ON 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the Royal Navy First Fleet, and the officers in his party were rowed ashore to a spot near the southern side of what tourists today recognise as Sydney’s Circular Quay. They planted a flag and formally claimed possession on behalf of His Majesty King George III. Only a few dozen marines, officers and oarsmen participated in the ceremony; 40 convicts were among others who witnessed it from the deck of HMS Supply.
We take it for granted that the first colony was the basis of one of the most successful nations in the world today. Yet New South Wales very nearly didn’t survive. The British plan to settle Australia was by definition a high-risk venture. That the 11 ships comprising the fleet ever arrived on the east coast of Australia is extraordinary in itself. Remarkably, given the uncharted and tempestuous waters of the Southern Hemisphere that they navigated, no ship was lost.
Whatever the privations, cruelty and death – the brutal truths of the voyage (awful beyond belief, yet far, far worse deprivation and death was to follow with the Second Fleet) – the settlers could not know that their problems were only beginning. The bush was hard to clear, their knives inadequate, local wood inappropriate for house-building; skills lacking; the first harvest was a total failure, the seed eaten by weevils; extremes of weather (bushfires then, too, and hailstones) tormented them and they had supplies for only two months.
It has to be a testament to both some extraordinary leadership and to their capacity for endurance that the colony survived its first three decades.
For those interested in our Australian first cousins and their heritage, I recommend one by the former managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. David Hill’s eminently readable Convict Colony, the remarkable story of the fledgling settlement that survived against the odds, was published last year – and is the book which you can guess is gripping me at the moment!