On This Day – 26th January 1788

View of Port Jackson (Matthew Flinders)

On the 26th of January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip planted the British flag at Port Jackson on what is now Sydney harbour.  Phillip had arrived with 11 ships comprising 732* convicts, marines and a handful of other officers. The holds were stuffed full of goodies that the Powers-That-Be in the UK thought would be necessary to establish a penal colony.

Contrary to popular belief this was not the first land-fall for the expedition, which had left England some eight months earlier. Following the advice of Joseph Banks, who had  been part of James Cook’s expedition, Phillip had been told to set up his colony at Botany Bay where he landed on the 18th of January. Having decided that the place was unsuitable, he decided to go elsewhere.

Banks’s advice was not the only thing that the Powers-That-Be in the UK got wrong. The 772 convicts bound for the Antipodes were mainly from London, people more used to buying food than growing it. Phillip’s pleas that farmers be included on the ships  went unheeded by the authorities.

One can only imagine the horror of those first settlers. It was January and hot. The flora and fauna was unfamiliar – even the leaves on the trees hung the wrong way! Add to that they were expected to learn, and learn fast if they were not to starve, how to grow their own food.

However, the Powers-That-Be got one thing right. The colony was not just a prison. Phillip had said before leaving England: “In a new country there will be no slavery and hence no slaves,” and he meant what he said. While discipline, floggings and hangings were commonplace, it was possible for those who abided by the rules to do well and prosper.

Phillip also tried to establish good relationships with the local aboriginal tribe: he ordered that they must be well-treated, and that anyone killing Aboriginal people would be hanged. I don’t know if that ever happened, but Phillip was speared after a misunderstanding with the local people and he ordered his man not to retaliate.

The 26th of January is a public holiday in commemoration of Phillip’s landing. Most people celebrate it in true Ozzie style, with flags flying, and hats, T-shirts and other items of clothing emblazoned with the Ozzie Flag.

Needless to say, many Aboriginals do not celebrate – although some are beginning to see that it is an occasion for uniting the many different peoples who have come to this land.

* 40 convicts died en route.

3 thoughts on “On This Day – 26th January 1788”

  1. A kind of 18th C easyEject, eh? No-frills transport, limited legroom, some food if you’re lucky?

  2. This is developing into an interesting series, Boadicea. As you say, people did do well and prosper, but it was a harsh learning curve. Probably necessary in order to survive in such a hostile environment.

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