The Controversy over 'Why Botany Bay?'

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Painting by Lieutenant William Bradley of the first fleet entering Botany Bay in January 1788
From: National Archives of Australia


Historians have always debated over the reasons why events occurred in history, and the reason why the British came to Botany Bay is no exception. Why this is so may include that historians look at different events in history in search of a possible explanation, they use different sources of evidence to support their ideas, and the values and ideas of the time in which they live and write may influence the way in which they see post events. This is about why there is controversy over the topic, using the ideas of three historians to demonstrate. E. Gonner wrote his theory in the 1880s, and his view of the colony being for a penal settlement displays the traditional view of the reason behind Botany Bay. K. M Dallas, writing in the 1950s, decided that the reason was to trade with the Pacific region. G. Blainey, in the 1960s, came up with the need for supplies with which to build ships.

Looking at different events

Different historians have looked at different events surrounding the founding of the colony for possible explanations, thus causing their differing views. Historians such as Gonner, and other followers of the traditional view, have only looked at matters immediately within England itself, these being the overcrowded hulks and the need to provide a place to dispose of criminals. Dallas, however, looked at the possible benefits that would be the result of a Colony in Australia, and decided on his explanation of trade around the Pacific, that could not be reached from England itself. Blainey, however, looked at other events that were currently happening in Europe, and how that affected England. England depended on the Baltic for supplies to build ships, which was easily blockaded by the enemies of England, and so the Colony was set up in order to have easy access to Norfolk Island Pine and New Zealand flax.

Using different sources

Another reason for why there is controversy over the explanation of why the English came to Botany Bay is because different historians have used different historical sources and evidence. Each source may express the opinions or needs of the person who wrote it, and so a many sources may be slightly contradictory in what is suggested. Gonner, in his explanation, has used reports on the conditions of the hulks, and those living in them, to support his suggestions of the desperate need of a new location for criminals, as well as evidence of parliamentary acts and other well-known occurrences at the time. Dallas, whilst not having much evidence to support him at the time, later had some help from H. T. Fry, who found evidence for part of Dallas’ theory, trade with China, in a London newspaper. In support of Blainey’s theory, distance from England was used as evidence of the possibility that the reason was not solely to deposit criminals, and a few comments at the end of the Heads of a Plan document supports his theory of shipping supplies. These sources are by people who may have agendas that are unlike those of others, so personal biases at the time may affect evidence the source may provide as to why the colony was formed.

Times and Values

The time and values in which historians live also provide some explanation as to the controversy of why Australia. Gonner was writing his theory during the 1880s, while convict transportation was still a fairly recent event in the Australian past. Thus, this would seem like one of the more obvious reasons for the transportation, as this is would have impacted, even indirectly, on their lives at this time. Dallas and Blainey were writing much later than this, so they were able to view the event in a more detached way. However, issues that would have been important to people living in the middle of the twentieth century, trade and defence, would have influenced them. Hence Dallas’ theory of trade with the Pacific, and Blainey’s ideas of supplies to build ships with for the defence of England.


Thus, the controversy of the differing reasons explaining why the English set up a colony at Botany Bay has several different sources. By looking at different events at the time in search of an explanation, historians have come up with contradictory (in terms of what others have said) answers. These different events or issues may include the problems within England itself, the possible advantages of a colony in Australia, or problems within Europe. All of these may suggest at various explanations. The use of different sources of evidence also plays a part. Each source may be slightly altered in what explanation it points towards, as different people wrote them, so personal biases at the time of writing may show. Finally, the values that existed at the time each historian was writing may have an impact on what they believe is the reason. Gonner, writing in the 1880s, has values of the time that are unlike those of Dallas or Blainey, writing in the mid-twentieth century. It is for these reasons that there is controversy over the question of why the British people settled on the east coast of Australia.

Blainey, G., The Tyranny of Distance, in Martin, G., The Founding of Australia – The Argument about Australia’s Origins, second edition, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981
Dallas, K. M., Trading Posts or Penal Colonies: Cook’s Route to the Pacific Trade, C. L. Richmond and Sons PTY LTD, Devonport, unknown date.
Dunn, C., ‘Botany Bay as a penal colony’ Australian History Resources, 1998, (update date unknown, accessed 5/4/01)
Gonner, E., The Settlement of Australia, in Martin, G., The Founding of Australia – The Argument about Australia’s Origins, second edition, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981
Martin, G., The Founding of Australia – The Argument about Australia’s Origins, second edition, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1981.

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