‘The essentials of Britain’s foreign policy are bound to be basically two; trade and defence, particularly the defence of trade. There is no hard and fast line between foreign policy and other aspects of policy; domestic, economic and colonial’. C.M. Woodhouse, British Foreign Policy since WW II, 1961

As the 1600s morphed into the 1700s science progressed and maritime technology advanced exploration. Competing territorial and trade ambitions burgeoned throughout Europe, none as fierce as those between traditional enemies Britain and France.

Frenchmen – Lozier Bouvet, Yves de Kerguele, Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville and Louis-Antoine Bougainville and Englishmen -William Dampier, Samuel Wallis, John Byron and James Cook shadowed each other across the world’s oceans.

1770 – New Holland: England’s Lieutenant James Cook RN landed at Botany Bay in April 1770 and planted a tenuous foothold on the island continent of New Holland.

The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) a series of agreements brought a formal end to the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14). Under its terms Britain became the largest exporter of ‘chattel’ slaves.

‘When the expanding [colonial] plantation economy demanded more labor than could be supplied by white servants, Africans were imported as slaves: that is ‘chattel’ slaves…chattel slavery, the most debased form of bondage.

In its most extreme form it evolved in British America, took form in British-American law, in response to the need for a totally reliable, totally exploitable, and infinitely recruitable labour force’. Professor Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of the British Peripheries, Esso Lecture, 1988, Canberra.

In 1772 Britain’s participation in the cruel but very profitable Atlantic Negro slave trade came under close scrutiny.

‘Lord Mansfield made his famous judgement in Somerset’s case (1772), by which slavery was declared illegal in this country‘. J.H. Plumb, England In The Eighteenth Century (1714-1815), Pelican 1965, p. 159 

Following the Mansfield decision In Parliament William Wilberforce and the anti-slavery movement in general redoubled efforts to abolish all forms of human trafficking including England’s export of her convicted criminals.

Since legislation, Transportation Act of 1717[18], Britain had off-loaded to America many prisoners reprieved death on condition they be transported ‘out of the realm’.

At the rate of 1000 per year these prisoners were shipped to America and sold at regular ‘slave scrambles’ . To be more precise – their labour was sold. Sex, skill, physical and mental condition determined the sale price, buyers were mainly plantation owners.

‘The factors who handled convict sales often had pre-existing customer orders that they met when convicts with the desired appropriate skills became available’. Edith M. Ziegler, Harlots, Hussies & Poor Unfortunate Women, Crime, Transportation & The Servitude of Female Convicts 1718-1783, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2014

1775 – April, Lexington: Conflict, the War of American Independence (1775-1783) brought an abrupt end to the lucrative convict trade.

1776 –  April 1776: Parliament passed the Hulks Act to accommodate the prison overflow. During the eight (8) years of conflict approximately 10,000 criminals were reprieved death on condition they be ‘banished from the kingdom’.

The legislation excluded female prisoners but allowed male convicts to be confined on floating-prisoners moored along the River Thames.

1783 – September, Paris:  With French support – men, money and munitions – America’s Patriot colonists led by General George Washington won the war. It came to a formal end in September 1783 via the Treaty of Versailles.

Britain lost her ‘thirteen (13) middle colonies’North and South Carolina, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia – and the right to send any more convicted criminals to America.

‘On 11 March 1784, during the debate that preceded Act 24, Geo. III, C 74, the Solicitor General plainly stated that convicts while on the hulks, were in the eye of the law in a state of transportation; they were supposed to be “on the way to America”.

From the passing of this Act the sentence “transportation overseas” became the usual one, the King in Council later determining the destination of the convicted. Because of this the hulks span the gap between the American and the Australian systems of transportation and as such must be considered in any treatment of the transport form of punishment’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to The Colonies, Library of Australian History, 1993

Once the war was over the British Government feared, a triumphant France who had supported Washington and his Patriot rebels, planned to usurp England’s ‘discovery’ claim to New Holland made in 1770 by the then Lieutenant James Cook RN.

1786: Britain and France: Knowledge that France intended sending a naval expedition into the southern oceans, under command of Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse, became known to the War Office through Britain’s network of spies prominent among them Arthur Phillip.

‘Phillip was a man of outstanding ability, an unusual man in his own or any day. He had that steadiness of mind that can embrace the most trivial detail without losing sight of the main issues; he had imaginative grasp allied with the most uncompromising common sense’. Margaret Barnard Eldershaw, Phillip of Australia, 1972.

Fluent in French German Dutch Spanish and Portuguese, Arthur Phillip, the spy who never came in from the cold, was an exceptionally effective spy.

Britain having lost her ’empire in the west’ was in danger of being squeezed out of the Newfoundland fishing grounds by both France and newly independent America, and determined to establish ‘an empire in the south [and] the sea route to Asia via the Southern Oceans’ an area known to be teeming with seal and whale.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: An armed squadron of eleven (11) ships, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May 1787 to invade the island continent of New Holland, now Australia.

‘In determining the ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] convicts…the standard adopted was of troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham. op. cit

Britain’s use of criminals as soldiers was in no way unique. The manning and victualling of the ‘First Fleet’ expeditionary force followed a precedent connected directly to the Hulks Act of 1776.

Later in the [American] war special army companies composed entirely of convicts were sent to West Africa’. Roger Knight First Fleet, Studies from Terra Australia to Australia, ed. John Hardy and Alan Frost, 1989

The 1776 legislation had provided a ‘severe punishment short of death’ transportation ‘out of the realm’. Of the ‘First Fleet’ complement 1500 souls, one-half were common criminals deemed ‘in a state of transportation’. See: April Fools’ Day – The Hulks Act

Two hundred (200) Royal Naval personnel, four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines and, five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts fed as ‘troops serving in the ‘West Indies’ all available for combat.

The fleet’s female component numbered two hundred and twenty-two (222). One hundred and ninety (190) ‘convicted’ women – camp followers, thirty-one (31) rank and file marines wives and Mary wife of Rev Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplain.

1787 – 25 April, London: Captain Arthur Phillip RN selected for his ‘experience in military affairs was given command of the ‘First Fleet’.  On the 25th of April 1787 he received his commission and Letters Patent and made final preparations for the fleet’s departure. 

20 January, Botany Bay: His technical skills as administrator and master-mariner saw the convoy, after a voyage of eight (8) months traversing 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’, anchored safely in Botany Bay in mid-January 1788.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: Four (4) days later the masts of two French ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe – commanded by Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse – appeared at the entrance to Botany Bay. See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies

Phillip’s experience ‘in military matters’ ensured England had got the better of France so when, within five (5) years – February 1793 – Republican France declared war on Britain the Royal Navy’s ‘domination’ of ‘the sea-route to Asia via the southern oceans’ had been  achieved.

‘New Holland is a good blind, then, when we want to add to the military strength of IndiaI need not enlarge on the benefit of stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales’. Anon, Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol. 1

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson:  At first light Captain Phillip landed from HMS Supply raised ‘English colours’ – the Union Jack  of Queen Anne –  from a hastily erected flag-staff at Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson and claimed victory over France. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land.’ Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book, Ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, Sydney 2017 

Phillip was elated, by the narrowest of margins, he had succeeded in what he knew to be the main game – getting to Botany Bay before the French and occupying New Holland, the gateway to and from India and via the Southern Oceans to Spain’s South American Colonies.

‘There would be ‘some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Edward Jenks’, History of Australian Colonies, cited in British Colonial Policy, Hugh E. Egerton, 1928

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Later that same day the remaining English ships left Botany Bay, sailed nine (9) miles fourteen (14) km north to Sydney Cove anchoring alongside Supply just as darkness fell.

1788 – 27/28, Sydney Cove: Marines and male convicts landed over the following two (2) days, found their land-legs and set about clearing the ground for settlement.

1788 – 6 February: ‘ Between 6am and 6 pm’ all two hundred and twenty-two (221) women and approximately thirty (30) free children were rowed ashore in squally rain on the 6th of February.

1788 – 7 February, Sydney Cove: Captain-General, Governor Arthur Phillip RN, at mid-day on February 7th 1788, without consent of Australia’s First Peoples, or seeking a treaty with them, with ‘pomp and circumstance’ flags flying a band playing formally claimed British sovereignty over their lands. See: Rear Window:  7 February 2018 – 7 February 1788  


‘The short term consequences [of the War of American Independence] were less than many expected. Though Britain’s eclipse as a world power was confidently predicted her economic recovery was swift, and the colonial development of Australia, New Zealand India and part of Africa went some way to compensating for the loss of the first British empire’. Professor J.A.C. Cannon, Oxford Companion to British History, ed. John Cannon, 1997

‘Trade and the defence of trade’ New Holland compensated ‘for the loss of the first British empire’. Britain by way of deception ‘terra nullius’ deemed New Holland an empty land so liable to conquest; ‘from the Northern extremity of the coast called Cape York…to the Southern extremity…South Cape’. See: A Cracker-Jack Opinion – No Sweat

In 1992 Australia’s High Court in Mabo No. 2 found ‘terra nullius [to be] a legal fiction’.


There can be no question of right or wrong in such a case [as New Holland]. The only right is that of superiority of race, and the greater inherent capability on the part of the whites; the only real wrong on the part of the blacks their all-round inferiority and their inability to till the ground or even make use of its natural pastures. Their disappearance was a natural necessity’. James Collier, The Pastoral Age in Australasia, London, 1911. Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2018

‘The tragedy of the Aborigines in pioneering Australia was that they died early and did not have many children‘. Robert Murray, To the Land, Boys, We Live In. Quadrant, January-February, 2018 See: G is for Genocide


On one hand:  “Dispossession” is a concept which has never reflected the actual circumstance at any time. Whites and blacks got along fairly well in the Sydney coastal region from the start….Inland Sydney west of Parramatta had more lethal conflict. The worst incident was a massacre at Appin in 1816 when soldiers, in pursuit of the killers of nine whites on the newly settled upper Nepean River, killed an officially estimated fourteen Aborigines, including two of the settlers’ killers.

On the other hand: ‘Determined Aborigines could, if they wished, have fought off slow-moving sheep, bullock drays and men on foot…Both episodes [Appin 1816 & Bathurst-Mudgee mid 1820 – forty to fifty Aborigines killed] have been attributed to provocative white mistakes rather than to indigenous resistance’. 

See: ‘Terror’ Arthur Phillip & John Macarthur – The Elephant In The Room




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