Australia in the 1800s


Summary of the decade

During the first decade of the 19th century, a struggle for power and authority took place between Governors Philip King (1758–1808) and William Bligh (1754–1817) and the New South Wales Corps, which had been sent to maintain order in the colony. This struggle culminated in a military coup against Governor Bligh in 1808 that is sometimes referred to as the 'Rum Rebellion'.

Previously, the authority of the governor had also been challenged during the Second Battle of Vinegar Hill. On 4 March 1804, an uprising took place when mainly Irish convicts who were working at the Government Farm seized arms and planned to march on Sydney. Their grievances were a mixture of resentment for the unjust treatment of convicts and the discriminatory practices by the British toward the Irish convicts. The uprising was quickly defeated.

At the beginning of the decade the British knew little about the shape of Australia and of its uncharted coastline. By the end of the decade, Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) had circumnavigated the continent in his ship the Investigator and charted the southern coastline and the coastline of Queensland. Lieutenant John Murray (b 1775?), commander of the Nelson, surveyed the Western Port area. On 14 February 1802 he came across a large bay, which he entered after several attempts. On 8 March he took possession of Port Phillip, which he named Port King, and raised the British flag. It was later named Port Phillip by Governor King. There was no recognition of the local Kulin people who had lived on the land for many thousands of years.

The New South Wales colony looked to the sealing and whaling industry for economic survival. By 1802 there were 200 sealers in Bass Strait and they had a ready supply of oil and seal skin produce for the markets in England and China. The oil was used for cooking lamps and fuel, while furs were sold for high prices due to their excellent quality. A shipload of seal produce was worth more than £10,000 in England, at the time a small fortune. In 1803 Governor King, concerned about the amount of sealing, wrote to Lord of the Admiralty, Evan Nepean (1752–1822), recommending a limit on the number of sealers allowed to harvest whales, and restricting fishing times.

In 1802 the Eora warrior Pemulwuy (1750–1802) was shot dead. Over many years, he had led resistance raids against European colonisation in the Parramatta region. After his death, Governor King reported that he believed Pemulwuy to be one of the bravest and most independent people he had met.

The Sydney Gazette was the first newspaper in Australia. Governor King authorised the publication of The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on 5 March 1803. The first edition was issued weekly and published mostly government-issued official notices dealing with the import of spirits and General Orders regulating boats' cargoes.

In 1804, the population of New South Wales was about 7,000, with men making up 80 per cent of the population.

A snapshot of 1808

  • January
    • The governor, Captain William Bligh, was deposed and placed under house arrest.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became surveyor-general following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • The first medical diploma in the colony was issued to William Redfern.

  • October
    • The colonial office in London announced the recall of the New South Wales Corps to England.

  • November
    • The Cascades Female Factory for women convicts opened in Hobart Town.


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