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A Brief History on the Settlement of Sydney

Overview: Sydney is the most populous city in Australia with a metropolitan area population of over 4.2 million people (2006). Sydney is the state capital of New South Wales and is located on the country's south-east coast.  The first European colony in Australia, Sydney was established in 1788 at Sydney Cove by Arthur Phillip who led the First Fleet from Britain. Built around Port Jackson, which includes Sydney Harbour, the city of Sydney has been called the 'Harbour City'. It is Australia's largest financial centre and is also an international tourist destination, notable for its beaches and twin landmarks: the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.

Indigenous History:  It has been speculated that the Sydney region has been occupied by indigenous Australians for at least 30,000 years. At the time of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, between 4,000 and 8,000 Aboriginal people lived in the region.  There were three different language groups, which were further refined into dialects spoken by smaller clans. The principal languages were Darug (the Cadigal, original inhabitants of the City of Sydney, spoke a coastal dialect of Darug), Dharawal and Guringai. Each clan had a territory; the location of that territory determined the resources available. Although urbanisation has destroyed most evidence of these settlements (such as shell middens), rock carvings still exist in several locations.

Colonisation: On 18 August 1786 the decision was made to send a colonisation party of convicts, military and civilian personnel to Botany Bay. There were 775 convicts on board six transport ships. They were accompanied by officials, members of the crew, marines, the families thereof and their own children who together totalled 645. In all, eleven ships were sent in what became known as the First Fleet. Other than the convict transports, there were two naval escorts and three store ships. The fleet assembled in Portsmouth and set sail on 13 May 1787.

Arthur Phillip

Arthur Phillip

Leading the fleet was Admiral Arthur Phillip, a British naval officer and colonial administrator; Phillip became the founding father of the city of Sydney.  Appointed Governor of New South Wales his administration term ran 1788-1792.

Phillip had initially requested that those with farming, building and craft experience be included in the First Fleet but his request was rejected.  Most of the convicts were petty thieves from the London slums. Thus the early days of settlement were chaotic and difficult. With limited supplies, the cultivation of food was imperative, but the soils around Sydney were poor, the climate was unfamiliar, and moreover very few of the convicts had any knowledge of agriculture.  Farming tools were scarce and the convicts were unwilling farm labourers. The colony was on the verge of outright starvation for an extended period. 

The marines, poorly disciplined in many cases, were not interested in convict discipline. Almost at once, therefore, Phillip had to appoint overseers from among the ranks of the convicts to get the others working. This was the beginning of the process of convict emancipation which was to culminate in the reforms of Lachlan Macquarie after 1811.

Phillip showed in other ways that he recognised that New South Wales could not be run simply as a prison camp. Two convicts, Henry and Suzannah Kable, sought to sue the captain of one the transport ships for stealing their possessions during the voyage. Convicts in Britain had no right to sue. But Phillip not only allowed this, he found in their favour, and ordered the captain to make restitution. Phillip had said before leaving England: "In a new country there will be no slavery and hence no slaves," and he meant what he said. Nevertheless, Phillip believed in discipline, and floggings and hangings were commonplace.

Arthur Phillip also adopted a policy towards the Eora Aboriginal people, who lived around the waters of Sydney Harbour. Phillip ordered that they must be well-treated and that anyone killing Aboriginal people would be hanged. Phillip befriended an Eora man called Bennelong and later took him to England. On the beach at Manly, a misunderstanding arose and Phillip was speared in the shoulder but he ordered his men not to retaliate. Phillip went some way towards winning the trust of the Eora, although the settlers were at all times treated extremely warily. Soon, smallpox and other European-introduced epidemics ravaged the Eora population.

Hut in New South Wales

Hut in New South Wales
Phillip, Arthur. The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay With An Account Of The Establishment Of The Colonies Of Port Jackson And Norfolk Island. London: John Stockdale, Piccadilly, 1789

The Governor's main problem was with his own military officers, who wanted large grants of land, to which Phillip would not agree. The officers were expected to grow food but they considered this beneath them. As a result scurvy broke out, and in October 1788 Phillip had to send the HMS Sirius to Cape Town for supplies.  Strict rationing was introduced and the penalty for stealing food was hanging.  When the Second Fleet finally arrived in June 1790, it was anticipated relief would follow.  However the Second Fleet brought with it more diseased and dying convicts, which further deteriorated the situation in Port Jackson.

Phillip was eventually succeed by Scottish born John Hunter, a British naval officer and colonial administrator; he was Governor of New South Wales from 1795-1800.  Hunter's years as governor were difficult due to a power struggle between military and civil authorities in New South Wales. During the time between Phillip's departure and Hunter's arrival, the military took control of the colony and its institutions. These difficulties continued for the following governors Philip King and William Bligh and eventually resulted in the Rum Rebellion. Hunter is said to have been a compassionate governor.  The Hunter River and Hunter Valley north of Sydney are both named after him, as is the suburb of Hunter's Hill in Sydney and the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.  Hunter was promoted to Rear Admiral on 2 October 1807, and then to Vice-Admiral on 31 July 1810.  Vice-Admiral John Hunter RN died in England in 1821.

John Hunter was succeeded by Captain Philip Gidley King, an English naval officer and colonial administrator. He is best known as the official founder of the first European settlement on Norfolk Island.  King was the third Governor of New South Wales, 1800-1806.  King's first task was to attack the misconduct of officers of the New South Wales Corps in their illicit trading in liquor, notably rum. He tried to discourage the importation of liquor, and began to construct a brewery. However, he found the refusal of convicts to work in their own time for other forms of payment, and the continued illicit local distillation, increasingly difficult to control.  He faced military arrogance and disobedience from the New South Wales Corps; and failed to receive adequate support from England.

Despite continuous opposition, King did have some success. His regulations for prices, wages, hours of work, financial deals and the employment of convicts brought some relief to small holders, and reduced the numbers on the stores.  He promoted the construction of barracks, wharves, bridges and houses.  Government flocks and herds greatly increased and he encouraged experiments with vines, tobacco, cotton, hemp and indigo. Whaling and sealing became important sources of oil and skins, and coal mining began. He took an interest in education, establishing schools to teach convict boys to become skilled tradesmen. He encouraged smallpox vaccinations, was sympathetic to missionaries, strove to keep peace with the indigenous inhabitants and encouraged the first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette.

During King's governance, exploration led to the survey of the Bass Strait and Western Port; and the discovery of Port Phillip, and settlements were established at Hobart and Port Dalrymple in Van Diemen's Land.  While still aware that Sydney was a convict colony, he gave opportunities to emancipists, considering that ex-convicts should not remain in disgrace forever. He appointed emancipists to positions of responsibility, regulated the position of assigned servants, and laid the foundation of the 'ticket-of-leave' system for deriving prisoners.  

John Hunter

John Hunter

Philip Gidley King

Philip Gidley King

William Bligh

William Bligh

Although he directly profited from a number of commercial deals, cattle sales, and land grants, he was modest in his dealings compared with most of his subordinates.  Unfortunately the increased animosity between King and the New South Wales Corps led to his resignation and replacement by William Bligh in 1806.  King returned to England and died three years later from chronic health aliments.

Vice-Admiral William Bligh, FRS, RN was an officer of the British Royal Navy and colonial administrator. He is best known for the famous mutiny that occurred against his command, aboard HMAV (His Majesty's Armed Vessel) Bounty and the remarkable voyage he made to Timor, on the Bounty's launch after being set adrift by mutineers. Bligh's tenacity paid off and many years later he was appointed Governor of New South Wales from 1806-1808.  His brief was to clean up the corrupt rum trade of the NSW Corps. He had some success in his task but quickly faced opposition, which culminated in the Rum Rebellion.  On 26 January 1808, the New South Wales Corps under Major George Johnson (a.k.a. Johnston) marched on government house and arrested him. He sailed to Hobart on the Porpoise, failed to gain support to retake control of the colony and remained effectively imprisoned on board from 1808 till January 1810.  On 17 January 1810, Bligh sailed from Hobart to Sydney in an effort to collect evidence for the upcoming court-martial of Major George Johnson. By October he had returned to England; the court-martial cashiered Johnson from the Marine Corps and British armed forces.  

In 1809, Colonel William Paterson (1755–1810) a Scottish soldier, explorer and botanist best known for leading early settlement in Tasmania was appointed as Acting Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales; he was replaced by Macquarie by the end of the year.

Major-General Lachlan Macquarie, a British military officer and colonial administrator, served as Governor of New South Wales from 1810-1821.  Macquarie played a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the colony. Historians assess his influence on the transition of New South Wales from a penal colony to a free settlement as being crucial to the shaping of Australian society.  Macquarie was a conservative disciplinarian who believed, in the words of the historian Manning Clark, "that the Protestant religion and British institutions were indispensable both for liberty and for a high material civilisation." When he arrived in Sydney in December 1809, he found a struggling, chaotic colony with barely 5,000 European inhabitants. Macquarie ruled the colony as an enlightened despot, breaking the power of the Army officers such as John Macarthur.

Lachlan Macquaire

Lachlan Macquarie


Macquarie made it clear that he had a vision for Australia's future. He ordered the construction of roads, bridges, wharves, churches and public buildings. The oldest surviving buildings in Sydney, such as the Hyde Park Barracks, have his name inscribed on their porticoes. He appointed magistrates to outlying posts such as Van Diemen's Land and the Bay of Islands (now New Zealand). He founded new towns such as Richmond, Windsor, Pitt Town, Castlereagh and Wilberforce (known as the Macquarie Towns); as well as Liverpool. He appointed a Colonial Secretary, a government printer and a government architect, and commissioned his aide-de-camp Lieutenant John Watts (who had some architectural experience) to work on building projects as well. All these actions reflected his view that New South Wales, despite its origins as a penal settlement, was now to be seen as a part of the British Empire, where a free people would live and prosper and eventually govern themselves.

Central to Macquarie's policy was his treatment of the emancipists; convicts whose sentences had expired or who had been given conditional or absolute pardons. By 1810 these outnumbered the free settlers and Macquarie insisted that they be treated as social equals. He set the tone himself by appointing emancipists to government positions; Francis Greenway as colonial architect and Dr William Redfern as colonial surgeon. He scandalised settler opinion by appointing an emancipist, Andrew Thompson as a magistrate and by inviting emancipists to tea at Government House. In exchange Macquarie demanded that the ex-convicts live reformed lives and in particular insisted on proper marriages.

Macquarie was the greatest sponsor of exploration the colony had yet seen. In 1813 he sent Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson across the Blue Mountains where they noted the great plains of the interior. There he ordered the establishment of Bathurst, Australia's first inland city. He appointed John Oxley as surveyor-general and sent him on expeditions up the coast of New South Wales and inland to find new rivers and new lands for settlement. Oxley discovered the rich Northern Rivers and New England regions of New South Wales and, in what is now Queensland, he explored the present site of Brisbane.

Explorers soon learned that the Governor liked things named after him.  Australia has the Macquarie River and Mount Macquarie, Lake Macquarie and Port Macquarie, Macquarie Harbour and Macquarie Island. Elizabeth Bay and Mrs Macquarie's Chair (a headland in Sydney Harbour) are named for his wife. Macquarie's own contribution to Australian nomenclature was the name 'Australia' originally suggested by Matthew Flinders but first used in an official despatch by Macquarie in 1817.

Macquarie's policies, especially his championing of the emancipists and the lavish expenditure of government money on public works, aroused opposition both in the colony and in London, where the government still saw New South Wales as a place to dump convicts and not as a future dominion of the Empire. His statement, in a letter to the Colonial Secretary, that "free settlers in general... are by far the most discontented persons in the country," and that "emancipated convicts, or persons become free by servitude, made in many instances the best description of settlers," was much held against him.

While Macquarie's preference for convict rehabilitation displayed initiative, his stand against the indigenous was somewhat ambivalent. He ordered punitive expeditions against the aborigines, yet when dealing with friendly tribes he rewarded respect.  His strategy of nominating a chief to be responsible for each of the clans, identified by the wearing of a brass breast-plate engraved with his name and title, gave a sense of legitimacy to clan authority.  Macquarie also initiated a policy of assimilation, removing some indigenous in an attempt to instil Christian values and European customs.

Macquarie was succeeded by Sir Thomas Brisbane who was Governor of New South Wales from 1821-1825.  Whilst Governor, Brisbane tackled the issue of colonial expansion; in particular he attempted to improve the land grants system and to reform the currency. He set up the first agricultural training college in New South Wales and was the first patron of the New South Wales Agricultural Society.

Brisbane was succeeded by Sir Ralph Darling who was Governor of New South Wales from 1825-1831.  In 1826, Darling initiated the construction of the convict-built Great North Road, linking the Hawkesbury settlements around Sydney with those in the Hunter Valley.  During his governance the Colony’s western boundary, set in 1788 at 135 degrees east longitude, was extended by 6 degrees west to the 129th meridian.  This line of longitude subsequently became the border dividing Western Australia and South Australia. To the south everything beyond Wilson’s Promontory, the south-eastern corner of the Australian continent, ceased to be under the control of New South Wales and was placed under the authority of the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land; proclaimed Van Diemen's Land as a separate government.  During his tenure Darling was accused of tyrannical misrule by, amongst others, newspapers in Australia and England. Allegations included that he ordered the torture of prisoners Joseph Sudds and Patrick Thompson as an example to others, leading to the death of Sudds.

Sir Thomas Brisbane

Thomas Brisbane, Sir

Sir Ralph Darling

Ralph Darling, Sir

Sir Richard Bourke

Richard Bourke, Sir

Darling was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Bourke.  Bourke was Governor of the New South Wales from 1831-1837.  Appalled by the excessive punishments doled out to convicts, Bourke passed 'The Magistrates Act', which limited the sentence a magistrate could pass to fifty lashes (previously there was no such limit). Bourke's administration was controversial and furious magistrates and employers petitioned the crown against this interference with their legal rights, fearing that a reduction in punishments would cease to provide enough deterrence to the convicts.

Bourke however was not dissuaded from his reforms and continued to create controversy within the colony by combating the inhumane treatment handed out to convicts, including limiting the number of convicts each employer was allowed to seventy, as well as granting rights to freed convicts, such as allowing the acquisition of property and service on juries. It has been argued that the abolishment of convict transportation to New South Wales in 1840 can be attributable to the actions of Bourke.

As each new Governor came into power, a number of reforms were initiated.  Bourke, for example, was followed by Sir George Gipps who was Governor of New South Wales between 1838-1846.  Gipps was horrified by the way in which the indigenous population were being massacred by land grabbers.  Following the Myall and Waterloo Creek Massacres in 1838, where hundreds of Aboriginal people were massacred on two separate occasions by squatters, Gipps issued regulations which required a licence fee of £10 a year from graziers; he limited the area of most stations to 20 square miles; and specified that no single licence covered a station capable of depasturing more than 500 head of cattle and 7000 sheep. This brought a storm of protests from the squatters and the resulting controversy continued until his departure.

Sir George Gipps

George Gipps

© State Library of NSW

Sir Charles FitzRoy

Charles FitzRoy, Sir

Sir William Denison

William Denison, Sir

© State Library of NSW

Gipps successor was Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy, a British military officer and member of the aristocracy, who held governorships in several British colonies during the 19th century.  FitzRoy was Governor of New South Wales from 1846-1855. FitzRoy saw many changes take place in the Australian colonies, including tentative steps towards Federation.  He was followed by Sir William Denison who was Governor of New South Wales from 1855-1861.  Denison's credits include the University of Sydney and Sydney Grammar School.  He presided over the opening of the Royal Mint in Sydney and proclaimed the Constitution Act in 1855.

As of 2006, 38 individuals have accepted the position of Governor of New South Wales.  Following Denison there was John Young, 1st Baron Lisgar from 1861-1867; Somerset Lowry-Corry, 4th Earl Belmore from 1868-1872; Sir Hercules Robinson from 1872-1879; Lord Augustus Loftus from 1879-1885; Charles Wynn-Carington, 3rd Baron Carrington from 1885-1890; Victor Albert George Child-Villiers, 7th Earl of Jersey from 1891-1893; Sir Robert Duff from 1893-1895; Henry Robert Brand, 2nd Viscount Hampden from 1895-1899; William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp from 1899-1901; Admiral Sir Harry Rawson from 1902-1909; Frederic John Napier Thesiger, 3rd Baron Chelmsford from 1909-1913; Sir Gerald Strickland from 1913-1917; Sir Walter Davidson from 1918-1923; Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair from 1924-1930; Air Vice-Marshal Sir Philip Game from 1930-1935; Brigadier-General Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven from 1935-1936; Admiral Sir David Anderson from 1936; John de Vere Loder, 2nd Baron Wakehurst from 1937-1946; General Sir John Northcott from 1946-1957; Lieutenant-General Sir Eric Woodward from 1957-1965; Sir Roden Cutler from 1966-1981; Air Marshal Sir James Rowland from 1981-1989; Rear Admiral Sir David Martin from 1989-1990; Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair from 1990-1996; Gordon Samuels from 1996-2001; and Professor Marie Bashir from 2001 to present day.

Sydney and its surrounding regions have been shaped through the successive years of governance; it's growth influenced by interaction with the traditional land owners, penal settlement, military opposition, gold rush years and progressive political changes.  It experienced rapid suburban development in the last quarter of the 19th century with the advent of steam powered tramways and railways; industrialisation expanding boundaries and the population.  By the 20th century Sydney residents totalled in excess of one million; and it continued to expand as European and Asian immigration increased.  The majority of Sydneysiders today are of British and Irish background.  But it has also experienced a healthy influx of Italians, Greeks, Jews, Lebanese, South Africans, South Asians, Sudanese, Turks, Macedonians, Croatians, Serbs, South Americans, Armenians, Eastern Europeans and East Asians.  Sydney in the 21st century is an internationally recognised City, a progressive cosmopolitan hub where suburban families and high corporate entities co-exist; where golden beaches meet majestic mountains; where people live and work in a democratic and progressive society.  Not bad considering its humble beginnings!

Source: Wikipedia (copyright as per the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licence)

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