On January 26, 1788, the first 736 convicts banished from England to Australia land in Botany Bay. Originally developed as a penal colony, over the next 60 years, approximately 50,000 criminals were transported from Great Britain.
The upper and ruling classes in 18th century England believed that criminals were inherently defective. In their belief, rehabilitated was not achievable so the only choices were death or exile because prisons were too expensive. With the American victory in the Revolutionary War, transgressors could no longer be shipped off across the Atlantic, and the English looked for a colony in the other direction.
Captain Arthur Phillip, a tough but fair career naval officer, was charged with setting up the first penal colony in Australia. With the convicts chained beneath the deck during the six-month voyage, nearly 10 percent of the prisoners died on this first voyage. This turned out to be a rather good rate. On later trips, up to a third of the unwilling passengers died on the way. These were not hardened criminals by any measure; only a small minority were transported for violent offenses. Among the first group was a 70-year-old woman who had stolen cheese to eat.
Life on the penal colony was extremely hard even if the convicts were not placed behind bars. The guards who volunteered for duty in Australia seemed to be driven by exceptional sadism and even small violations of the rules could result in a punishment of 100 lashes by the cat o’nine tails. It was said that blood was usually drawn after five lashes and convicts ended up walking home in boots filled with their own blood–that is, if they were able to walk at all.
When caught trying to escape, convicts were sent to tiny Norfolk Island, 600 miles east of Australia, where the conditions were even more inhumane. The only hope of escape from the horror of Norfolk Island was a “game” in which groups of three prisoners drew straws. The short straw was killed as painlessly as possible and a judge was then shipped in to put the other two on trial, one playing the role of killer, the other as witness.
Outside it being a penal colony, the first years of settlement were nearly disastrous. Cursed with poor soil, an unfamiliar climate and workers who were ignorant of farming, Phillip had great difficulty keeping the men alive. The colony was on the verge of outright starvation for several years, and the marines sent to keep order were not up to the task. Phillip, who proved to be a tough but fair-minded leader, persevered by appointing convicts to positions of responsibility and oversight. Floggings and hangings were commonplace, but so was egalitarianism. As Phillip said before leaving England: “In a new country there will be no slavery and hence no slaves.”
After overcoming a period of hardship, the fledgling colony began to celebrate the anniversary of this date with great fanfare. Finally, in 1818, January 26 became an official holiday, marking the 30th anniversary of British settlement in Australia. And, as Australia became a sovereign nation, it became the national holiday known as Australia Day. Today, Australia Day serves both as a day of celebration for the founding of the white British settlement, and as a day of mourning for the Aborigines who were slowly dispossessed of their land as white colonization spread across the continent.