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‘At daylight in the morning we discovered a Bay which appeared to be tollerably well shelterd from all winds into which I resoloved to go with the Ship’ – thus James Cook first saw Botany Bay on Saturday 28 April 1770.1
Four months later (on 22 August) he took possession of the east coast of ‘New Holland’ and set his course westward to Batavia. In the copy of his journal which he sent ahead from Batavia, he named the coastline he had followed north from latitude 38 minutes south to 10½ minutes south, ‘New Wales’, but by the time he reached England with the Endeavour, it had become ‘New South Wales’. There was no explanation for the name or the change, but already he had used ‘New Hebrides’ and ‘New Caledonia’. And he had ‘New Holland’ in front of him.2 Perhaps his attention had been drawn to the fact that ‘New Wales’ had already been used for part of northern Canada. Or perhaps Cook was simply the first of many travellers to be reminded of the Welsh coastline near Fishguard by the long white beaches separated by high bluffs which are characteristic of the coast of New South Wales where he made that first landfall in April 1770.
During the next hundred years New South Wales was gradually reduced in size. In 1834, 309,850 square miles (802,508 sq km) were carved out to become South Australia. In 1840, New Zealand was explicitly proclaimed a separate colony thus ending the uncertainty about its status. The southern settlements in the Port Phillip district became the colony of Victoria in 1851, and in 1859, 554,300 square miles (over 1.4 million sq km) of the northern squatting districts were designated as Queensland. New South Wales was then roughly the shape we know today, though it still had responsibility for some untidy areas on the borders of South Australia, rationalised by 1863 to become part either of South Australia or Queensland. New South Wales had not yet, however, reached its modern size of 309,433 square miles (801,428 sq km). Between 1909 and 1915 three parcels of land totalling 939 square miles (2,432 sq km) in the Yass–Canberra region and at Jervis Bay were transferred to the federal government to become the Australian Capital Territory; and as well, Norfolk Island for which New South Wales had had responsibility, on and off, since 1788 became a federal territory. Of all the ‘islands adjacent in the Pacific’ only Lord Howe remained, administered for electoral purposes as part of Sydney (the electorate of McKell).3 Thus the history of New South Wales from 1788 to about 1860 is also the history, until they became separate colonies, of Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland.
Of the Aboriginal people he had encountered, Cook famously wrote:
From what I have said of the natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff etc., they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing . . . In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them . . .4
Both the story of first contact between Aborigines and Europeans, and those years during which the foundations of European settlement in Australia were laid have been extensively studied. It is now quite difficult to do justice to the work of all the historians, archaeologists and anthropologists who have examined these times from many angles, or to isolate the story of New South Wales from that of Australia. In the short space allowed to me here, I have tried to focus on those themes that seem to have a particular significance for what the colony of New South Wales became after it had shed its responsibilities for all its other areas, and settled into the boundaries that are familiar to us today, and to provide a coherent and accessible account of the kind of society that developed within those boundaries. Readers who wish to know more about the land itself before 1770 or the way of life of the Aboriginal inhabitants before they were unwittingly incorporated into the colony of New South Wales should consult the many excellent detailed studies of the pre-1770 period.5
While all the other Australian states have managed to maintain a kind of identity, after 1901 New South Wales seemed to be submerged in the federation or to be seen as the Australian archetype. The challenge has been to isolate themes that are specific to New South Wales from those which are common for all Australia. Some are based in geography, climate and the increasing significance of Sydney and the east coast in a world where both America and Asia have become more important. Others relate to the survival of ideas and social patterns that began with the convict settlement and the effect of a longer experience of the Australian environment than in the other colonies. The combined effects of native-born vitality and the liberation of the Irish element in the New South Wales population proved politically dynamic, while the availability of rich and varied natural resources, not only in land and timber, but in minerals too, made for remarkably easy development and wealth
Map 1.1 Aboriginal language boundaries in New South Wales c. 1788, adapted from the map drawn by Norman Tindale in 1974 and D. Horton, ed., The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Press, Canberra, 1994. (Rodney Harrison, Shared Landscapes: Archaeologies of Attachment and the Pastoral Industry in New South Wales, Department of Environment and Conservation (New South Wales) and UNSW Press, Sydney, 2004, p. 19)
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creation. The constant demand for labour and skills produced a confident working class eagerly embracing both politics and education so that by the end of the nineteenth century New South Wales had become a modern progressive democracy setting the pace for the other colonies. The constraints of federation and closer involvement with the real world during the twentieth century forced a closer scrutiny of both earlier tolerant social attitudes and easy exploitation of natural resources. New South Wales has always had the economic capability to exist independently and its size and diversity give it some of the qualities of an independent nation. At times there has been impatience, if not conflict, with federation. Often the smaller states (with the help of the federal government) have seemed to resent the strength of New South Wales. Yet internal tension, especially between Sydney and the rest of New South Wales, has had a restraining effect. In some ways, the Riverina has always seemed closer to Victoria, and northern New South Wales has much in common with southern Queensland, while the west has always followed the fortunes of the Murray–Darling river system ultimately to South Australia. So Sydney cannot escape the fact that New South Wales has much in common with the adjoining states. Out of this tension has grown an impression of New South Wales as a residual version of Australian history, encumbered with the embarrassment of the first settlement, unable to rise above its origins or shake off its lower class tendencies, permanently enveloped in a cultural cringe. That was perhaps more understandable in the middle of the twentieth century than it is now. But there is more to New South Wales than the historic accidents of its first settlement and gradual dismemberment, as the following pages hope to show.
1788–1840, the convict colony
Generations of historians have puzzled over the reasons why the British government chose in 1786 to make a settlement on the east coast of Cook’s New South Wales at Sir Joseph Banks’ Botany Bay. To describe it as an invasion of Aboriginal land may be accurate, but this does not explain why the settlement was planned or what was intended. It may have been a strategic and economic move, to establish a base to prevent other expansionist European powers like France from claiming the newly charted territory and resources of the South Pacific, such as the flax and ship’s masts of Norfolk Island. Certainly the arrival of two French ships in Botany Bay while the first fleet was still there, but about to move to a more attractive site at Port Jackson, is one of the great coincidences of history. And considering the pressures he was under in early February 1788, Phillip obviously took his instructions to lay claim to Norfolk Island as well as New South Wales seriously.
There was probably also some idea of protecting British trade routes to the East and expanding the sphere of influence of the East India Company. For quite a few years after 1788 all trade to and from New South Wales was technically the prerogative of the East India Company, and the religious life of the colony came under the authority of the diocese of Calcutta. So there were strategic and trading considerations for the settlement.
But there were also the convicts, accumulating in hulks round the coast of Britain since the end of the war with the American colonies, unexpectedly lost by Britain. With the loss went the long-standing dumping ground for the unfortunate ones who were products or victims of the huge social and economic upheavals brought by the agricultural and industrial revolutions in eighteenth-century Britain.1
2.1 The New South Wales coat of arms decorated by artist Christina Yandell with a waratah, the New South Wales floral emblem, and flannel flowers. (E.J. Brady, Australia Unlimited, Geo. Robertson, Melbourne, 1918, p. 143)
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Between 18 and 20 January 1788, miraculously it seems, considering the distances involved, the eleven ships which had left Portsmouth almost nine months earlier came to anchor in Botany Bay. On board were 736 convicts (548 men and 188 women) and 294 assorted men, women and children, marines, their commanding officers, a chaplain, a surveyor, a judge-advocate and several naval surgeons. There were also 27 wives of marines and civil officers and 37 children. Botany Bay, seen by Cook and Banks in 1770 in perfect late April weather, looked less attractive in mid-January eighteen years later. The water supply especially seemed inadequate, and Banks’ ‘meadow’ looked more like a swamp. Within a week, the commander of the expedition, Arthur Phillip, had found a better site inside Port Jackson and moved the whole operation northward to the place he named Sydney Cove.2
From the beginning the existence of the colony was precarious. Because of the distances involved, it was an enterprise perhaps as difficult and as ambitious as now trying to found and sustain a substantial colony on the moon.3 Had the newcomers been dependent, as the local Aborigines were, on what was available in the vicinity of Port Jackson for food, clothing, and shelter, the colony would have failed. Until Phillip’s unenthusiastic settlers were able to clear land, establish productive farms, and ensure the survival of the domesticated birds and animals which had accompanied them on the long voyage from England or the Cape of Good Hope, they lived largely on supplies they had brought with them, or could be gathered from India or the Cape, or could scrounge locally. Those who lived through what later came to be called ‘the hungry years’ were often close to starvation. Phillip’s greatest fear was not that the natives would be troublesome, but that there might be a rebellion among the convicts, or a mutiny among the marines. That neither eventuated until 1804 when there was a convict uprising at Castle Hill, and 1808 when the officers of the NSW Corps led by Johnston and Macarthur mutinied against Governor Bligh’s attempts to suppress their commercial activities and especially their trade in rum, is some indication of the real fragility of the settlement. However, Phillip’s insistence on as fair and equitable sharing of the available resources as possible set a precedent which was more or less maintained while the hard times persisted. Whether this was also the origin of our idea of a ‘fair go’ is an interesting question. From that beginning, though, the convicts knew that they had certain rights both as human beings and as British subjects in this strange and remote place.
Competition for the fish and oysters found in the waters of Port Jackson was probably the first intimation for the Eora people of the seriousness of the danger represented by these newcomers. Then there was the incredibly efficient felling of trees with iron axes and saws, the destruction of tubers and fouling of water supplies. The Aborigines saw the mysterious but deadly effect of firearms. They experienced inexplicable and devastating sickness as they were exposed to colds and flu, smallpox and venereal disease. Competition for food and other resources led to conflict, thieving, and murder on both sides. Eventually farms with a plentiful supply of corn and potatoes in the barns and lots of meat neatly herded and enclosed by fences would present both a threat and a snare to the independence of the Aboriginal people. This did not happen for some years, and in the meantime, Europe’s diseases and her bad habits were let loose in New South Wales, hunting and fishing grounds were destroyed in desperation or ignorance, and havoc was wreaked on those Aborigines unfortunate enough to live too close to the white settlement.
We tend to forget how desperate the conditions of these years really were, made worse as the Napoleonic wars continued in Europe, and shipping and supplies needed in the colony were withheld or unobtainable. In time the settlement did become secure. Farms hoed out of the bush without the help of ploughs or working animals, towards Kissing Point, more effectively at Parramatta, on the Nepean towards Camden, and then in the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury at Windsor, became productive. It has often been said that the first fleet was ill-equipped and the first settlers badly prepared for the work they had to do. Really it was such a strange undertaking, to settle a place so far away and so little known with a large number of convicts, that no one could have imagined what might be required. Something of this can be sensed in the conscious fascination with which most of the educated or literate members of the first fleet recorded their experiences and set down their observations of the strange flora, fauna, and the local inhabitants. More significant, probably, was the unforeseen difficulty of transforming the convicts into reliable and productive workers. When the first fleet sailed, the debate in England over the merits of physically punishing those who committed crimes (by execution or flogging), or trying to reform them through persuasion or education had already begun. This was tied up with early attempts to transform a rural labouring workforce into a disciplined industrial one. As John Hirst has argued, the early convicts especially were unused to disciplined work, and not keen to do it, even though it was for their own survival.4
No question in the early history of New South Wales has been more closely studied than the origins of the convicts. Were they mostly poachers and pickpockets, caught up in a harsh criminal code, or habitual criminals lucky to have their sentences commuted to transportation? Or in the case of the women convicts, hardened prostitutes or poor servant girls led astray by fondness for pretty clothes? The question has mattered because these people were the first two generations of settlers in New South Wales. On their reputations rested the reputation of the colony itself.
Fortunately, by 1788 the British government had begun to develop a recognisably modern bureaucracy and the early population of New South Wales is remarkably well documented. Over the fifty years and more that the convict system operated, the record-keeping became more efficient, so that by the 1830s the lives of individual convicts could be closely monitored.5 Good record-keeping meant closer supervision and more carefully targeted punishment for those appearing too frequently before the courts. Computerised convict records have enabled historians to study the origins of the convicts with modern sociological thoroughness. It has been possible to establish for example that more came from the cities than the countryside – though of course how many of these were originally driven from their rural backgrounds to the cities by the growing shortage of rural work is not a question easily answered. It has also been possible to show the kind of work experience claimed by the convicts, the pattern of their ages, and the crimes for which they were sentenced, whether they were literate, and more – or less how they fared while they were still in the system. What happened to them afterwards is more a matter of chance for the family historian pursuing his or her ancestors, as many people now are inclined to do. Whether or not as deliberate policy, these studies have shown that most of the male convicts were relatively fit, fairly young, and generally suitable material for colonisation. Though not necessarily educated in a formal sense, they were probably a bit smarter or a bit more worldly than average. The women too were eminently suited to the kind of life they might expect to lead in the colony, as domestic workers, perhaps as a wife, but almost certainly also in some kind of sexual relationship with one of the men, though relatively few claimed to have been sex workers before they were convicted, usually for petty thieving. They were also, surprisingly, more literate than average servant girls. It seems as if on the whole the women came from backgrounds where they had little to lose by being bold or clever and had learnt to fend for themselves.6 An ability to cope, not necessarily in a conventional law-abiding way, with whatever life threw at them, and often to make the most of it, seems to have been a characteristic of many of the convicts. New South Wales gave them opportunities where England or Ireland offered none.
Whatever the principles governing their selection, the convicts were used in New South Wales, not always willingly, as labour. From 1788 to 1840 (and beyond), most of the labour to clear and till land, for all building of houses, shops and storage, roads, bridges, and wharves, and most services, domestic and public, was provided by convicts. At first they were mostly required for essential government work, but soon some were being assigned to work privately on land allocated to various officers of the colony. Convict labourers were later assigned to ex-convicts who had taken up the government’s offer of farming land, and even to their own wives who came or were brought to the colony to be reunited with their husbands as free settlers. As the number of free settlers who were permitted to emigrate to New South Wales after 1793 grew, so did the number of convicts assigned to them. While there were regulations covering relations between convicts and private employers, their interpretation varied considerably, giving rise on the one hand to greatly improved productivity where there was satisfaction on both sides, and on the other, to accusations of injustice and inequality because there was such variation in conditions. Government work became despised, partly because it was more closely regulated, and there were fewer opportunities to win privileges or make money on the side, and partly because increasingly government work was used as punishment for convicts who had fallen foul of private employers.
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|Note on money, measurement and terminology|
|List of abbreviations|
|Part 1||Loss, Memory, Desire|
|1||The uniquiet grave: imaginary journeys||3|
|2||Hearts of stone: creating the cemeteries of the Great War||34|
|Part 2||Family Journeys|
|3||In foreign fields: the first family pilgrimages||63|
|4||'Sacred places': family pilgrimage today||100|
|Part 3||Soldiers' Tales|
|5||'To see old mates again': diggers return||125|
|6||'A grave that could have been my own': service pilgrimages||155|
|Part 4||Testament of Youth|
|7||Walking with history: learning about war||173|
|8||'It's like a Mecca, like a pilgrimage': backpacker journeys||188|