Andrew Roberts has written a sumptuous biography, George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch, published in the US as The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III. Yet for all its 784 pages, Roberts omits his subject’s most significant achievement: the founding of modern Australia.
Roberts mentions the King’s contribution of £4000 to Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage in 1768. He also refers to the King’s 1787 instruction to Governor-designate Arthur Phillip, to treat the indigenous population with kindness and respect and seek peaceful co-existence. Botany Bay, however, has one index entry for just one and a half lines. It is “a destination for the transportation of British convicts”. George III is nowhere to be seen.
Roberts is not alone. Other biographers of George III and of his prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, also fall in with the cleverly crafted cover story put out at the time by the Home Office. No one comments on the distance, the cost or the politics. The audacious operation did not touch the lives or the office of their protagonists. It was a housekeeping matter of “law and order” that hardly warrants a paragraph.
In fact, convicts were not the reason for the expensive antipodean colony, but they were vital to the success of the Botany Bay campaign. They provided a critical mass of travel-ready occupiers at a time when Eurocentric law required actual occupation, not just a flag-waving visitor, to secure title to new lands. The convicts also provided cheap labour for the term of their sentence (after which they were eligible for a grant of land). Consequently, Australia is the only continent free from the legacy of slavery. Finally, the convicts provided the all-important smokescreen: the world would see that Britain was merely ridding itself of derelicts; it was not reaching to extend its empire to the far side of the globe.
At the time, secrecy was crucial and the cover story seemed to work, although there were plenty of sceptics even then. Yet it’s odd that more than two centuries later scholars still accept the government line that Pitt’s near-bankrupt administration undertook the crippling expense of sending 750 pickpockets to the opposite side of the world, merely to get rid of them. It’s a silly story, but it stuck, thanks mainly to repetition, which eventually makes things true: proof by repeated assertion, an idée reçue.
The Botany Bay decision, made suddenly and unexpectedly on August 18, 1786, was arguably the most significant decision made by George III and by Prime Minister Pitt during their incumbencies. Secrecy was paramount, so documentation is minimal. As Professor Ged Martin writes, “the problem facing the historian of the founding of Australia is that little more than the government’s laundry bills survive from 1786–88”.
Still, there is sufficient evidence to show that the aim of both men was to shape the geopolitics of the globe. The imperial struggle between Britain and France had shifted from North America to the Pacific, where the continent of New Holland was, in the words of Bernard Smith, waiting to be “possessed and filled”. The rise and fall of Europe’s maritime empires meant that the remaining contenders were France, the absolutist monarchy, and Britain, the democratic, constitutional monarchy.
At stake were two prizes which Britain could not afford to surrender to the enemy. The first was a land mass strategically placed at the south-west corner of the Pacific Ocean. The second, unknown to the French, was Port Jackson—the finest natural harbour in the world. Captain Cook had seen this naval paradise when he hiked overland from Botany Bay and gazed out over the vast southern arm of the inlet, now known as Sydney Harbour. He carefully omitted it from his journal and charts but told Philip Stephens at the Admiralty on his return. The documentary evidence of Cook’s discovery is not to be found in the Admiralty archives. As de facto chief of the Secret Service, Stephens knew not to commit such critical intelligence to paper. The evidence is, however, held in the archives of the Home Office at Kew. In a memo discussing his draft instructions from Lord Sydney in 1787 (see my book Lying for the Admiralty, Quadrant Books, pp 285–86), Arthur Phillip revealed he had been apprised of the geography and islands deep inside Port Jackson.
Sir Joseph Banks
Before examining George III’s role in the founding of modern Australia, we should look at the role played by his friend and confidant Joseph Banks. The two men met soon after Captain Cook’s Endeavour returned to England in 1771 when Banks was presented to the King during the Friday levee at St James’s Palace. The thirty-three-year-old “farmer-king” liked this twenty-eight-year-old naturalist with his zest for life, his charm and his astonishing accomplishments. Banks liked the King, no doubt agreeing with Samuel Johnson’s remark: “Sir, they may talk of the King as they will; but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.”
A week after the presentation at Court, the King and Queen invited Banks and Solander to Kew Gardens. It was probably here that they first discussed the idea of introducing plants from the lands of the South Pacific into the Royal Gardens. The following winter, when the King inherited Kew Gardens on his mother’s death, he selected Joseph Banks as his unofficial scientific adviser and director of Kew. In due course, Banks acquired the villa of Spring Grove near Hounslow, a couple of miles west of Kew Palace. Now he could visit the King at Kew and at Windsor, informally and often. Banks soon became a close friend and adviser to the King and Queen in a private association that lasted forty years, curbed only by the last prolonged illness of the King in 1811. Ministers of state were aware of the relationship, reinforcing Banks’s access to real political power.
During his regular conversations with the King, Banks would have told him of the shock he and Cook received in Batavia during Endeavour’s homeward leg. There they learnt that the French navigator Louis Bougainville had traversed the Pacific a year ahead of them and annexed numerous islands and coasts. Indeed, Louis XV had instructed Bougainville to investigate Van Diemen’s Land, New Holland and Carpentaria because “it can only be in France’s interest to survey them and take possession of them should they offer items useful to her trade and her navigation”.
Luckily, New Holland had not been caught in Bougainville’s net on that voyage, but Banks knew the French would try again. He embarked on a long campaign to persuade the British government to occupy Australia before France did.
Banks had his chance in 1779 when he testified before the Parliamentary Committee (chaired by Sir Charles Bunbury) inquiring into the welfare of convicts. Banks proposed that they should be sent to establish a British colony in Botany Bay. His plan was rejected because it was too costly, and it breached the East India Company’s monopoly charter. Instead, the committee decided on a domestic solution. The convicts would stay at home in new-fashioned prisons authorised by the Penitentiary Act 1779.
Banks didn’t give up. In 1785 there was another parliamentary inquiry (chaired by Lord Beauchamp) and again Banks nominated Botany Bay as a convict destination. Again, he failed. The committee decided that south-west Africa was a cheaper destination. It also ensured that the penal colony stayed inside the Atlantic Ocean and outside the East India Company’s monopoly zone.
Banks was distraught. He had lost his cohort of occupiers, and his bid for a convict colony beyond the Atlantic Ocean was now consigned to the dustbin. Still, he was certain that a threat from France would jolt Whitehall into action. He may have expected that the departure of Laperouse’s two vessels on August 1, 1785, would cause a flurry at the Admiralty, but it didn’t. A year passed as the French “scientific” expedition rounded Cape Horn and began plying the Pacific.
Banks needed a catalytic event that would produce compelling evidence that France intended to seize Australia. Extraordinarily, this evidence was provided by the US Ambassador in Paris, Thomas Jefferson.
While Whitehall was not bothered by Laperouse’s departure for the Pacific, Jefferson was. He suspected that Louis XVI intended to plant French colonies on America’s west coast. He sent a letter to John Paul Jones, who was then in Brittany, asking him to spy in the port of Brest, where Laperouse’s ships were being fitted out. Jones did so, then sent a remarkably thorough report to Jefferson on October 5, 1785. Where the British archives are silent, the American archives gush.
Jones’s letter revealed that France was planning to plant new colonies, but not in North America. According to Jones, one of Louis XVI’s “Objects in View [is] … to establish Colonies in New Holland”. For greater insight, Jefferson discussed Jones’s letter with his closest friend in Paris, John Ledyard of Connecticut. Ledyard had sailed the Pacific with the late Captain Cook’s third voyage in search of the Northwest Passage.
Ten months after reading Jones’s letter, Ledyard happened to travel from Paris to London. On Thursday August 17, 1786, he met Sir Joseph Banks (a fellow Cook alumnus) and told him the vital piece of intelligence obtained by Thomas Jefferson. The next day, Friday August 18, William Pitt’s cabinet famously decided to send a Royal Navy Task Force to occupy Botany Bay immediately.
Some may say that such a momentous decision could not turn on such a fluke, but not Andrew Roberts. When asked about his theory of history in 2021, Roberts replied: “I think that contingency and chance and luck play far more of a role than these didactic Whig historians believe.”
On the morning of Friday August 18, 1786, George III left his family at Windsor and drove to London for his weekly levee at St James’s Palace, which was due to start at 1 p.m. Arriving an hour early, the King joined Pitt and his ministers, who had already gathered to discuss the main item of the day: in the light of information provided by Sir Joseph Banks, should Britain mount a campaign to gazump France in New Holland, whatever the cost?
The King’s reaction was both emotional and practical. He would never recover from the loss of America, but even more painful was the betrayal by a fellow monarch. The French king had intervened in Britain’s civil war and supported a republican insurrection against a legitimate monarchy. Now, according to Thomas Jefferson, Louis XVI had thrown down the gauntlet again by sending Laperouse to colonise New Holland. George III was only too ready to pick it up and forestall France in the South Pacific.
When the levee finished, the King had further discussions with the Cabinet Council before returning to Windsor. When the royal coach drove off at 4 p.m., the cabinet meeting moved to the Cockpit in Whitehall and continued through the night. Eventually, at midday on Saturday, a despatch rider was sent to Windsor with the document setting out the cabinet’s final resolution. George III signed it, indicating his approval for the Botany Bay campaign, and sent the messenger back to London so that Whitehall could get started immediately.
George III was the perfect monarch to preside over such a far-flung campaign. He was a geographer at heart and had a magnificent collection of maps in his Octagon Library at Buckingham House. It included the Klencke Atlas, the second-largest atlas in the world, which contains Joan Blaeu’s 1659 map of the Spice Islands and South-East Asia. Blaeu’s depiction of New Holland is an impressive reminder of just how much of Australia’s coast had been mapped by the Dutch 126 years before Captain Cook visited the continent.
George III was more than just an armchair traveller. He understood that Britain was a small island whose lifeblood was trade along the world’s superhighways of the high seas. His kingdom’s military and commercial survival depended on sea lanes, trade routes and geopolitics. He understood the geographic importance of New Holland in a world without the Suez and Panama canals.
He also understood that his Botany Bay campaign was audacious in terms of the Eurocentric laws of the day. No doubt the Dutch would object to Britain’s encroachment on New Holland. But he would rather incur the displeasure of the Protestant Dutch than be beaten to New Holland by Catholic France.
The enlightened and humane monarch was also concerned about the local inhabitants. Yet he had no doubt that the Aborigines would fare better under a British administration than under France’s absolutist monarchy. He instructed Arthur Phillip:
You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence.
In the same set of instructions, the King also addressed Britain’s paramount anxiety that would persist for decades. This was the government’s fear that Australia’s long, empty coastline and adjacent islands were acutely vulnerable to French incursion:
And Whereas We are desirous that some further Information should be obtained of the several Ports or Harbours upon the Coast and the Islands contiguous thereto within the Limits of Your Government; you are, whenever the Sirius or the Supply Tender, can conveniently be spared, to send one, or both of them, upon that service.
Norfolk Island … being represented as a spot which may hereafter become useful, you are, as soon as circumstances will admit of it, to send a small Establishment thither to secure the same to us, and prevent its being occupied by the subjects of any other European Power.
Thereafter, the King stuck to the simple, politic cover story of a penal colony. In his speech at the opening of the next session of parliament in January 1787, his announcement of the Botany Bay decision was so cagey that it omitted the destination:
A plan has been formed, by my direction, for transporting a number of convicts in order to remove the inconvenience which arose from the crowded state of the gaols in different parts of the kingdom; and you will, I doubt not, take such further measures as may be necessary for this purpose.
Historians have criticised the blandness of the King’s statement, but it was more regal than proclaiming something like: “We are installing a naval base at Port Jackson to block Laperouse’s French expedition and to establish maritime dominion over that quarter of the globe.”
Parliamentary approval for the plan was obtained on the passing of the New South Wales Courts Act 1787, guaranteeing “a colony and a civil government”, to which the King gave his royal assent on February 23. The Act was implemented on April 2 by the Charter of Justice, Letters Patent which established a Court of Civil Jurisdiction and a Court of Criminal Jurisdiction. There would also be an Admiralty Court.
These documents were read publicly in Sydney on February 7, 1788, when all the essential business of arrival was completed. This was Proclamation Day, a full-dress ceremony enlivened with music, bunting and a public holiday. With the flags flying and the band playing, the marines, their families, the available sailors and the convicts assembled on the parade ground. This was the formal act of state which imposed the sovereignty of the British Crown over the new colony, and marked its commencement.
When the sudden decision to occupy Australia was made in August 1786, the Naval Task Force was intended to depart within two months but delays inevitably followed. These setbacks were not always due to the preparation of the ships, stores and passengers. Much of the delay occurred after Lord Sydney jettisoned the initial plan for a military government and replaced it with a civil government. Weeks were spent drafting and re-drafting the formal legal machinery of the colony, ensuring a framework for enlightened administration.
After the announcement of one of the premature departure dates, Captain Arthur Phillip was summoned to St James’s Palace. Here, on January 3, 1787, he was presented to George III by Lord Sydney in a formal and, no doubt, heartfelt leave-taking. The historic convoy, later known as the First Fleet, sailed from Portsmouth in May 1787.
On learning of the British manoeuvre, the French Minister of Marine, Charles Castries, drafted new instructions for Laperouse, ordering him to abandon his itinerary and go straight to Botany Bay (below). This despatch was sent from Paris to Moscow, then taken by courier across Siberia. Laperouse received it at Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka in late September 1787. He sailed south immediately and reached Botany Bay on January 23, 1788. There he found Arthur Phillip, who had arrived five days earlier. As the Duke of Wellington remarked after Waterloo, “It was a near-run thing.”
When Captain Phillip (later Admiral) returned to England in 1793, the King had changed. His first psychotic illness had occurred in late 1788 and relapses would follow. Nonetheless, George III maintained his interest in the functioning colony, principally through his regular walks and conversations with Sir Joseph Banks. The King was particularly delighted with the images of the blossoming settlement contained in his copy of Views in New South Wales published in Sydney by Absalom West, 1812–14 (now in the British Library’s King’s Topographical Collection).
In 1792, George III sent a diplomatic mission to the court of the Qianlong Emperor of China. It was led by George Macartney and the purpose was to improve conditions for British trade and traders and to investigate China’s production, economy and lifestyle. Although the Macartney embassy was a political failure, it returned to London with new observations of a great empire.
Amongst Macartney’s 100-strong delegation was his comptroller, the twenty-eight-year-old John Barrow. During the two-year mission, Barrow acquired a good knowledge of the Chinese language and Chinese affairs. A decade later Barrow became the Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty, a post he held for forty years. Like his predecessor, Sir Philip Stephens, Barrow understood geography. He set out to ring-fence Australia with strategic outposts to prevent France and others from gaining a foothold and ensuring British dominion over the whole continent. He succeeded, thereby justifying Macartney’s famous description (made prematurely perhaps in 1773), “this vast empire on which the sun never sets”.
In January 1795, the King’s cousin, the Prince of Orange, reached England, seeking refuge now that the Dutch Republic had become a client state of France. During the French Revolutionary Wars, it was vital for Britain that the Dutch East Indies did not fall into French hands. Britain sent two battle squadrons to the Cape of Good Hope and won Cape Town in the Battle of Muizenberg. George III was pleased that there was no need to send a second military expedition to expel the French from Sydney Harbour. A French naval base at Port Jackson could have wrought havoc on Britain’s trade routes through the East Indies and on to China. The King knew better than anyone that the fact that Port Jackson was already part of the British Empire was thanks to the singular persistence of Joseph Banks. It was with gratitude for extraordinary services rendered, that George III took his sword and tapped his friend on the shoulder on July 1, 1795, investing him as a Knight Companion of the Order of the Bath, or KB (later reissued as GCB).
When Sir Joseph Banks burst into 10 Downing Street with John Ledyard’s news from the American embassy in Paris, the Prime Minister was not amused. At the time, William Pitt was fully focused on the final negotiations for an Anglo-French commercial treaty. After the disastrous American War, his strategy for Britain’s economic recovery was to replace centuries of ruinous war with mutually advantageous trade. The last thing he needed was an imperial escapade that would upset the French and derail negotiations.
Even so, the twenty-seven-year-old was the son of William Pitt the Elder (Lord Chatham) who, after Britain’s poor start in the Seven Years War, walked through the revolving door of prime ministers and announced his strategy to destroy the French in America. With furious energy and total self-confidence, he got the job done. During the peace negotiations, he even declared that he would rather lose the use of his right hand than allow France back into the Newfoundland fishery.
His son too had doubts about the French. When writing to William Eden, his negotiator in Paris, Pitt said, “Though in the commercial business I think there are reasons for believing the French may be sincere, I cannot listen without suspicion to their professions of political friendship.”
As Banks hoped, John Ledyard’s message that France was poised to colonise Australia jolted the Prime Minister into action and the cabinet meeting was arranged for the following morning. A month after the Botany Bay decision, Pitt’s cherished Anglo-French commercial treaty was signed on September 26. For a time, historians hailed it as Pitt’s most valuable achievement. Yet it was torn to shreds just six years later with the outbreak of the next Anglo-French war. Pitt’s other feat that summer—his commitment to settle Australia—proved more durable.
Today Australia remembers these decision-makers—the King and his Prime Minister. There are any number of George streets and Pitt streets throughout the country. There is Georges River emptying into Botany Bay, and King George Sound, named and claimed by George Vancouver. Pitt Town sits above the Hawkesbury River and, when Arthur Phillip explored the southern arm of Broken Bay, he declared it “the finest piece of water I ever saw” and named it Pitt Water.
Australia is an island, a continent and a nation. It holds a central geographic position between the Indian and Pacific oceans. It lies south of Asia and is a gateway to Antarctica. The Tropic of Capricorn bisects the land climatically into near equal halves, tropical and temperate.
It is not difficult to see why George III and William Pitt made the snap decision to occupy Australia when confronted with Thomas Jefferson’s news. As Geoffrey Blainey wrote in his renowned book The Tyranny of Distance in 1966, “it was simply vital that France should not be allowed to occupy such a strategic site”.
Australia was the first acquisition east of Greenwich made by the British Crown, as John Ehrman notes in his biography of Pitt:
Even in 1783, not one inch of land was administered by the Government east of Lowestoft [in Suffolk]. All the forts and regions beyond that longitude occupied by British subjects were owned and governed, under charter, by trading associations.
George III may have lost the first British Empire, but the first king of Australia set the cornerstone of the second British Empire through Asia and the Pacific. If France had succeeded in any of its plans to take Australia, the eastern hemisphere would be a very different place. The French administration would have collapsed under France’s doomed absolutist monarchy and the ensuing chaos of the revolution.
New Holland would likely have become a patchwork of nations riven by differences of language, interests, commodities, wealth and religions. Instead, serendipitously, the Commonwealth of Australia is a free, unified, stable, flourishing, English-speaking democracy. As a consequence, it retains its strategic importance in a world where, in geopolitical terms, the centre of gravity has shifted towards the Indo-Pacific.
Australia is an enormous feather in George III’s cap. By omitting the King’s responsibility for Britain’s annexation of the continent, his biographers short-change their readers. American readers in particular would relish the story of the great race for New Holland. After all, it would never have happened without Thomas Jefferson.
Indeed, those errant biographers must be kicking themselves for omitting it. The epic race for Australia gives them the makings of an epic movie, a godsend for book sales. The camera pans from the royal courts of Versailles and St James’s to the American embassy in Paris, then on to a Pacific paradise and its fine, elegant people. James Cook would lead a cast of splendid characters who would light up the screen. Philip Stephens is Cook’s “M”, directing events from the Admiralty Building, while Sir Joseph Banks moves quietly between Whitehall and the royal houses at Windsor and Kew. Across the Channel, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones and John Ledyard dazzle their French allies. The intriguing game of cat and mouse is played out by the heroic commanders Jean Laperouse and Arthur Phillip, both endowed with great moral principles. They bring the movie to its thrilling climax as the race for Australia ends in a photo-finish.
Margaret Cameron-Ash is the author of Beating France to Botany Bay: The Race to Found Australia and Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook’s Endeavour Voyage, both published by Quadrant Books