The Australian ‘Colonial Experiment’

19 February 2016

Empire and Globalism | History

A little over a year ago I was lucky enough to visit Australia for the first time and spent some time in the city of Sydney. While wandering around the Central Business District and down to Circular Quay, it was hard to think that this major cultural and economic centre had only been settled by European colonisers a little over two hundred years ago. For it was on the afternoon of 26 January 1788 when a fleet of eleven vessels under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip entered what today is known as Sydney Harbour and started what was described by Robert Hughes in his book The Fatal Shore as ‘a new colonial experiment, never tried before, not repeated since’.

The correspondence and reports of Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales and founder of the penal colony that later became the city of Sydney, digitised as part of Adam Matthew’s forthcoming Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters resource, offer an invaluable insight into the early life of this fledging colony. In his letters and reports Phillip describes first encounters with indigenous peoples, settlers and land grants, treatment of convicts and expeditions in to the interior. The report below notes the ill treatment of convicts at the hands of soldiers.Image © The National Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Significantly, provisions and supplies often comes up, as the colony soon entered a period of near starvation. As farming was slow to progress, the soldiers, convicts and settlers became reliant on supplies from back home. The document below touches upon the lifeline of supply ships and victuallers sent out to New South Wales and instructions for the ships to bring back ‘Tea, and other merchandise, from China for the use of the East India Company’ to Great Britain on the return legs, a nice bit of business on the side.

Image © The National Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Phillip had to work quickly to establish the first settlements, an impressive feat considering little was known about the land they settled on at first. Over time the colony would expand outwards to the detriment of the indigenous peoples and the survival of the outpost and the settlement of Sydney became assured. The map below, part of a large collection of charts depicting the settlement of Australia in Frontier Life, shows the spread of the New South Wales colony by 1838. By this time, however, Phillip had returned to Great Britain. Sydney would continue to grow and is now home to a population of over four million, a fair increase from Phillip’s first fleet carrying 1,030 people and the beginnings of the ‘colonial experiment’.


The South Eastern portion of Australia; compiled from the colonial surveys and from details furnished by exploratory expeditions. Image © The National Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters resource will be published in autumn 2016.

For more information about these resources, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Joe Pettican

I am a Development Editor at Adam Matthew Digital, an academic digital publisher of primary source collections for the arts and humanities. Since joining the team, I have worked on a number of great projects across a variety of subjects.

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