Whereas from its foundation at the beginning of the 17th century the East India Company had been trading in spices from the East Indies and luxury imports from China, in the latter part of the 18th century changes in the pattern of this trade began to become apparent.  Firstly, the Company had always had great difficulty in finding British exports that were of appeal to the Chinese market, and had therefore been compelled to rely on the export of silver wherewith to pay for their oriental imports. As the company became evermore firmly established in India, the so called ‘Country Trade’ specializing in the marine and jungle products of the East Indies and of the Malay archipelago came to play an increasingly important role in financing the Company’s import trade. But the East India Company, having already been through recent wars with the French, firstly the Seven Years War of 1756-63, and then the wars in India in which Clive’s victories had led to the dissolution of the French East India Company, and foreseeing the likely outbreak of another war with France in the near future, began to take precautionary measures

The government led by the Younger Pitt rightly foresaw in any such Anglo-French war, Britain’s overseas trade would become a major French target. An increasing part of that trade now consisted of the manufactures of Britain’s industrial revolution, and the British government was hoping that it might prove possible to expand that export trade to the Chinese empire. Two trade missions were therefore sent to China to prepare the way, the first was led by Col. Cathcart, whose ship sailed out of London just as the First Fleet, under the command of Capt. Phillip was approaching Botany Bay. Cathcart’s mission was intended to try to persuade the Chinese Emperor to allow the English East India Company to trade with more ports than Canton. However, this first mission never reached China, Col. Cathcart died at sea off the Malayan archipelago. The second mission, led by Lord Macartney, had been prepared with the utmost care to display a wide range of products of the Industrial Revolution, which it was hoped, might appeal to the Chinese market. This mission did reach China, and Macartney did meet the aged Chinese Emperor, but to no avail, since the Emperor assured Macartney that China lacked nothing and every effort was made by the Chinese to depict this mission as just another ‘tribute mission’ from a vassal state to China.  This English approach was in any case wholly unrealistic, since it was supposed that the inhabitants of the Chinese Empire were mainly prosperous rather than a peasant population as was the case. But the outcome was tragic. The only export that the East India Company could find which was in widespread demand in China, and that was a major product of British India, was opium. Hence this became the major export of the company, though not directly, since it was an illegal import in China, but indirectly through the ‘Country Trade’.

The Macartney embassy had taken place just a decade after the peace of Versailles (1783) which had brought the American War of Independence to an end. In that war, France, Spain and the Dutch Netherlands had all become involved in the war on the side of the rebellious colonies, but they were all bitterly disappointed at the peace terms that they had been obliged to accept. France gained nothing, Spain failed to recover Gibraltar, while the Dutch found that the Austrian Netherlands had seized their rich trade managing British exports to the European continent, while Austria, for the first time in history had become a major maritime power. The Dutch situation has already been dealt with in Chapter Two, but the bitter disappointment of the three powers made Vergennes, the French foreign minister, very hopeful that he might be able to exploit this feeling of deep disillusion among the peoples of these three countries so as to revive the Triple Alliance of the American War.

In 1784 Vergennes was in fact showing the extraordinary lengths to which he was prepared to go in order to persuade Spain to join such an alliance, when, in negotiations to adjust the Franco-Spanish frontier, he was willing to give up a portion of the French frontier inhabited by the Basques, who had been on friendly terms with the French for four centuries, and whose territory was rich in timber resources of potential value to the French navy.

The English East India Company viewed these negotiations with apprehension, realizing that if France was able to revive this Triple Alliance, this would render the South China Sea closed to English East Indiamen in time of War. For if such vessels were damaged by enemy action or stormy weather, they would have no friendly or neutral harbour wherein to seek repairs; the east coast being dominated by the Spanish Philippine archipelago, the south coast by the Dutch East Indies Empire, while the west coast was dominated by France, as a result of the French missionary Bishop Pigneau de Behaine’s work in helping Prince Nguyen Anh  regain the throne in Cochin China (modern South Vietnam), where his family had been the traditional rulers until overthrown by the Tay-son rebellion. The northern coast of the South China Sea was part of the Chinese empire, then in a state of political chaos.

Hence Sir George Young, who had once served in the Company, but was now a senior naval officer, who had clearly been keeping abreast of the Company’s affairs, prepared his scheme of 1785, which envisaged ships entering the Pacific Ocean by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and then making use of Botany Bay as a refreshment stop in a harbour where ships could carry out repairs. From thence ships could sail north and approach Canton from the south or east. There is good reason to believe that the Company was doing this regularly, soon after Young had prepared his plan, which had specifically recommended the Company to make use of it. That this was quickly becoming the Company’s new route to Canton is confirmed by the fact that when Young asked about the safety of his scheme, it was to the captains of East Indiamen that he turned for support, which was quickly given.

As commander of the First Fleet it was common sense for Captain Arthur Phillip to question these same commanders of East Indiamen as to the positive and negative characteristics of Botany Bay as a potential site for a convict settlement, and from first-hand experience they would have been able to give him a negative opinion, and to point to the vast superiority of Port Jackson (Modern Sydney Harbour). This would explain the extraordinary speed with which Capt. Phillip was able to decide to abandon Botany Bay and to leave for Port Jackson.

There is one further point. Though I have not yet been able to trace my relevant research notes, my memory tells me that when the cabinet was meeting to make its final decision on the Botany Bay project, Lord Hawkesbury was told that his presence was required. He was Chairman of the committee of the Privy Council for trade and plantations, and he had also taken the Southern Whale Fishery under his care. The call for his presence is very significant re the plans that were being thought out for the future of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, for he and Eden were the Government’s chief advisers on trading policy, and he was also a vital leader of the Southern Whale Fishery.


Howard T. Fry's book How Australia Became British: Empire and The China Trade is available for purchase now.