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Why New South Wales?

Students investigate the reasons behind the First Fleet’s journey to New South Wales. 

Student activities

Task no. 1

Why New South Wales?

Did you know that many of the convicts who came out to Australia were originally sentenced to death? At this time in Britain, many people received the death penalty for minor crimes, but often their sentences were changed to ‘transportation’ for a number of years. This meant they were sent to colonies around the world to serve out their sentence, because as we know, there was no room for them in English prisons. The British had been sending some of their prisoners to some of their other colonies in America, but after the American War of Independence began in 1773, they had to find a new solution. The British Government was considering many locations around the world and even sent a ship to investigate possible locations in Africa with no success. 

A wealthy naturalist named Joseph Banks had accompanied Captain James Cook on his journey in 1770 when they had visited Botany Bay. As a botanist, Banks was impressed by the native plants and animals which flourished in Australia, which he wrote about in his journal. A few years after they had returned to England, Banks was asked by the British government his opinion on the best place to establish a penal settlement. 

Read what Joseph Banks wrote: 

to establish a colony of convicted felons in any distant part of the globe, from whence their escape might be difficult, and where, from the fertility of the soil, they might be enabled to maintain themselves, after the first year, with little or no aid from the Mother Country […]what place would be most eligible for such settlement?  

Banks informed the committee: 

that the place which appeared best adapted for such a purpose was Botany Bay. 

Read the quote carefully. Highlight the reasons why Banks supports a penal settlement in Botany Bay.  

Look closely at this image of the natural environment of Botany Bay. How could the environment help to support a new settlement? 

Bushland, sky and a white cockatoo in flight

Image 1: Detail from Cockatoos amongst cabbage palms, Kamay National Park

Imagine that you are Joseph Banks, and you want to convince the British Government that Botany Bay is the perfect place to send their excess prisoners. Write down three reasons why Botany Bay would make a good penal colony in 1788 and justify your answers. 

Did you know? Not only did the British Government want the penal settlement as a long-term solution to transporting excess criminals they also liked the idea of having a military base as a strategic presence in the Pacific. The Dutch and the Spanish already had a presence in or around the Pacific.

Using the Iceberg Diagram template create an iceberg diagram to show the reasons for the First Fleet’s journey. The top of the iceberg (above the water) is the event that we see on a surface level - the First Fleet.  Underneath the water, list all the factors that contributed to the First Fleet’s journey to establish a penal colony at New South Wales. [Some help with this can be found in Additional Information.] 

Include the answers to these questions:  

  • What were prisons like in England? 
  • What did the British government think about convicts? 
  • Why was New South Wales chosen? 

Circle what you think was the most important reason for the First Fleet’s journey and discuss your choice with a partner or with your class.