How Australia Became British

By Robbin Laird

The book focuses on the emergence of Australia on the world’s maps and the consciousness of the European great powers.

The title is somewhat misleading.

It does answer the question as posed but provides a much broader view of how Australia emerged as part of the European power struggle and how regional threats would lead eventually to the formation of the new nation and its federation at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The initial British efforts focusing on colonization were more focused on protecting their China trade and protecting themselves from the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade than upon finding a place to park convicts. The book provides a good look at the UK government focus on settling in New Holland as a means to a trade protection end — namely, the China trade and protecting British sea lines of communication to the orient.

“During the acute international crisis in the autumn of 1784, Sir George Young, in cooperation with James Matra, presented his own plan for a settlement at Botony Bay, Nepean, the Under Secretary at the Home Department, aware that these were dangerous and largely unchartered waters, sought confirmation that this was a practical alternative route to China…”1

There you have it.  An American engage with the British in the colonization of Australia which was being colonized for global competition reasons.

The book provides an interesting description and analyses of the Australian settlement in the broader context of European trade conflicts and then later the spill over from the Nlapleanic wars where the Emperor would send a fleet against the British settlement as part of a broader Pacific initiative.

After successfully defending her interests against Napoleon, the British shifted their policy dramatically toward Australia.  They built a “ring-fence around Australia by proliferating settlements around the continent at key points on the land mass.  Notably, settlements in West Australia were important efforts in the Napoleonic period.

As the 18th Century progressed, the continent became held under one power, the United Kingdom.

But as the 19th century evolved, global politics continued to buffet the colony.  Conflict in Asia coupled with European intervention, and the rise of Germany, affected the Australians, as concern for the sea lines of communication protected by the Royal Navy was a continuing concern.  The first external war of note for Australia,. namely, the Boer War was part of this overall concern for protecting the sea lanes which affected Australia as well as the overall British Empire.

The book concludes with a chapter on the international turmoil leading to Australian Federation.

The Australian Federation a result of six separate self-governing colonies establishing a system of federalism in Australia with the Constitution of Australia coming into force on January 1, 1901.

The book concludes with the words of Joseph Chamberlain, the noted British statesman, delivered at a banquet given in the honor of Colonel Gerard Smith, the Governor Designate of Western Australia.

Chamberlain argued that the Australian colonies would soon unite and this would result “in the foundation of a mighty commonwealth, which — in a time that is historically visible is — destined to outstrip the waning greatness and the lagging civilization of the older countries of Europe.

In short, the book provides an overview of the place of Australia within the great power struggles and highlights that although Australia was a long way from Europe, its destiny was shaped by Great Poser Conflict.

Although the global context has certainly changed, this dynamic between Australia’s destiny and great power conflict persists until today.




  1. Page 11;James Mario Matra (1746 – 29 March 1806), sailor and diplomat, was an American-born midshipman on the voyage by James Cook to Botany Bay in 1770. He was the first person of Corsican heritage to visit the future nation of Australia.