How “civilized” was the country from where the First Fleet sailed in May 1787 to land on the east coast of Australia in January 1788 ?
These copper-plate engravings printed in 1788 reveal just a fraction of the bloom of knowledge resulting from the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that astound and delight the viewer on the eve of European colonization of the country we call AUSTRALIA.
The gradual developments in Western philosophy and cultural life since the mid 1600s had given rise to a period we now identify as the Age of Enlightenment. This was a time when Reason was advocated as the primary source and basis of authority. This movement helped create the intellectual framework for the American and French revolutions among others. The philosophical developments of that age, and their impact in moral and social reform, aspired towards governmental consolidation, primacy of the nation-state and eventually greater rights for the common people. From the late 1700s to the early 1800s this process it manifested alongside the Industrial Revolution when major changes were happening in agricultural and manufacturing in Britain. There were many advancements in knowledge of the natural world along with the inventions that fuelled this mechanical revolution.
From this heady political, social and technological canvas the First Fleet, lead by Captain Arthur Phillip, set sail with a cargo of convicts and marines bound for Botany Bay. The planning of Britain's colonisation of New South Wales was a response to overcrowded prisons, a product of the agrarian revolution in Britain (rural land closures etc.) resulting in population explosion in the cities. As the American Revolution put an end to that transportation option, the only way to relieve the over-crowding in prisons was to establish a Penal Colony in the lands of New South Wales discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770. He gave a cartographic identity to East Coast of New Holland: the Dutch had already began the challenge recording the aggregate Dutch “Southern Continent” explorations in a 1644 map published after the return of explorer Abel Tasman. Captain Cook reported to the British government the coast’s suitability for a settlement. He named it New South Wales. The 11 ships embarked on the 15,000 mile voyage on the 13th May 1787 to establish the first European colony in New Holland (later Australia). It marked the beginnings of transportation to Australia. Between 1788 and 1850 the English sent over 162,000 convicts in 806 ships. The date of arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson (26 January) is today celebrated as Australia Day but notably a day of mourning for the indigenous inhabitants who were classified as “uncivilised” as they “did not cultivate the land.”
Back in Europe the printer’s trade had developed from the carving of simple relief wood-blocks to service Johann Gutenberg's German Printing Press in 1452 to Copper-plate engraving: line engraving developed from the goldsmith’s art and is a process of considerable antiquity. Before 1820 a plate, generally of box wood or copper, was used and a design cut into it by a “burin”, or a graver. The lines then became a receptacle for the ink applied to the block in readiness for printing. Until 1820 hand made paper made from hemp or flax was laid on the block and pressure applied through a printing press to push damp paper into the grooves to create a black and white image. Any colour was applied by hand. A metal plate engraving was a laborious, painstaking process.
It is with this technique that we inhabitants of the new millennium are provided a window of evidence to Europe’s progress in scientific and mechanical advancements in 1788.
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