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.