European discovery and the colonisation of Australia

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis


European mariners

Capt James Cook

Francesco Bartolozzi (1727-1815), Captn. James Cook, F.R.S, 1784, print: stipple engraving. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia1.

The first records of European mariners sailing into 'Australian' waters occurs around 1606, and includes their observations of the land known as Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land). The first ship and crew to chart the Australian coast and meet with Aboriginal people was the Duyfken captained by Dutchman, Willem Janszoon.

Between 1606 and 1770, an estimated 54 European ships2 from a range of nations made contact. Many of these were merchant ships from the Dutch East Indies Company and included the ships of Abel Tasman3. Tasman charted parts of the north, west and south coasts of Australia which was then known as New Holland4.

In 1770, Englishman Lieutenant James Cook charted the Australian east coast in his ship HM Barque Endeavour 5. Cook claimed the east coast under instruction from King George III of England6 on 22 August 1770 at Possession Island, naming eastern Australia 'New South Wales'. The coast of Australia, featuring Tasmania as a separate island, was mapped in detail by the English mariners and navigators7 Bass and Flinders, and the French mariner, Baudin. A nearly completed map8 of the coastline was published by Flinders in 1814.

This period of European exploration is reflected in the names of landmarks such as the Torres Strait, Arnhem Land, Dampier Sound, Tasmania, the Furneaux Islands, Cape Frecinyet and La Perouse. Expeditions between 1790 and the 1830s, led by D'Entrecasteaux, Baudin9, and Furneaux, were recorded by the naturalists10 Labillardière and Péron.11


The First Fleet and a British colony

The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788

John Allcot (1888-1973), The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788, 1938, art reproduction. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia12.

Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet13, comprising 11 ships and around 1,350 people, arrived at Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788. However, this area was deemed to be unsuitable for settlement and they moved north to Port Jackson on 26 January 1788, landing14 at Camp Cove15, known as 'cadi' to the Cadigal people.

Governor Phillip carried instructions to establish the first British Colony16 in Australia. The First Fleet was under prepared for the task, and the soil around Sydney Cove was poor. The young colony relied upon both the development of farms17 around Parramatta18, 25 kilometres upstream to the west, and also trading food with local Aboriginal clans.

The Second Fleet19's arrival in 1790 provided badly needed food and supplies; however the newly arrived convicts were too ill, with many near to death, to be useful to the colony. The Second Fleet became known as the 'Death Fleet' - 278 of the convicts and crew died on the voyage to Australia, compared to only 48 on the First Fleet.

The colony experienced many other difficulties, including the fact that there were many more men than women - around four men for every woman - which caused problems in the settlement for many years.


Contacts and colonisation

Augustus Earle, Bungaree, 1826

Augustus Earle, Bungaree, 1826, lithograph. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales20.

In the winter of 1791, the process of British colonisation of Western Australia began when George Vancouver claimed the Albany region in the name of King George III. In the summer of 1801, Matthew Flinders21 was welcomed by Nyungar22 upon his arrival aboard the Investigator and various items were exchanged. On the 1802 voyage from Sydney, Flinders recruited two Aboriginal people, Bungaree23, who had sailed with him on the Norfolk, and Nanbaree. The visit of Flinders and other mariners to the coast of Arnhem Land is recorded in the paintings of 'praus' and European ships at rock art sites.

Initially, relations between the explorers and the Aboriginal inhabitants were generally hospitable and based on understanding the terms of trading for food, water, axes, cloth and artefacts, a relationship encouraged by Governor Phillip. These relations became hostile as Aborigines realised that the land and resources24 upon which they depended and the order of their life were seriously disrupted by the on-going presence of the colonisers. Between 1790 and 1810, clans people of the Eora25 group in the Sydney area, led by Pemulwuy26 of the Bidjigal clan, undertook a campaign of resistance against the English colonisers in a series of attacks.

In 1821 Bundle/Bundell27 sailed on board H.M. Brig Bathurst, under the command of Phillip Parker King, on a surveying voyage to the northern coast of Australia. Bundle replaced, at short notice, Bungaree, who had sailed with Flinders. After surveying the northern and north-western coastline of Australia, Bundle accompanied King on his survey work of the western coast of Australia between 1821-22, travelling to Mauritius for repairs.  Bundle, an Eora man who ranged from Port Jackson to Parramatta, in the company of Tedbury, the son of Pemulwuy, was renowned for his tracking skills. Bundle had accompanied the Surveyor George William Evans on board the Lady Nelson in the party sent to explore Jervis Bay in 1812 and, with another Aboriginal named 'Broughton', accompanied Charles Throsby on his exploratory expedition into the southern region in 1818.


Law and land in New South Wales

From 1788 until 1823, the Colony of New South Wales was a penal colony. This meant that there were mainly convicts28, marines and the wives of the marines although free settlers started to arrive in 1793. In 1823, the British government established a New South Wales parliament by setting up a Legislative Council as well as a Supreme Court under the New South Wales Act 1823 (UK) 29. This Act is now seen as a first step towards a 'responsible' Parliament in Australia.

It was also intended to establish English law in the colony with the establishment of NSW criminal and civil courts30. However, there were significant departures from English law when the first cases were heard in the courts. The first civil case heard in Australia, in July 1788, was brought by a convict couple. The convicts successfully sued the captain of the ship in which they had been transported for the loss of a parcel. In Britain, as convicts, they would have had no rights to bring this case forward.

The question of land ownership by Indigenous people was not dealt with by the colonisers until the mid-1830s. In 1835, John Batman signed two 'treaties31' with Kulin people to 'purchase' 600,000 acres of land between what is now Melbourne and the Bellarine Peninsula. In response to these treaties and other arrangements between free settlers and Indigenous inhabitants, such as around Camden, the NSW Governor, Sir Richard Bourke issued a proclamation32. Bourke's proclamation established the notion that the land belonged to no-one prior to the British crown taking possession.

To effectively over-ride the legitimacy of the 'Batman treaty33' the British Colonial Office felt the need to issue another Proclamation. The Colonial Office proclamation stated that people found in possession of land without the authority of the government would be considered trespassers. This was despite and because many other people, including a report to the House of Commons in 1837, recognised that Aboriginal occupants had rights in land. Nevertheless, the law in New South Wales variously applied the principles expressed in Bourke's proclamation. This would not change until the Australian High Court's decision in the Mabo Case34 in 1992.

A government jail gang

unknown, Pioneer Squatters, 1880-1890. A group of squatters, making tea in a billy over a camp fire in the bush with cattle in the background. Image courtesy of the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland35.

In 1861, the NSW government opened up the free selection of Crown land. The Crown Lands Acts 1861 36permitted any person to select up to 320 acres on the condition of paying a deposit and living on the land for three years. The Acts also limited the use of Crown lands by Aboriginal people as until this time, pastoral lands were still able to be legitimately used by them.

As a result of Crown Land being available for selection, great conflicts between squatters and the selectors37 ensued. Scheming in selecting and acquiring land became widespread. The Acts had a powerful impact on the ownership of land. The Acts also affected the use of bush38 land across vast regions of the colony. In the view of some observers, these disputes over access to land also encouraged bushranging39.

Despite its problems, the colony of New South Wales grew, and the Port Jackson settlement is now the site of Australia's largest city - Sydney.


Establishment of other British colonies

Van Diemen's Land

The first British settlement on the island was made at Risdon in 1803 when Lieutenant John Bowen40 landed with about 50 settlers, crew, soldiers and convicts. The site was abandoned and in 1804 Lieutenant David Collins41 established a settlement at Hobart in February 1804. The colony of Van Diemen's Land42 was established in its own right in 1825 and officially became known as Tasmania in 1856.

Western Australia

Western Australia was established in 1827. Major Edmund Lockyer43 established a small British settlement at King Georges Sound (Albany) and in 1829 the new Swan River Colony was officially proclaimed. Captain James Stirling44 was its first Governor. The colony was proclaimed a British penal settlement in 1849 and the first convicts arrived in 1850.

South Australia

The British province of South Australia was established in 1836, and in 1842 it became a crown colony. South Australia was never a British convict colony, although a number of ex-convicts settled there from other colonies. Around 38,000 immigrants had arrived and settled in the area by 1850.


In 1851 Victoria (Port Phillip District) separated from New South Wales. The first attempt at settlement was made in 1803 by Lieutenant David Collins45 but the harsh conditions forced him to move on to Tasmania where he eventually settled Hobart in February 1804. It was not until the Henty brothers46 landed in Portland Bay in 1834, and John Batman47 settled on the site of Melbourne, that the Port Phillip District was officially sanctioned (1837). The first immigrant ships arrived at Port Phillip in 1839.


In 1859 Queensland separated from New South Wales. In 1824, the penal colony at Redcliffe was established by Lieutenant John Oxley48. Known as the Moreton Bay Settlement49, it later moved to the site now called Brisbane. Around 2,280 convicts were sent to the settlement between 1824 and 1839. The first free European settlers moved to the district in 1838 and others followed in 1840.

Northern Territory

In 1825 the area occupied today by the Northern Territory was part of the colony of New South Wales. It was first settled by Europeans in 1824 at Fort Dundas, Port Essington50. In 1863 control of the area was given to South Australia. Its capital city, Darwin, was established in 1869, and was originally known as Palmerston51. On 1 January 1912, the Northern Territory52 was separated from South Australia and became part of the Commonwealth of Australia.


Recognition of Australia

The name 'Australia' was first suggested by Matthew Flinders and supported by Governor Macquarie (1810 - 1821). At a meeting in 1899, the Premiers of the other Colonies agreed to locate the new federal capital of Australia in New South Wales, and added this section to the Australian Constitution. In 1909, the state of New South Wales surrendered a portion of this territory to the Commonwealth of Australia, the site of present day Canberra53.

Australia Day Anniversary

Who Are You? by Bern Emmerichs

Bern Emmerichs, Who Are You?, 2003, earthenware with underglaze. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia54.

While formal dinners and informal celebrations to mark the landing of the First Fleet at Camp Cove were held on 26 January each year, the first official celebration of English colonisation was held in 1818. During the colonial period, 26 January was called Foundation Day in New South Wales. Other colonies celebrated with their own dates of significance relating to the founding of their colonies. Western Australia, for example, celebrated Proclamation Day on 21 October each year.

Since 1901, when Australia became a federation of the six colonies, the landing of the First Fleet at Camp Cove has evolved from a small commemorative New South Wales holiday into a major national celebration, recognised as Australia Day55. From 1994 all states and territories agreed to celebrate Australia Day on the actual day.

For many Indigenous Australians however, 26 January is not a day of celebration but one of mourning and protest. On the morning of the 26 January for the 1938 sesquicentennial (150th) celebrations, Aboriginal activists met to hold a 'Day of Mourning' conference56 aimed at securing national citizenship and equal status for Aborigines. Citizenship rights for all Aborigines were recognised following a referendum on the issue in 1967. In an attempt to heal some of the pain of Australia's past, there is now an advanced Reconciliation57 movement.

Useful links

Listen, look and play
European sea exploration
Captain James Cook's life and voyages
Sir Joseph Banks
Matthew Flinders
The First Fleet
Art of the First Fleet
Australia's founding documents
Images of Aboriginal life at first contact and colonisation
Contemplations of 'Australia'

European discovery and the colonisation of Australia -

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