Australians have long been used to thinking of the first European settlement in Australia as the establishment of a penal colony at what was then the ends of the earth, flung out ill-equipped to settle in a distant land. The reality was a little different.
Port Jackson may have seemed a long way from England, but from the beginning, it was part of an extended web of trade and communications that would surprise many Australians.
In January 1785, Sir George Young, a naval commander and a friend of the Prince of Wales, wrote to Barren Arden, the British Attorney General, suggesting that the China Ships belonging to the East India Company might go on to China after landing the felons. This, he thought, would pioneer a new route to India.
Three of the ships in the First Fleet, the Scarborough, Charlotte and Lady Penryhn (photo), were in fact on charter to load tea in China after they had unloaded their convicts. All three went onto Canton without any trouble.
Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smith was travelling on the Lady Penryhn and was amazed at what he found in Canton. “I say there were between Macoa & Wampoe at least 10,000 Boats of different kinds”, he wrote in his journal. In the harbour, Bowes Smith counted forty-five British ships, one French, one Spanish, one Swedish, three Danish, four American. Four Dutch.
This web of trade and influence would have considerable influence on the early decades of European settlement in Australia. Among other things, it laid the base for early Chinese migration to Australia.
Quoted Eric Rolls, Sojourners: The epic story of China’s century old relationship with Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1998, pp 17-18. Unless otherwise cited, the material in this section is drawn from Rolls.
 Quoted Rolls, Sojourners, p 18