Australia in the 1790s


Summary of the decade

The 1790s opened with the small Port Jackson British colony under threat of starvation. After substantial crop failures and the wreck of the store ship HMS Guardian off the Cape of Good Hope, a mere five weeks' supply of rations was left in the stores. In 1790, the settlement's non-Indigenous population was 1,715 and the settlement at Norfolk Island numbered 524. The Second Fleet arrived in June 1790 after losing more than a quarter of its 'passengers' en route through sickness. The Third Fleet arrived in April 1791 bearing convicts whose physical condition was equally appalling. The New South Wales Corps replaced the marines in 1791.

A complete map of New Holland was gradually being drawn due to sea explorations and the charting of the inlets and coasts of the continent. Van Diemen's Land was revealed to be an island and separate from the mainland. Curiosity and the need to find areas of good soil, water and pastures played a part in prompting early explorations.

In 1792, Major Francis Grose (1758–1814) was appointed commandant of the New South Wales Corps, administering the penal colony after the departure of Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814). He and Captain William Paterson (1755–1810) shared these responsibilities prior to the arrival of Governor John Hunter (1737–1821) in 1795. Under Grose's administration the wealth, power and influence of the New South Wales Corps increased rapidly. He replaced civil magistrates with military officers, and appointed Lieutenant John Macarthur (1767–1834) as inspector of public works. Due to more favourable conditions, he increased weekly rations for the New South Wales Corps and improved their housing.

In 1795, Governor John Hunter replaced Paterson, but he was unable to weaken the power of the New South Wales Corps. When Hunter took charge, the population of the colony was about 3,211, of whom 59 per cent were convicts, with the remainder made up of military, administrative personnel, a small number of free settlers and 'freed' convicts.

Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) supported the colonisation of New South Wales and corresponded with all the governors from Phillip to Macquarie. He enlisted the support of officers from the New South Wales Corps to send him a great number of animals and plants. Some visiting ships were fitted with special 'plant cabins' made to Banks' specifications. He and other notable botanists recorded the unique flora and fauna of the region. The animals included the platypus, wombat, opossum and koala. Sent back to England was a vast array of brightly plumed birds, kingfishers, an emu and black swans. The flora included samples of waratah, grevillea, acacia, banksia and masses of wildflowers, all new to the British eye.

In 1799, despite advances in the state of the colony of New South Wales, Sir Joseph Banks declared that the colony was a useless enterprise. His reports state that he had not found a single thing about the region that would enhance the mother country and compensate it for the huge cost of maintaining the colony. The decade had started with a serious threat to its survival and much criticism from influential government officials, but closed with Port Jackson thriving. The colony's migrant population had doubled, it had secured essential wheat supplies, and a significant wool industry had been founded.

A snapshot of 1798

  • January
    • The first public clock was installed in a tower at Church Hill in Sydney.
    • George Bass sighted Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island.

  • February
    • Matthew Flinders explored the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait.
    • Governor John Hunter named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass.

  • May
    • The ship Nautilus arrived at Port Jackson carrying missionaries from the London Missionary Society.

  • June
    • The colonial sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island by convicts, arrived at Port Jackson.

  • October
    • George Bass and Matthew Flinders left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land.


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