Jan. 18, 2023

The British Colonization of Australia Begins

The British Colonization of Australia Begins

January 18, 1788. Britain’s First Fleet begins to arrive in Botany Bay, sparking the British colonization of Australia.


Cold Open

It’s January 18th, 1788.

A British ship cuts through the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean. Standing on deck, Captain Arthur Phillip stares into the distance, his mind fixed on his destination: the eastern coast of Australia. Months ago, he and a fleet of nearly a dozen vessels set sail from England, carrying hundreds of convicts in the bowels of their ships. Today, Captain Phillip hopes his fleet will finally make landfall in Australia where he intends to establish a penal colony for Great Britain. As the Captain looks out over the waves… he hears a sailor’s cry overhead: “Land ho!” Quickly, the captain hurries over to the taffrail for a better look. As he peers out, he sees the shores of New South Wales’s Botany Bay glistening on the horizon.

Immediately, Captain Phillip orders the fleet’s skipper, Lieutenant Ball, to begin prepping the longboats. When the ship finally approaches the bay… the crewmen drop anchor. Captain Phillip joins Lieutenant Ball in the first of the longboats. He takes his seat on the windward side as Lieutenant Ball orders the men to lower them into the water.

While the oarsmen row the longboat away from the ship, Captain Phillip sits, gazing hopefully at the exotic landscape before him.

When they reach the beach, the sailors jump into the sea. Captain Phillip and Lieutenant Ball climb onto the backs of the men who carry them ashore.

And then with his dry feet finally back on solid ground, Captain Phillip orders the men to begin searching the southern part of the coastline while he proceeds north. But Captain Phillip doesn't get far before he senses something watching from the nearby trees.

Captain Phillips takes a deep breath… and inches toward the treeline. When he’s just a few feet away, several long wooden spears stretch out to greet him, followed by a group of indigenous tribesmen, nervous about the intruders on the lands they’ve occupied for tens of thousands of years.

At the end of the 18th Century, Britain’s prisons were overcrowded. The nation’s leaders desperately needed somewhere to send their abundance of convicts. And after much deliberation, Britain’s Parliament decided on  Australia – a far-off land deemed by earlier expeditions as the perfect place to establish a penal colony. Under Captain Arthur Phillip’s command, the First Fleet of the Royal Navy promptly left England with hundreds of convicts in tow and headed for the southern hemisphere to expand the British Empire. But Captain Phillip’s mission is complicated when he makes contact with the indigenous people who already call Australia home, an encounter that took place shortly after his arrival in Botany Bay on January 18th, 1788.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 18th, 1788: The British Colonization of Australia Begins.

Act One

It’s May 13th, 1787 at a dockyard in Portsmouth, England, eight months before Captain Arthur Phillip arrives at Botany Bay.

Captain Phillip makes his way onto the deck of a naval ship. He looks out over the ocean, the saltwater glistening under the dark early morning sky. Then, he turns to his officers, already assembled, and orders them to set sail, beginning the long journey to establish a penal colony in Australia.

For decades, most British prisoners were sent across the Atlantic to the American colonies. But then, four years ago, Britain’s defeat in the American Revolution made this option impossible. Now, Britain’s prison population is overflowing. And to solve the issue, Britain’s Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, commissioned Captain Arthur Philip to establish a new penal colony in Australia’s Botany Bay. So today, Captain Philip’s fleet of 11 ships is finally ready to set sail. Between them, the vessels carry almost 800 convicts, along with several hundred marines and crewmen who are eager to set sail. 

But the journey ahead is long and full of setbacks. Almost immediately, the fleet is battered by storms as it sails out of the English Channel. Squalid conditions cause sickness to spread among the crew and convicts. When the fleet enters the tropics, warm and humid temperatures make matters worse as vermin, parasites, and disease run rampant. In total, 48 people die on the journey, mostly convicts.

But finally, on January 18th, 1788, Captain Phillip lays eyes on the eastern coast of Australia. Almost immediately, the hardships of the previous eight months fade, replaced by a newfound sense of hope. Soon, Captain Phillip makes land in a longboat and steps on shore for the first time.  He orders his officers to examine the southern side of the bay while he heads north. And there, Captain Phillip encounters a group of indigenous people, armed with spears. Since the ships first came into the bay, the native Eora have quietly been watching the Europeans – unsure what to make of their strange outfits and fair skin.

Captain Phillip observes the Eora with a similar apprehension but he’s not surprised to find them here. The British have long known about the presence of the Eora. Prior to Captain Phillip’s expedition, King George III mandated that all members of the First Fleet take every possible measure to open a kind and amiable intercourse with Australia’s native people.

Captain Phillip fully supports this directive. He wants to do everything in his power to establish friendly relations. But today, with spears pointed in his direction, he hesitates to move any closer for fear of provoking an attack. But the Captain relaxes a bit when he observes the expressions on their faces. He does not see anger or hostility in their eyes. Only curiosity and wonder. So, after a moment of indecision, Captain Phillip opts to take his chances.

Slowly, he begins to approach the Eora. To his delight, they receive him with warmth and kindness. The captain and the Eora have a friendly interaction and eventually exchange gifts. With a harmonious relationship established, the Eora generously point the Captain toward a nearby stream. Captain Phillip eagerly follows their direction, having hoped to find a source of fresh water.

But the stream is too small to support a penal colony that will hold hundreds of prisoners. So, he heads back to meet with his officers, hoping they had better luck finding a suitable site on the south side of the bay. He learns that they did not fare any better. So over the next two days, Captain Phillip and his officers conduct further explorations, trying to find the perfect site to set up camp ahead of the arrival of the rest of the fleet which remains anchored offshore.

Relations between Captain Phillip, his men, and the Eora people remain friendly, for a time. But things take a turn for the worse when the fleet’s ships start to move toward land. When one of them sails into the bay, several of the Eora grow hostile. They start to shout and wave their spears at the ship’s crew. Alarmed, Captain Phillip tries to prevent tensions from escalating. He instructs his men to treat the natives with friendship and warns that any actions against them will be punished.

But Captain Phillip’s orders will not stave off conflict for long. Despite his best efforts, the peaceful interactions between the captain's crew and the Eora will shatter, and eventually, descend into violence and bloodshed.

Act Two

It’s January 21st, 1788 in Botany Bay, three days after Captain Phillip arrived on shore.

In three small boats, the captain and several of his officers push out of the bay into open waters and head north along the coast in search of better land.

Not long after his arrival, Captain Phillip came to see that Botany Bay was far from an ideal location for a penal colony, primarily because there’s not an adequate source of fresh water. So, Captain Phillip and his companions set out to investigate another bay just up the coastline.

When they arrive and go onshore, they quickly realize the new location is perfect. This bay has a large stream of fresh water running directly into it. The Captain is eager to return to Botany Bay and share the news of his successful expedition.

But his high spirits are dashed when he learns that while he was away, the Eora in and around Botany Bay turned hostile. When British officers brought convicts ashore to carry out manual labor, some of the Eora surrounded them and started acting in a threatening manner. The officers claimed they tried to de-escalate the situation, but that the Eora became too aggressive. One of the officers fired a warning shot, and the Eora fled. But now, many fear the Eora might return and attack.

Within a matter of days, Captain Phillip sets sail for the new bay, which he names Sydney Cove, in honor of Lord Sydney, the British official who commissioned the expedition. The rest of the fleet join him there on January 26th, 1788 - a date now commemorated as Australia Day, but one many Aboriginal Australians will remember by another name: Invasion Day.

When the rest of the fleet arrives, Captain Phillip directs his men to unload convicts from the ships and put them to work building the colony. Using the freshwater stream that runs into the bay, Captain Phillip divides the settlement. Convicts are to inhabit the western side of the stream, while sailors, marines, and civilians are to remain on the eastern side.

In the evening, Captain Phillip and several of his officers take a moment to hoist the British flag high on a pole planted on the beach. They toast the King, the Royal Family, and the success of the empire’s new holding. Two weeks later, Captain Phillip formally proclaims the colony of New South Wales and is inaugurated as its first Governor. But the colonists are not the only ones who call this place home. The Eora of Sydney Cove watch with apprehension as hundreds of British sailors, marines, and civilians pour onto the lands they’ve inhabited for generations. Wary of these new intruders, the Eora keep their distance.

But Governor Phillip wants to know about the Eora people. He wants to learn their language and customs, so he can communicate and cohabitate with them in peace. Governor Phillip believes that if he can teach some of the Eora English, he can use them as intermediaries, ambassadors to the native peoples. So he orders the capture of several Eora warriors, including a 30-year-old man named Arabanoo.

Arabanoo is a fiercely intelligent man with a welcoming spirit, and a pleasant demeanor, which makes him the perfect candidate for Governor Phillip’s plan. At first, the congenial Arabanoo doesn’t put up a fight. He thinks of himself as an honored guest of the Governor. He happily dresses in European clothes, dines with the Governor, and makes friends with the colonists. He quickly learns to communicate with the British visitors and is eager to impart to them valuable information about the customs of the Eora people.

But eventually, the reality of his situation sets in. And Arabanoo realizes he is not a guest at all. He grows enraged at his imprisonment and wishes he could escape and return to his friends and loved ones, but the opportunity never presents itself. During his time in captivity, Arabanoo struggles to understand the ways of the sailors and observes many aspects of their culture that upset him. On one occasion, he witnesses the brutal, public flogging of a convict; a violent episode that confuses and disturbs him.

Then, in April of 1789, a smallpox epidemic breaks out among the Aboriginal people. Arabanoo is disgusted at the fact that the colonists leave the decaying bodies of his people lying about. Eager to be of assistance, Arabanoo manages to convince his captors to let him care for the sick and try to save lives. Arabanoo nurses two sick children back to health, but in the process, he falls victim to the disease himself. One month later, on May 18th, 1789, Arabanoo passes away.

But Arabanoo’s tragic end does not deter Governor Phillip from his plan. Not long after his death, the Governor orders his men to kidnap more Aborigines; among them, a young man named Bennelong. Governor Phillip forms a deep liking for his new captive. But Bennelong is less interested in friendship and craves to return to his people. Eventually, he manages to do what Arabanoo could not: escape.

But the Governor is determined to find Bennelong. And eventually, he receives word that his men have spotted the escaped aboriginal at Manly Cove, an inlet located just up the shore. So the Governor and some of his fellow officers set sail, determined to make contact and bring Bennelong back. But their encounter between Captain Philip and Bennelong at Manly Cove will turn violent, and in the end, only one of them will walk away unscathed.

Act Three

It’s September 7th, 1790, four months after Bennelong’s escape.

As his boat enters Manly Cove, Governor Phillip stares in amazement at the scene happening on shore. The Governor and his fellow officers have come here in search of Bennelong, their escaped captive. But it seems they’ve arrived in the midst of a celebration. There on the beach is a giant whale carcass surrounded by 200 Eora, who laugh and dance as they feast on the dead animal.

Governor Phillip hopes that Bennelong might be among them. So he makes land and approaches the Eora carrying gifts that he plans to give to Bennelong as a peace offering. And as he draws near, Governor Phillip spots a familiar face among the crowd. The Governor smiles as he locks eyes with Bennelong. He’s genuinely excited to see him again and hopes to be able to convince him to return to the colony. In a gesture of friendship, Governor Phillip withdraws his knife and throws it on the sand. In response, Bennelong lays down his own spear.

But the Governor can’t help but notice that not all of the Eora are happy to see him, the man responsible for so much turmoil and disruption in their lives. As Governor Phillip moves to greet Bennelong, a band of Eora begin to encircle him and his officers. Seeing their stern expressions, the governor realizes he’s in danger. He tells his officers it’s time to leave. But as they begin to retreat to their boat, one of the Eora raises his spear and hurls it at the governor.

The weapon strikes Governor Phillip in his right shoulder. Blood begins to pour from the wound. The officers reach for their weapons, but the governor orders them not to retaliate. Instead, he instructs them to help him back to the boat and take him back to Sydney Cove.

Governor Phillip spends months convalescing. But the injury proves non-fatal, and it comes with a silver lining. Many of the Eora feel bad after the incident, and some try to make amends. They re-establish friendly relations and invite the colonists to various meetings and gatherings so they can learn about their culture and customs. During Governor Phillip’s recovery, Bennelong himself visits the colony several times to check in on the governor’s health. Eventually, Bennelong decides to take up residency in the colony with his family. And following his lead, other Eora begin to join the colony too. In his first census, Governor Phillip records just over one thousand Indigenous peoples in Sydney Cove.

After months of hostility, Governor Phillip hopes the violence has finally come to an end. But the coming years will bring little peace. By late 1792, Governor Phillip’s declining health will force him to relinquish his office. The new governor will quickly abandon his predecessor’s plans for tolerance and peace, and implement strict military control over the area.

In the coming decades, relations between the British and the Eora people will worsen as violence, and forced assimilation become standard practice for the British colonizers. Today, the arrival of the first fleet in Australia remains controversial. While many Australians celebrate the occasion as the founding of their nation, many Aboriginals use it to mourn their people's history and the autonomy they lost after Captain Arthur Phillip landed in Australia on January 18th, 1788.


Next on History Daily. January 19th, 1915. In Norfolk, England, four people are killed by German bombs by the first-ever Zeppelin raid of World War I.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Mischa Stanton. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Thomas Bickley.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.