Settlement at Sydney Cove | State Library of New South Wales

Settlement at Sydney Cove Settlement at Sydney Cove

A great part of the Troops & Convicts were landed, & the latter was immediately sett to work clearing away the ground, ready for the encampment. The Place on which the settlement is to be made is at the head of a Cove at the head of which a small rivulet empties itself. The Shore on each side is bounded by rocks, within which there is a very fine soil & full of trees which will require some time & labour to clear away, the Marines & Convicts are to be encamped on the West side & the Governor, & staff with his guard & a small part of the convicts on the East side of the Rivulet.

Philip Gidley King, 27 January 1788

On 26 January 1788 the first Governor of NSW, Captain Arthur Phillip, and the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) to establish a penal colony at Sydney Cove. The governor had almost absolute power — Phillip’s commission appointed him as the representative of the Crown for effectively the eastern half of Australia with complete authority over the inhabitants.

Many of the original accounts from the First Fleet mention the numerous ‘natives’ encountered in Botany Bay and Port Jackson from the first days of their arrival. Aboriginal peoples had been living in Australia for at least 40,000 years. The sea and woodland resources of the Sydney region — from the coast to the Blue Mountains in the west — supported a dense population of Aboriginal clans.

In contrast, the British penal colony struggled in its first decades with lack of food — exacerbated by the failure of European farming practices on unfertile Australian soil — and a shortage of supplies.

Despite Governor Phillip’s benevolent attitude towards the Aboriginal peoples of Sydney, the British presence in Sydney Cove proved disastrous in many ways, in particular with the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic in 1789. The Cadigal clan, on whose land the British settlement was established, was left with only three people by 1791.

Over the next two decades the colony slowly developed under three more governors of NSW, all naval officers — John Hunter, Philip Gidley King and William Bligh.

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