On 4 January 1688, buccaneers aboard a worm-riddled English ship, the Cygnet, sailing south from the Spice Islands of South-east Asia (now Maluku in Indonesia), spied a finger of land projecting into a sparkling blue sea. Avoiding whirlpools and tidal races, they anchored in a wide bay now called King Sound, north-east of Broome in Western Australia, to rest themselves and to careen and repair their ship. They had become the first Britons to reach the mainland of New Holland, as it was then known – it would be another 116 years till British naval explorer Matthew Flinders, who led the first circumnavigation of the island continent, renamed it ‘Australia’.


There had been earlier European voyagers to reach New Holland, all of them Dutch. On 26 February 1606, Willem Janszoon made the first European landfall on what’s now called Cape York in northern Queensland. Ten years later, Dirk Hartog spent two nights on the island off Western Australia that today bears his name. In 1623, Jan Carstensz landed briefly in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the far north, and six years later the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia was wrecked off the west Australian coast. Most significantly, between 1642 and 1644 Abel Tasman sailed around the western and southern coasts; though he didn’t set foot on the mainland, he did land on the island now called Tasmania.

However, it was one of the Cygnet’s crew from 1688 who would open Britons’ eyes to the potential of New Holland. Somerset-born William Dampier had become a privateer on the Spanish Main about a decade earlier, attracted by the allure of plundering Spanish gold; gradually, though, curiosity overtook his hunger for wealth. Still buccaneering, he elected to sail on voyages to remote parts of the world, and began keeping meticulous notes that he stored in wax-stoppered bamboo tubes. During his six weeks in New Holland, Dampier delved into the hinterland. He thought the landscape arid: no trees “bore fruit or berries”. He puzzled over the tracks “of a beast as big as a great mastiff dog” – probably a dingo – and encountered Aboriginal men wielding pieces of wood “shaped like a cutlass”, doubtless boomerangs.

After further explorations in Asia, Dampier returned to Britain and in 1697 published A New Voyage Round the World, a vivid and meticulous account of what he had seen. An instant bestseller, his book attracted the attention of the Royal Society and of the admiralty who, in 1698, gave him command of HMS Roebuck, with orders to return to New Holland and make discoveries “for the good of the nation”. The voyage wasn’t easy. Dampier’s naval crew resented serving under an erstwhile pirate – animosity that led to a fistfight between the commander and his first lieutenant – and the Roebuck was barely seaworthy. Nevertheless, Dampier again reached western New Holland and collected numerous botanical specimens, some of which are preserved today in the University of Oxford. For many subsequent decades the navy was embroiled in European wars so, despite the impetus provided by Dampier’s discoveries, the next British expedition to the Pacific was not launched until 1764, when the admiralty sent John Byron – grandfather of the Romantic poet – in search of ‘Terra Australis Incognita’, a great continent believed to exist in the far south. Sailing aboard HMS Dolphin, Byron landed on and claimed the Falkland Islands but missed being the first European to land on Tahiti, passing just to the north.

Tahiti bound

Cornishman Samuel Wallis claimed that distinction on 19 June 1767 when, also commanding HMS Dolphin and also seeking Terra Australis Incognita, he arrived off Tahiti in a bank of thick early morning mist. As the fog cleared, the sailors lining the rails saw high-prowed, 10-metre-long Tahitian canoes racing towards them through the surf. Though early misunderstandings between crew and local people led to violence, when the Dolphin departed five weeks later, such good relations had been established that some on both sides were in tears. A chieftain, Purea, gave Wallis a plaited string of her hair as a symbol binding him to her.

Back in Britain in May 1768, Wallis submitted to the admiralty a report eulogising the beautiful, fertile island of Tahiti. However, it was his crew’s accounts published in the newspapers – of the ease of life, of fruit dripping from the trees with no need of no cultivation, of Tahiti’s beautiful women and the islanders’ practice of free love – that created in the public imagination an image of a Utopia. Even before Wallis’s return, the Royal Society and the admiralty had begun planning an expedition to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in June 1769, but had not chosen a base. Wallis’s descriptions convinced them Tahiti would be ideal. In August 1768, HMS Endeavour sailed for Tahiti under the command of Yorkshireman James Cook, newly promoted to lieutenant, and with 25-year-old gentleman naturalist Joseph Banks leading the scientific staff.

The Endeavour arrived in Tahiti on 13 April 1769 to an enthusiastic reception. Both the island’s beauty and its inhabitants entranced Banks, who called Tahiti “the truest picture of an Arcadia”. In particular, he noted the many breadfruit trees, having read accounts of this plant by Dampier, who had seen specimens in Guam. Each fruit was, according to Dampier, “as big as a penny loaf”, and could be baked until the outside crust was blackened, leaving the inside “soft, tender and white… of a pure substance, like bread”.

During their sojourn, as well as successfully observing the transit of Venus, members of the Endeavour’s crew – including Banks but not Cook – formed liaisons with Tahitian women. Banks wrote that “Love is the Chief Occupation, the favourite, nay almost the Sole Luxury of the inhabitants; both the bodies and souls of the women are modelled into the utmost perfection for that soft science”. He also observed the islanders’ painful practice of tattooing – a Tahitian word he brought into the English language – and how they loved surfing, swimming out with wooden planks to catch a wave.

After three months on Tahiti, Cook sailed on in quest of Terra Australis Incognita, reaching and charting the coasts of New Zealand (so named by Dutch cartographers in 1645) before turning west. On 19 April 1770, a lookout spotted what Banks called “sloping hills covered in part with trees or bushes”. The expedition had reached New Holland’s eastern shores. Unlike Dampier’s description of the west coast, it had “the appearance of the highest fertility”.

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The Endeavour anchored in a wide bay that Cook named Botany Bay in recognition of the many plant specimens gathered by Banks. The crew encountered Aboriginal people who, like those met by Dampier in 1688, seemed to wish them gone. Sailing north along the coast they sighted what “appeared to be safe anchorage”; they did not stop at this sheltered harbour, which Cook named Port Jackson – the site of today’s Sydney.

They continued north, and in June the Endeavour was badly holed when it encountered what Cook called an “insane labyrinth” – the Great Barrier Reef. Cook beached her near what’s now Cooktown and, while his men repaired the ship, he observed the Aboriginal people. “Their features were far from being disagreeable; their Voices were soft and Tunable”. He thought them “far happier than we Europeans… they live in a Tranquillity which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition”.

The Endeavour repaired, the expedition again set sail and on 22 August 1770 landed on what became known as Possession Island. Here Cook “raised English colours and in the name of His Majesty King George III took possession of the whole eastern coast [of New Holland]… by the name of New South Wales”.

Cook's ship 'Endeavour'. Observing the local Aboriginal people, Cook declared them "far happier than we Europeans" (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Exploiting the Pacific

On his two subsequent great voyages of exploration, Cook returned several times to Tahiti, but never again ventured to New Holland. Banks revisited neither. But, seven years after Cook’s death in Hawaii in 1779, Banks – by that time president of the Royal Society – conceived a grand plan to exploit British discoveries in the Pacific involving both New Holland and Tahiti.

The catalyst was Britain’s recent loss of its American colonies. It could no longer transport its felons across the Atlantic; neither could it purchase food there for the slaves on its Caribbean plantations. Banks therefore proposed that a fleet carrying convicts should sail first to Botany Bay; after landing the prisoners and their marine guards to found a penal colony there, some ships would refit and continue to Tahiti to collect breadfruit seedlings, which they would take to the Caribbean to provide food for the plantations. Banks won government backing, but it was later decided to separate the two schemes on practical grounds.

A 17th-century map, based on the discoveries of Dutch explorers Abel Tasman
Terra incognita: A 17th-century map, based on the discoveries of Dutch explorers Abel Tasman and Willem Janszoon, depicts part of New Zealand and some of the Australian coast, which it erroneously shows as being joined to New Guinea. (1570-1630). (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

On 13 May 1787 the ‘First Fleet’ of 11 ships, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, sailed for Botany Bay. These vessels carried nearly 800 prisoners confined below decks, a quarter of them women. And in December that year the Bounty, commanded by William Bligh, sailed to Tahiti to collect its cargo of breadfruit.

Arriving in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, Phillip decided that it was unsuitable for settlement – it had unpromising soil and no reliable water source – and continued to the fine harbour farther north in Port Jackson. On 26 January, now commemorated as Australia Day, Phillip – first governor of New South Wales – ordered the Union Jack to be raised and his marines to discharge their muskets. With this simple ceremony he marked the founding of Britain’s newest colony.

Though now separated, the First Fleet and Bounty expeditions, with their common root and common sponsor, would intersect several times. In 1791, the penal colony in New South Wales was afflicted with disease and faced starvation. Cornish highwaywoman Mary Bryant and her husband led a group of prisoners in the first escape attempt. Stealing Governor Phillip’s own cutter, they sailed north and survived a voyage of 3,200 nautical miles through largely uncharted waters to reach Kupang on the island of Timor (now divided between Indonesia and East Timor). This was the very place where, two years earlier, Bligh had landed at the end of his own 3,600-nautical-mile open-boat odyssey from Tonga, endured unwillingly after the mutinous Fletcher Christian forced him and some of his loyal crew into the ship’s 23-foot launch.

A fateful coincidence brought Mary Bryant and her companions face to face with some of the Bounty mutineers. Captain Edward Edwards, despatched by the admiralty in HMS Pandora to hunt down the mutineers, had captured some on Tahiti but had subsequently been shipwrecked. He managed to get the survivors – including several mutineers – into the ship’s boats, and to bring them 1,200 nautical miles to Kupang. There he encountered the convicts from the new colony and, guessing their identity, shipped them back to Britain with his mutineers to stand trial.

Back in Britain, the stories of the escaped convicts and the mutineers aroused public sympathy at a time of vigorous debates about the right to live free. James Boswell, biographer of Dr Johnson, intervened on behalf of the convicts and won all of them a pardon. Only three of the ten alleged mutineers were hanged.

The stories of the First Fleet and the Bounty became interlinked again when in 1805, at Banks’s instigation, William Bligh was appointed governor of the penal colony in Port Jackson. His unpopularity there was commemorated in verse: “Oh Tempora! Oh Mores! Is there / No Christian in New South Wales to put / A stop to the Tyranny of the Governor”.

In January 1808, Bligh again suffered a mutiny and was deposed as governor. However, the arrival of his competent successor, Lachlan Macquarie, restored the new colony to a sound footing. It thrived, thanks largely to the resourcefulness of the convicts, especially women such as seamstress Esther Abrahams. Originally from London’s East End, Abrahams was transported on the First Fleet together with her illegitimate baby daughter for stealing 24 yards of lace. She married George Johnston, a marines officer who was prominent in Bligh’s ousting in New South Wales; by the time she died in 1846, she was one of the colony’s most influential women.

Attachment to the land

Britain’s impact on the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, especially those of New Holland, was almost completely ignored for many years. From the moment Europeans arrived, Aboriginal peoples made plain, as Cook wrote, that all they wanted was “for us to be gone”. The British failed to grasp the complex relationship between these peoples and the land, which was not as barren as the Europeans had thought but had been shaped and managed, not least by thousands of years of planned burning. Neither did the colonists understand the Indigenous peoples’ attachment to the land. Based on his brief encounters with Aboriginal people during his visit with Cook, Joseph Banks had assured the British authorities that these people were “timid” and would “speedily abandon whatever land was needed”.

Aboriginal people of New South Wales butcher a kangaroo in a late-19th-century lithograph. Though Banks had described the region's indigenous people as "timid", they resisted British attempts to seize traditional hunting and fishing grounds. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Aboriginal people of New South Wales butcher a kangaroo in a late-19th-century lithograph. Though Banks had described the region's indigenous people as "timid", they resisted British attempts to seize traditional hunting and fishing grounds. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Yet, when the First Fleet arrived, the Indigenous people they met fiercely resisted the newcomers’ appropriation of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Being rather more enlightened than many of his time, Phillip suspected that the Aboriginal peoples had legitimate grounds for their attacks and, with along some of his marines, tried to build a dialogue. Lieutenant William Dawes even compiled lists of words and phrases of the Eora Aboriginal language with the help of Patyegarang, a young woman of the Cadigal clan.

The behaviour of later colonists was less open-minded. As European settlement spread, Indigenous communities were increasingly plundered and marginalised, their populations ravaged by diseases, especially smallpox and tuberculosis, introduced with the newcomers and against which the Indigenous peoples had no resistance.

The arrival of the Europeans had serious implications for the Tahitians, too. The British found them to be a confident, generally welcoming people and could relate to the Tahitians’ social hierarchy, with its rulers and classes; they therefore treated the Tahitians with more respect than they did New Holland’s Aboriginal peoples. Bligh did not simply seize breadfruit seedlings, but sought them as a gift. It was also a more equal relationship because, unlike Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants, the Polynesians wanted things from the newcomers: new knowledge, and new materials such as iron. The Tahitians realised, too, that the Europeans’ friendship might lead to access to gunpowder arms – useful weapons in internal power struggles.

But European diseases ravaged the Tahitians, too, and the increasing number of European arrivals – adventurers and whalers carrying guns and alcohol, but also missionaries intolerant of Tahitian customs – brought other problems. Over time, and in their different ways, all of these foreigners destroyed the islanders’ utopian, arcadian culture that had so charmed the first arrivals.

On his final departure from Tahiti in 1777, Cook reflected that it might have been better for the people of Tahiti if they had not encountered Europeans – but that, since they had, there could be no going back to their previous lives. The same was equally true for the original inhabitants of Australia.

Diana Preston is a historian, writer and broadcaster. Her latest book is Paradise in Chains: The Bounty Mutiny and the Founding of Australia (Bloomsbury, 2018)


This article was first published in issue 9 of BBC World Histories Magazine