In the 1810s, the British penal colony of Australia, known then as New South Wales, was barely 20 years old. Already it had sunk into a morass of drunkenness, corruption and hopelessness, even suffering a military coup by the soldiers tasked to keep the unruly convicts in line. There were deep social divisions between the “Emancipists,” freed convicts who hoped to own their own land, and “Exclusives,” white settlers who came voluntarily. This is to say nothing of the tragic effects that European settlement had on the continent’s aboriginal population. But as much of a mess as Australia was in the Second Decade, there were seeds of hope that it could become something a little less depressing. When Lachlan Macquarie, an enterprising Scotsman, took over as the colony’s governor in 1810, he began transforming Australia into something more than a human refuse dump—but it was by no means an easy road.
In this first part of a projected two-part series, Dr. Sean Munger explains where Australia came from, whose idea it was to transport British convicts to the other side of the world, and why it was such a sad, brutal and bizarre place at the beginning of the 19th century. In this episode you’ll see how a push by British politicians to get “tough on crime” boomeranged with unexpected results, you’ll learn why rum was literally more valuable than gold in Australia, and you’ll encounter strange characters including an army officer turned sheep magnate, and even Captain William Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame). Get ready for a series of strange adventures down under, in what was in the 1810s perhaps the oddest country on Earth.
Second Decade is now on the Recorded History Podcast Network! Check out some of the other great history podcasts on the network, here.
Additional Materials About This Episode
The main focus of this episode is not about the founding of Australia in the 1780s, but there are numerous historical materials on that topic that may be of interest.
Here you can view the actual journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, who accompanied the First Fleet to Australia in 1787-88.
Here is a full transcription of the letters of Ralph Clark, a Marine who was also on the First Fleet and wrote extensively about the convicts.
Though not relevant to Australia, Captain William Bligh (colonial governor 1806-08) wrote an account of his earlier voyages, which included the famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty (1789). Bligh’s A Voyage to the South Sea was published in 1792. Here it is; Chapter 13 deals with the mutiny.
[Above] A contemporary (1808) cartoon depicting the Rum Rebellion soldiers capturing Governor Bligh. Was he hiding under his bed?
[Above] Lachlan Macquarie, a portrait probably made during or shortly after his tenure as Governor (1810-1821).
Here is an archive of Macquarie’s papers held by the State Library of New South Wales, Australia. It’s on Wayback Machine, but the collection is pretty extensively archived.