Founding Australia

First Fleet landing at Sydney CoveFirst Fleet landing at Sydney Cove

Prior to British settlement, Australia was inhabited by Aboriginals. Their only dog was the Dingo which had also been in Australia for 10,000-18,000 years. However, on January 26th 1788, the British First Fleet consisting of eleven ships, arrived in Sydney Cove, New South Wales. This changed Australia forever. The new white settlers, ignorant of how different the terrain and climate was to that of Britain, expected to practice their British ways of life in Australia. This outlines the first 'White Australian' settlements.

Initially a British Penal Colony

Australia was first settled as a British penal colony. In Britain in late 18th-century, the Industrial Revolution caused widespread economic displacement. People flocked to cities where unemployment and cheap alcohol saw the crime rate rise dramatically. As British jails became increasingly overcrowded, the government was forced to use dilapidated warships from various ports as makeshift floating prisons.

Early ConvictsEarly Convicts

Under English law, convicted criminals and other undesirables were transported on these warships to a penal colony as an alternative to sentencing them to death. With more and more prisoners jailed for petty theft, the sentence of transportation was increasingly applied. Consequently England transported convicts to its colonies in America. But between 1775 and 1783 when America's War of Independence was fought, Britain's 13 North American colonies threw off British rule to establish the sovereign United States of America (USA). From 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed, the newly formed USA refused to accept further shipments of British convicts.

Consequently, between 1788 and 1868, the British government transported approximately 165,000 convicts to its new colony, Australia. For example, in 1788 the First Fleet brought out more than 700 convicts. The Second Fleet in 1790 brought out another 928 more  convicts 26% of whom died on board and 40% were dead within 8 months, mainly through starvation. But the convicts kept coming for the next 80 years! The convicts who survived, struggled to find sufficient food to keep themselves alive. With complete disregard to our Aboriginals who, for tens of thousands of year had learned how to live off the land, at first the British attempted to use their farming methods in Australia. Meanwhile this is a description of how one of the female convicts survived:

Our kingaroo rats are like mutton, but much leaner; and there is a kind of chickweed so much in taste like our spinach that no difference can be discerned[1a].

The Cattle go Walkabout

Modern Drakensberger Black Cattle bullModern Drakensberger Black Cattle bull

When the First Fleet sailed around the Cape of Good Hope of South Africa, the crew picked up supplies which included four cows and two bulls of native Drakensbereger black cattle. When the Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, the cattle were yarded each night. In the absence of any Livestock Guardian Dogs to prevent them straying, a convict was made herdsman and given strict instructions not to let the cattle out of his sight.

However, 5 months later in June 1788, the cattle escaped. Numerous parties were sent out to try and recover them. After a three-weeks fruitless search, Governor Phillip gave up looking. He incorrectly concluded the cattle had been speared by the Aboriginals, or strayed too far into the interior of this unforgiving land to warrant further investigation. Consequently, the starving community at Sydney Cove regarded bringing the cattle to Australia as an "absolute disaster".

Founding a Cattle Industry

The Nepean River todayThe Nepean River today

However, seven years later in October 1795, two convicts on a hunting expedition heard rumours from the Aboriginals that cattle existed across the Nepean River. The new British settlers obviously underestimated the survival instincts of wild cattle! After travelling for two days across the river in a southerly direction, to the convicts' surprise and satisfaction they found a herd of over 40 cattle grazing. Further investigation revealed several herds of cattle totalling over 100 head that had crossed the Nepean River presumably when the river levels were low.

Five years previously, there had been a report about that part of the country being in drought, making river levels drop. Typical of Australian weather, long periods of drought are usually followed by huge amount of rain. Of course this makes the whole countryside look infinitely better. That is why, in October 1795 the land was described land as

".. country remarkably pleasant to the eye, and the finest yet discovered in New South Wales, the soil good and eligible for cultivation, everywhere thick luxuriant grass.. "[2]. 

Modern herd of Drakensberger cattleModern herd of Drakensberger cattle

This turned what at first appeared to be a dreadful disaster into perhaps the most important event of the early years of white settlement in New South Wales. It also gave an insight into the capabilities of Australia to carry vast herds of cattle.

Many proposals were made to drive the cattle into the settlement at Sydney Cove. However John Hunter, the second NSW Governor and his successors were determined to allow the cattle remain undisturbed and reserve the area for the exclusive use of the wild cattle which had thrived there. However, these efforts were eventually frustrated by new settlers raiding the wild herds to enhance their own cattle imported in subsequent fleets which were beginning to thrive in other parts of NSW. By around 1812, pure breed Drakensberger Black Cattle had completely disappeared.

Founding a Wool Industry

Commemorative StampCommemorative Stamp

The significance of this event appealed to Captain John Macarthur as a means of producing sheep capable of growing fine fleeced wool. In 1797, Merino sheep (3 rams and 5 ewes) from the Cape of Good Hope had been imported with the intention of producing fine fleeced sheep. In 1801 Macarthur visited England taking examples of the wool shorn from these sheep. This attracted the interest of his Majesty King George 3rd, as well as Lord Camden, an influential politician after whom the grant of land would became named.

At this time, the Napoleonic Wars had stifled the British economy by closing Britain off to European merchandise. This meant that the expanding British Empire was desperately short land suitable for grazing sheep. John Macarthur envisaged the land found by the cattle in New South Wales as being capable of filling this gap. After all, the type of sheep he was promoting had not thrived to his satisfaction nearer to Sydney.

Consequently, John Macarthur lodged an application for a grant for this land. Politically this was also an opportune time to attract the attention of the British elite to the potential of the new colony to produce fine wool which was an ideal export commodity for the new colony. After all, wool was non-perishable, hard to damage and travelled well. The 'smug' Macarthur returned to New South Wales in 1805 with his own ship, 'the Argo' and a few more Merinos bought from King George 3rd. With the help of Lord Camden, he claimed another 5,000 acres of 'the best land so far' found in the colony New South Wales. With the assistance of Lord Camden, in 1805 a grant of 10,000 acres (4,046 hectares) of the best pasture land in the colony was given to John Macarthur to develop his rare Merino sheep[3].

Camden Park 1804Camden Park 1804

However, it was John Macarthur's wife, Elizabeth together with their two sons, James and William who established  Camden Park. They turned it into a property which was to become the nationally acclaimed sheep station which, by 1820 housed some 5,000 merino wool sheep. This established the fine wool industry responsible for the wool trade which was to make Australia one of the richest countries in the world. Additionally, cross-bred Merinos fed the growing population.

Australia Opens Up

Without today's technology, it is unimaginable how quickly the news spread about the success of the wool industry created in Britain by Australia's Merino sheep. This sparked the interest of the British as well as other Europeans who realised the potential of the land that was up for grabs. The next Century would see new settlements happening all over Australia. While the coastlines were being settled, stock routes and travel by river opened up Australia's interior.

References and Further Reading


[1a] ibid., 'Letter from a Female Convict' Retrieved by Cheryl Timbury Feb 6 2021

[2] "Burrenuick"The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842-1954), Saturday 13 August 1932, page 9

[3] Guy Hull, 'the Dogs that Made Australia' (Harper Collins Australia, Sydney NSW 2000) Chapter 6 Page 124