Penal Settlements, Sydney Founded
penal settlement, Hawkesbury River, Botany Bay, Starvation, kangaroo
On May 13, 1787, retired Royal Navy captain Arthur Phillip set sail from Portsmouth, England, with the First Fleet. The 11 ships of the fleet arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788 with more than 1,450 passengers, including 736 convicts, more than 200 marines, 20 civil officials, and 443 seamen. Finding the bay a poor choice, Phillip moved the fleet north to Port Jackson, which he acclaimed as “the finest harbour in the world.” Here he founded the first permanent British settlement on January 26, now known as Australia Day. The settlement was named Sydney for Britain’s home secretary, Lord Sydney, who was responsible for the colony. As the appointed governor of the New South Wales colony, Phillip was responsible for a large portion of Australia (from the eastern coast to as far west as the 135th meridian), but his human resources were limited. In particular, he lacked the horticulturists, skilled carpenters, and engineers needed to develop a self-supporting colony. His major concern, until his departure in 1792, was ruling virtually single-handedly over the small penal settlement.
Three major problems confronted the early governors: providing a sufficient supply of foodstuffs; developing an internal economic system; and producing exports to pay for the colony’s imports from Britain. Land around Sydney was too sandy for suitable farming, and the colony faced recurrent food shortages through the 1790s. Local food sources were largely limited to fish and kangaroo. Phillip encouraged the establishment of farms on the more fertile banks of the Hawkesbury River, a few miles northwest of Sydney, but floods often spoiled the crops. Starvation was averted only by the arrival of ships bearing supplies of grain from Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Norfolk Island, about 1,500 km (about 950 mi) east of Australia, had been claimed by Phillip in February 1788. Its soils, which were more fertile than those of the mainland, were extensively farmed and soon became depleted. The settlement there was abandoned in 1803, but in the 1830s the island was repopulated as a penal settlement for more hardened convicts.
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