Source of Photograph.....
Australia. For most of the world, it’s a country that’s a million miles from anywhere. It’s land full of strange people who speak an alien language and which is populated by some of the most curious, and the most dangerous creatures in the world: Wallabies, kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, Fairy Penguins, drop-bears, Redbacks, White-tails, kookaburras, the Spotted Quoll, snakes and anklebiters.
But how did Australia come to be? What happened to it? How did it evolve?
Please stay tuned for the next installment.....
Since it was Australia Day yesterday, this article will look at the earliest years of recorded Australian history up to the colonial period of the mid-1800s.
The Myth of Australia
Every people, every culture, every nation on earth, has a place of myth which they believe might exist. Atlantis. Middle Earth. 221B Baker Street. There are those who think these places are real. And who will do anything to find them.
The 1500s was the start of the Early-Modern Period. This was a time of great discovery. It was the start of the Age of Reason, the Age of Discovery and the Age of Colonisation.
By the 1500s, it was fairly well-established that the Earth was round…although in the 21st Century, some people still require some convincing, however, early geographers believed that the Earth posessed a sort of balance. In the northern hemisphere, there were several large countries like Russia, China and Canada, as well as huge landmasses like the North American continent. It was believed by the learned people of the time that somewhere in the South, there was another enormous landmass like the North American continent which balanced out the bottom half of the world and gave the planet a sort of ‘symmetry’.
This mythical and unseen landmass was tentatively called: “Terra Australis Incognitia“. For people who don’t read Latin, it literally means ‘Unknown Southern Land” (Terra = Land, as in ‘terra firma’; Australis = South; Incognitia = Unknown, as in ‘Incognito&rsquo.
In Search of Australia
For centuries, rumors persisted that there must be an enormous and, as-yet, uncharted landmass at the bottom of the world. This landmass was what gave the world balance. Like the ballast on a ship, this supposed Unknown Southern Land would prevent the world from tipping over. The only thing was…nobody knew where such an enormous landmass might be.
The map is pretty hard to read at this size. You can click on it to enlarge it if you wish. But on the map, you can clearly see Ireland, England, Russia, Europe, Italy, the Middle East, China, India, the African Continent and both American continents. The world as we know it is pretty much fully represented in this nearly five-hundred year old document. But one country is notably absent. At least, in its current form. Down the bottom of the map you can see an enormous, shapeless landmass. It is marked on the map (bottom left hand corner) as “TERRA AUSTRALIS”; the Southern Land.
Wanting to find out more about this great unknown land, the European powers sent ships into the Southern hemisphere on treacherous and lengthy voyages to find this great continent, map it, figure out what exactly they’d found, and then report back home. Of course, in the age of sail, this took a long time. When Capt. Cook sailed to Australia in the 1770s it took him very nearly two whole years to get there!
Western Contact with Australia
So. We have an enormous, uncharted land at the bottom of the world. Or we think we do. Now…we need to find it, chart it and do something with it. But before we can do the other two, we have to do the first. We need to find it.
Who found Australia?
This is a question that is almost impossible to answer. Dozens of people sailed for Australia over the centuries and any one of them, provided that they knew exactly what it was that they’d found, could stake a claim as the discoverer of Australia. It might not even have been a Westerner who first discovered Australia; it might have been the famous Chinese sailor, Zheng He, who once commanded one of the biggest blue-water navys in the world, big enough to challenge the might of the British Royal Navy at the time…except that during Zheng He’s day, the Royal Navy didn’t exist.
Maps of the 1500s showed an enormous, shapeless landmass south of the Equator. This, it was believed, was the mythical land of Terra Australis. But that was all it was. A myth. To date, nobody had yet truly confirmed that such a place really existed. Sure, people had sent back sketchy charts and maps from their voyages…but in piecing all these snippets of information together, geographers knew that the Unknown Land of the South remained undiscovered.
…Until one day in the early 1600s.
Although there are those who believe that the Portugese discovered Australia in the 1520s, the first really solid proof that Australia actually existed came as a result of a voyage made by a Dutch sailor in 1606. This sailor’s name was Willem Janszoon (ca. 1570-1630). What Janszoon had unwittingly crashed into during his exploration of the South Pacific was the western coast of Australia. He mapped and charted the area and named the place “Nieu Zeeland“, after the Dutch province of Zeeland where he came from.
Fortunately for Australians, the name didn’t stick and it was trasnferred to a bunch of islands a few thousand miles to east which were discovered by another Dutchman in 1642, islands now called…New Zealand.
So convinced was Janszoon that he’d found the missing puzzle-piece, the ‘Unknown Southern Land’ that ten years later, he set out and tried to find it again. On the 31st of July, 1618, he once again arrived on the western shores of the Australian continent. He declared this new landmass to be an island…although he didn’t actually bother sailing all the way around it to find out!
Fast forward another thirty-odd years, and enter: Abel Tasman. Tasman was the other Dutchman who was looking for Australia. He found it in the 1640s, and he’s the guy that Australians should thank for removing the title of ‘Nieu Zeeland‘ from their continent and tacking it onto the islands located a conveniently lengthy distance to the east. As information seeped in from explorers about this new continent that existed somewhere southeast of Asia, Tasman went exploring. It was Tasman who gave the Unknown (and thusfar, unnamed!) Southern Land its first title, which was rapidly printed on all new maps soon after. It was no longer some lengthy and fancy, scientific-sounding Latin landmass. It was called…
A name that would stick for almost all of the next two centuries.
Abel Tasman’s map of Nova Hollandia (“New Holland” 1644
But Australia is famous for being found by the English, isn’t it? Well yeah…only they didn’t find it. At least, not until everyone else had. The first English eyes cast their sight upon ‘New Holland’ in 1688. They were the eyes of William Dampier. Dampier was a scallywag, a pirate, an explorer, cartographer (that’s a guy who makes maps) and scientist. He made the first observations, in English, of the Australian continent when he showed up there at the end of the 17th century.
Perhaps realising that everyone else who had found New Holland up to this point wrote down their discoveries in languages that he probably couldn’t understand, Dampier was the first man to write down an account of Australia in English. In fact, he wrote several accounts. Between 1697 and his death in 1715, he wrote six books about his explorations in the South Pacific. His work titled ‘A Voyage to New Holland‘ was so big it had to be published in two volumes six years apart!
Dampier was also something of a wordsmith. How many of these words do you know?
Avacado? Breadfruit? Cashew? Chopsticks? Barbeque?
They’re just five of the hundreds of words that Dampier coined during his voyage around the South Pacific at the turn of the 18th century. He was exploring lands that were so strange and fantastical that he had to create a whole new vocabulary just to document it all!
Well. We have a new landmass. New Holland. It’s completely uninhabited (apart from the natives that have been there for a few tens of thousands of years, but they’re complete savages and don’t count!), it’s in the middle of nowhere, it has absolutely nothing to offer anyone else on earth. What do we do with it?
The Europeans had no idea.
Map of New Holland made by French explorer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin in 1753
The problem was that Australia was so far from everywhere. It took over a year (if the going was rough, then over two years!) to get there! And once you were there, it was hot, dusty, uncomfortable and had nothing whatever to recommend it as a good place to set up shop.
But then, something happened in England that was to change everything.
Fencing off: The Enclosure Acts
The Georgian era was the era of enclosure. The Acts of Enclosure, passed by the British Parliament meant that common land, once open for everyone to use, were now being cordoned off, fenced up and had become part of the vast estates of Britain’s landed gentry and the nobles and aristocrats who owned enormous country manors. This meant that all the land once used by the pesantry to farm, fish, hunt, raise livestock, collect firewood and build their homes on, was all now private property! They couldn’t live there, work there or farm there. And if they did they had to pay rent to the landlord. The enclosure acts meant that farmers and their families had to leave their land and find work in the cities.
But the cities had no work.
So those without work turned to crime. A lot of crime.
The Georgian era was a high time for crime in England. People stole anything to get by. And the penalties were harsh. They ranged from execution, branding, imprisonment or being pressed into service onboard a ship of His Majesty’s Navy. It also meant being sentenced for transportation.
Transportation meant that you were stuffed onto a ship with a few hundred other sorry bastards, and shipped off to one of the colonies that the British were busy establishing during this time. In the Georgian era, the main dumping-ground for British convicts was the American Colonies. But in the 1770s and 1780s, the Americans fought back and kicked the Brits out. And the Brits still had to find somewhere to dump all their prisoners.
The crimewave in England was spiralling out of all control. Prisons were packed, dozens of prisoners to a cell. And then the prisons got full-up, so the authorities had to pack the prisoners into old, leaky, rotten sailing ships that were no-longer seaworthy. These ships, moored along the River Thames and other major waterways, were called hulks, and they were full of filth beyond anything you could imagine. No toilets. No fresh air. Little food. Rats. Lice. Fleas. Cockroaches and stinking, swilling bilgewater that seeped into the ships through the leaking planks. The British were desperate for a solution.
In 1766, the bigwigs at the Royal Society (Long name: The Royal Society of London for Improving of Natural Knowledge) decided that they wanted to track the progress of the planet Venus. It was due to swing past the earth, in front of the sun near the end of the decade. To get the best view of this rare event, it told a young Royal Navy lieutenant, Capt. James Cook (aged 39 at the time), to command a ship that would take a complement of artists, scientists and naturalists on a voyage of discovery to the South Pacific where this amazing celestial event could be observed. For the voyage, the Society purchased an old coal-carrying ship, cleaned it up and refitted it for the voyage. It was renamed the Endeavor.
The voyage to the South Pacific would take twenty two months. They started in 1768 and didn’t arrive until 1770. They had to stop four times along the way. Twice along the east coast of South America, once at New Zealand and once at the Tahitian Islands. Their observations of Venus complete, Capt. Cook broke the seal on a packet of papers given to him by the Admiralty back in England before he sailed. The papers were the instructions given to him that ordered him to find the land of New Holland and claim it for England in the name of His Majesty, King George III.
The voyage was really one of discovery. They were sailing to places that few people had ever seen. Not since Abel Tasman’s charting of New Holland a hundred years before, had anyone sailed to this mythical land. Cook himself wasn’t even sure the place existed! Indeed, the Admiralty that sent him there wasn’t sure, either! The maps they were working with were, more likely than not, over a hundred years old by then! They needed fresh information. But if New Holland did exist, then the Admiralty wanted Cook to snatch it up for Britain.
During his voyage across the Pacific, Cook charted the whole of New Zealand, claimed it for Britain, sailed to Tahiti, made friends with the natives, restocked his ship and then sailed for the great unknown continent…now known as New Holland.
It was a long, lonely and scary voyage, but it paid off. Land was sighted at 6:00am on the morning of the 19th of April, 1770; a Thursday. Cook charted his position and plotted the previously unseen eastern coastline of New Holland. He made landfall in a little cove which was thereafter named “Botany Bay”. Here, the crew and the scientists of the Royal Society explored this new land that they’d found. They recorded such things as the plants, the animals, and even the natives that they found there. They even shot and killed and…ate…a kangaroo. They also shot and killed and…stuffed-and-mounted…three more kangaroos, which they put onto the ship to take back home to England.
The Endeavor sailed up the coast of what is now New South Wales. They parked at a point off the coast which is now Port Jackson, did more mapping and then sailed even further north. When they reached present-day Queensland, they made landfall again; dropping anchor, lowering the boats and rowing ashore. Today, a town exists on this spot where Cook made his second landing on Australian soil. It’s name? ’1770′.
A new Colony
After the early 1780s, the British lost a grip (literally) on their favourite criminal dumping-ground, the former colonies of what were now the United States of America (a name and concept so alien that George III barely agreed to recognise it’s existence!). The crime-wave in England was gathering momentum and a solution was desperately needed.
That was when it was decided that it would be advantageous to the British to have a trading post in New Holland. After all, nobody really lived there, and that chap, Cook, had already stuck a flag in it and called it for England, didn’t he? So technically, it was theirs!…Kinda. So the British got the idea to set up a penal colony in Australia. Ships were rounded up, crews were gathered, provisions stowed and the most essential ingredient of this new colonial experiment were herded onboard – the convicts that would be Australia’s first permanent white settlers.
So, this collection, this gathering, this hodgepodge of humanity, was drawn together and declared the First Fleet.
Alright. Let’s stop here for a minute. My word-count says that up to here, I have typed roughly 2,500 words of Australian History. But in Australia, the most that kids learn in school of their country’s history is that it started in 1788 when the Poms first landed here and…that was that. Well, sorry, History Teachers of Australia…that wasn’t where it all started. You left out about a century and three-quarters’ worth of history that you haven’t taught the kids. Shame on you
Okay, back to our irregularly scheduled ramblings.
The First Fleet
Now, back to the Schoolboy History of Australia.
They left Portsmouth, England, on the 13th of May, 1787. The fleet weighed anchor at 4:00am and set sail for New Holland five hours later at 9:00 in the morning.