In 1788 the British flag was raised and New South Wales was a colony. But it took the colonists more than a century to get to grips with this strange land.


A dumping ground for rebels, poachers, prostitutes and murderers... A prisoners' island, its outlying cells founded by warders, whalers, escapees and anxious politicians... The auguries for Australia's future were not those of the Promised Land. Yet, from the little huddle of convicts and redcoats who in 1788 planted the cross and gallows of Europe's harsh order on this time-forgotten coast, a society of sorts soon took root.

With the loss of Maryland and Georgia in the American War of Independence, Britain was forced to find another place of exile for its unwanted convicts. The prisoners were temporarily stuffed into rotting river hulks around London, but these sinks of disease, depravity and escape soon became a source of public outcry. In desperation, the government took up Sir Joseph's Banks's suggestion that Botany Bay in New Holland would be a suitable spot to house what the poet Les Murray has called "England's buried Gulag."

The First Fleet

In May 1787, 11 small ships of "the First Fleet" under Captain (later governor) Arthur Phillip sailed from Portsmouth. Eight months later, the 1,000 passengers - three-quarters of them convicts - arrived at Botany Bay. A quick survey showed two things. Cook's description of the waterless place had been far too generous; and two ships of Comic de la Perouse were also there, possible shopping for a new continent on behalf of Louis XVI of France. Phillip hurriedly sailed 20 km (12 miles) up the coast to Port Jackson and (after a few toasts and a fusillade) raised the flag for George III on 26 January 1788. Officers, marines, transportees, sheep, goats and cattle were disgorged by these latter-day Noah's arks into a cove that's now overlooked by the Opera House. The surgeon-general to the fleet rhapsodised that Port Jackson was "the finest ands most extensive harbour in the Universe." It is said that even the convicts, on sighting its fine blue bays and glistening headlands, raised a cheer of joy It is also noted that two Aborigines shouted "Warra! Warra!" (Go Away!), no one heeded.

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Thus the colony stumbled to life. And a hard one it was at first. Marooned halfway around the world, these first New South Welshmen found that their seed-wheat, which had been damaged at sea, failed to germinate in the sandy soil. Their cattle went bush, and the sheep fell foul of convicts, Aborigines and dingoes. After 30 months of isolation and famine, locked in by the natural prison of this alien bush, the settlement was down to half-rations. When a ship finally appeared, to their despair, it was carrying not supplies but 222 elderly and ill female convicts. Fortunately, the supply ships of the Second Fleet were close behind. The tests of Sydney Cove were replaced by brick and timber huts. Phillip tried to lay out a town along orderly lines, but conformity was not in the nature of its inhabitants. Short cuts soon became streets and, despite later attempts at order, the convenient jigsaw that resulted can still be seen today as the ground plan of Sydney's high-rise pile-up.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

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Sydney Town expanded west towards the fertile farming lands of Parramatta, but was still hemmed in by the impenetrable escarpment of the Blue Mountains. Explorers fanned out by land and sea to open new pastures and farms, and to find even more isolated and savage prisons, such as Norfolk Island. This had originally figured in British strategy as a potential source of flax, hemp and masts for its Pacific naval and trade fleets. The plan failed, and the island's true "success" was as a hell-hole of sadism. New South Wales was still costing London dearly (1 million in the first 12 years, but it was turning a profit for its local land-owners and the officers of the NSW Corps, otherwise known as "the Rum Corps". The Corps stood up against the extortionate demands of trading vessel masters, while at the same time developing its own monopolies. The colony had become such a vat of drunkenness, and the demand for Bengal rum, which the Corps controlled, was so great that rum almost became the currency of the colony.



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Sydney Town was named after Viscount Sydney, the secretary of the Home Department in London, which supervised colonial affairs.

The territory on which Sydney now stands was simply expropriated by Arthur Phillip from the local Aborigines. No treaty, no beads, no thanks. Thereafter Phillip, naively overlooking his own status as a gate-crasher, strove to foster friendly and fair relations between his tribe and the blacks.

For his pains he was speared in the shoulder at Manly cover. An abyss of incomprehension continued to separate the two races. 

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Hell on earth

Governor William Bligh (of Bounty fame) was despatched to clean up the rum Corps' act, and to encourage free settlers to come to Sydney. However, the Corps, at the bidding of a farmer and officer, John Macarthur, pulled the second of the famous mutinies in Bligh's career, and in 1808 deposed him. New South Wales and its satellite penal settlements at Moreton Bay (now Brisbane), Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) entered the 19th century with a reputation as "hell on earth" - a reputation which the British hoped would function as a deterrent. Irish rebels, Tolpuddle Martyrs and petty thieves caught for stealing buckles or loaves of bread were thrown together in Australia, when death at the end of a noose would often have been more merciful. In attempting to escape, some became the interior's first explorers. Pathetically, they fled into the bush, some believing that China lay beyond the Blue Mountains or that a colony of free whites dwell inland. The only sure way of escape from the pathological violence on Norfolk Island was to commit murder in the hope of being hanged.

Yet these exercises were also tempered by the high-mindedness and reforms of Governor Lachlan Macquarie (1810-21), the hopes of some emancipists (freed convicts) that morality and dignity could prevail, and by a growing prosperity through trade. Macquarie, a paternalistic autocrat, stifled the rum Corps' monopoly on the import of spirit, established the colony's own currency (1813) and first bank (1817), and encouraged the first crossing of the blue Mountains (1813). His programme of public works and town planning (265 projects in 11 years) owes much to Francis Greenway, an emancipist transported to Sydney as a forger, who became the young colony's leading architect. Transportation to Australia's various penal settlements had ceased by 1868. By then some 160,000 convicts had arrived, only 25,000 were women, a distortion which left its stamp in the harsh, male-dominated "frontier" society for decades to come. 

Domestic exploration

A continent of 7.7 million sq. km (3 million sq. miles), much of it searing desert of dense scrub, could not be explored quickly or easily. the revelation of Australia's intimidatingly vast interior progressed sporadically over many years. Before the crossing of the blue Mountains in 1813, most significant exploration place by sea. Bass and Flinders guessed correctly at the separation of Tasmania from the mainland. The French ships of Baudin in 1802, and later of Dumont d'Urville in 1826, scared the colonial authorities into establishing settlements in Tasmania and Western Australia respectively. Once the Great Dividing Range had been penetrated in 1813, the drive for new lands, minerals and the glory of being "first there" - wherever "there" happened to be - lured men on. Early explorers believed that the westward-flowing rivers of the NSW interior led towards a vast inland sea. In 1850 Charles Sturt and his party set out on the Murrumbidgee River, following its current into the Lachlan and Murray rivers, finally reaching Lake Alexandrina near the South Australia coast. After travelling more than 1,000 km (600 miles) they were within sight of the sea, but were unable to reach it. Instead they had to row against the current towards their starting point.

Their 47 days' rowing, on meagre rations and against flood tides, left Sturt temporarily blind, but is one of the most heroic journeys in Australian exploration. The myth of an inland sea had been dispelled. By 1836, the vast river systems of the south-eastern continent had been charted. Tasmania had been explored, and the genocide of its natives had begun. A decade later most of New South Wales, half of Queensland, and the southern and northern coasts had been substantially explored.


John Hood, Esq, a snobbish and ill-tempered old Scot, came to the colony of New South Wales in 1841 with no other purpose than to visit his son and enjoy himself. Arriving just after the suspension of convict transportation to Sydney, Hood may, in fact, have been Australia's first tourist.

But few who read the resulting travel memoir, Australia and the East, would have been encouraged to follow in his footsteps, for the colony was wilder than Hood had bargained for. Apart from the rigours of bush life, the finicky Scot encountered tribal Aborigines, escaped convicts, horse thieves and lunatics - and was appalled by them all. When Hood disembarked in Sydney, his delicate sensibilities were immediately offended. With 40,000 inhabitants, the town lacked sewerage. Convicts in chains clanked through the streets, which were lined with slab huts and 215 pubs. Worst of all, the colonists seemed to tolerate alcoholism. Indeed, he scoffed, they openly expressed their intention to "go out and get drunk."

Hood had a tearful meeting with his son Alexander who 10 years before had been packed off with the family servant to find fame and fortune. Now Alexander was a successful squatter near Mount Connobolas, at the furthest frontier of settlement, and he took his father out for a visit. The journey turned into a nightmare. Crossing the Blue Mountains - a glorious drive today - was a gruelling ordeal on horseback. The convict built road, which wound at abound angles through the grey sandstone expanse, was "endless", Hood wrote. Soon it began to rain. His horse lost two shoes, with no hope of finding a blacksmith ("For the first time my spirits gave way"). His luggage was lost. The town of Bathurst was small and gloomy ("I was in despair"). When Hood finally saw his son's sheep property, near present day Orange, he was mortified. The "gunytah" they were to live in "belonged to no recognised order of architecture," he wrote, being simply a bark hut with gaps in the walls that let in both light and insects. "You eat it, you drink it, you inhale it." Hood wrote of the ubiquitous bush fly. "Truly their name is legion!" They ate mutton for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Worst of all was the loneliness, no matter how many people were around. 

Hood's adventures in the bush provide an entertaining slice of frontier life. With the nearest policeman, church or doctor many miles away, the Connobolas property was a constant danger of being attacked by bushrangers. Hood was so terrified that he buried all his valuables under the floor. The Hoods took a journey towards Wellington - today a pleasant highway lined with towering ghost gums and green fields stretching beyond, but in 1841 drought stricken and barren. They spent a night in Molong at "the worst managed inn I have ever entered," Hood wrote. "All the drunkards of the district seemed to congregate within its walls, allowing us no sleep, but annoying us through the night with all manner of low blackguardism."

The days on the frontier wore on in a tedious blur. Homesickness hit Hood worst at Christmas. "The sultry heat is a disagreeable contradiction to all our impressions of that happy season of frosts and snows and fireside comforts." He missed society life, books and letters, and complained of receiving newspapers only once a week, so he finally decided to head back to Scotland. As Hood said farewell to Alexander in Sydney, knowing that they would never se each other again, he had serious misgivings about having sent his son to Australia. "I confess," he wrote, "that for me such a little lass not charms to compensate for the disadvantages."

Leichhardt's vanishing act

In 1842, a 29-year-old Prussian draft dodger, Ludwig Leichhardt, landed in Sydney. He did not have good qualification nor see very well, and he also had a poor sense of direction. He did, however, know how to spot potential benefactors. By 1844, he had found sufficient backers for an ambitious northwesterly thrust acr5oss Queensland and into the Northern Territory. His ambition was to open up the land from Brisbane to Port Essington (Darwin), a distance of 4,800 km (3,000 miles). With 10 companions, Aboriginal guides and a bullock team, he ran into innumerable difficulties, lost his provisions, and saw three of his men speared (one fatally) by natives. Fourteen months after their departure, and long after being given up; for dead, Leichhardt and his party staggered into Port Essington. Returning by sea to Sydney these "men from the grave" were feted as national heroes; the Prussian government even pardoned Leichhardt for his military desertion.

In April 1848, he set out again, this time on a proposed transcontinental trek from Roma in southern /Queensland to the Indian Ocean. His party of seven men and 77 beasts was never seen again, but their fate was to become one of the great mysteries of the Australian bush. The first search parties could only report that the missing men had probably been speared by Aborigines in Western Queensland. But the search continued for years, spurred on by finds of skeletons, relics and pack horses. Stories of a wild white man living among Queensland Aborigines in the 1860s suggested that one member, Adolf Classen, survived for some years. Between 1852 and 1938, nine major searches were conducted for survivors or evidence of what happened to Leichhardt's party. These searches themselves were often occasions of great courage, new discoveries and further deaths. For all these efforts, the desert has never relinquished the tale of Leichhardt's fate.

Heroes and villains

Aborigines played a major part in the European penetration of Australia, sometimes assisting and sometimes resisting it. Various accounts of loyalty and treachery have been recorded. In 1848, Edmund Kennedy's party was exploring the interior of Cape York Peninsula. Difficulties with supply, hostile natives and rugged terrain forced him to despatch his companions to the coast, while he pushed on with his Aborigine guide. Jacky Jacky Kennedy was speared by local natives, and did in Jacky's arms. The latter was also wounded, but struggled through the jungle to the Cape and informed the waiting schooner of the whereabouts of the other survivors who were stranded on the coast. Edward John Eyre made an extraordinary journey in 1840, on foot, east to west along the coast of the Great Australian Bight. He began with an assistant, John Baxter, and three Aborigines. Four-and-a-half months and 2,000 km (1,250 miles) later, after an appalling journey mostly through desert, he and one Aborigine, called Wylie, walked into Albany on King George Sound. Baxter had been murdered by the other two, who had then run away. There are many such explorers' tales of courage and folly, some still carved as messages on tree trunks, or buried beside dried-up billabongs. Others are just blood on the sand of the inland deserts.

In August 1860, Robert O'Hara Burke and W. J. Wills departed, Melbourne with a well-equipped team and a camel train (especially imported from Afghanistan for the journey). Their intention was to be the first party to cross the continent from coast to coast. Their tale of misadventures is now deeply ingrained in Australian folklore. Burke was brash, inexperienced, supremely confident and a glory seeker. Too impatient to wait for the supply camels to keep up, he took Wills and other team members, Grey and King with him, and from Innamincka on Cooper's Creek, he forged ahead in 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) heat. They reached the Gulf of Carpentaria in February 1861 and immediately began retracing their footsteps. Grey died on the way. The three emaciated survivors finally reached their earlier camp at Innamincka where they had left another companion, Brahe. But Brahe, who had waited four months for them, had departed only seven hours earlier. After rejecting the potential assistance of local Aborigines, Burke and Wills died soon after in the implacable Stony Desert. Only King, cared for by Aborigines survived to tell the story.

Lasseter's Reef is another of the lodestone legends of Australia. Harry Lasseter claimed that in 1900, while travelling alone from Alice Springs to Carnarvon on the west coast, he discovered a reef of gold one metre deep and 16 km (10 miles) long. Few believed him, and the task of relocating the vein seemed impossible. During the Depression, however, he again publicised his claims in Sydney. A search party was formed, and in 1930 it set out for the trove with Lasseter as guide. After months of fruitless searching, the scheme was abandoned and Lasseter was left with two camels to continue his search for the mythical gold. He was never seen alive, but his diary was found and, some claim, his body. The diary tells of how he pegged the gold only to have his camels bolt, leaving him to wander, mad, and eventually die in the Petermann Ranges on the edge of Gibson Desert.

The controversy about his find, his death and his diaries lived on, and expedition continued until as recently as 1970 to search for Lasseter's Reef. As with Leichhardt, the desert would give up neither the dead nor their stories.  


The 1850s saw the discovery of gold, a sudden influx of immigrants set to make their fortune, and a similar boom in outlaws set to relieve them of it.

The first half of the 19th century saw a clear change in European settlement in Australia. The transportation of convicts was phased out between 1840 and 1868. By 1860, the continent had been divided into five separate colonies, with each exhibiting at times more loyalty to Mother London than to its neighbouring siblings. A major force within the colonies was the "squatocracy", the rich officers and the settlers who had followed the explorers into the fertile hinterlands. They had simply laid claim to or "squatted" upon enormous tracts of land, often 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) and more. Like the merino sheep they introduced to their stations, the squatters both lived off and were "the fat of the land". There were social tensions between squatters and the new small farmers ("free selectors"), between the rural squatocracy and the urban bourgeoisie, and between "the Currency lads" (the Australian born) and the immigrants. The tension between black and white also continued, with guns, poison and expropriation of lands achieving their sad ends. Yet for all this, the continent and its new culture still seemed to be waiting for another awakening.

The discovery of gold

The awakening came in 1851. Edward Hargraves, an Australian forty-niner, returned from the California gold rush. He was certain, given the geological similarities he had observed, that gold must also exist in New South Wales. (Unbeknown to him, gold had been found 10 years earlier by a Rev. W.B. Clarke but news of the discovery had been suppressed. Upon seeing the gold, the Governor, Sir George Gipps, had said: "Put it away, Mr Clarke, or we shall all have our throats cut!") Having been soundly mocked in Sydney town when he stated his intention of finding gold, Hargraves set out for the tributaries of the Macquarie River near Bathurst, 170 km (106 miles) west of Sydney. Once there, he dug a painful of earth, washed it and announced to his incredulous companion: "Here it is. This is a memorable day in the history of New South Wales. I shall be a baronet. You will be knighted, and my old horse will be stuffed, put into a glass case, and sent to the British Museum!"

The announcement on 15 May 1851 of "Gold Discovered!" sent shock waves through the Australian colonies. The rush of prospectors to Bathurst was so great that the economy and the population of Victoria went into an immediate nosedive. Melbourne employers offered a 200 pounds reward for the discovery of gold near their city. By July the prize had been claimed, and before the end of the year incredibly rich fields were in production in Victoria at Ballarat, Bendigo and Castlemaine. For the businessmen of Melbourne, the finds were a mixed blessing. While the prices of flour, blankets, bread, shovels and mining gear doubled and tripled, there was often no one to sell them. Melbourne and Geelong were almost emptied of men.

The roaring Days

The scene in the goalfieds was one of frantic activity where teams


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