HIST1010 Short Essay:
Reasons for the British decision to colonise Botany Bay in 1788
Since 1786, when the British government decided to transport their convicts to Australia, many people discussed and debated their real reasons. One of the main streams of thought is that the East coast of Australia was settled with the sole intention of relieving Britain’s overcrowded prisons. This side of view is contemporary to the official position of the British Government at the time. Beside this, a second argument believes in another purpose. The British settlement of Botany Bay must be based on imperial reasons with a greater benefit than to simply separate convicts from society. The debate on the origins of the settlement in New South Wales continues and for both arguments evidence is available. Nevertheless the essay will explore the second view and show that the British government made a momentous decision based on nonconvict motives like economic benefit or strategic naval moves.
The traditional argument in this never ending debate was that New South Wales, more exactly Botany Bay was chosen for the British convict population. The system of transporting English convicts started in former times. Since 1717 the British government shipped them to American colonies and sold them to plantation owners. This economic trade relationship broke up, when they conducted the American War of Independence in 1775. Britain was vanquished, lost thirteen colonies and the original American destination was closed. This forced the British government to look for alternative destinations and Mollie Gillen describes it as “simply the last choice left in a succession of attempts to find a destination to which British convicts could be sent”.
Nevertheless, many historians argue with economic or imperial backgrounds for the British decision to settle Botany Bay. Although some Europeans, like Dampier, had unfavourable impressions of the chosen land, the British government considered a big chance to increase their empire. Dampier spent a long time on New Holland and described it as “being dry, sandy and destitute of water; there were no animals for food, and the sea was not very plentifully stocked with fish”. Even Captain Cook designated the country as worthless in his prior experiences. However, he suggested that the British government could make a big decision by settling this territory. Cook forecasted an encouraging sea based trade route and therefore stimulated the government’s interest. This significant political and economic interest was encouraged by the conclusive loss of their American empire in 1783. In addition to the American War of Independence and the loss of access to their profitable markets followed an unprecedented period of struggle against France. European rivalries, both religious and secular, fuelled the race for exploration. In many ways the competing nations, especially France, Spain, Holland and England, engaged in pre-emptive imperialism as they attempted to claim lands and territories which gave them a strategic and economic advantage over one another. “England, although a comparatively late starter in the search for overseas empire, had also expressed an early interest in discovering the Great South Land.” Towards the end of the eighteenth century the British spirit of commercial enterprise was restlessly roaming the world in search of markets and resources, which will be closely clarified in the next parenthesis. The pursuit and expansion of potential markets was to become a national obsession and therefore the British government decided permanently settle in New South Wales for centuries to come.
This attempt demands time and expence, such as potent nation may well bestow from a certainty of being reimbursed an hundred fold. It is not the work of one year, nor of one man’s life, but powerful nations should calculate by centuries not by days. They should consider themselves as individuals subsisting forever, and lay plans only for eternity.
Furthermore a second non-convict motive for the Botany Bay venture was the obtaining of useful resources like flax, hemp and timber. In the late eighteenth century, Britain needed naval material, particularly in the Indian region, and it was also anxious about its dependence on Russia. The importance of these materials to a maritime European nation such as Britain was perfectly explained by Blainey. He drew the striking analogy to the importance of oil or steel in the twentieth century. In 1773, J. R. Forster was the first European who travelled to New Zealand. Having found plenty of the valuable resources, he suggested manufacturing canvas and rope for the own maritime needs and the East Indies.
The obviously high costs for settling the convicts are another criterion. Sending them to Australia was much more expensive than sending them to an isolated British possession and became a startlingly costly solution to the crowded prisons in England, Scotland and Ireland. However, the British government adapted the means to the end.
 Charles Manning Hope Clark, A History of Australia. Volume 1: From the earliest times to the age of Macquarie (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1962), pp 60-61
 Francis Gordon Clarke, Australia: A Concise Political and Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp 22-23
 Mollie Gillen, “The Botany Bay Decision 1786: Convicts not Empire”, The English Historical Review, Vol 97, no 385 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 741
 William Dampier, cited by M. Clark, Sources of Australian History, London, 1971, pp 24-27, ed. Francis Gordon Clarke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 16
 Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia ’s History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1983), p. 11
 Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, p. 27
 Margaret Steven, Trade, tactics and territory: Britain in the Pacific, 1783-1823 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1983), p. 1
 Margaret Steven, Trade, tactics and territory, pp 2-5
 Francis Gordon Clarke, Australia: A Concise History, p. 15
 John Callender, cited in Mackaness, pp 21-34, ed. Francis Gordon Clarke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 19
 Alan Frost, Botany Bay Mirages: Illusions of Australia’s Convict Beginnings (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1994), pp 75-78
 Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, p. 28
 Alan Frost, Botany Bay Mirages, pp 76-77
 Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, pp 18-23