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Views of the Australian Landscape - 3;
The First Settlers

Tony Cavanagh

Following Cook, there were no further visitors to reach our shores until January, 1788 when 11 ships and nearly 1500 people reached Captain Cook's Sting-ray's Bay (now Botany Bay). The First Fleet and settlement had arrived. In vain they searched for Cook's meadows - "The fine meadows talked of in Captain Cook's voyage I never could see though I took some pains to find them out" wrote the Colonial Surgeon, John White. More importantly, there was no obvious fertile soil and the land was swampy with little free running water - Bank's opinion of Botany Bay was more in tune with reality than the grandiose description portrayed in Hawksworth's account of Cook's voyage.

Consequently, within a week, Arthur Phillip moved the fleet to the then unknown Port Jackson. Although there was water, a magnificent harbour and land that looked reasonably clear and suitable for cultivation, appearances were deceptive. The trees were so large with wide spreading roots that clearing of land for cultivation was painfully slow. English axes of soft steel broke or distorted against the trunks of ironbarks and red gums, and timber, even when sawn, buckled and warped so as to render it useless for building construction. And the soil, derived from sandstones and shales, was sandy and leached of nutrients so that "nothing seems to flourish vigorously long, but they shoot up suddenly after being put in the ground, look green and luxuriant for a little Time, blossom early, fructify slowly and weakly ---.Indeed, many of the Plants wither long ere they arrive at these Periods of Growth."

What a puzzle it must have been to these early settlers to see the huge trees, the numerous shrubs and luxuriant native grasses, so well adapted to fire and this environment, growing freely yet they were unable to grow their European crops and fruit trees.

Those who had the time, however, began to appreciate that there was a beauty in the bush, something different to the "green and pleasant land" they had left behind. There are numerous journal and book descriptions of this period of our history and, in nearly all of these, there are accounts of the flora and the landscape. Yet these were not naturalists writing for there were no naturalists on the First Fleet. Rather, they were surgeons, soldiers, sailors, naval and ship's officers and even the Colonial Chaplain and Governor Arthur Phillip himself, captivated by what they saw around them. Below are a selection from First Fleet diaries and books which were gathered together by Lionel Gilbert in his 1962 thesis:

  • "The heaths that are free from the most beautiful flowering shrubs". Arthur Phillip, May 1788.

  • "The vast variety of beautiful plants and flowers, which are to be found -- may hereafter afford much entertainment to the curious in the science of botany". John Hunter, Naval Captain.

  • "We picked up, in the distance of about half a mile, twenty-five flowers of plants and shrubs of different genera and species --". John White, Colonial Surgeon. "The rare and beautiful flowering shrubs, which abound in every part, deserve the highest admiration and panegyric". Watkin Tench, Marine Officer.

  • "We found a very great quantity of shrubs which had beautiful bloom but scarce any smell in them". William Bradley, Naval Lieutenant.

  • Bowes "frequently made Excursions up the country for some miles in search of some natural curiosity or other" and on one occasion "collected some seeds from a plant in blossom which was exceedingly handsome and different from any shrub I ever before saw". Arthur Bowes-Smyth, Ship's Surgeon, 1788.

  • "Some of the most beautiful shrubs that I ever saw -- ". John Harris, Surgeon.

  • "I have taken the liberty of sending you a small box of the seeds of this country --. Have heard that seeds are much sought after in England ---. I have but little time or taste for Botany otherwise here in great variety to feast the eyes and amuse the curious". Richard Johnson, Colonial Chaplain.

And finally, one of the most lyrical descriptions of Port Jackson came from the pen of Arthur Bowes-Smyth. The rather grandiose language is, as Proudfoot says, in the best Picturesque tradition -

  • "the finest terra's, lawns and grottos, with distinct plantations of the tallest and most stately trees I ever saw in any nobleman's grounds in England, cannot excel in beauty those w'h nature now presented to our view. The singing of the numerous birds among the trees, and the flight of the numerous parraquets, lorrequets, cockatoos and maccaws, made all around appear like in enchantment; the stupendous rocks from the summit of the hills and down to the very water's edge hang'g over in a most awful manner from above, and form'g the most commodious quays by the water, beggar'd all description".
It is doubtful if those whose job it was to grow food for the colonys ever saw the land in such a light. The production of food for the near starving settlement became Phillip's top priority and gardens as we know them were not to come into vogue for perhaps another 40 years.
Information and quotations were taken from the following sources:

  1. Cavanagh, T. (1989). Natural history activities in Australia and the introduction of Australian plants into England 1771-1800, Geelong Naturalist, 26(2): 37-49.
  2. Gilbert, L.A. (1962). Botanical Investigation of Eastern Seaboard Australia 1788-1810, unpublished honours thesis, University of New England, Armidale.
  3. Proudfoot, H.B. (1979). Botany Bay, Kew, and the Picturesque: early conceptions of the Australian landscape, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 65 (1): 30-45.
  4. Terra Australis to Australia, (1988). (ed. by Glyndwr Williams and Alan Frost), Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Tony Cavanagh has been growing Australian plants since the early 1970s. He is currently Off Campus Librarian at Deakin University, Geelong and has found that his training as a librarian has been extremely useful in researching the history of cultivation of Australian plants. This article is reprinted from the August 1994 issue of the Newsletter of the SGAP Garden Design Study Group.

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Australian Plants online - September 1996
The Society for Growing Australian Plants