FIRST WAVE: A Distant Mirror

FIRST WAVE: Emigrant ships to Port Phillip 1839-1845

Chapter One: Distant Mirror

During the years from 1839 to 1845, some 70 sailing ships transported a total of 13,092 'bounty emigrants' from Great Britain to the Port Phillip District of the Colony of New South Wales.(1) Port Phillip was to become the Colony of Victoria after 1851, but at the time the first shiploads of assisted immigrants were arriving in 1839, the settlement was barely established. In October 1838 the New South Wales governor Sir George Gipps reported to Lord Glenelg in London -- "The number of inhabitants of all descriptions is supposed now to exceed 3,000, of whom, however, a considerable number are convicts..."(2) The 'first wave' of subsidised migration in the following years therefore represented a significant addition to the European population, both in numerical and social terms.

The Port Phillip District has known several significant waves of migration since then. After 'Separation' of the Colony of Victoria from New South Wales, it was transformed by the effects of the Gold Rush. Settler numbers grew from 77,345 in 1851 to 540,322 in 1861, a seven-fold increase over ten years. A century later (and half a century after 'Federation' as the State of Victoria), it experienced a massive post-war influx of non-British subjects leaving a ravaged Europe. In recent decades too, with the devolution of the White Australia Policy, it has received large numbers of non-European migrants and refugees, increasing both population density and diversity.

These successive waves of 'mass migration' are particularly distinctive for their contribution to a 'mixed', society. Each wave represents significant movement away from a singularly British ideal. They form episodes in a progressive 'relaxation' of ethnic standards; from an exclusively English model of colonial 'civilisation' to one that includes other Britons, then other Europeans, and now, non-Europeans from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. And the subsequent waves, like the first, have been accompanied by suspicion and unease, with public emotions aroused over the issues of religious and racial difference.

In the British Empire of the first half of the nineteenth century, the ogre of 'terror' spoke with an Irish accent. In other words, the concerns now felt about about the present wave of migration, of Islamic customs and religious extremism, were also prominent during the first wave, with fear of Catholicism ('the Church of Rome') and violent sedition. It became a colonial obsession to count up the numbers of Irish bounty emigrants relative to those from England and Scotland, and then agonise over the colony's capacity to safely absorb them without incurring a loss of cultural unity and social discipline.

From the very start of bounty ships sailing direct from Britain to Port Phillip, the arrival of emigrants was both welcome and contested. On the one hand, they were considered desirable additions to the population in an economic sense, for increasing the supply of labour and consequent lowering of wages. On the other hand, however, their 'native' characteristics generated alarm about the introduction of 'difference'.

In this context, it seems reasonable to borrow Barbara Tuchman's book title from the 1970s for the name of this chapter. Investigating the 'first wave' of immigration is like looking into A Distant Mirror -- of seeing an image where the present is reflected back through the past.(3)

The first population

The primary impact of the arrival of 13,092 British 'bounty emigrants' in the Port Phillip District was numerical. It was a proportional effect on the pre-existing populations of the early settlement period. The 'first population' were indigenous Australian Aborigines. Establishing precise numbers for the Aboriginal population at this time is notoriously difficult.

Jan Critchett's A Distant Field of Murder, published in 1990, is one well-documented account that analyses the available data for the Western District of Victoria.(4) The obvious limitation is that such research is restricted to the contemporary written records made by Europeans and their collection of information was by no means systematic. Critchett uses the observations of the Aboriginal Protector George Robinson to estimate a southwestern population of 3,299 in 1841. But she is quick to point out that this figure does not give "a pre-contact population density" for Aborigines in that region. In her sensible view, "there is no doubt" that Aboriginal numbers "had already declined since European settlement began" in 1835.(5) 

The importance of Critchett's work lies in her perspective of population relativities, and the possible contemporary conceptions of those relativities, on the Aboriginal/European frontier.
 A census of the European population taken in March1841 revealed a population of 1,260 [in the Western District], of whom 1,102 were males and 158 were females...Opposed to the European population of at least 1,260 was a population of approximately 3,500 Aborigines [including 1,011 women and 1,074 children]...There were approximately equal numbers of Aboriginal and European men in the District in 1841 -- 1,167 Aborigines and 1,102...Europeans.(6) 
The historian's connection here provides a critical insight into the nature of 'frontier-thinking'. For those who actually had their feet on the ground in 1841, the victory of European over Aboriginal interests was anything but a foregone conclusion. The situation, psychologically at least, remained uncertain. Reinforcing that feeling of an uneasy equivalence was the very present danger of sudden and violent death. 

Critchett's research of other documented sources reveals that, between 1835 and 1847, some 38 Europeans were killed by Aborigines and 257 Aborigines were killed by Europeans.(7) This is an uneven mortality count, to be sure, but there was clearly enough carnage being inflicted by both sides to ensure that martial supremacy was not automatically assumed by either. Tension remained high.

To acknowledge the essentially mental nature of 'frontier' is, in one sense, to avoid under-representing anything that might unsettle its taut balance. In the minds of Aboriginal defenders, for instance, the visible evidence of more and more sailing ships unloading more and more Europeans on the shores of their traditional lands would not have been encouraging. Perhaps things would never be the way they were before. But for the 'squatters' pressing further inland with their flocks and herds, the same events can only have been emboldening.

The second population

The statistics of population for 'white settlers' are more readily ascertained. A colonial government census was conducted in 1836, and this information was updated by 'administrative musters' in 1838 , and regular censuses in 1841 and 1846. In summary form, these official counts of the European population at Port Phillip portray a rapidly increasing trajectory. From a low base of 224 in 1836, numbers of settlers rose to 3,511 by January 1838 and 4,950 by December 1838. Following the introduction of bounty emigrants from Britain the census results for March 1841 reached 11,738 Europeans, rising to 32,879 by March 1846.(8)

An idea of the mental impact of the bounty emigrant scheme on the white settlers already in the colony can be sensed from the numbers of numbers 'new colonists' arriving each year. In 1839 four ships carrying 600 immigrants arrive in Hobson's Bay. These are greeted with universal acclamation. In 1840 a further nine ships arrive with 1,441 people. Their reception is more subdued and murmurings about disease and quarantine begin. In 1841, a peak year for the Australian traffic in human cargo, a further 41 ships bring in 7,892 immigrants. By this time Port Phillip is 'a-flood' with 'strangers', and resentments about the competition they bring for employment and accommodation, are openly expressed. This is followed by another ten ships in 1842 with 1,747 immigrants, before a pause in 1844 when the local recession in colonial land sales halts funding for the scheme. A final flurry of ships occurs in 1844, with six vessels carrying in a further 1,412 bounty emigrants. By this time, (apart from the 'squatters', for whom wages can never be too low), most colonists feel that 'enough is enough', at least for the next few years.

In a chapter fittingly titled "Victoria's Van Diemonian Foundation", the author of a recent history of Tasmania remarks on "the inconvenient truth that Victoria was first settled by ex-convicts from Van Diemen's Land".(9) James Boyce argues that "in the early colonial period...Bass Strait functioned like a highway to Port Phillip", and that up until the end of 1837 "virtually the whole population had come from across Bass Strait", ("even in 1839 there were twice as many arrivals from Van Diemen's Land as from New South Wales").(10) This second population, a few hundred 'men of capital' and their more numerous 'ticket of leave' workers from the southern penal colony, could not fail to notice the influx of emigrants gathering pace around them. Not only their relative numbers impressed. Their 'character' was also new. This third population was a very different demographic to themselves.

One consequence of importing most of Port Phillip's original labour-force from a prison-colony was a pronounced imbalance of the sexes. Males predominated and families were few among the European early settler population. At the 1836 Census of colonists, 186 males outnumbered 38 females, a ratio of 5 to 1. The difference in 1838 was even starker, with 3,080 males and just 431 females, a ratio of 7 to 1.(11)  By contrast, the 1846 Census, conducted after the first shiploads of emigrants had begun to arrive, identified 8,274 males and 3,464 females, a reduced imbalance of 2.5 to 1. And by the 1846 Census, taken after the first wave of new arrivals had ceased, there were 20, 184 males and 12, 695 females, a much improved ratio of 1.5 to 1.(12)

The sudden and lasting impact of women, and large numbers of accompanying children, on a male society made up of hardened ex-prisoners who had been deliberately deprived of female company for decades, should not be underestimated. The emigrants were, because of their female component, and the single-women component in particular, literally the foundation of the future. From them would come the families of 'colonials', from them the values and customs which all colonists would come to believe were uniquely theirs.

The third population

Despite the apparent grounds for celebration in the pre-migration community of Port Phillip, there was in fact a high degree of suspicion and mistrust at the colonial end of the human-export pipeline. This ill-feeling was widespread and publicly expressed. And it was all about the Irish element of the bounty emigrants arriving at the settlement.

In October 1839, merchant Andrew Browles Smith gave evidence before the Committee of Immigration. Smith was the principal of A.B. Smith & Co, "one of the most respected mercantile houses in Sydney", and later a major consignor of bounty emigrants to Port Phillip. In 1841 his firm introduced seven ships to Melbourne, all from Liverpool, with a total of 1,614 assisted immigrants. In 1839, however, Smith was already a man keenly attuned to the requirements of the labour market in the Colony of New South Wales.

Smith faced probing questions. He conceded that of his Sydney consignments to date, "two fifths are Irish". He acknowledged that the Irish portion "are less esteemed than English or Scotch, who always go off first". But, he assured his inquisitors, "We have instructed [our agents in Liverpool] not to send Irish if they can obtain English or Scotch; not only because of those difficulties in finding them employment, but because they are the chief promoters of quarrels on board during the voyage".(13) (Of Glaswegian origins, Smith was apparently canny enough to fall into the same populist habit of opprobrium as his enquirers).

Similarly, in 1842, the Port Phillip Superintendent commissioned two of his officers on the Melbourne Immigration Board to conduct an inquiry. Lt. William Lonsdale and Dr. John Patterson duly ascertained the opinions of "a considerable number of gentlemen, residents in the town and surrounding districts, who are most likely to be well informed upon the subject". They reported, "The prevailing opinion is that the selection of immigrants has not been conducted with becoming care of attention; and that in most cases they have not been procured from those parts of the United Kingdom most likely to afford really good and useful servants".(14)

When it came to mentioning specific cases, the restraints of official language and guarded implication were discarded: "A large proportion of single females, chiefly from the south and south-west of Ireland, have been imported into the colony in the last 18 months. These young women have been found so totally unqualified for the common wants of the colony, most of them never having been in [domestic] service at home, and being utterly unacquainted with the duties of housemaids, could not find employment but with great difficulty".

In his accompanying letter to Lonsdale and Patterson's report, Superintendent Charles La Trobe extended his category of "helpless peasants" and "useless hands" to include married Irish men with too many children: "The large importations we have received of so-called labourers, married men with very large families from the south and south-west of Ireland...have given us ample occasions of finding to our cost that the letter of the Regulations may be tolerably well followed, and yet the main object, to the effect which they are framed, completely defeated".(15)

Again, with the married men as with the single females, there were negative consequences for the public purse. The Port Phillip report noted, "The settlers would not engage this description of labour, on account of the children, who could not be any use to them [but who ate up the squatters' expensive rations nonetheless]. The consequence was that hundreds of married men could not find employment in either town or country, and were thrown on the bounty of the Government, who, to save them and their families from starvation, gave them employment in public works".(16)

A final example of the general disposition against the Irish coming into the colony (and a display of journalistic vitriol that defies any notion of conventional restraint), is contained in a report of the Port Phillip Patriot in May 1842. On the occasion of what was probably Melbourne's first moratorium march, the newspaper 'described',
"a number of the recently imported immigrants...principally, indeed almost entirely, from the South of Ireland, and as utterly useless for any supposable species of farm labour as can well be imagined. These men were consequently left on the hands of the government for so long as there was a practicability of obtaining a better description of labourers, even at a higher rate. Since the cessation of immigration, however, the demand for labour has been on the increase, and the settlers have been obliged to have recourse to the corps of bogtrotters in the employ of the government, to make up their complement of shepherds, watchmen, farm labourers &c. These gentry, however, were in receipt of a pound a week each from the government, and their work was as easy as they choose to make it; they all therefore refused higher wages, because coupled with the condition of hard work."(17)
The squatters complained to La Trobe, insisting the 'relief' wage was too high. The Superintendent then lowered the men's pay from 20 shillings per week to 18, presumably to prompt the workers departure for rural employment. 
"This resolution was communicated to the men on Tuesday morning on their assembling at the works, and about nine they struck...and paraded the town, cheering as they went, and carrying as their standard a loaf of bread stuck on a pole. Intelligence of the procession having reached the police office, Major St. John and his myrmidous [sic] proceeded to the spot, and speedily succeeded in dispersing the mob. The ringleaders are in custody, and will be brought up for examination this morning."(18)
The Patriot, relieved no doubt by the colonial administrations demonstration of authority, concluded the article with a number of assertions to support its its tone of moral outrage.
"At least three-fourths of these fellows would have considered themselves happy in their native country if in receipt of six shillings a week, and many of them scarcely ever saw a loaf of bread, or tasted butcher's meat, before they embarked for Melbourne; it would be serving the ungrateful rascals but right therefore to turn them everyone adrift, and let them shift for themselves...When the immigration season re-commences we trust care will be taken to send us no more of these fellows. It is a notorious fact, that while these men have hung on hand, some of them for many months, every English, Scotch, and North of Ireland immigrant has been engaged immediately on arrival...The importers of immigrants, who inundate us with this description of men, have much to answer for".(19)
With these denunciations still ringing in our ears, this chapter comes to a close. The introduction of all three populations has indicated the importance of perceptions in the migration story. Host populations tend to view migrants in terms of how their arrival will effect themselves, and wariness is not an unusual approach to take. However the level of anti-Irish feeling here is something else and it appears to issue most strongly from the employing elite. The next chapter will examine what it was that the colonists expected from the bounty scheme of emigration from Britain, and whether there were rational grounds for their trenchant criticism of its conduct.


(1) These figures, and the basis for all that follows,were compiled by the author from the 'Lists of Passengers' (sometimes called 'Lists of Disposals') written out by the Port Phillip District Immigration Board for each ship bringing Bounty Emigrants. The original lists are available online by the New South Wales Public Records Office <>
and in hard copy at the Victorian Public Records Office in Melbourne.
(2) 'Copy of a Despatch' reproduced in The Sydney Herald, Wednesday 1 July, 1840, Supplement p. 1
(3) Barbara Tuchman, 1978, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, New York, Alfred A Knof
(4) Jan Critchett, 1990, A Distant Field of Murder: Western District Frontiers 1834-1848, Carlton VIC, Melbourne University Press. Critchett's research is largely confirmed by Ian Clark, 1995, Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria 1803-1859, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press.
(5) Critchett 1990, pp. 74,76,85.
(6) Critchett 1990, pp. 26,76,27.
(7) Critchett 1990, pp. 237-255 (Appendices 2 & 3).
(8) For 1836 and 1838: Historical Records of Victoria, Vol. 3, 1984, Melbourne, Victorian Government Printing Office, pp. 422,447-9. For 1841 and 1846: Australian Data Archive, < Page 4...NSW-1846-census Page 41>
(9) James Boyce, 2008, Van Diemen's Land, Collingwood VIC, Black Inc.
(10) Boyce 2008, pp. 244,246. Boyce references Marie Fel's article in Tasmanian Historical Studies (1991-92) 3, 2:73, and Alan Shaw's article in Tasmanian Historical Studies (1989-90) 2, 2:394.
(11) Historical Records of Victoria, Vol. 4, pp. 258-9.
(12) Historical Records of Victoria, Vol 3, pp. 422, 447-8, and Australian Data Archive, <hccda.../NSW-1841-census...NSW-1846-census>
(13) British Parliamentary Papers, Vol. XXXIV, 1843, 'Report of the Committee on Immigration with the Appendix and Minutes of Evidence', Appendix K, p. 51.
(14) British Parliamentary Papers 1843, Appendix N, p. 78.
(15) British Parliamentary Papers 1843, Appendix M, p. 75
(16) British Parliamentary Papers 1843, Appendix N, p. 77
(17) 'Immigration', Port Phillip Patriot, reproduced in The Sydney Herald, Friday 13 May, 1842, p. 2
(18) and (19), as above. 



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