Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

The First Australian Colony

"Look, I have made ye a place and opened wide the doors."


Beyond the Cape of Good Hope and across the wide Pacific lay Australia, the Great South Land, still occupied only by wandering native tribes. But now, as men pored over the thrilling journals of Captain Cook, they felt that "a new earth was open in the Pacific for the expansion of the English race."

The independence of America, had made the plantations no longer possible for English convict settlements, so it was decided to use the new empty continent-island, in the distant Pacific, for this purpose. In the year 1788, the first fleet of eleven ships anchored off Botany Bay, on the eastern coast of Australia, after eight months at sea. Some 800 convicts were on board under Governor Phillips.

The landing-place proved disappointing, and in an open rowing-boat Phillips explored northwards. Port Jackson fulfilled all requirements.

"Here," wrote the governor triumphantly home—"Here we have the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in perfect safety."

In honour of Lord Sydney, Secretary of State in England, he named the chosen spot Sydney, and here to-day stands one of the most important towns in Australia. Soon the British flag was waving over the tents and huts of the settlers, and New South Wales was declared British territory, from Cape Howe, in the south, to Cape York, its most northern extremity.

"What Frobisher and Raleigh did for America, we are to-day doing for Australia," cried the governor with enthusiasm, to his little band of pioneers.

But, like other early settlements, this one was doomed to suffer. Misfortunes fell thick on the little colony. A drought set in: the seeds did not sprout. The cattle disappeared, the sheep died. Store-ships from England were wrecked. And still more and more convicts were sent out.

"We have not a shoe to our feet nor a shirt to our backs," wrote the wretched colonists. Famine stared them in the face.

Yet in the colony's darkest hour the governor never swerved from his opinion. "This country," he repeats, "will prove the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made."

Cheerfully he shared the slender daily rations with the convicts. But the time came, when even they were nearly finished. Phillips watched in vain for a friendly sail on the horizon. "At times," he says pathetically, "when the day was fast setting and the shadows of the evening stretched out, I have been deceived by some fantastic little cloud resembling the sails of a ship."

At last it came. Men wrung each other's hands with overflowing hearts, women kissed their children with passionate tears of relief. The colony was saved. But the governor was broken down with long anxiety, and had to return to England.

On board the new vessel bringing the new governor, were two young men, thirsting for adventure. Their names—Bass and Flinders—are now famous in the annals of Australian discovery. No sooner had they arrived, than they set forth in a little boat only eight feet long, suitably called the Tom Thumb. They followed the coast of New South Wales for a considerable distance, making clear much that was obscure. Then Bass got a whale-boat and crew of six men, to proceed on a more important voyage of discovery to the south. It was successful beyond all expectation. He discovered that Tasmania was an island, and the channel that separates it from the mainland has since borne the name of Bass's Straits. He had sailed 600 miles in his whale-boat through boisterous storms, and he returned to Sydney to find himself a hero. His achievement ranked as one of the boldest in the annals of navigation.

Soon after this, Flinders, in command of the Investigator, sailed completely round the coast of Australia. Starting from King George's Sound, in the extreme south-west, he passed by the bleak rocky heights of the Great Australian Bight, naming bays and islands as he sailed. On the map to-day we find "Investigator Islands" and "Investigator Straits." There, too, is Cape Catastrophe, where the ship's master was drowned, owing to the capsizing of the boat in which he was landing. Kangaroo Island was discovered by him, and so called because it was a very "kangaroo paradise." These quiet brown animals were so tame, that it was easy enough to kill them, and the ship's crew had a splendid feast after long privations on board. Encounter Bay speaks of his meeting with French ships, also exploring the coast of Australia; and Port Phillip, named after the first Australian governor, was soon to become famous for the city of Melbourne, which stands there to-day.

After a rest at Sydney the energetic Flinders set forth again. He sailed round the northern territory, which in 1863 was added to the province of South Australia, and returned to Sydney after another year's absence.

It would take too long to tell the adventures that befell Flinders, on his way back to England; how he set sail and was wrecked on the great coral reef, which bars the north-east coast of New South Wales; how he found a small boat of twenty-nine tons, in which he sailed safely across the ocean to Mauritius, where he was taken prisoner by the French, then in possession. For six years he lay in captivity, till Trafalgar had been fought and won, and Mauritius fell into English hands. Two more tragedies ended his life. The French had already published an account of Australian explorations and his own account was published the very day he died.

So far most of the exploration of the great south continent had been by sea. No white man had ventured far inland. For some sixty miles inland, running parallel to the east coast, rose the chain of the Blue Mountains. With their jagged peaks and bottomless chasms, they had so far proved an impassable barrier to the interior. Even the daring Bass had tried and failed. He had climbed precipices with iron hooks fastened to his arms, and descended into terrific caverns by means of ropes, but he had not been able to accomplish the feat of gaining the other side.

It now became a matter of extreme importance to extend the boundaries of New South Wales inland. Shipload after shipload of colonists had sailed from the mother country, till more pasturage was required for the ever increasing flocks and herds. At last three colonists started off, determined to force a way through the Blue Mountains. Bound together by ropes and armed with axes, they cut their way bravely through the virgin forests, climbing as they went. Forward and upward they fought their way, where no white man had penetrated before, past the spot, where Bass had failed, till they discovered a range, along the ridge of which they made their way. Arrived at the last summit, they were rewarded by the magnificent prospect, that now opened before them. They had seen their promised land, and the three ragged hungry pioneers made their way back to Sydney with their joyful news. The discovery meant new life to the colony, and two years later, just before the battle of Waterloo, a road was triumphantly opened across the Blue Mountains, to the famous plains of Bathurst.

It was no wonder that Kendall, the poet of New South Wales, broke into song over this famous exploit.

"The dauntless three. For twenty days and nights

These heroes battled with the haughty heights;

For twenty spaces of the star and sun

These Romans kept their harness buckled on;

By gaping gorges, and by cliffs austere,

These fathers struggled in the great old year;

Their feet they set on strange hills scarred by fire,

Their strong arms forced a path through brake and briar;

They fought with Nature till they reached the throne

Where morning glittered on the Great Unknown."