Australia as a Penal Colony

Essay, 2003

6 Pages, Grade: HD-

Sandra Miller (Author)


“Australia was founded exclusively as a penal colony.” Discuss.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, explorers from several European nations discovered various parts of Australia, but initially no nation put forward concrete proposals for either the use or the settlement of the land. Dutch explorers first discovered Australia in 1606, but they considered it as being of no economic value to their mother country. British explorers were more fortunate when, in 1768, Lieutenant James Cook, the appointed Commander of His Majesty’s ship Endeavour, discovered the more inhabitable east coast of Australia. In 1770, the British government claimed the eastern half of Australia for the British realm and King George III named it New South Wales.

At this time, no plans were put forward for the settlement of British people in Australia, or for any other use of the land – it became just another part of the Empire. However, in the years following Captain Cook’s discovery, the idea of the newly found land in the far distance began to attract the British government, including the possible use of Australia for convict deportation.

Eventually, the first settlement was a penal one and this is now generally considered to be the main reason for settlement, but the analysis of other factors such as non-convict settlers, economic exploitation of the land, empire building, and the use for strategic military purposes, suggests that convict deportation might have been initially just a convenient solution for a social problem: the disposal of the growing number of convicts that were crowded in hulks along the River Thames. Subsequent naval explorations came to suggest substantial benefits for safeguarding British interests: advantages in the competition for trade with Asia and, most importantly, the strengthening of the British Empire.

For Britain, Australia came into focus when, due to the loss of Britain of the North American colonies during the American Revolution in the 1770s, the British government could no longer transport its long-term convicts to America. At this time, transportation was a central aspect of British penal practice and America had been the main place for deportation. Soon the government realised the urgent need to address the problem. Apart from transportation, several ideas regarding convicts were examined and the use of the hulks of former ships was introduced.

Crucial points in the discussion were, which penal practice would be the cheapest and most effective, and which could even produce benefits from the convict’s labour. Australia seemed remote enough to prevent the escape of convicts or their premature return to Britain. Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society, who had been a botanist and had accompanied Cook on his voyage, suggested, in his Report to Parliament in 1779, the need “to establish a Colony of convicted Felons in any distant Parts of the Globe, from whence their Escape might be difficult” (Smith & Brodie 41). Banks went on to suggest such a place: “Botany Bay, on the coast of New Holland [the then name for Australia], in the Indian Ocean, which was about Seven Months Voyage from England” (Smith & Brodie 41).

By 1785, the situation in the congested gaols and equally overcrowded insanitary hulks had deteriorated. Thomas Buttersworth Bailey, the acting Magistrate for the Country of Lancaster, demanded action in the “Report on Committee appointed to report on 1784 Transportation Act”, as he feared for the worst, if the situation remained unsolved any longer (Smith & Brodie 36-8). In 1786, Lord Sydney, the minister for the Home Office, acknowledged that need and put forward his suggestion to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury in the British government, where he recommended “[t]hat measures should immediately be pursued for sending out of this kingdom such of the convicts as are under sentence or order of transportation” (Montgomery 41-6). And further on, in the Heads of Plan proposal, he remarked that “[t]he establishment of a colony in New South Wales [...] seems peculiarly adapted to answer the views of Government (Montgomery 41-6).

Moreover, Lord Sydney saw advantages from the cultivation of certain plants, beneficial to the British as a naval power. He also mentioned probable cultivation of other products, for which, at the time, Britain depended on other European countries, that is, he saw a possible economic gain for Britain from agriculture in Australia (Montgomery 41-6). In 1786, the British government decided on New South Wales as a site for convict settlement and consequently, the First Fleet was despatched in 1787.

The First Fleet, comprising eleven ships and carrying 750 convicts, and under the command of Captain Arthur Philip, arrived at Botany Bay, Sydney, in 1788. In a diary entry of 1790, Captain Phillip gave his views on the conduct of his expedition, expressed his concerns about mixing convicts with settlers, and made specific reference to the Empire:

As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundations of an empire, I think they should ever remain separated from the garrison, and other settlers that may come from Europe, and not be allowed to mix with them (Montgomery 53).

In addition, Captain Phillip also feared the lack of a positive attitude by the convicts, therefore their not being of service to the State, and their showing lack of engagement in farming activities. He considered that the convicts could not build the country without the help or guidance of, what he called “proper people”, that is, knowledgeable, skilled and willing people. He described his worries in a letter to the Home Secretary of the British Government, Lord William Grenville, in 1790:

I wish, sir, to point out the great difference between a settlement formed as this and one formed by farmers and emigrants who have been used to labour, and who reap the fruits of their own industry (Montgomery 76).

His statement clearly highlights his opinion that the country could not survive merely on convict labour. Free settlers were urgently needed to guide and supervise the convicts, who could then assist the settlers in cultivating the land and in due course produce enough crops and goods to feed the colony without having to rely on supplies from Britain.

What started with the alleviating of a pressing problem in Britain was soon able to include the other initial ideas such as the exploitation of natural resources, seeking trade advantages, and the settlement of non-convicts, effectively replacing the lost colonies of North America. This required continued encouragement and involvement on the part of the government. As more and more British settlers, both convicts and non-convicts, arrived in Australia, they learned about their new environment and soon discovered which plants would grow well and which not. They succeeded in cultivating the land and animal breeding. With sufficient manure available, the colonists were able to fertilize the fields and horticultural production expanded exponentially from 1792 onwards. In the end, the settlement obtained substantial agricultural returns.


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Australia as a Penal Colony
James Cook University  (James Cook University)
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ISBN (Book)
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Australia, penal colony, British colony, settlement in Australia, convicts, James Cook
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Sandra Miller (Author), 2003, Australia as a Penal Colony, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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