The History of Sydney

Solving Britain's Convict Problem

At the time James Cook was exploring the South Pacific in 1770, England was looking for a place to expand its Empire in the wake of the colonial revolt taking place across the Atlantic which was heading towards an ugly divorce. Cook found a whole continent for them and should they wish to set up a colony there, he had not only claimed the place for England, he had also pinpointed the perfect location for the first settlement - Botany Bay - which is about as close as you can get to modern day Sydney without actually being there. With Cook's actions in claiming the whole of Australia for England and given the importance of following up these claims with occupation, it wasn't a matter of whether or not a colony would be established in the region of modern day Sydney, it was more a case of under what circumstances and when.

As early as 1779, years before the events that led to the signing of the Nootka Sound Convention, the idea of a settlement at Botany Bay had been suggested and was being considered. Joseph Banks addressed a House of Common committee, expounding the virtues of Botany Bay as a suitable site. He described it as having "rich soil ... sufficient to support a very large number of people .. our oxen and sheep, if carried there would thrive and increase ... The grass is long and luxuriant ... the country was well supplied with water; there was an abundance of timber and fuel". Time had obviously affected his memory of the place, which just nine years earlier he had described in his journal as "having a soil so barren and at the same time entirely devoid of the helps derived from cultivation could not be supposed to yield much towards the support of man". Perhaps the suggestion by no less a person than the noted Botanist Linnaeus, who supported the idea, and suggested that the colony ought to be called Banksia, gave him no option but to speak highly of it. Either way, Banks had had a major change of heart about Botany Bay. His idea was well received, but nothing further was done at that time.

In April 1783, Britain ceded complete independence to the United States of America. Major Robert Molleson became wagon master for the British in America, and at the end of 1783 he led a group of Loyalists from New York to Nova Scotia, where he was a JP and colonel of the loyalist militia. Among the loyalists was James Matra, a man who had travelled with Cook to Botany Bay in 1770. Matra began promoting the idea of establishing a settlement at Botany Bay to house 'those Americans who had remained loyal to Britain in the War of Independence' such as himself in a proposal to the Government by in April 1783. Matra spoke of New South Wales as having good soil, advantages of flax cultivation, trade with China and others and the availability of timber for ships' masts. He called on Banks, his fellow traveller to Botany Bay, for assistance and again Banks supported the idea of a British settlement at Botany Bay.

It was the responsibility of Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, to handle such matters on behalf of the British crown, and it was to him that Matra went with his proposal. Among Lord Sydney's other responsibilities was the disposal of convicts, a matter of grave concern at the time as the granting of Independence to the United States of America effectively meant the closure of a doorway through which the British Government could push its unwanted convicts. Petty crime, which at the time was punishable by death or transportation, was on the rise in the major cities of England. Her gaols were so full that ships which were no longer seaworthy were being berthed along the River Thames and hired to house the convict excess (below right). As fast as these ships were brought into commission, they were filled with prisoners.

Lord Sydney (right) saw the opportunity to kill two birds with the one stone and tacked onto Matra's proposal the concept of transporting convicts to the new colony, his argument being that the government could supervise the convicts who could be used as the labour force required to build the colony. Though Matra saw the idea as just another form of slavery, which he was against, he revamped his plans according to Townshend's suggestion to include transportees (convicts) among the settlers but as cultivators in their own right rather than as forced labour. In spite of having Townshend's recommendation, his revised plan, presented in August 1783, was rejected.

In August, 1784 the persistent Matra gave Lord Sydney more rewritten legislation along with estimates of the costs of his project. Like so many others who commented on transportation, he argued for cheap transportation to NSW and a consequent saving to government if the prison hulks were dispensed with, but he woefully underestimated the real costs. This did not help his cause. Then just when he began to get a sympathetic hearing, the ministry he was dealing with was removed from office and the plan was again relegated to the back burner. Copies of Matra's proposals were kept by Sir John Call and Captain Sir George Young, who later tried to revive government interest in them. One of Young's ideas was that a settlement at Norfolk Island might provide hemp for use as naval cordage in the East Indies. Young and a colleague contacted the East India Company, of which Lord Sydney was a director, seeking support for a Norfolk Island settlement, since, technically, the Island lay in waters under the Company's jurisdiction. The Company was not interested and again the idea of a colony in New South Wales was put aside.

River Thames convict hulk, London

Between December 1784 to September 1786 the number of convicts awaiting sentence for transportation to be carried out multiplied 3.5 times. On 20 November, 1784, a new Act of Parliament was passed to help ease the convict problem, the transportation of convicts was included in the legislation. Nevertheless, more hulks were placed in service, and this expansion of the hulks system between 1784 and 1787 gave the impression that the Government had abandoned any reliance on transportation in favour of a hulks/prison system, with graded levels of punishment to be applied.

The new hulks provoked the anger of Londoners who had always opposed them and viewed them as holding bays for disease, sodomites, potential escapees and a breeding ground of crime and deprivation. Lord Mayor Fraser called for an immediate resumption of transportation and church leaders threw in their lot, arguing that the development of a penal colony would go a long way in the reformation of prisoners by giving them hope and the promise of a future which they themselves would have to build. The pressure on the British Government was such that it could not afford to ignore the outcry any more. In August 1784, Botany Bay was named as the location for a new penal settlement. Act 24 Geo III c. 56 authorised the sending of felons to any place appointed by the King in Council. An Order in Council dated 6 December, 1786, declared the eastern coast of NSW to be a place within the meaning of c.56.

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