We’ve been in Sydney twice before. We enjoyed it so much these trips that we decided to spend more time in the city. And we have seen and heard so much about the city’s New Year’s celebration that we decided to spend that time around New Year’s Eve. So here we are: After a month traveling around Eastern Australia, we arrived in Sydney for a three-week exploration of the city. And, after New Year’s Day (when Tom will miss the one out of the two days each year he devotes to American Football (the other being Super Bowl), we will be off to New Zealand for the final leg of our trip. But more on that later. For now, we will focus on Sydney.
From Penal Colony to Global City
Although Australia was first settled more than ten thousand years ago by hunter-gathers from Malaysia, it was probably first “discovered” by Arab, Chinese or Indian traders. The first documented discovery, however, was by Dutch mariners in 1606, who claimed the Western part of the continent for the Netherlands in 1616. Captain James Cook, meanwhile, first mapped the east coast of the continent in 1770.
By the 1780s, England had lost its primarily North American bases to the American Revolution and was in need of establishing a military and trading base in the Pacific. And since the Dutch and the French were already exploring the Australian coast, it had to establish this base quickly. It therefore decided to create this base, while simultaneously ridding its own country of “criminals” (including many poverty-stricken citizens who were found guilty of only trivial offenses, such as stealing food or minor household goods). It organized its first Australian colonization mission in 1787 by sending eleven ships, loaded with 1,000 convicts, military personnel and administrators to what was to establish a prison colony in what would become Sydney.
The conditions for all, but especially the convicts, were dreadful. Once convicted, the convicts were torn from their families and stuffed into cargo holds for months with little food, sanitation, or even fresh air. More than a quarter of the first prisoners died before completing the eight month voyage and of those who did, only about 10 percent were in decent health.
Nor did things get much better fast. Although most of the people who came over in the first shipment were literate, and most had some form of skills, virtually none had farming skills. Attempts at growing food yielded limited results and shipments from England were few and far between. Things did not improve significantly until the 1790s, when free settlers and farmers reached Australian shores and began producing sufficient crops.
While the convicts had a tough time, the natives had it even worse. Although they originally befriended the British settlers, the British competed with them for food supplies, settled on (and forced the Aborigines off) their traditional land. Worse still, the Aborigines, who had no immunity to European diseases, rapidly died off.
After England resettled more than 160,000 convicts in Australia, it stopped sending convicts by 1868 and began actively encouraging thousands of farmers, ranchers and skilled craftspeople to migrate to the growing colony. Moreover, by then, many of those convicts who physically and mentally survived their often inhuman treatment, had finished their sentences and had become successful (some extremely successful) in trades or their own businesses. Moreover, the discovery of gold brought thousands more people from many different countries.
Although the country experienced additional big setbacks (such as the Depressions of the 1890s and 1930s), Australia in general, and Sydney in particular, was well on its way to prosperity. At least, that is, the non-native Australians. The vast majority of Aborigines never survived this transition. In fact, Aborigines currently account for only about 1.5 percent of the city’s total population today.
The current Sydney metropolis of almost five million people is divided into dozens of neighborhoods and hundreds of suburbs. Our next blogs will chronicle some of the highlights of the areas that we explored in our three weeks in the city.