It has often been claimed that “Australia begins where Europe ends”. This is true in the sense that if inverted and superimposed on a map of the northern hemisphere Australia would cover a span of latitudes stretching from central Italy (Tasmania) to only approximately 1000 km north of the Equator (Cape York) (see Appendix 1). But it is also true in the sense that Australia from the outset was felt to be radically different from Europe. The notion of the strange ‘otherness’ of the country ‘down under’ was derived partly from factual observations of population, fauna and flora, partly from ill-founded, but nonetheless viable, speculations on remote corners of the world. Fact or fiction, Australia was considered to be diametrically opposed to “the known world”, and was (together with New Zealand) increasingly referred to as the Antipodes (meaning literally “having feet opposed”). Being situated at the bottom of the world, and being everything that Europeans were not/ did not want to be, this antipodean continent offered itself readily as a receptacle, or a cesspit for the unwanted “dregs” of English society: criminals.
Discovery When on April 19, 1770 Capt. Cook sighted the flat coastline near Cape Everard (Victoria) and sailed north towards Botany Bay (a little south of present day Sydney), parts of the northern and western shorelines of Australia had already been summarily charted by Dutch merchants (cf. placenames like Arnhem Land, Groote Eyland etc.). Later the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, made landfall at Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania). As all reports, however, concurred on the fact that the land, New Holland, was barren and inhospitable, the Dutch East India Company refrained from further exploration and commercial exploitation – that Tasman failed to ascertain that Van Diemen’s Land was an island bears witness to the lack of interest on the part of the Dutch, and Capt. Cook is rightly credited with the discovery of Australia, which now became New South Wales.
Longitude and Terra Firma Cook had been sent out by the Admiralty in London in the converted collier, “The Endeavour”, to make astronomical observations in the Pacific, and to test the reliabilityof Harrison’s chronometers in determining longitudes. The exact longitude, so essential to navigation and to British imperialist policy, was top of the agenda in the Admiralty and subject to much heated controversy (1). In all essentials Cook acquitted his task successfully, but to say that he discovered Australia by mere fluke, as a lucky spin-off of his indecision concerning the homeward route, would be to grossly overlook important trends in 18th century geography and exploration.
It was believed that the landmasses of the northern hemisphere were counterbalanced by a big, as yet unknown, southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita (“auster” is Latin for “south”). So when Cook set out on his circumnavigation he carried with him notions of symmetry as a universal, governing principle, and once in the South Pacific he was on the look-out for land that would answer the question which for centuries had puzzled geographers. It is one of the great coincidences of history that the man who helped disentangle the threads of longitude, was also the man who defined the Terra Firma (solid ground) of the southern continent, and thus blazed the trail for antipodean theories that would become a determining factor in Australia’s so-called “European history”.
Botany Bay and the Noble Savage Cook’s brief, but much celebrated sojourn in Botany Bay and his perilous voyage up the coast are described in the excerpt from Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (see p. ), but a few points need elucidation. During the first legs of the Pacific voyage Cook and his crew had been impressed with the manly demeanour of the Tahitians and the New Zealand warriors (the Maoris), but in their eyes the Aboriginal people they encountered in Botany Bay fell pitiably short of that ideal. Despite attempts to retain pre-romantic notions of the “Noble Savage”, and of a pre-lapsarian state of bliss, Europeans soon came to see the natives as uncouth and furtive creatures devoid of any vestiges of civilization, and, in time to come, even humanity (see Appendix 2).
Along similar lines the initial exhilaration over the Australian flora soon gave way to despair over the fragile bio-diversity that often led to famine and abortive attempts at farming. To gain a footing on this strange continent the early settlers, free or bond, had to violate the existing order of things, had to think European and “create another Britain in Australia” (2). They failed to grasp the peculiar nature of the continent, and were blind to the way the indigenous population had for millennia interacted successfully with the environment. This lack of understanding not only epitomizes the grimmer aspects of imperialism, but also accounts for Australia’s fragile relationship with the English, be they dubbed “bloody Poms” (3) or admired for their culture and lifestyle. (Cf. “culture cringe”)(4)
The decision to set up a penal colony If Abel Tasman had met with political indifference, then James Cook upon his return to London found the English government ready, for a number of reasons, to take possession of the new continent. On the brink of a major war with France, England feared French expansion in the Pacific, and felt that a stronghold in eastern Australia would be essential to British interests. In hindsight this fear was somewhat exaggerated. A far more serious threat raised by the imminent hostilities was that England found it increasingly difficult to get access to the Baltic to obtain timber and flax – raw materials that were of vital importance to the British Navy. Cook and his chief botanist, Joseph Banks (after whom the bay was named Botany Bay) had given favourable reports on suitable spar timber (the Norfolk pine) and arable land for flax growing in the Antipodes, and the prospect of becoming self-supplying played a major role in the decision to establish a colony. (As it turned out, however, only one man of war was fitted with Australian timber and cordage and it was wrecked when it first met with foul weather, the timber being too brittle).
By far the most overpowering reason to hoist the Union Jack in Australia was the fact that English prisons were crammed to over-flowing. Since the American War for Independence (1775 – 83) England had been barred from sending its criminals to North America. For more than a century England had shipped convicts across the Atlantic where they were auctioned off to rich plantation owners. So now new expedients were urgently called for, and this at a time when England experienced a marked rise in crime rates. This rise was real enough in so far as rapid urbanization and a changing social structure created a class of paupers that could hardly be contained within the existing legal framework. The soaring crime rates can also be explained in terms of the fear and anxiety triggered by the American uprising, and, a few years later, the French Revolution (1779), plus aggravated troubles with the Irish. Fear of subversive elements led to a substantial number of political prisoners. The constantly growing class of criminals, looked upon as depraved, perverted creatures (crime was seen to be embedded in “nature”, not “nurture”), worked in chain gangs and were kept in the laid up hulks of “men o’ war”. The situation was becoming precarious, and what was more apt, given the new opportunities, than to ” transport them beyond the seas” to the Antipodes? There were upsetting rumours of an underworld of crime whose organization was a perverted reflection of the structure of a well ordered society, and the kings of this underworld and all their followers rightly belonged at the antipodean bottom of the world where everything else was turned topsy-turvy; in the forbidding wilderness the prisoners would be their own wardens to a large extent, and if they could at the same time be put to profitable use in supplying the English Navy with cordage and spars, then there was every good reason to remove the offending felons from the sight of respectable citizens. So this is the rather sinister foundation on which the edifice of Australia’s “European history” was erected in 1788.