The British decision makers: Bathurst, Bigge, Cook, Flinders, Oxley, Brisbane

Before we move into the details of Moreton Bay it is important to also paint the bigger picture. At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Britain had just been successful together with its other allies to defeat France. If Napoleon had won the war the world would have looked quire different. After the victory Britain went on for another 100 years of being the global super power. However, during that period it remained very fearful of France and a range of minor wars were fought during the 19th century. However, the fear of France claiming territories in and around Australia remained high on the minds of the British. 

With the war over, unemployment and crime rapidly increased in Britain.  Punishments in this age were severe even from the smallest demeanour. Gaols were filling up again, including the hulks in the Thames, so transportation was again high on the agenda of the politicians.

With Britain embarking on its largest colonial expansion and the threat of France being a rival in this conquest. Britain started to look at securing larger parts of Australia, especially to the north and to the west. It wanted to plant the British flags at strategic place with a small military settlement connected to it. The aim was by doing so that they would also be able to attract sea trade by creating ports. In North Australia that would mean that they could bypass the ports in the Dutch East Indies. While several military posts were established, they were also abandoned again, as the expected sea trade never eventuated.

Furthermore the Napoleonic Wars had created many British heroes and on the one side new jobs needed to be created for the military aristocracy and of course they also needed to be awarded for their military successes. The Colonies, included Australia, received their share of these highly ranked, war-hardened military men. This lead an increased hardening of convict policies. So the authorities in London were again looking at the options for convict transportation. Moreton Bay, being the one that was only created after the Napoleonic Wars became one of the most notorious penal settlements in the Empire known for its very liberal use of the lashes.

The idea for what became Brisbane emerged in 1817 when the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, the Third Earl of Bathurst, Henry Bathurst, based in Downing Street London, held a commission of inquiry into the convict transportation to NSW. Bathurst was worried NSW was no longer seen as a deterrent and authorised lawyer John Thomas Bigge to investigate options. The administration of the Colony of New South Wales had received severe Parliamentary criticism during a rather liberal line of operation during  Lachlan Macquarie’s governorship, and this stirred the pot in London and among the vested interest in Sydney. 

In January 1819, Bigge – a hardliner – was appointed a commissioner to inquire into the state of the Colony. Together with his secretary Thomas Hobbes Scott, he arrived in Sydney on 26 September 1819. During his visit it became quickly clear that his views were  in direct conflict with the policies  of Governor Macquarie. Who had been able to establish a more humane convict system that was working well. Bigge totally ignored the local situation and arrogantly planted the British hard-line stamp on his visit and subsequent report. He severely undermined Macquarie by siding with the wealthy landowner John Macarthur and his business friends who were first of all looking after their own interests. Bigge finished gathering his evidence and on 10 February, sailed back to England. 

There were increased discussion over convict transportation and plans on how to continue the system which saw rather opposite views in the British Parliament. One based on reform rather than punishment and the other one based on  harsh punishment.  Bigge favoured the tougher approach.

When Thomas Brisbane arrived as the Governor of NSW he didn’t find it too difficult- as a military man –  to implement Bigge’s more harsher plan. He was happy with the suggestion to establish new penal settlements for the more difficult convicts. For starters it allowed him to rid Sydney of the more hardened criminals known as ‘old lags’ and re-convicted prisoners.  The military commanders of NSW were happy with the focus on punishment as we will see in further chapters.

Possible sites for new penal colonies  suggested by Bigge were: Port Curtis, Port Bowen and Morton’s Bay. Later the reopening of Norfolk Island was added to the list (which had been closed in 1814). This late addition lead to a conflict within the British government as Thomas Brisbane had already send out the first group to establish the settlement in Moreton Bay. This at the time that the British Government increasingly favoured the reopening of Norfolk over Moreton Bay. In the end both Moreton Bay was established and Norfolk Island was reopened (the latter partly because the British expected the French to start a colony on the island).

The reason Moreton Bay was included in the original selection of Bigge, was because this bay was visited by Captain Cook when he passed the area on 15 May 1770, he named the bay in honour of Lord Morton, president of the Royal Society.  However, the spelling Moreton was an error in the first published account of Cook’s voyage and that is the name that has stuck ever since.  Furthermore the bay sighted by Cook is not the current Moreton Bay. He only gave the name to the bight formed by the northern end of Stradbroke Island (at that time this was one island) and the eastern side of Moreton Island. He was unaware of what became known as the South Passage  between the two islands, and never sailed into what is the present Moreton Bay. He however earmarked it as having potential for settlement, hence the interest from Bigge in exploring this site further. On the beach in Redcliffe is a monument to commemorate James Cook’s sighting and naming of Moreton Bay.

In his words: “The shores are in general low and covered with mangroves off which extend considerable mudflats, dry at low water, but to this remark the shores in the vicinity in Red Cliff Point are an exception”.

Captain Cook Monument - Redcliffe
The small flat stone is from the ruins of the ancient Abbey of Whitby, Yorkshire, England overlooking the old seaport of Whitby from where Captain James Cook sailed on his voyage of discovery. Marker at Redcliffe.

The first known European to actually sail into Moreton Bay was Matthew Flinders in 1799. He entered the bay between Moreton Island and Bribie Island. He anchored at the entrance and in a smaller boast went into the bay together with Bungaree, a Kuringgai man from the Broken Bay area north of Sydney. He landed on Bribie island where he met a group of the Djindubari. While the contact was peaceful some misunderstanding occurred over a trade exchange, a spear was thrown and gun was shot. Flinders gave the landing spot the name Point Skirmish. He explored the mainland side of what he called the Pumice-stone Passage. He also scaled one of the Glass House Mountains (Mt. Beerburrum). From here he sailed southwards and on Wednesday 17th July he landed on the southern point of the peninsula in the bay. He marked it as ‘Red cliff Point’ on his map, and named the landing spot Woody Point.  In all he spend two weeks in the bay.

 In 1822 Lord Bathurst instructed the Governor of NSW Thomas Brisbane to avail himself: “of the experience and services of Mr. Oxley, the Surveyor- General, and of any other officer whom you may deem competent for the Service”. And he was also given the explicit message to investigate  to explore the potential sites for a free settlement.

The British authorities in both Britain and Australia also aimed for an increase of free settlers. They started planning for a period beyond convict settlement and in Sydney there was a push for change to end the convict transportation all together. Also, these ideas were behind to push to look for new settlements. 

NSW Surveyor General John Oxley

On October 21, 1823 Lieutenant John Oxley left Sydney and sailed in the schooner Mermaid north as far as Port Curtis (the site of Gladstone). On the way back – on November 29th – the ship entered Moreton Bay. They anchored at Point Skirmish.. From here they surveyed the area at Red Cliff Point. The reason why he choose this as a potential site for the penal colony was that it was a peninsula sticking out into the bay and thus easier to get too.

As we will see in the next chapter he also explored the river and commented that there were possibilities for settlements along the river. The “West Side of the River at the termination of the Sea Reach was seen as a potential site for free settlers. He also mention a possibility near West Creek (Milton). The first one would, the following year, become known as the site next to Breakfast Creek. However, plans changed when the penal colony was moved from Moreton Bay to Brisbane River. As a result it would take 17 years of military rule before free settlers were allowed to arrive here. In the meantime squatters started to arrive however, they were not allowed within 30 miles of the penal colony.

During most of that period the position of Brisbane remained uncertain. Logan suggested a more decentralised set up (Stradbroke Island, Oxley Creek, Eagle Farm, Redland, mouth of the Logan River). Cleveland was another option for a port directly on the Bay. Ipswich was preferred by the squatters. Later on, within what is now Brisbane , South Brisbane, North Brisbane and Kangaroo Point all put themselves forward as the key settlement.

The lack of proper plans and proper decision making procedures created 30 years of uncertainty. The British Government never really wanted a settlement here, they largely refused to fund basic infrastructure  and basically let the convicts, military, early settlers and squatters muddle on, mainly on their own.

It was convicts who ‘discovered’ Brisbane River

Convict History of Brisbane TOC