Scotlands History\|Scots and Australia

The British arrive

You don't have the latest version of Adobe Flash Player.

Why not download and install the latest version now?

Download the latest flash player

In 1768, Captain James Cook set sail for the Pacific island of Tahiti. Cook had been hired by the Royal Society to help their study of the transit of Venus. His ship, the HM Barque Endeavour, transported a group of British astronomers to observe and record the planet Venus as it moved across the sun on 13 April 1769.

On 20 April 1770 the Endeavour reached Australia. On 29 April Captain James Cook landed at Botany Bay, where he first met members of an Aboriginal tribe, the Gweagal. On Wednesday 22 August, just before sunset, Cook laid claim to the east coast of Australia.

I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast ...  by the name New South Wales...  after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.

It is often said that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia. He didn’t. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia had lived there for thousands of years. Captain Cook was the first European to lay claim to Australia.

In 1606 Willem Janszoon, the Dutch captain of the Duyfken, had charted part of the Australian coastline. Australia became known as Terra Australis Incognita - the unknown southern land.  Merchant ships of the Dutch East Indies Company traded with Aboriginal peoples during the 17th and 18th centuries. Terra Australis Incognita was named ‘New Holland’.

Play Controls


Leonie Smallwood, Museum Coordinator, Rocks Discovery Museum, Sydney

In 1788, a fleet of ships was sent out by the British Government that we now call the First Fleet. They were under the command of Arthur Phillip and they were sent to start a colony for the British, here in Sydney. They actually began the colony in Botany Bay, which was a spot discovered by James Cook during his explorations, but when they got to Botany Bay they found it wasn’t quite what they needed for a settlement. After they explored a little more, they found what we call Sydney Harbour and a freshwater stream, which was perfect, so they decided to set up camp in what we now call Sydney.

The people who were on the First Fleet were mostly convicts. They were mostly British people, who’d been caught for some crime, mostly what we would call small crimes, like theft, and they were sent as a punishment to the colony in Sydney Cove. And with them on the fleet were soldiers, who were to watch over the convicts and of course there were officers, who were in charge of everything, to make sure the ships sailed the right way and to make sure everything got set up when they got here. And rats, lots and lots of rats. 

Brad Manera, Head Curator, Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Transportation to Australia was a major punishment in Britain. They didn’t want to build prisons in Britain, so they’d rather hang you or beat you up, flog you in the streets. The British legal system was referred to as ‘the Bloody Code’, because they had something like 240 crimes for which you could be executed. They’d much rather kill you than lock you up. But nevertheless what did they do with those who they couldn’t execute? The answer was transportation. Rather than build prisons, let’s send them overseas and make them somebody else’s problem. One of the choices was the colony of New South Wales in Australia. Between 1788 and eventually 1868, when transportation to the Australian colonies ended, 165,000 men, women and children were transported to the Australian colonies.

A journey would take around about 120 days, and a really fast journey was a hundred days, but sometimes it could take four and occasionally five months. Children made up a large percentage of those transported. You could receive an adult’s punishment if you were only 14 years of age. People were in the workforce by the time they were 12 or 14. It usually meant that they were fitter, because that’s what Australia wanted. It wanted a workforce that could build the Empire. That’s what the British Government wanted of its convicts. They wanted this outpost in the Southern Ocean.

Most convicts that came to the Australian colonies were assigned to farms or to private businesses. 60% of the men and 90% of the women found themselves assigned on arrival. If you were convicted in Glasgow or Edinburgh, you could be pretty confident that you’d probably be assigned and be sent out into the bush to work for a local farmer or for a local business here in Sydney. Others from around the Empire, some of them don’t even speak English, and they end up being treated the worst, and many of them come to places like this, Hyde Park Barracks, which is a convict barracks where convicts assigned to gang labour live.

In 1768 King George III ordered Captain Cook to claim the unknown southern land for Great Britain.

James Cook was given secret instructions by King George III. He was to take possession of the 'Continent or Land of great extent’ that was known to exist in the southern oceans. Cook’s secret instructions authorised him 'with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain'.

Map image of Terra Australis Incognita - the unknown southern land.

When Cook arrived back in England in 1771 he was promoted to the rank of commander.

The First Fleet, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, laid anchor at Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788. Phillip’s second-in-command was Captain John Hunter, a Scot born in Leith. They sailed north, making landfall at Port Jackson on 26 January. Around 1350 convicts and marines, aboard 11 ships, had arrived to establish a British Colony in Australia.

In 80 years, between 1787 and 1868, around 166,000 convict men, women and children were transported to Australia.