A Brief Philatelic History of Victoria

Chapter 1:
The Exploration and Colonization of Australia

During the 1770’s events were occurring on three separate continents that would prove to be fateful to the colonization of Australia.

In the Pacific, exploration was progressing at a rapid pace. The oceans were becoming better charted, and the technologies for longer voyages of greater duration became better understood. One by one, the island groups of the vast Pacific were being found, and charted. In 1768, Captain Cook undertook an exploratory voyage to the Pacific. He set sail from Plymouth, to Rio de Janeiro, then to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, enroute to Tahiti. After a short, and delightful, stay in Tahiti, he set out to discover the great Southern Continent that had been predicted for many years. As he crossed the uncharted waters of the Pacific, he encountered the coast of the North Island of New Zealand, where he spent four months mapping the coasts of this newly discovered land. During his travels, he had several encounters with the warrior-like Maori who made it very clear that they did not appreciate his presence.

Departing from New Zealand, Cook decided at the last moment to head westward instead of retracing his steps. Bad weather forced his ship farther north than he had hoped and, lo and behold, on April 19, 1770, he discovered the flat shoreline of Eastern Australia . His first encounter was, in fact, in Victoria, but he could not find a suitable harbour so he travelled north along the coast, finally making land at a point they proclaimed as Botany Bay. After the delights of Tahiti, everything about this new land was a letdown. The land was flat and uneventful, the food was strange and often inedible, the natives were shy, withdrawn, and they covered themselves with rancid fish oils and charcoal that made them most unwelcome guests. Many sailors, after months of celibacy aboard ship, made notes in their diaries that celibacy remained the choice of most crew members when presented with the options found in this most inhospitable land. Another aspect of the native Aborigine, which would prove to have far-reaching consequences, was that they were docile in the face of Cook’s intrusion into their land. This was in stark contrast to the behaviour of the Maori in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, back in England, there was a major economic decline in the last half of the 18th century and crime was rampant, as peasants struggled to survive. In response, the Monarch declared an ever increasing list of misdemeanours to be capital crimes, punishable by death. At one point, there were several hundred different crimes that could result in the death penalty. Most were for various forms of petty theft, such as stealing a piece of clothing left out to dry, or stealing a piece of cheese. While many were tried and convicted in a judicial system that looks cruel and unusual by today’s standards, the fact is, that few were actually sentenced to death. Instead, in a move that kept the monarchy in some esteem and favour, many pardons were granted, and substitutions of sentence often included “transportation”. Transportation was a clever device that assisted England to cull peasants from the over-populated homeland, and to provide much needed settlers and workers to build the Empire overseas. Transportation usually had a time limit but many, once transported, never returned. England had no penitentiaries for long term convicts, and aside from the local jails, there was no place to billet convicts. Transportation was a necessity to keep the judicial process stable.

Events that occurred in North America, half a world away from Australia, also proved to be prophetic for the still unsettled colony. It is not a well known fact that many transportees were sent to the colonies of North America to provide labour for their rapidly developing economies. Convict labour complemented slave labour in building the U.S. colonies. When the War of Independence was declared in 1776, it caused major problems for the judicial system in England. Where could they send the convicts? The number of convicts was increasing, as the economic conditions in England worsened but there was no place to put them.

At one point, government officials placed decommissioned ships in harbours, and had convicts billeted in them, forcing them to come ashore during the day for controlled labour of one type or another. Living conditions in the jails and on board the offshore ships were horrid, yet the numbers of convicts kept increasing. England assumed they would win the war with the U.S and that the situation would resolve itself, but when the war was lost in 1784, panic set in among the officials responsible.

Desperate to find a new destination for transporting convicts, someone recalled Cook’s travels to Botany Bay some fourteen years earlier, and after some debate, it was decided that Botany Bay would be home to transported convicts in the future. This was a stunning decision, given that no one had been back to Botany Bay since Cook’s brief appearance there in 1770.

And so it came to be that, in 1787, a fleet of 11 ships was dispatched from England, carrying 736 convicts, plus a core of seamen. They sailed first to the Canary Islands, then, to Rio, on the coast of Brazil, then back across the southern Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope. After a one month stay at the Cape, to replenish stocks, repair the ships, and rebuild the strength of the crew and convicts, they set out again. The most amazing thing is that no one had ever before crossed the vast Pacific from the Cape of Good Hope to the coastline of Australia – not even a seasoned explorer had accomplished this. Yet, here was the fleet of 11 ships, filled with potential settlers for this new land that no one knew anything about, facing a voyage of thousands of miles across an ocean that had never been charted. It would be equivalent to deciding that the first trip to the moon should carry 1000 settlers with enough food to last a year, in the expectation that, once there, they could learn to fend for themselves.

Remarkably, the fleet arrived in January 1788, and with little loss of life, but surviving the new land turned out to be harder, in some ways, than surviving the voyage. The transportees had few skills in the trades, and few had any knowledge of farming. Added to that, was the strange characteristics of the new land, where summer occurred when it was normally winter, where the birds walked and the animals hopped, where the trees kept their leaves but lost their bark, and where nothing seemed as it should be. The soil was barren in many places and crops failed. Still, most managed to hang on, and in May 1789 another fleet arrived with fresh supplies and much needed seeds to try farming again after the initial failures. Despite hardships not fathomable in the modern world, the tiny enclave survived, and slowly took root. By the 1790s there were the basic elements of a colonial presence, in what has become known as New South Wales.

Through an arduous struggle, life continued, and new settlers kept arriving. Agriculture took hold in the more fertile inland plains, and trade started to open up within the Pacific region. By the 1820s there was a stable economy, and many trades were in demand. Furthermore, infrastructure was developing to take advantage of the newly acquired prosperity, relatively speaking. There were now small pockets of settlement along the coast of eastern Australia – Sydney, Moreton Bay, Newcastle, and Port Macquarie, as well as a colonial settlement on Van Dieman’s Land. In 1824, two men by the names of Hovell and Hume, set out from New South Wales, overland, in an effort to find rich pasture lands. They headed in a southerly direction, first discovering the Murray River, then to a destination near the current city of Geelong. But they did not proceed far enough to see the ocean to the South, and abandoned their efforts.

In 1834, a family emigrated from Van Dieman’s Land to take up settlement at Portland. They became the first settlers in the future colony which would ultimately become Victoria. In 1835, further settlers founded Melbourne, and in August 1835 the new settlement was named The Port Phillip District. It was administered for the next 15 years by New South Wales. In 1836, a police magistrate was dispatched to the settlement, at which time a population of 177 was recorded. By the end of 1837 the number had grown to 1500, and the new settlement was well on its’ way.

The first ships to bring immigrants directly to Melbourne from England arrived in 1839, and in 1840 another 15 ships arrived, followed by a further 44 ships in 1841, bringing the total population to about 10,000. A popular movement to attain separate colony status started as early as 1840, but did not succeed for until 10 years later. In the meantime, the population grew and prospered. Regular ship landings became part of the life in the new settlement mainly due to the favourable harbour facilities in Port Phillip. Finally, in May 1850, Queen Victoria proclaimed “The Australian Colonies Act”, and the colony of Victoria was formally proclaimed on 1st July 1851. Until that date, postage was formally addressed to and from the Port Phillip District of New South Wale. The first postage stamps issued in Jan 1850 proclaimed the name of Victoria, a full year and a half before its’ inception as a separate colony.

The discovery of gold played a huge role in the early development of the colony. While gold was first discovered in New South Wales in the 1820s but people did not take the reports seriously. One must remember that many of the settlers at the time were transported convicts and few, if any, had any experience mining gold. Therefore, few believed the sightings of gold that were periodically reported. Even those that came back from the hinterland showing off nuggets were suspected of trying to instigate a scam to con others out of their wealth.

The first person whose gold discovery was publicly confirmed was a fellow by the name of Edward Hargraves. He had been a gold digger in the great California gold rush of the 1840s, and when he returned to Australia in 1851, he made a discovery of some gold in New South Wales, which was reported in the Sydney newspaper on May 15th of that year. Within days, the rush was on, and over the course of the summer of 1851, thousands trekked into the hinterland, in the hopes of striking it rich. New discoveries were made almost daily, including many in the colony of Victoria which, ultimately, was found to have the greater share of the gold wealth.

Letters and accounts by those who participated or witnessed the activity described mass turbulence and disruption - shopkeepers left their stores, tradesmen went to the fields with their entire families, and captains had to lock sailors into their quarters onboard ship to insure they would remain for the voyage homeward.

Gold was certainly there, and many made fortunes in the early days, as gold lay on the surface in many areas - so abundant, at first, that few were denied the pleasure of significant finds.

As early as May 28th 1851, just two weeks after the first newspaper report, Godfrey Mundy reports “I counted nearly sixty carts and drays, heavily laden, proceeding westward with tents, rockers, flour, tea, sugar, mining tools, each accompanied by four to eight men”

By July 1st 1851, a mere six weeks after Hargraves findings, Godfrey Mundy reports in a letter, that “about 1,000 persons (are) at work there (along the Turon River)…”

Newspapers teemed with advertisements for “real gold-diggers hats” and all sorts of supplies and tools for the diggings. By the end of 1851, nearly £9,000,000 worth of gold had been retrieved from the Victorian gold-fields near Ballarat and Bendigo.

As word spread to other countries, thousands made their way to Victoria, looking for fame and fortune. The population grew rapidly rising from 70,000 at the beginning of 1851 to 83,000 the next year, then to 148,000 in 1853, 200,000 in 1854, and 240,000 in 1855. Annual immigration, which had been less than 10,000 in 1849, rose to 95,000 in 1852.

The strain on the resources of the colony, including the post office, was immense. New post offices were required, and the volumes of mail increased exponentially. The total number of letters handled by the Victorian postal service increased from 261,000 in 1849, to 972,000 in 1852, a quadrupling in just 3 years!

Meanwhile, increased volumes of letters were not translating into profits for the colony. To the contrary, the Post Office was suffering from crippling deficits. The annual deficit incurred by the Post Office had ballooned, from £600 in 1849, to £13,000 by 1852. By the end of 1853, the situation had become so critical, that radical changes were required to avoid bankrupting the entire colony.

Local mail costs that had been just 2d were raised to 6d. Overseas letters that had cost 3d would now be a full shilling, and other rates increased proportionately. The changes would have a profound influence on the postal services of the colony, and a significant impact on postal historians and philatelists for another 150 years, and beyond.

The robust and turbulent history of Victoria is reflected in the philatelic record that is left behind, providing a huge area of study for collectors and postal historians. Many have spent a lifetime collecting, analysing and enjoying the history of this colony through the prism of that philatelic record.

REFERENCES : The Postal History Of The Port Phillip District, by John Purves
The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes
The Colonial Clippers, by Basil Lubbock

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