And More...

But wait, there’s more. In Frost’s reading of the evidence, the settlement was part of an ambitious plan developed by Pitt the Younger and his advisers to expand British trade and acquire strategic bases in the Pacific and Indian oceans, promote a massive expansion of British trade with east Asia, the Spanish colonies in the Pacific coast of the Americas, the northwest Pacific coast and Kamchatka, survey coastlines and islands, create new bases along shipping routes, negotiate new trade agreements with China and, hopefully, Japan, and reduce or do away with the monopolies of the East India and South Sea Companies.

And it doesn’t (or didn’t) stop there. According to Frost Botany Bay would provide a naval base and a port to repair and maintain ships, and deliver a pre-emptive claim on the territory Cook had named and claimed and, as well as supplying strategic naval resources would produce cotton, sugar and spices.

The key document in all of this is the "Heads of a Plan" devised by Evan Nepean (Under-Secretary of the Home Office) in 1786, which amounted to a cabinet submission regarding the First Fleet venture, which offers, in its own way, support for both the traditionalist and revisionist arguments. It lists reasons for the proposal, including crowded disease-ridden jails and obtaining supplies of flax and timber found by Cook.

Nepean’s first task was to come up with a rough estimate of the cost of sending a warship and a tender of about 200 tonnes and transports for 750 convicts, 200 marines, a handful of the civilian officials (a governor, lieutenant-governor, deputy judge-advocate, and others, including surgeons) and the stores that would keep them alive until they could feed themselves.

Nepean worked from figures provided by Duncan Campbell (who had been in charge of the Hulks and would therefore know the expenses involved) and came up with a figure of £32 per annum, around £4 more than it would cost to hold him on a hulk in Britain. With that figure under his belt, the next task was to make a case to justify the expenditure, and you can see where he was going from the full title of the document (my emphasis): "Heads of a Plan for effectually disposing of Convicts, and rendering their Transportation reciprocally beneficial both to themselves and to the State, by the establishment of a Colony in New South Wales".

The first point was the effectual disposing of the convicts concerned. Working from Cook and Banks’ accounts he reckoned Botany Bay was "peculiarly adapted to answer the views of government" with a suitable climate, fertile soil, and ready access to wood, water and seafood, and was therefore a suitable site for a settlement. If necessary, livestock could be obtained from the Cape of Good Hope and the Moluccas and according to Nepean they should be self-sufficient in around three years. 

In any case, in a sort of cost/benefit analysis, bearing the "great object to be obtained by it" in mind, the £4 difference was "too trivial to be a consideration with government", and, in any case Botany Bay was too far away for convicts to return home without permission. 

There’s a reference to the overcrowded prisons and hulks in the “Heads of a Plan” (fuel for the traditionalist argument) but the key issue in the argument comes with the reciprocally beneficial. In the traditionalist view, the benefit to the State, which would only come at  considerable expense, was "he removal of a dreadful banditti from this country." 

Nepean goes on, in the last three paragraphs of the document to spell out three other areas whereby the State would benefit. One concerned "the cultivation of the New Zealand hemp or flax plant ... as our manufacturers are of opinion that canvas made of it would be superior in strength and beauty to any canvas made from the European material .”

A second concerned the possible cultivation of "the Asiatic productions” (spices and cotton) which were, at the time, largely in the hands of “our European neighbours.” 

Third, there was “the possibility of procuring from New Zealand any quantity of masts and ship timber, for the use of our fleets in India ... It grows close to the water's edge, is of size and quality superior to any hitherto known, and may be obtained without difficulty."

Drafted by Nepean and signed off by Colonial Secretary Lord Sydney, the title "Heads of a Plan" is, in Frost’s reading, a concise enunciation of the key aspects of the proposal, and he points to the existence of a number of other similarly-labelled documents from the period.


© Ian Hughes 2012