Why did Australia become a penal colony for the British?

In the period 1718 to 1783, about 50,000 British criminals were sentenced to “transportation” and were transported to the British colonies in America.

Then between 1775 and 1783 the hostilities of the American War of Independence resulted in transportation being brought to a halt, and following the war British hulks and gaols began to overflow with criminals.

In 1786, King George III proclaimed New South Wales in Australia a British colony (Captain James Cook had landed at Botany Bay in 1770) and on 23 January 1787, Secretary of State, Lord Sydney, notified Parliament that he had agreed to send the first convicts to New South Wales. He chose Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy to lead the fleet and to be the first governor.

The First Fleet

On 13 May 1787, 11 ships of the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth in Hampshire, England under Phillip’s command, who had been given instructions from the King about managing the convicts and granting and settling the land.  The fleet comprised at least 1,350 persons, of which 780 were convicts and 570 were freemen, women and children, together with four companies of marines.  

Twenty percent of the convicts were women and the oldest convict was 82 years of age.  About half the convicts had been sentenced to transportation in Middlesex, with the remainder having been tried in the county assizes in Kent, Sussex and Devon.

In addition, there were animals on board: 44 sheep, 4 cows, 1 bull and Captain Phillip’s own greyhounds, as well as farming equipment (hatchets, nails, axes, knives, and seeds).  Phillip’s instructions also included opening up a dialogue with the aboriginal peoples; to win them over to being occupied by the British.

Eight months of voyage later, on 18 January 1788, the Captain Phillip’s fleet arrived in Botany Bay.  However, the landing party were suitably unimpressed with the site and moved the fleet to Port Jackson and settled in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.

Phillip ordered trees to be felled and land cleared.  Tents were erected and a blacksmiths established along with a hospital and a store and an area designated separately for the convict women to be housed.
To the native population, the establishment of the colony was disturbing.  No respect was given to their territorial boundaries, and the appearance of red-coated armed soldiers with a ruthless streak against the convicts must have appeared very strange. However, it was another import that ravaged them. Within a year many of the aborigines around the cove had died of smallpox; the disease that was brought to Australian shores from England aboard the First Fleet.