In April, 1770, Captain James Cook in his ship Endeavour made the first known sighting by a European of the eastern coast of Australia. In August, after sailing northward up the coast, he hoisted the English colors on Possession Island and formally took possession of the entire land, naming it New South Wales.

The continent was not completely unknown before that date. Dutch sailors and others had sighted parts of the coastline and even made landings. But for the most part they had seen the barren and inhospitable northwest. On the east coast Cook found a new and different land.

Little was done about his discovery immediately. But after the British had their misunderstanding with the American colonists, things began to happen in the south. The British had been in the habit of shipping their convicts to America, and when this convenient solution to their penal problem was no longer open to them, the gentlemen of England bethought themselves of the great southern continent. And so when the first fleet sailed for Australia, it was not carrying a group of idealists filled with the spirit of free enterprise and anxious to establish a new nation. Instead it was filled with a collection of convicts, together with their guards and the paraphernalia of government.

One wit has said that Australia’s first settlers were selected by the finest judges in England. His remark reminds us of their legal standing as convicts, but we should remember that this does not mean they were all desperate criminals, or even men of low moral standards. Those were the days when a hungry man who stole a loaf of bread might get seven years in jail. Many of the convicts were hardened criminals, but many others were not.

At the very least, however, they were all ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: