, K.M., ‘The First Settlement in Australia; considered in relation to sea-power in world politics’, Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, number 3 (1952), pp. 1-12 reprinted in ibid, Martin, Ged, (ed.), The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, pp. 39-49. His ideas were extended in Trading Posts or Penal Colonies, (Richmond and Son), 1969.

[15] Stevens, M., Trade, Tactics and Territory: Britain in the Pacific 1783-1823, (Manchester University Press), 1983.

[16] Fry, H.T., ‘Captain James Cook: the historical perspective’, in The significance of Cook’s ‘Endeavour’ voyage: Three Bicentennial Lectures, (James Cook University of North Queensland), 1970, pp. 1-23 and ‘‘Cathay And The Way Thither’: The Background To Botany Bay’, in ibid, Martin, Ged, (ed.), The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, pp. 136-149.

[17] Ibid, Mackay, David, A Place of Exile: European Settlement of New South Wales.

[18] Frost, A., ‘Botany Bay: An Imperial Venture of the 1780s’, English Historical Review, Vol. 100, (1985), pp. 309-330.

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