Australia in the 1770s


1770s

Summary of the decade


In this decade, Indigenous peoples had rich and complex lifestyles revolving around the land and based on hunting and gathering food and water. They crafted a range of technologies such as shelters, tools, baskets, weapons and vessels for obtaining and carrying food and water. Groups traded with each other for important metals, clays and foodstuffs not available in their own countries. Each group passed their culture, language and beliefs from one generation to the next.

The decade was also a time of great change and increasing hostility between the continental European nations and Great Britain. Tension reached a crisis point between Great Britain, Spain and France over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. The War of American Independence began, ending Britain's control over the American states. The Industrial Revolution challenged established social barriers and increased the manufacturing wealth of Great Britain. Colonisation of new lands dominated British politics and was exemplified by a flourishing Dutch East India Company as well as by the establishment of new trade centres in Asia.

At the beginning of the 1770s, the eastern and southern coasts of Australia were uncharted and unknown to European explorers. The Dutch had explored the west coast of the continent and had sailed past and named Van Diemen's Land. By the end of the decade the eastern coastline had been charted by Captain James Cook (1728–79).

Captain James Cook was one of the world's greatest navigators, a British explorer and cartographer, and captain in the British Royal Navy. As a young naval officer, he was appointed commander of the ship HM Bark Endeavour, which was commissioned by King George III (1738–1820) to sail to Tahiti to view the transit of Venus in the 'South Seas'. The exploration was sponsored by the Royal Society. Cook reached the east coast of the Great Southern Continent (which the Dutch named New Holland) in April 1770. He then turned north, travelled up the coast and landed at what would be later known as Botany Bay. He then continued north, charting the coastline to the tip of the continent. He noted the great number of fires along the coast and on the islands and concluded that the land was inhabited.

On 22 August 1770 Cook landed on a small island in the Torres Strait known as Bedanug by its inhabitants, the Kaurareg people. He charted the island and named it Possession Island. It was on this island that Cook raised the British flag in the name of King George III, thereby taking possession of the whole eastern coast and naming it New South Wales. Following this momentous occasion, he sailed through the Torres Strait, returning to England in June 1771.

Cook's instructions from King George III were to gain agreement from the local people when he took possession of the eastern coast. As he had not been successful in establishing contact with the Indigenous people at Botany Bay, he was unaware of the territorial structure of Indigenous communities. The Aboriginal nations remained unaware that they were now considered by Great Britain to be British subjects.


A snapshot of 1778

  • January
    • Captain James Cook began his third Pacific expedition in the ships HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery.

  • February
    • France entered the War of American Independence.

  • June
    • Spain declared war on Great Britain.

  • July
    • Louis XIV of France declared war on Great Britain.

  • November
    • Captain James Cook was the first European to sight Maui Island of the Hawaiian Islands.

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