Land of Promise


Most Australians are aware of the discovery of Australia by Captain Cook in 1770 and the settlement at Sydney Cove by Governor Phillip in 1788, yet we are not as aware of the frequent sightings and periodic landings by other Europeans during the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time the Dutch were establishing trading posts on the islands, which are now part of Indonesia. They travelled by recognised trade routes, which took them around Africa's Cape of Good Hope and then across to the Spice Islands. The area settled by the Dutch was known as the Dutch East Indies and their trading company, the East India Company, controlled all shipping in the area.

Exploration was encouraged by promises of a great south land, Terra Australis, suggested by early maps and sea captains' journals. Like the legendary blind people identifying the elephant, various attempts were made to name fragments of Terra Australis: when the Dutch mapped sections of the west coast, they referred to it as New Holland; when Abel Tasman discovered the island now known as Tasmania in 1642, he named it Van Diemen's Land after the Governor-general of the Dutch East Indies; and when Cook mapped most of the east coast for the British in 1770, he referred to it as New South Wales. It was not until 1802-3 that Matthew Flinders sailed around the continent and subsequently suggested the name Australia.


The emergence of Australia, the nation, from the land of promise, the land of the dreamtime, was an achievement of exploration and statesmanship, which triumphed over the haphazard European discovery and settlement of so vast a continent. The wonder of this awesome achievement was expressed in 1838 by a London journal, the Quarterly Review, in an article on New South Wales:

Within the memory of thousands of people now living, the lonely coasts of Australia were scarcely visited but by the winds and waves. There lay, on the map of the world, a huge circle of 'wide watered shores', inscribed by the general name of New Holland; but what was their climate and soil - or what manner of men were their in-dwellers - these were matters of which for many a year after the close of the American war, there was little or nothing accurately known. The fleets of the sovereign company, bearing north through the Indian ocean, left that vast land three thousand miles on their right, unexplored and uncared for; and even the captains who gave the convoy of his majesty's flag, in the war of 1793, to the traders with Batavia and China, never dreamed that, at the antipodes of their country, yet ten days' sail from their habitual track, there would exist, in their own time, a little English world, with flourishing cities, and cultivated fields, and fantastic villas, harbours alive with ships of every nation, and jostling crowds, and angry politics, and warring journals - all the savagery of a horde of buccaneers, and all the jealousies, vices, and vexations of the most civilised society. Such is the colony which now bears the name New South Wales .1

Before British authorities could send Governor Arthur Phillip and the party of convicts to New South Wales, they felt obliged to gain the approval of the Dutch East India Company whose trading charter encompassed the proposed settlement. The infant colonies were established by Acts of the British Parliament and, when the first contingent of settlers arrived, the formal proclamation was made and commission of the Governor read to the assembled populace. Each governor was expected to work within the terms of his commission: in Phillip's case, it entitled him to the obedience of officers, soldiers and all those involved in the establishment of the colony, while requiring him to follow all orders received from the British Treasury officials and Secretaries of State. The office of Secretary of State for the Colonies was closely involved in the affairs of each of the colonies, which developed independently of each other with only their British heritage as their common bond.


Because of the vast, indeterminate size of the land mass, the British government drew arbitrary boundaries for each colony. In 1787 the western boundary of New South Wales was the 135º line of longitude but this was moved further west to 129º to include the settlement of Melville Island in 1824. When the Swan River settlement was established on the west coast of New Holland in 1829, the British claimed all the area to the New South Wales border, thus effectively claiming the whole continent. In 1836, a section of New South Wales was declared to be South Australia as far north as the 26º S line of latitude, but it was not until 1861 that the western boundary was extended to meet that of Western Australia. The Port Phillip District of New South Wales became the colony of Victoria in 1851 with the northern boundary running along the Murray River, and the subsequent separation of Queensland in 1859 left New South Wales divided into two until the western section became the Northern Territory in 1863. The Northern Territory was administered by South Australia until 1911 when it was taken over by the Commonwealth.

Democratic Processes

Democratic processes, which we take for granted today, emerged slowly from the autocratic powers of the early governors who made the laws, subject only to the laws of England. Courts of record were established before representative government yet, by a process of civil and political agitation, colonists not only won rights equal to their British counterparts but achieved universal manhood suffrage before them.

The right to responsible government was granted to the colonies with the Act for the Better Government of Her Majesty's Australian Colonies, in 1850. As each colony chose self determination, it drew on its British traditions to formulate a constitution which set out the dynamics of government, and this was submitted to the British parliament for approval. Australian democracy is based on constitutional government which is a direct result of our British heritage: on Federation, a constitution was drawn up for the Commonwealth to explain its role and define its powers, and the new states continued to work within the framework of their established constitutions. If changes are required, parliaments must pass legislation, or refer them to referenda Owing to the nature of their constitutions, it is more difficult to achieve changes in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.

In 1907 the United Kingdom passed the Australian States Constitution Act, requiring some legislation to be reserved for approval by the Crown. It was not until 1986, with the passage of the Australia Act by the Commonwealth and British parliaments, that any residual powers of the United Kingdom parliament over the states were abolished and the right of appeal to the Privy Council in Britain removed.

Emergence of a Nation

The emergence of the nation in 1901 was the culmination of more than a century of change. Struggling isolated settlements emerged as self determining colonies; they could see major advantages in a national persona. They had developed services and public infrastructure which served their citizens well. Independently, they had tackled issues of revenue raising, land distribution, health facilities, education, transport and postal services, and they had sent their young men to fight for Britain's cause in the Crimean and Boer wars. Government services played a vital role in the development of all the colonies and the following chapters provide an insight into the work of government and its associated departments.

Interesting comparisons have been made between our centralised state government services and the localised services which operate in the USA. These differences are not surprising considering the differences in our histories: the Americans threw off British authority by means of open war, whereas the Australian colonies grew under the protection of the British system of justice and maintenance of law and order. The arm of government extended to the provision of services basic to the development of stable societies, and although local communities were often instrumental in agitating for these, many of them were too isolated, or financially incapable of implementing them without government intervention. Initially the services were delivered from makeshift accommodation, existing public facilities or private residences, but communities wanted buildings befitting the importance of the services, and the government projected its public profile in the architecture of the new buildings. Accordingly the role of Government Architect became very important. The interesting question is: to what degree did our public architecture reflect that in Britain. The following section looks at the background of architectural developments in Europe in the 18th century, and the influences at work in the early years of the Australian colonies.


1 Quarterly Review, vol. LX11, no. CXXIV, June & October, 1838, p. 475.