How the American Revolution Made Australia

The American Revolution gave birth to two nations, the United States and Australia.

American independence created Australia by depriving the United Kingdom of a place to dump its unwanted people. Between the first English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 and 1776, the British government shipped tens of thousands of convicts and political prisoners to the 13 colonies.

To explain, there were no prisons in 17th or 18th Century Britain. Instead, the government kept convicts in dungeons, jails, and old warships known as hulks. The hulks were floating prisons in Britain’s rivers and harbors, not green-scanned monsters.

When these makeshift prisons got full, the government shipped the inmates overseas. The America colonies were the favored dumping ground because they were closest to the British Isles. However, they sent some prisoners to the Caribbean to work alongside the African slaves on the plantations.

Servitude in Colonial America

In America, most of the British prisoners became indentured servants. A contract obligated an indentured servant to work for several years to pay off his or her passage to the New World.

The advantage to this system was that it provided cheap labor in the colonies. The disadvantage was that indentured servants; unlike African slaves, could runaway and disappear into the colonial population.

George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1783 ended both British rule; and the mass deportation of Britain and Ireland’s poor, to America. Consequently, His Majesty’s Government needed a fresh dumping ground for unwanted people.

Where to Send the Convicts

Britain soon faced the problem of prison overcrowding with no prisons. Without America, there was no place to ship Britain’s convicts.

Local conditions made Britain’s existing colonies unsuitable for convicts. French Catholics and Loyalist American refugees thinly populated Canada. Moreover, any attempt to dump convicts in Canada could anger the United States and lead to war.

Additionally, the dumping of British convicts in Canada could drive French Catholics to revolt. Finally, convict settlements could anger the Native Americans whose support Britain needed to keep the United States out of Canada.

African Adventures

In the Caribbean, white servants could disrupt the racial order. The presence of white slaves could make the maintenance of white supremacy hard. In addition, deported Irish and Scottish rebels could be the natural leaders of an anti-British slave revolt.

With the existing colonies closed, parliament looked farther afield. The government of William Pitt the Younger proposed building a penal colony on the Island of Lemane on the Gambia River in West Africa* Parliamentary opposition led by William Burke doomed that scheme.

In 1780s Britain, the use of tax money to finance prisons was politically impossible. Hence, deportation was His Majesty’s Government’s only strategy for dealing with convicts.

Sadly, one reason parliament abandoned the African proposal was fear of disrupting the slave trade – a major industry in 18th Century Britain. To elaborate, slave traders feared offending local African leaders who supplied them with slaves.

With Lemane off the table, parliament had to choose between Das Voltas Bay in Southwest Africa and Botany Bay in Southeast Australia. Parliament chose Botany Bay for political reasons.

A Das Voltas Bay penal colony could lead to conflicts with African states and other European powers that had interests in Africa. Australia; on the other hand, had no inhabitants with the power to oppose a British colony. Importantly, no European power interests or colonies in Australia in 1787.

The First Fleet

Australia’s inhabitants, the Aborigines, had no government or technology to resist a British invasion. In addition, no European or Asian power had a settlement in Australia.

Thus, the British could land without opposition and build their colony.  Hence, on 13 May 1787, the First Fleet of 11 ships left Portsmouth, England. The Fleet carried between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts, sailors, and Royal Marines and a few civilian administrators and technicians.

On 18 January 1787, the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay only to find that the site was unsuitable to agriculture. On 25 to 26 January 1788, the Fleet moved to present-day Sydney Harbor.

Although the First Fleet carried convicts, it was an invasion force led by two Royal Navy warships. When the British came ashore at Botany Bay and Sydney they were escorted by Royal Marines, some of the best-trained and toughest soldiers on Earth.

Thus, the British founded Australia. Consequently, 26 January is First Fleet Day, a holiday to celebrate Australia’s founding. However, 26 January is not Australia’s national holiday.

Instead, Australia’s national holiday is Anzac Day, or 25 April. Anzac Day honors the Australians and New Zealanders who fought in all the wars since Word War I.

Two Democracies One Revolution 

Therefore, they founded both Australia and the United States in 1787. To explain, the Constitutional Convention created the current United States government in 1787.

Over time, the British penal colony in Australia grew into one of the world’s most democratic societies with an extensive welfare state. Thus, the American Revolution led to two of the world’s most prominent democracies.

*See The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Foundingby Robert Hughes page 64.