Eighteen Years Earlier...

Students examine the contact the British had with New South Wales prior to the arrival of the First Fleet. 

Student activities

Task no. 1

Eighteen Years Earlier...

Eighteen years before the First Fleet arrived, Captain James Cook had claimed the east coast of Australia for Britain in 1770. Although Cook and the British government acknowledged there were people already living in Australia, they decided to colonise the land under a concept that today we call terra nullius

Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning ‘land belonging to no one’.  

Read the advice that James Cook was given by the Earl of Morton, a scientist who was President of the Royal Society, in 1768 before he set sail: 

They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit.  

Read the instructions to James Cook from the Admiralty (Royal Navy) on the King’s behalf, in 1768, regarding taking possession of any land: 

You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors. 

Answer these questions: 

  • What does consent mean? 
  • Do you think Aboriginal peoples gave their consent? 
  • Do you think James Cook followed the advice from Lord Morton? Why/Why not? 

Read James Cook’s words from his journal in 28 April 1770: 

A small smoak arising from a very barren place… and we soon saw about 10 people, who on our approach left the fire and retird to a little emminence where they could conveniently see the ship. 

Answer this question: 

  • What clues did James Cook see when he looked from his ship at the shores of Botany Bay to tell him the land was not unoccupied? 

James Cook and his crew landed and made contact with the Gweagal people of Kamay/Botany Bay. From the journals kept on board the HMS Endeavour we know they had enough contact to shoot guns and take shields and spears. In fact, during the whole eight days they were there contact was fleeting and the Gweagal avoided the strangers after they shot and injured an Elder when they came ashore. Later in the journey, further contact with Aboriginal people was made at the (now-named) Endeavour River in far North Queensland. 

Eighteen years later, in 1788, the British government decided to treat the country as if it was an empty land, even though they knew there were already people living here. They thought it was a suitable place for the expansion of British interests and justified the invasion of the continent to themselves in this way. 

Answer this question: 

  • Why did the British think their penal colony was more important than Aboriginal society and sovereignty? 

Define the word invasionLook up a few dictionaries to find alternative definitions. Choose one that you think reflects this event in Australia’s history. Display it in your classroom.