The Discovery of Australia and Tasmania Greatly Expands the British Empire

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The Discovery of Australia and Tasmania Greatly Expands the British Empire


Long after the northern regions of the world were known and occupied, the Southern Hemisphere was still unexplored and obscure. When the Europeans finally were able to build ships that could safely make long voyages, men were sent on arduous and difficult expeditions to explore the area and gain a foothold there. In the East Indies and Southeast Asia, riches, resources, and raw materials abounded that European nations not only needed but wanted. As nations expanded their power and extent, they found a new continent, new islands, and opened new trade routes. The new continent, settled by the British and named for an ancient, non-existent land called Terra australis, became a far flung extension of the British Empire called Australia.


When Europeans began to realize the extent of their own continent, they presumed that a land mass of similar size and weight must lie in the Southern Hemisphere to balance the globe. It was called Terra australis incognita, or the unknown southern land. The idea lay dormant for centuries, for Europeans had no means to reach it. When ship building improved, they ventured out into the seas.

The Chinese, Arabs, or other Asians may have seen Australia, but references are unclear. The Portuguese may have discovered the West Coast in the sixteenth century. The Spanish found land in the same area but did not follow up on it. In 1615 a Dutch explorer reached Cape York, the northernmost point on the Australian continent, but didn't connect it with Spanish or Portuguese discoveries. Another Dutch explorer landed on a barren coast in the West and called it New Holland, but he found no gold, rich civilizations, spices, or other resources. Another Dutch captain discovered another wild and barren place he called Van Diemen's Land; today it is Tasmania.

Explorers were sent to find the elusive southern continent with the hope of riches and civilizations worth the time and effort. Hopes were fading when nothing concrete was found. In the 1770s Captain James Cook (1728-1779) sailed past 40 degrees south latitude and found only ocean and the tip of a frozen land called Antarctica. There was no Terra australis. This achievement answered a centuries-old question and put the idea of a large continent to rest. Ships and sailors could now travel these latitudes without the fear of encountering a large land mass. By the end of the eighteenth century, New Holland was still unsettled, uninviting, and unexplored. The maps of some explorers showed New Zealand, Tasmania, and New Guinea as part of this unknown land. The Europeans knew something was there but were not exactly sure what or where it was.

Several motives led European governments to underwrite the expense of these expeditions. They needed new lands and resources to keep their governments strong. Overseas colonies brought prestige and power, as well as resources. More and more raw materials like cotton, wheat, wool, gold, spices, and new foods were needed to satisfy the growing population in Europe.

By 1800 Europeans, especially the British, were at war with French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte and were alarmed at renewed French interest in the southern continent. Hoping for another land of infinite resources like North America, the British mounted an expedition to claim the whole southern land, however large it was. Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), in the ship Investigator, was chosen to survey the coast. He began in the Southwest, sailed eastward past the Great Australian Bight and Spencer Gulf to Port Philip (Melbourne). Every few miles, he landed, noted the people and animals, recorded the topography of the land, made maps, and charted the bays, rivers, and reefs. After resting in Sydney, he resumed his exploration sailing along the coast of Queensland. He noted the presence of the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea, and various features of the tropical peninsula of Cape York. He sailed west to Arnhem Land until his ship was in such bad shape that he could not go on.

In his papers Flinders championed the name Australia for this new continent soon to be claimed and occupied by the British. The British Empire had not reached its full extent, though it controlled Canada and was making inroads in South Africa and India. Australia would be the first British colony in the Pacific Ocean.


In the early 1800s, European nations were competing all over the world for trade, markets, and resources. The European population was growing, people were living longer and better lives, and they were expanding their industrial development and beginning to need more space and resources. Europeans had used up their raw materials and had to find new ones in the far corners of the world. They roamed the seas searching for resources and new markets for their products. A strong sailing fleet was the most vital part of this business. A country had to build seaworthy ships and have the skill to sail them anywhere in the world. The British were masters of these activities.

The basis of this enterprise was called "mercantilism," a philosophy born in France in the seventeenth century. The national government controlled all economic activity in its own nation. It made sure more goods were sold than bought to keep a favorable balance of trade—that is, more money should come in than go out. It owned colonies in far corners of the world, each of which existed to produce goods for the mother country. The system ensured the nation power, security, and self-sufficiency. Most European nations followed this philosophy in one form or another. Spain and Portugal had colonies in South America and Asia, the British were in Canada, and the Dutch were in Southeast Asia. The Dutch and French had landed in eastern Australia, but neither had settled there. It was so barren they doubted crops would grow, and the natives did not seem willing to work. The British and Dutch engaged in several armed conflicts over trade as the Dutch had a monopoly on the commodities in the East Indies or spice islands (Indonesia). A shooting war erupted between Britain and the Dutch in the Indies in 1780. The Dutch were strong in trade but militarily weak, and the British had little difficulty subduing them.

William Pitt the younger was Prime Minister of England from 1783-1800. With the French Revolution and the subsequent war against Napoleon, Pitt had to make sure France would not gain access to Britain's eastern trade routes. Because the U.S. was no longer available as a place to send undesirable people from England, he championed the idea of using Australia as a penal colony. He had considered Africa and discarded it. Joseph Banks had reported the area around Sydney to have rich soil and lots of vegetation. Native inhabitants posed no problem, as they did not challenge the newcomers but hid in the vast deserts of the interior. So in 1788 the English government sent 1,000 convicts to Botany Bay, south of Sydney. These men and women were convicted criminals, many transported for minor crimes like stealing a loaf of bread, plus some Irish political prisoners. They ranged in age from children of twelve or thirteen to men and women of seventy years or more. In Australia they served a seven-year sentence. After that they could become free settlers, and many did. This export of prisoners lasted from 1788 to 1840 in New South Wales and continued elsewhere until 1868. Free immigration, passage, and settlement was encouraged after the Napoleonic Wars were over in 1815.

Australia was a strategic outpost. Having a base here helped the British keep the seas open around India, New Guinea, the East Indies, and the Pacific Ocean for their ships and commerce. A governor was appointed to administer each area in Australia, and he was the employer of the convicts. Many governors were autocratic and harsh, but they generally maintained strict British codes of ethics and law. Later, civil liberties were gradually introduced to Australian settlers. By 1800 the population of New South Wales and Norfolk Island numbered 5,000 people, 3,000 sheep, and 500 cattle and other animals.

The settlement of Australia effectively expanded the national boundaries of England and set it on a path to the creation of a huge empire. Great Britain took over India beginning in 1757, Australia in 1788, South Africa in 1814, and New Zealand in 1840. Australia was a colony with no pretensions to independence, peopled by citizens whose origins were in the lower classes of England. Many early settlers had been convicted of minor crimes and taken to the continent without their consent. They were ruled by the aristocratic elite and the British government in the first years. In the twentieth century Australia became an independent nation and part of the British Commonwealth. The culture that developed in this remote frontier was as far from European tradition or class distinctions as the United States had been. The circumstances of its beginning have colored its national character ever since.

The settlement of Australia gave the British a base in the Pacific Ocean, relief from over-crowding at home, and a place from which to gather resources like gold, wool, and food staples and to sell manufactured goods. While the continent did not contain the resources that North America had, Australia was strategically more important, and it became a part of the largest empire in the world. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the English people and the crown boasted that the sun never set on the British Empire. Australia was one of the reasons that boast could be made.


Further Reading

Flinders, Matthew. A Voyage to Terra Australis. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1966.

Hughes. Robert. The Fatal Shore. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Ingleton, Geoffrey C. Matthew Flinders, Navigator and Chartmaker. Victoria, Australia: Genesis Publications, 1986.

Martin, Ged., ed. The Founding of Australia. Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1978.

Terrill, Ross. The Australians. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

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The Discovery of Australia and Tasmania Greatly Expands the British Empire

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The Discovery of Australia and Tasmania Greatly Expands the British Empire