HISTORY: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Australia's journey: From prison to democracy in 40 years
, October 26, 2013
In January 1788, the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay. When Botany Bay failed to live up to Captain James Cook’s glowing assessment, the fleet moved north to Port Jackson. Sydney Cove had sweet water, a fine anchorage and apparently fertile soil. On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip took possession of New South Wales in the name of George III, then king of Great Britain and Ireland.
This first Australia Day was remarkable in itself. Barely three per cent of convicts and crew had perished during the voyage, which has been described in modern day terms as a feat equivalent to colonising the moon. Of the 11 ships in the First Fleet, none were lost at sea, an achievement in itself.
Firm figures are not available, but some 1,483 people, including seamen, are estimated to have landed with the First Fleet. Of these, 504 were male convicts and 192 were female convicts. Among them were the first free settlers, the wives and children of the marines who were to garrison the colony.
Few could foresee that this infant settlement, often teetering on the brink of starvation in the first hard years, would become a self-governing colony with its own legal system in just over 40 years. How did this happen? This must surely be an historical mystery worthy of investigation. How did a colony stained with so much “bad blood” make this transition? According to Portia Robinson, it all had to do with family.
In her book, The Hatch and Brood of Time: A Study of the First Generation of Native-Born White Australians 1788-1828 (Melbourne: OUP, 1985), Robinson shows that, in Britain, children were not valued. Infanticide was a common means of population control among the servant classes. Domestic servants risked being discharged without a reference if they gave birth to an illegitimate child, condemning them to a life of destitution. If they gave birth to a child, they strangled or abandoned it, then returned to work.
The fate of children born to a couple, who were usually in a common law marriage, was not much better. Children were put to work as soon as they could walk. Four-year-olds were commonly put to work in factories. Charles Dickens’s experiences in the blacking factory were relatively benign.
If they were not put to work as unskilled labour, children were often apprenticed at an early age to masters who used them as virtual slave labour. Childhood, as we know it today, did not exist for the lower classes.
In Australia, the situation was very different. Infanticide was very uncommon and there was little stigma attached to illegitimacy. This was due in no small part because, as the poem says, “men of religion were few”. The Church of England had a monopoly on religion. Catholics, Jews and non-conformists frequently preferred to delay marriage (with their children unbaptised) rather than accept the ministrations of the Church of England.
Illegitimacy did not involve a loss of reputation or a stain on one’s character. Children were valued. In the early settlement, men outnumbered women four to one. Women and children were precious. Labour was plentiful. Children had no need to work. They had a childhood. Away from England’s teeming, fetid slums, Australian children grew strong and healthy. Women were full-time mothers; they did no paid work after marriage.
Robinson writes: “The children of the colony during this period were completely unfamiliar with the poverty, misery and destitution which resulted from lack of employment, lack of opportunity, even lack of incentive to work” (p.144).
Apart from the Castle Hill Rising by Irish convicts, New South Wales was internally peaceful. After an initial period of accommodation, conflict arose between the settlers and the aborigines as farmers pushed them off their hunting grounds. Fictionalised accounts of the settlement process are given in The Secret River (2005) and Sarah Thornhill (2011) by Kate Grenville (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company). A person of ambition could obtain a grant of land from the governor. On farms and in small businesses, the sons and daughters of convicts became used to “family work”. They were valued as family members and people.
It is said that the children of convicts were leavened by the children of free settlers and military personnel; but some 85 per cent of the “currency lads and lasses”, as the native-born were called, were the children of ex-convicts. The colonisation schemes promoted by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whereby free settlers were encouraged to colonise Australia, were influential in New South Wales but more so in South Australia and to a lesser extent in Western Australia.
Free settlers began arriving in numbers in New South Wales from 1793. In 1823, New South Wales gained a modicum of self-government with its Legislative Council and the establishment of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. The transformation from a penal colony to self-government in slightly more than 40 years is an achievement of economic opportunity and family life of which we can all be proud.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.