IFHAA Perspectives on Australian History
Botany Bay as a Penal Colony
Cathy Dunn

 ‘If all Britain had in mind was getting rid of a few convicts, the choice of Botany Bay makes little sense; there must of been deeper motives for such a decision. Were there?’

As the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788, little did they know that historians in years to come would be disputing the real reasons for the British Government’s plans to establish a colony there. The Botany Bay debate commenced amongst historians in the 1960s after Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance with his theory of Botany Bay as a colony for the supply and cultivation of flax and naval timbers, even though it was Dallas who was the first to question the ‘absurd’ traditional view back in 1952 with his consideration being given to the naval sea trade theory. The traditional view in the debate is that ‘Botany Bay was the chosen place for the felon, the outcast, the offscourings of British society,’ and Bartlett in 1976 wrote: There is no evidence that either Prime Minister Pitt or any member of his cabinet thought of Botany Bay as anything more than a convenient place distance enough for the safe disposal of social waste. This traditional approach is also supported by Atkinson who believes that ‘Botany Bay was chosen for a convict settlement not because of, but in spite of the possibility that it might become a trading post.’

The idea of establishing a colony at Botany Bay started with the ‘Matra proposal’5 in August 1783, even before the end of the War of Independence between America and England. James Matra who travelled with Cook to the South Seas in 1770, spoke of New South Wales as having good soil, advantages of flax cultivation, trade with China and others, the availability of timber for ships masts and Sir Joseph Banks support. Matra’s idea was the possible new colony could be used by ‘those Americans who had remained loyal to Britain in the War of Independence’ such as himself, this idea however was rejected. He failed to mention or consider convicts, but later amended the proposal to ‘include transportees (convicts) among the settlers but as cultivators in their own right rather than as forced labour’ after an interview with Lord Sydney, Secretary of State for Colonies. Sir Joseph Bank’s actually had earlier suggested Botany Bay as a possible site for a British Settlement whilst aboard the Endeavour in May 1770.

Did the British government consider the type of labour force that would be required to establish a colony or was Botany Bay just seen as a solution to the ever growing number of convict hulks along the River Thames ? Governor Phillip soon after arriving in 1788 requested ‘carpenters, masons, bricklayers’ to help with the setting up of the colony along with many tools of the trades. Yet the proposal for the establishment of the new colony being ‘Heads of a Plan’ addressed the effective disposing of the convicts to the new colony, along with the cultivation of flax, required stores and provisions, clothing for convicts, how the objective of the convict colony overrides the costs involved, naval staff and such. With Britain continuing to send convicts to Australia for many decades, the cost involved in transporting convicts must have been less that dealing with the problem of the over crowded hulks and goals in England.

The tools sent with the First Fleet were of poor standard, with only twelve carpenters amongst the vast number of convicts. Womens’ clothing was also of poor quality and quantity plus old aged and ailing convicts were sent. The bad planning and outcome does not support the belief of the non-traditional view of the reasons behind the decision to colonise Botany Bay: The ‘great southern port’ and the ‘development of a flax industry for naval use’ dreamed up by recent writers as the reason for the settlement rather than for the disposal of unwanted convicts seem to have been somewhat negated by this sorry account of inadequate supplies of even the most elementary equipment.

The traditionalist may well ask that if Botany Bay was planned to be the ‘great southern port’ why then did the first free settlers not arrive until 1793 on the Bellona, eight years after the arrival of the First Fleet, again adding more baffling options and outcomes to the Botany Bay debate. Governor Phillip was given instruction to cultivate flax: And as it has been humbly represented to us that advantages may be derived from the flax-plant which is found in the islands not far distant from the intended settlement...excellence of a variety of maritime purposes...an article of export...that you do send home (Britain) ... samples of this article...instruct you further upon this subject.

These orders have been part of the non-traditionalist’s justification to their point of view. Traditionalist historians feel the possibility of the flax industry at Botany Bay was just a possible extra benefit to England when options for the convicts were being decided. Yet contracted tradesmen were still being sent to New South Wales in 1792 to help with the colony at Norfolk Island and others.Sparse flax producing equipment was sent out with the First Fleet ‘which hardly indicates strong encouragement for any flax enterprise’ or faith in the success of the new venture.

The traditionalist stands firm with the opinion that Botany Bay was only colonised to ‘rid the nation’s (Britain) prisons and hulks of convicts’. Frost believes the opposite is true. He has approached the Botany Bay debate by embracing the whole picture and the possible strategic plan with the Pitt Cabinet decision to set up a colony was for a number of motives; naval trade, supply of flax and naval timber from Norfolk Island and the fact the use of Britain’s excess convicts (labour) may well help serve in these purposes. Frost also reviews the possible new political and economic benefits that may have been achieved if they were included in Britain’s decision process in regards to the new colony. Botany Bay had already been surveyed by Cook in 1770 noting the (so called) natural resources available, by colonising at New South Wales, Britain would protect Cook’s ‘right of possession’ over Botany Bay from the French and Dutch, thus giving them more positional power over the seas and any possible trade.

During the 1960s debate, Blainey (presenting the flax and naval timber theory) accused Bolton of giving confusing comments in summarising his theory and argument against the new ideas for the reasons behind the decision made about Botany Bay. Blainey believes of the logic behind the: British politicians (who) did not have to emphasise that flax and timber were vital to their country; it was too obvious to be spelled out. He accused Bolton of changing and misunderstanding the content and interpretation of his (Blainey’s) research and writings. This trend seems to have been continued by other opinionators on the Botany Bay debate. During the 1960s disagreement: The fact that New South Wales was almost entirely a convict settlement tended to be overlooked. Both the ‘flax and timber’ theorists and the ‘China route’ party have had to admit that the early years of the New South Wales colony did not triumphantly vindicate their arguments.

The Botany Bay debate has been expanded by questioning the 1786 draft, unsigned letter to Hamilton, Under Secretary to Lord Lieutenant in Ireland. In this letter the convicts that were to be sent to Botany Bay would ‘be employed in Cultivating Grain and other Vegetable productions for their subsistence’. A paragraph that features in this draft was omitted from the actual letter sent. In this the convicts are refer to as those ‘dreadful Banditti’ and the most intriguing statement in this omitted paragraph is ‘But above all, the Cultivation of the Flax Plant seems to be the most considerable object’ Roe has asked ‘whether the significance of the paragraph (content) is either enhanced or diminished by its eventual omission is a very open question’.

Mackay is yet another who has expressed a view on the Botany Bay debate, commenting on other historians opinions. He argued against the strategic position of Botany Bay in relationship to naval trade. Like many, Mackay feels that the establishment of the colony was rushed and poorly done and ‘crisis orientated’ not a good start if the motives were really for naval trade and timber supply. After viewing many of what seems to be a circle of comments and opinions that form the Botany Bay debate, he then accused the non-traditionalists of: Distorting our records of the past, and sought to create a myth of a better national origin. They have also overestimated the capacity of governments in the late eighteenth century.

Mackay stills acknowledges that regardless of the ‘shoddy’ way in which Botany Bay was set up that ‘from such inauspicious beginnings Australia grew to maturity and nationhood’ which is part of our heritage. But is this really what the Botany Bay debate is all about? The question of exceptions has also come to play a critical role in the debate about the origins of the penal colony in New South Wales. Should the debate be confined to the reasons and available records of the decision making process as to why Botany Bay was chosen for a British Colony and not what actually happened at the new Colony?

Many of the opinions, assumptions and counter arguments presented in this never ending debate are supported with proof of the writer’s belief and explanation. The actual decision process to colonise Botany Bay can be puzzling and more than twofold depending on the approach one has to the available documents and incorporating the outcomes of the new settlement. One aspect of writing about history is based on the availability and range of documents along with the approach and interpretation of them by the researchers. Historians of different gender, culture and backgrounds may well render different versions and/or opinions of the same source/s. And so the Botany Bay Debate will continue. What ever approach one takes, all agree that one of the results achieved by the decision to establish the Settlement was to relieve the pressure of the British authorities to find a solution to the ever growing numbers of criminals.

References & Bibliography
Primary Sources: Books.
Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol. I.

Banks, Joseph Sir. ‘Extract from the Endeavour journal of Banks, May 1770 located with Banks papers, Series 35.01 CY 3008/602 and CY 3008/603 at Mitchell Library Sydney, located also on the internet at http://www.slnsw.gov.au/Banks/series_35/35_01.htm.
Letter to Hamilton, Under Secretary to Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, draft, unsigned from possible Lord Sydney, Secretary of State of the Colonies, dated 24 October 1786 at Colonial office papers 202/5 of reel 56, National University - Mitchell Library series photographed in the Public Office London, transcript in Michael Roe,‘Motives for Australian Settlement; a document’, in The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, ed. Ged Martin, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney.
‘Heads of a Plan’, in The Founding of Australia:The Argument about Australia’s Orgins, ed. Ged Martin, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981.
Matra, James Maria. ‘Proposal for establishing a Settlement in New South Wales’, 23 August 1783 in The Founding of Australia:The Argument about Australia’s Orgins, ed. Ged Martin, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981.

Secondary: Books.
Barlett, Norman. 1776 - 1976: Australia and America through 200 years, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1976.
Dunn, Cathy. Ladies of the Royal Admiral 1792, the author, Milton, 1996.
Eldershaw, M. Barnard. Phillip of Australia, Augus & Robertson, Sydney, 1972.
Gillen, Mollie. The Search for John Small: First Fleet, Library of Australia History, North Sydney, 1985.
Mackay, David. A Place of Exile: European Settlement of New South Wales, Oxford University Press,Melbourne, 1985.
Martin, Ged (ed.). The Founding of Australia:The Argument about Australia’s Orgins, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981.
Maynard, Margaret. Fashioned from Penury: Dress as Cultural Practice in Colonial Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1994.
Molony, John. The Penguin Bicentennial History of Australia: The Story of 200 Years, Penguin Books, Ringwood Victoria, 1988.
Abbott, Graham. ‘The excepted cost of the Botany Bay scheme’ in Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 81, Part 2, Sydney,1995.
Atkinson, Allan. ‘A Counter-Reposte’ in The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, ed. Ged Martin, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981.
Blainey, Geoffrey. ‘Botany Bay or Gotham City’, in The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, ed. Ged Martin, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981.
Frost, Alan. ‘The Decision to Colonise New South Wales’, Australians to 1788, in series Australians: A Historical Library, 1987.
Martin, Ged. ‘Summary and suggestions for further reading’ in The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, ed. Ged Martin, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981
Roe, Michael. ‘Motives for Australian Settlement; a document’, in The Founding of Australia: The Argument about Australia’s Origins, ed. Ged Martin, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981.

Written by Cathy Dunn as part of the Graduate Diploma in Applied and Local History, UNE September 1998

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