Australia Day: An Apology

Artist Ian Hansen’s “Botany Bay – 26 January 1788” of two French ships of Laperouse entering Botany Bay at the same time as Britain’s First Fleet leaves for Sydney Cove.

Today (26 January) is Australia’s National Day.  As apologies seem to be all the go now, particularly today I want to issue my own.

For my international readers some background.   Australia Day does not celebrate when Australia became a nation.  That was on 1 January 1901 when 6 British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania—united to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

Neither does is celebrate when Australia (the east coast) was “discovered” in 1770 by Captain James Cook on the Endeavour.  What it celebrates is that on 26 January 1788, 11 convict ships from Great Britain landed at what is now Port Jackson in New South Wales, where Governor Arthur Phillip raised the British flag to signal the beginning of the British colony.

For years now I have been taking overseas visitors on a tour of Mosman.  One of my stops is on Middle Head where you can look east and see the entrance of Sydney Harbour between North and South Heads.  I have been telling visitor for years how I am amazed that Captain Cook, one of greatest explorers in history, sailed past the entrance and completely missed it.  He nowhere in his journals describes the entrance.

It now turns out according to Margaret Cameron-Ash, in her new book, In Beating France to Botany Bay: The Race to Found Australia that I was misleading my visitors.  Hence my apology.

The story, according to Cameron-Ash, is far more fascinating.

Her hypothesis is that Cook in 1770, was unimpressed with the shallow inlet of Botany Bay.  With a couple of trusted men, he followed an ancient track north along the coastal ridge. From its highest point, Cook saw below him Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). Here was a naval paradise: a natural deep-water harbour and defensible port with ample room to manoeuvre.  As a naval officer and marine surveyor, Cook knew this strategic gem had to be concealed until Britain could garrison the place. He reported it to the Admiralty as soon as he arrived back in London. Indeed, evidence of Cook’s verbal report is held in the Home Office archives. Meanwhile, however, the vast extent of the harbour was omitted from Cook’s published journal and charts.

The British Government sat on this information for 16 years (sounds familiar) but then according to Cameron-Ash, it received bombshell intelligence that Louis XVI after learning that Britain was planning so send an occupation force to New Holland (Australia), decided to send a French expedition under the command of Jean-Francois de Galaup Laperouse to the Pacific to claim New Holland.  This nugget of intelligence, Cameron-Ash argues, compelled the government of William Pitt the Younger to fire Britain’s starting pistol on August 18, 1786, launching Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet on a voyage to eastern Australia.

When Arthur Phillip was given command of the First Fleet, he was told that Port Jackson was his true destination, but he would not sail there directly. Its entrance had never been sounded and Phillip could not risk taking 1500 souls onto a hidden sandbar. Instead, the fleet would rendezvous in Botany Bay (where the poor convicts remained locked in the holds) while a quick survey was made of Port Jackson.

After all 11 ships were moored in Botany Bay, Phillip took three small boats round to Port Jackson to sound and survey it. They spent that first night at Camp Cove and the second at Sydney Cove. Here, at the narrowest point of the harbour, they found a reliable stream of water. The site was ideal for the new settlement. They set off back down the harbour, eager to collect the fleet and bring it round to ­Sydney Cove.  When they arrived back in Botany Bay they saw the two French ships.

Somehow Phillip managed to get the 11 ships around to Sydney Cove while at the same time stalling a meeting with La Perouse.  Finally, after 3 weeks in Sydney Cove establishing a colony, La Perouse was invited around to Sydney Cove.  He then realised what had happened.  He had missed claiming one of the world’s greatest harbours for France.

I have to say this is a much more fascinating story.  Much of it is conjecture with a lack of documentary evidence.  But it does have the ring of truth.  Geoffrey Blainey has challenged the once conventional view that Australia was settled simply to serve as a dumping ground for British convicts. In his classic book The Tyranny of Distance, Blainey observed that the settling of eastern Australia was a “startingly costly” and impractically slow solution to the problem of crowded British prisons. The decision to establish the New South Wales colony simply did not stack up unless wider strategic motives were considered, Blainey argued.

So I am a convert to Cameron-Ash and again apologise to the visitors I have misled.  And Janet Tilsley this blog is for you. J

This blog was first posted on LinkedIn 26 Jan. 22




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