Australia in the 1790s


A new environment


The colonists documented the flora and fauna of New South Wales as being very strange compared to that found in the Northern Hemisphere. Apart from the domestic animals brought with the First Fleet, the colonists found themselves surrounded by unfamiliar animals, birds, plants, flowers and trees and unfamiliar people who had distinctly different appearances, languages, lifestyles, values and attitudes.

Even the cries of the birds were unfamiliar. While the kangaroo had been sighted and documented by Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist on Captain Cook's voyage, other strange animals abounded. These are also reflected in early paintings and sketches of the times in which animals such as the kangaroo are depicted with very different dimensions to the actual animal.

The koala and the lyrebird were studied and documented by John Price (1808–1857), Governor John Hunter's servant, on an expedition in 1798. The expedition was led by a former convict, John Wilson, to explore the area around the Nepean River. Price wrote that the koala, called cullawin by the Dharug people, was thought to resemble the sloths of South America. The Dharug hunted koalas for food and fur, and were an important part of their culture and spirituality, which is reflected in the Dreaming stories from the Illawarra region.

In 1797 wombats were recorded on islands in the Bass Strait. They were described by the explorers of the time as something between a badger and a bear. Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) brought one of the creatures that the Aboriginal people of the area called 'the Wom-Bat' back to Sydney.

It was the platypus that attracted most attention, confounding naturalists about how to classify it. It was often likened to an amphibious mole. Governor John Hunter (1737–1821) was an enthusiastic naturalist. He sent examples of the region's most distinctly different animals such as the echidna, wombat, platypus and lyrebird to England for future study. The platypus caused some controversy in England as people were sceptical, believing that it was a colonial hoax, as it had webbed feet and a duck's bill but the body of a quadruped mammal. At that time, it did not fit into any existing classifications of animals.


A snapshot of 1798

  • January
    • The first public clock was installed in a tower at Church Hill in Sydney.
    • George Bass sighted Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island.

  • February
    • Matthew Flinders explored the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait.
    • Governor John Hunter named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass.

  • May
    • The ship Nautilus arrived at Port Jackson carrying missionaries from the London Missionary Society.

  • June
    • The colonial sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island by convicts, arrived at Port Jackson.

  • October
    • George Bass and Matthew Flinders left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land.

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