Australia in the 1790s


From the beginning of the penal settlement convicts tried to escape. Those who walked off into the bush usually perished as they lacked the survival knowledge and skills needed to find food, fresh water and shelter. Those convicts who did return to the colony were dehydrated, emaciated and defeated. Others were taken in by Indigenous family groups and some were returned to the British by Indigenous groups or individuals.

In 1791, 21 male convicts and a pregnant female convict escaped from Rose Hill (later Parramatta) with some provisions, clothing and work tools. Some convicts sighted them after their escape and the escapees informed them that they were on their way to China. The convicts mistakenly believed that China was nearby and they could just walk there. In January 1792, another 44 men and 9 women went missing from a muster.

A more successful escape was that of William and Mary Bryant (1765–1794+) who, with their two children and seven other men, stole the Governor Phillip's six-oared cutter from Sydney Cove in Port Jackson. In 1791, they managed to sail to Timor where they posed as survivors from a shipwreck. Captain Edward Edwards arrested them in Timor after they admitted to their escape. He sent them back to England with William, their son Emanuel and daughter Charlotte dying during the voyage. Mary Bryant was eventually pardoned in 2 May 1793, six weeks after her original sentence had expired. She was 28 years old. Her four surviving companions were released the following November, one of them later enlisting in the New South Wales Corps.


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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