Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

A Newer New World

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

A Newer New World

Article excerpt

Last summer, I decided to finally travel to Australia, and my visit there was framed by encounters with sculptures at its beginning and end. On my first day in Sydney, I walked past the New South Wales State Library, and there stood a statue of Mathew Flinders, someone whose name wasn't familiar to me. The attached plaque commemorated his circumnavigation of Australia in 1801-1803 on a mapping expedition for the British Navy I was to meet up with Flinders again when I began reading about the early history of Australian biology, because the botanist Robert Brown and the artist Ferdinand Bauer were members of the expedition (Hewson, 1999). Brown spent five years in Australia and then he returned to England, as did Bauer. The latter converted his sketches of plants and animals into finished watercolors, and Brown identified many new species in the material he had collected.

Across the street from the state library is the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, which was founded in 1816. That is early in the city's history, because the first settlement, a penal colony, wasn't established there until 1788. The founding of the garden reflects the efforts of Governor Lachlan Macquarie to change the character of the colony, moving away from its prison origins. According to Robert Hughes (1987), who wrote a detailed history of Australia's penal colonies, Britain was attempting to deal with its overcrowded prisons and social unrest by sending repeat offenders and political prisoners (mainly Irish dissidents) as far away as possible. These men and women were put to work developing the fledgling colony, including working for colonists who had the guts and entrepreneurial spirit to travel on the prison ships. After their terms were served, the former prisoners were free to fend for themselves in Australia or return to England, though few had the money for this. Most stayed, and many became successful business people and ranchers: solid, upstanding citizens, the ancestors of many present-day Australians.

Some of the early buildings, including barracks, remain in downtown Sydney, but the botanic garden is the best monument to the early efforts to make the city a civil place to live. It overlooks the harbor and the famous Sydney Opera House. At one end of the garden, with a view of the water, is Mrs. Macquarie's chair, a ledge carved into the sandstone that is abundant in the area (Simankevicius, 2004). This is where Lachlan Macquarie's wife, Elizabeth, liked to sit and look out over the water, presumably dreaming of going back to their native Scotland. They did return, but Macquarie died soon afterward, in 1824.

There is much more to tell of the early years of the colony, including the disappointment of the crew on landing to find that things were not as favorable for settlement as Captain Cook had described on visiting the area in 1770. He wrote about the place as filled with trees suitable for lumber and land suitable for agriculture; in fact, Cook's resident botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, enthused so about the area that Cook named it "Botany Bay." But when Captain Phillip and his entourage, termed the "First Fleet," arrived in 1788, they found the area so inhospitable that they moved on to what they called Port Jackson, later Sydney.

Cook had assumed that the inlets he saw were the outflow from substantial rivers, but that was not the case: there was little fresh water available, and many of the trees were eucalyptus, with wood so hard that it was almost impossible to saw. The soil was sandy, and sandstone was everywhere. This was not the arable farmland that they were accustomed to in England, and Australia was the antithesis of England in terms of rainfall. The first settlers met an arid land, but they made the most of it, taking the few cows, pigs, and sheep they had brought and clearing the land as pasture. The indigenous people they encountered were helpful to them and, at this early point in colonial history, interactions were in most cases peaceful between the two groups. …

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