By Rodney Davis Member FFFSHC

IMGP1345aI’ve entitled this talk “Why Botany Bay?” but, in thinking about it this is a very easy question to answer. The reason that Botany Bay was chosen is simply this – it was the only place on the east coast of Australia, with the exception of the mouth of the Endeavour River in far north Queensland where Cook careened his ship after running it onto the great Barrier Reef, that had been studied in any great detail as a possible safe anchorage and where he spent any length of time. Botany Bay had been favourably described by both Cook and Sir Joseph Banks who became very influential in the selection of the Bay as a destination and site for the planned settlement. The real question to be answered then is this – “Why was it decided to establish a settlement on the east coast of Australia?”

Firstly, before discussing this question, I must say that I have drawn very heavily on the research conducted by Prof Alan Frost and published in his book “Botany Bay – The Real Story” and its sequel “The First Fleet – The Real Story”. Both of these works explore and draw upon archived documented evidence completely overlooked, not researched or, perhaps, even disregarded by other historians whose consequential limited studies have resulted in conclusions that the Australian solution was solely as a result of the overcrowding of English gaols and Australia was seen as a dumping ground for English felons who, you might say, were surplus to requirements. Frost points out, using documented evidence from extant Government correspondence archived from the 18th century that, whilst transportation of convicts formed part of the overall plan, other compelling reasons included maritime, business, strategic defence and international political considerations. In fact, it is likely and it could be argued, that these were the major reasons for the establishment of the colony with the use of a labour force of convicts a convenient by-product. But, in saying this, I do not want to lessen the importance of the convict situation in arriving at a decision to colonise New South Wales because the convict situation was a pressing emergency in England and had been for some years. But, it was just one of the expected benefits which would accrue from colonisation.

American Colonies 1787However, before discussing these issues, we should look at the situation that England found itself in in the fourth quarter of the 18th century. The American War of Independence had had a profound detrimental effect on England in many ways. One, in particular, was the cessation of transportation of convicts to the American colony to provide cheap labour to landholders, mainly in Maryland and Virginia. Some 50,000 felons had been sent there over a nearly 60 year period from 1718, but this had come to an abrupt halt following the war and America gaining independence.

When it became evident that surplus criminals could not be sent to America other avenues were pursued. As early as 1779, eight years before the First Fleet sailed, there was a proposal to construct two large penitentiaries on English soil and, despite the proposal gaining some acceptance, very little progress had been made by the time that the decision for Botany Bay had been made in 1786. This was mainly as a result of the Pitt administration’s reluctance to proceed and, indeed, in 1784 had passed a Bill in Parliament continuing the practice of “transportation beyond the seas”.

Prior to this the government had laboured over the question of just where “beyond the seas” might be. During the early 1780’s a number of places were put forward for consideration including Botany Bay but more favourable consideration was given to locations closer to home and in places which might prove beneficial to England in its trading practices with the Dutch in the East Indies and in India. For this reason sites on the west coast of Africa were considered and tried as, it was thought, a colony located there would enable ships bound for India and the East Indies to call there for provisioning rather than take the usual but longer route via Rio de Janeiro.

The decision for a site in Africa was made in 1784 but by 1785 it was shown to be a disaster with many factors contributing to its abandonment not the least of which were health ones when malaria and tropical diseases endemic to the area took their toll. Quite plainly the tropical environment was unsuitable for the delicate English constitution.

Emanuel_Phillips_Fox_Captain_Cook_Botany_Bay_dIt was around this time that serious consideration was given to Botany Bay with the final decision in its favour being handed down on 19 August 1786 but was formally dated 18 August because 19 August was a Saturday and Parliament had risen on the 18th day for a recess. By then, however, there were other salient factors which had developed, apart from the transportation of convicts that made it desirable, indeed imperative, for England to colonise New South Wales thereby formally establishing possession of the east coast which had been claimed by Cook in 1770.

One of these factors, it was believed, was defence. At the time England had no significant naval presence in either the Indian Ocean or the Pacific region. Apart from some small port facilities at Bombay (Mumbai) and even smaller ones at Madras and Calcutta, England had nothing which could be called upon quickly to protect even these small interests should conflict break out with any of the nations which were better situated by both locality and naval strength. On the other hand the Dutch were very well positioned with a significant foothold in the East Indies and in their half way port in South Africa at Cape Town. The French were on Mauritius and Reunion and were already looking towards the Pacific to expand their interests. Even the Spanish were better situated than England with access to the Pacific region possible from their interests at Manilla in the Philippines. So, from a strategic defence point of view, England was the poor relation in this matter and that needed to change. New South Wales (Botany Bay) was ideal.

Oddly enough cotton became a major consideration. At the time cotton was sourced mainly from India which not only grew cotton but also had a successful manufacturing industry resulting in the export of cotton goods to the Middle East and also, importantly, to China. England was a major importer of Indian cotton which it used to produce cloth in its spinning mills which had increased in number through improved spinning methods. England was at this time a major purchaser of Chinese goods in the form of tea, silk and porcelain products. Unfortunately China had no interest in English manufactured goods so all purchases had to be made in hard currency mainly silver. This meant that ships proceeding to China for these commodities were virtually empty on the forward journey. (You may recall that many of the First Fleet ships went to China before heading home to England.) It was thought that this could be improved if manufactured cloth could be sent to China as this was a product desired by the Chinese. Therefore, the growing of cotton and eventual manufacture of cotton products in the colony was a major consideration.

At about this time Sir Joseph Banks was looking at a West Indies solution for the production of a number of food plants which could be used by England. Included in this was the idea of importing breadfruit plants from the Pacific, transplanting and growing them in the West Indies to provide food for the slave population used in the area. Once Botany Bay had been decided on, he proposed that the ships used to transport the convicts etc. be diverted to pick up breadfruit plants on the way home. This, of course, did not happen as the Bounty was directed there instead. Whilst the West Indies matter was being considered it was suggested that instead of the West Indies being the producer of these products serious consideration should be given to production in New South Wales as the climate would be suitable and, with a convict labour force, could be produced cheaply in quantity. Apart from cotton which had been the original catalyst for the proposal other items included tea, coffee, tobacco and desirable spices. Hitherto the spice trade had been largely monopolised by the Dutch who sourced their supplies in the East Indies. History shows, however, that none of these proposals actually eventuated in the early days of the colony as the settlers had to concentrate solely on food production for themselves and the growing, manufacture and export of any produce was to come many years later.

John_Cleveley_the_Elder,_The_Royal_George_at_Deptford_Showing_the_Launch_of_The_Cambridge_(1757)_bBefore the age of iron and steel, ships of all nations were of wooden construction and, therefore, timber in vast quantities was required. As an example English dockyards and ship building facilities stockpiled timber planks for hull construction and entire trees for masts and spars. In fact in the 1770’s there was a policy of keeping three years supply stockpiled. This represented a total of 66,000 loads being on hand with a “load” being about one ton which was the equivalent of the amount of timber produced from one substantial oak tree. It does not take much imagination to realize that at this rate of usage trees of a suitable proportion were being rapidly used up and it became necessary to look further afield.

During the 70’s and 80’s a series of wars in which the navy was involved had taken a heavy toll on timber usage not only for England but for all other countries that had some similar involvement. So it was then that all were seeking to access available timber outside of Europe. From England’s point of view the problem might well have been able to be solved in both New Zealand and Norfolk Island. Cook and Sir Joseph Banks had both spoken favourably about the trees growing in these two places, in particular the Norfolk Island pine which seemed eminently suitable for ships’ masts and spars. That this assumption was profoundly incorrect was to be found out later when the timber was discovered to be badly knotted and too brittle for that purpose.

The_Moonlight_Battle_off_Cape_St_Vincent,_16_January_1780_bTimber, though, was not the only commodity in high demand by the ship builders and, consequently, by the navy. Flax was also needed in quantity because it was the essential plant medium ingredient used in sail manufacture and for cables and cordage. Once again Cook and Banks had reported flax in abundance at both New Zealand and Norfolk Island. Oddly enough a worrying shortage of flax had occurred at the same time as the timber shortage and the possibility of obtaining both these commodities in the antipodes was too good to pass up and too valuable to let pass into foreign hands. Therefore a settlement near to both sources was of the utmost importance. Indeed Norfolk Island was considered so important that part of Phillip’s instructions included a direction to send a party to settle and claim the Island for England as a matter of urgency. Phillip complied with this and sent a small party under the command of Philip Gidley King only five weeks after establishing the site for the settlement in Sydney Cove.

Botany Bay was also considered to be an ideal location for access to the South Pacific Region generally. Interest in the whole Pacific area was being shown by all of the nations mentioned previously especially the French, together with an emerging one from Russia and America in the north. Militarily New South Wales was ideally situated to base a significant naval force should a conflict arise. This may well have been on Phillip’s mind when he spoke about Sydney Harbour accommodating “1000 sail of the line”. Whilst this was no doubt a compelling reason to settle New South Wales the one considered to be of more immediate benefit was trade. Botany Bay was closer than England to the major trading entities throughout South-east Asia and, therefore, of significant financial benefit.


So it was then that materials such as timber and flax for naval purposes, a new base for access to the Pacific region and to more readily available trading opportunities together with the possibility of producing desirable products such as tea coffee, spices, fruit and cotton, the Pitt administration saw considerable financial and strategic military advantages to be obtained from establishing a colony in New South Wales. Such a venture could be set up relatively cheaply using a labour force of convicts which, in turn, would have the added benefit of relieving the pressure on overcrowded English gaols.

It can be seen then that the convict solution was only part of a grand scheme which the government of the day had for New South Wales and Botany Bay was the chosen site. History of course shows that Botany Bay was found very quickly to be an unsuitable location for a permanent settlement and the alternative site of Sydney Cove was chosen instead.

However, history once again shows that the entire venture, risky as it may have been considering its distance from the mother country and the nature of the majority of the population, was successful beyond all expectations. It is thanks to the foresight of just a few in England and the entrepreneurial nature of those who were sent, reluctantly, to this country that we, today, enjoy the fruits of their labour – some of us as descendants of those dastardly criminals “transported beyond the seas”.


  1. Image of map of the American colonies in 1787; downloaded from the internet.
  2. Image of Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay; original held by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. image downloaded from the internet at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_voyage_of_James_Cook.
  3. Image of Royal Deptford Dockyards in 1755; downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Navy_Dockyard.
  4. Image of Moonlight Battle of Cape St Vincent; downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Moonlight_Battle_off_Cape_St_Vincent,_16_January_1780.jpg