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History

Penal Settlements

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Although its general boundaries were becoming known, Australia appeared to be a remote and unattractive land for European settlement. But Britain’s growing commercial and military ambitions in the Pacific, combined with its domestic social and political tensions, helped to draw Australia into the web of British strategic ambitions. British merchants and shipowners were looking for new trading opportunities in the East. Naval strategists were seeking fresh supplies of ship timbers and sailcloth. And as the Industrial Revolution got under way, the galloping crime rates in Britain’s crowded cities created a demand for more and harsher jails, or gaols. With the loss of its American colonies in 1783, Britain no longer had a convenient place to send its criminals. But Australia was a suitably distant and terrifying alternative destination for transportation (the British system of exiling convicts as punishment). In addition, nearby Norfolk Island, with its tall pine trees, offered a new supply of wood for ships’ masts and flax for rope and sailcloth. Although establishing a penal colony was probably the main motive, naval strategy reinforced the decision of the British government in 1786 to establish a permanent settlement at Botany Bay.

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