Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Australia's surprising origins
Australia started out as a military dictatorship. That sounds like a bad start but the military concerned was subservient to the parliament of England so it was fairly humane and permissive by the standards of its day. But most Australians know that (I hope).
What is perhaps more surprising is what a modern place Sydney was in its earliest days. Stories surrounding my two convict ancestors help illustrate that:
From Sydney's newspaper of the day ("The Australian" -- particularly the issue of 30.7.1828) we learn that when the convict ship carrying my male ancestor arrived in Sydney harbour, there was smallpox on board.
So what did they do? Just say a prayer and disembark everybody straight away? No. The illness was immediately notified to the appropriate authorities. The ship was then sent to Neutral Bay in quarantine and the Sydney population warned. Thousands of people had cowpox vaccinations as a result. After official investigations, the ship was eventually allowed to disembark on August 5th at Spring Cove. Pretty modern! Precautionary vaccinations in 1828.
So Sydney was a pretty sophisticated place by 1828. A "visiting English gentleman" writing in "The Australian" of 13 August 1828 under the pseudonym "Delta" was surprised to find Sydney comprised of substantial brick and stone buildings instead of the mud huts and log cabins he had expected. He found it "a bustling, elegant and extensive city" with shops as good as London's but with much cleaner air. So the convicts had built well in their first 40 years.
A subsequent writer in "The Australian" found "Delta's" encomium a bit exaggerated but did nonetheless still see Sydney as a place with opportunities that might well entice emigrants from England.
And when my female ancestor from those days was being transported to Australia in 1840, the convict ship departed from Kingstown, about 12 kilometres south of Dublin city centre in Ireland, and now called Dún Laoghaire (or Dunleary). So how did she get from Dublin to the port? By steam train! The railway from Dublin to Kingstown opened for business in 1834 and terminated near the West Pier. So Australia started out as an offshoot of the most advanced country of its day. And it has always been a "modern" country. Around the year 1900 it was by some accounts the richest country in the world.