Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January 26, 1788 – Prisoners Overthrow Guards in New South Wales

With the loss of Georgia in the Rebellion of the American Colonies, Britain’s so-far-successful experiment in penal colonies as buffers to foreign expansion had been cut short. With prisons overcrowded by debtors and petty criminals, a new plan was launched for a penal colony in the far-off New South Wales, which was also meagerly claimed by the Dutch as New Holland. On May 13, 1787, the First Fleet set sail from England with 772 convicts and a few marines commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, who was to be the first governor of the colony. They would arrive at Botany Bay in late January of 1788, which would prove a grim reality to the glorious description Captain James Cook had given of it. This would prove the first sign that the attempt at colonization would be doomed.

While the rest of the fleet was stuck in the bay due to bad winds, Phillip and others explored for a better site, coming upon Sydney Cove. On January 26, disembarking from the HMS Supply, Phillip and some of his officers and marines came ashore to claim the land officially. While they were gone, however, the convicts who were allowed on deck to watch suddenly broke free and overwhelmed the guards. Phillip and the others tried to storm the ship and return order, but the convicts armed themselves from the armory and subdued the soldiers, putting them in the same chains that had once held the thieves.

Back in Botany Bay, the remaining British ships met with a small French fleet under the comte de Lapérouse that had been sent as a scientific expedition by Louis XVI. While the French explored the bay for specimens, the British gradually made their way past the rocks and to Sydney, where they would be liberated by the escaped convicts one by one over the course of the 26th. The Battle of Sydney would be the first altercation of the bloody Colony Days in what would become known as Australia. The thieves formed into something of a mass-gang and built a rugged colony using the goods and supplies from the ships. Phillip and his officers, meanwhile, were handed over to the French, who were to return them to Britain with the message that the colony was independent soil. Lapérouse complied begrudgingly, carrying the extra men with him as he continued his expedition, which was also ill fated. The French ships would ultimately wreck near Vanikoro Island, where their fate would be unknown until Irishman Peter Dillon’s expedition in 1826.

The early days of Australia would be plagued with murder, debauchery, and lawlessness. As illness, specifically scurvy, settled in, the colonists began to organize more peacefully under James Ruse, who traded extensively with the locals and established farming. Rumor spread about the fate of the colony, but it was unconfirmed as none of the ships returned to port. It was word enough, however, to attract the notice of Fletcher Christian and his mutineers who joined their ranks after wandering aimlessly from their deposing of Captain William Bligh. Shortly thereafter, the Second Fleet from Britain arrived, whose luck had been even worse since their transport by ex-slavers had given the voyage a 26% death rate. Christian, who had seen the despicable treatment of his own men and now stood even more horrified by the slavers, rallied the New South Wales Corps to desert, and Major Grose returned to England with the empty transport ships.

Parliament and the Navy began to prepare an expedition to re-conquer the colony, but war with Republican France suddenly interrupted the planning in 1791. Led by Christian and regulated by the wayward marines, Sydney became a vibrant pirate town, working as a magnet for deserters from first the Republican and Napoleonic Wars and thriving on an illegal rum trade. They made political contact with the United States of America as well as Napoleon, asking for protective treaties, but neither would officially recognize the colony. An expedition by the aged Vice-Admiral Bligh launched in 1814 to take Sydney, but Christian and his men would fight off the Royal Navy. Bligh would die shortly after the battered ships returned to India to be refit.

The victory would be short-lived, however, as a larger British fleet would overwhelm the colony in 1817. Many of the convicts and pirates would escape into the Outback or open sea while many others were caught or executed. Christian and other ringleaders were hanged for treason, and the settlements were burned. Australia would be gradually colonized again but in limited numbers until the discovery of gold in the 1850s. Gold rushes followed, filling the land with a new breed of settler that would make Australia into the highly profitable though notoriously most devastated ecologies in the world.

In reality, the convicts under Governor Arthur Phillip were treated practically as equals, gradually building up a viable colony as he pressed for an agricultural base. William Bligh would serve as Fourth Governor of New South Wales while his mutinous crew under Fletcher Christian would disappear to the mismapped Pitcairn Island, out of touch with the outside world until 1808. After the Rum Rebellion against Bligh in 1808, Australia would be under military rule, establishing a rigid foundation upon which the explosive growth of its gold rushes in the 1850s would be built.

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