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This is one of the most dramatic and most photographed views in all the world. It’s the iconic image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the spectacular Sydney Opera House. There’s no other building in all the world like the Sydney Opera House. It’s one of the great buildings of the 20th Century. It’s an architectural masterpiece with its unique gleaming white roof of interlocking, vaulted sail-shaped shells. It’s Australia’s best-known landmark.
But it’s not [so] well known, that the land where the Opera House sits is known as Bennelong Point. It’s named after a man of the Eora tribe, an Aboriginal Koori people, the original inhabitants of this country. Bennelong was a local Aborigine who served as a liaison between Australia’s first British settlers and the local population. He was the first Aboriginal man to visit Europe and return. Bennelong lived in a small building on this site that now carries his name.
Then, in the early 1800’s, the NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie instructed that a large, impressive stone fort be built on the site to protect the new colony. By 1902, the stone fort was replaced by a Tram Depot and then a Bus Terminus, and finally the Opera House.
Beside the Opera House you can still see the heritage listed jetty built in 1810, called the Man O’ War Steps. For 150 years the Man O’ War Steps were the landing and embarkation point for men of the British and Australian Fleets. Right by the steps are the beautiful Sydney Harbour [sic] Botanical Gardens that wrap around the small inlet called Farm Cove. It was here that the early settlers planted the first crops to feed the struggling new colony.
On the other side of the Opera House is Sydney Cove, the heart of the city. Today it is better known as Circular Quay, a tourist precinct, a transport hub for the harbour ferries, hydrofoils and River Cats, and the historic Rocks heritage area.
But now, let’s step back in history about 250 years. In late 18th Century Britain the Industrial Revolution caused widespread economic displacement. As new machines were invented, people were no longer needed to do farm jobs. So people flocked to the cities looking for work. The cities became overcrowded. The unemployment and poverty in the overcrowded cities saw the crime rate rise dramatically. Desperate people turned to petty crime just to survive.
Soon Britain was struggling to accommodate its prisoners as the gaols become increasingly overcrowded. Then, under English law, criminals were transported to penal colonies. At first, British prisoners were sent to the colonies in North America. But in 1783 when the American War of Independence ended, the newly formed United States refused to accept any further shipments of British convicts.
As a result, prisons in Britain were soon overflowing again. The situation became dire, and an alternative was needed. So, the British government decided that the vast southern continent claimed for Britain by the explorer Captain James Cook in 1770, would be an ideal location for a new penal colony. It seemed a great idea to transport your prisoners to the other end of the world.
The First Fleet of 11 ships carrying more than 750 prisoners, or convicts as they were called, departed Portsmouth, England, on 13th May 1787. After a voyage lasting 252 days and covering 20,000 kms, they arrived in this cove on 26 January 1788. It was the beginning of an era of transporting British prisoners to Australia. Between 1788 and 1868, in just 80 years, about 165,000 convicts were transported from Britain and Ireland to various places in Australia.
The newly arrived convicts faced many challenges. They were isolated from their family and friends. They were transported to a distant and alien land. They arrived despised and disadvantaged. Their lives were filled with adversity and toil. Yet in spite of their hardships and handicaps many rose above the challenges, worked hard, gained their freedom eventually, and not only succeeded in proving themselves to be upright and reliable citizens of their new land, but also contributed enormously to its development.
Some of their stories are surprising and truly inspiring, especially those that are representative of all who transformed, survived and thrived in their adopted country. But, perhaps what’s even more surprising is the common link that united and influenced them all.
Join me on a journey through the annals of early European Australia.
Do you think a convicted forger could ever be honoured with his face printed on a country’s banknote? Well, it actually happened. The first Australian decimal currency $10 note in circulation from 1966-1993, had the face of a convict who committed forgery, on it. Who was this man, and why is he considered worthy of being remembered with his face emblazoned on a banknote?
Francis Greenway was born near Bristol, England in 1777 to a family of builders, stonemasons and architects. Greenway set up an architectural firm in Bristol until his business went bankrupt in 1809. In difficult financial circumstances, in January 1812, Greenway forged a note on a building contract that said the client would pay Greenway an extra £250. Now, the client was not impressed and complained to the authorities, which led to Greenway being convicted, and sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to transportation to Sydney for 14 years, as a convict.
Meanwhile in the new colony, the NSW Governor Macquarie sent a request to England for an architect to help build the new town of Sydney. No architect was sent, but Francis Greenway arrived in Sydney in February 1814 as a convict, and a month later, on March 7, he was granted a ticket of leave by Macquarie, who had been desperate to have an architect design the colony’s public buildings.
Governor Macquarie appointed him as the colony’s civil architect and assistant engineer. His first commission was to build the Macquarie Lighthouse here on South Head, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour.
Greenway went on to build many significant buildings in the new colony. Some of his works include the Obelisk – from this spot they measured the distances to the various settlements in the colony; Hyde Park Barracks – a home for 600 convicts; St James Church which held its first service on 6th January 1822; the first court buildings in the colony; and the extensions to the new Government House, and its stables which are now the Conservatorium of Music.
There are still 49 Georgian style buildings in central Sydney attributed to his designs. Greenway even discussed the need for a harbour bridge a century before it was built.
Like many freed convicts, Greenway accepted a farming land grant, or free land, and settled near Maitland. He died of typhoid on his property in 1837 and his remains are believed to rest in an unmarked grave in the East Maitland Cemetery. Greenway’s legacy lives on in some of the finest colonial Georgian architecture in Sydney, and he is honoured with his face etched on the $10 note.
A second convict who made an impact on colonial society was William Bland. He was the son of an obstetrician in England and he became a surgeon in the British Navy. In 1809, on the warship HM [Sloop] Hesper in Bombay, India, Dr Bland got into a fierce argument with another officer, Robert Case, the purser on the ship.
Unfortunately, the two men decided that the only way to resolve the issue was to have a duel with guns. In the duel, Bland killed Robert Case. The surgeon was actually convicted of manslaughter, and instead of being hanged he was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia.
Dr Bland arrived in Sydney in July of 1814 and was sent to the Castle Hill jail for a short time. But the next year, he managed to get a pardon and was released, and started to make an impact on the colonial society by being part of the building of a nation.
In 1817 he set up a successful private medical practice on Macquarie Street. But in 1818 he began writing satires that insulted the Governor over his poor treatment of the farmers. Governor Macquarie was not amused and managed to get him convicted of libel, and so Bland ended up in prison again for a few months, this time in the Parramatta jail.
Surely that was too much, surely that was the end? But somehow William Bland began focusing on a much bigger goal: the building of a Nation.
William Bland believed in the power of education to build a better society, and was the president on the committee that founded the prestigious Sydney Grammar School. He also became involved in NSW politics, and by 1843 he was elected to the NSW Legislative Council. And perhaps the greatest of his achievements was being voted the president of the inaugural Australian Medical Society in 1859.
William Bland is also famous as having the oldest surviving photograph taken in Australia – in 1845 and is now held by the Mitchell Library of NSW. At this death, he was given a state funeral which isn’t a bad achievement for an ex-convict!
Surprisingly, there is another convict who can be seen on the Australian currency. Her name is Mary Reibey. She was known as Molly Haydock in England, and was only 13 years old when she was arrested for stealing a horse in 1790 and sentenced to be transported to NSW for seven years. She arrived in Australia in October 1792, and was assigned as a nursemaid in the household of Major Francis Grose. Two years later, when she was 17, she married Thomas Reibey.
Mary and Thomas Reibey moved to a farming property near the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney. Farming provided new and wonderful opportunities for freed convicts. Mary and Thomas worked hard on the land and became successful farmers. Thomas soon owned a grain carrying business and three boats for transporting coal, cedar and wheat. After his death in 1811, Mary took on the responsibility for the businesses.
She expanded the business interests to importing and mercantile, purchased new ships, opened a new warehouse in George Street, the main street of Sydney, and leased her property in Macquarie Place to the first bank in Australia, the Bank of NSW.
She continued to both build elegant buildings and make extensive investments in Sydney city property. In 1825 she was appointed as one of the governors of the Sydney Free Grammar School, alongside another ex-convict, Dr William Bland.
Mary Reibey was enterprising in everything she undertook, and became legendary in the colony as the first successful businesswoman. She is known for her active interest in her church, the education of the children and works of charity for the underprivileged. Mary Reibey, a horse thief and one of the youngest convicts sent to Australia, made a difference in her new land. Today she is honoured by having her face on the $20 Australian bank note!
Our next convict lends his name to the highest-ranking high school on academic results, of all Australian schools, James Ruse Agricultural High School. For the past 30 years, this school based in Carlingford, Sydney, has performed better in the final year exams than all other high schools and private schools in NSW. But how did it start? Well, surprisingly, it began as an agricultural or farming school, and takes its name from a convict who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet in 1788.
James Ruse was born in Launceston, Cornwall in 1760 and worked as a farm hand for most of his childhood. In 1782, at the age of 23, he was tried and sentenced to death for breaking and entering the house of Thomas Olive at night, and stealing 2 silver watches.
Luckily, James avoided the death penalty, and instead was sentenced to transportation for seven years, and placed aboard the first ships to bring convicts to Australia.
When it was decided to establish a penal colony in NSW, he was sent out with the first fleet in 1787 on the ship called the Scarborough. James Ruse claimed to be the first Englishman to set foot on the shores of Botany Bay in 1788, when he carried the ship’s Captain John Hunter ashore.
In July 1789, Ruse applied for a land grant that would allow him to take up farming. Governor Phillip did not give him a land grant, but permitted him to occupy an allotment at Rose Hill near Parramatta, called Experiment Farm. The title to that grant was withheld until Ruse showed his capacity as a farmer, and his right to freedom had been proved.
In his first year after being released, James produced the first successful wheat harvest in New South Wales, and proved that it was possible for freed convicts to become a self-sufficient farmers and landowners.
James Ruse married Elizabeth Perry, a fellow convict, at Parramatta in 1790, and they successfully farmed their land. A plaque here at Experiment Farm commemorates this first independent farm. In February 1791, Ruse received 30 acres in Land Grant Number 1, and by the end of the year Ruse, his wife and child no longer needed food from the government store.
James Ruse died on 5th September 1837. During his last months he occupied himself with the rather sad task of carving his story on his own tombstone. He is buried in the cemetery of St. John’s Church, Campbelltown.
So, what was this convict’s legacy? Well, James Ruse was the first full-time farmer in the new colony, and established successful methods of farming in a new land. In addition, the eminently successful James Ruse Agricultural High School bears his name, keeps traditional farming skills alive in a metropolis, and is a testament to his hard work, dedication and commitment.
These convicts who sailed to an unknown land have remarkable stories of courage and transformation as they worked the land, created a new life and helped to build a new nation. Doesn’t that make you wonder: is there a way for any person to really get a new life? If those petty criminals could, surely we can!
So how can we find out about one of the key elements of getting a better life? Well, come with me down to the Circular Quay end of Sydney, on the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets. In a little square, there’s a monument that’s passed by and unread by hundreds of people every day. Why is there a monument here, and what does it commemorate?
Well, on Sunday, 3 February 1788, a week after the landing of the first ships from England, the first Christian church service was held on Australian soil for the officers, marines and convicts. The service was led by the colony’s Chaplain, Richard Johnson, on a grassy hill under a tree right near this monument. It’s hard to imagine the scene – no skyscrapers, no roads or cars, but just 11 ships bobbing in the harbour in the background.
Richard Johnson was a man who was convinced that the Bible is the true Word of God, and that we should live according to its principles. And so, with great love and affection he called the marines and convicts alike, to have a faith in Jesus and the Bible.
Richard Johnson actively worked to improve the lives of the convicts in the colony. He was responsible for the setting up of a fund to care for orphans, and when the Second Fleet arrived in Sydney with hundreds of sick and dying convicts on board, it was Johnson who risked his own life and health and went into the ships to care for those in need.
Also, he and his wife had a special desire to befriend the Aborigines – who were being dispossessed of their land by the new white settlers. In addition, Richard Johnson was concerned for the education of all children – whether they belonged to convicts or to free settlers, and he became a pioneer in providing education in the new colony.
On the 18 Feb 1793, five years after the arrival of the First Fleet, Reverend Johnson and his wife Mary opened the first school in the colony, in their newly finished church on the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh Streets, with about 200 students, which is commemorated today by a plaque.
The first generation of colonial children owed their schooling to the influence and efforts of Richard Johnson. They all attended church schools and received a Christian education. He recruited teachers from among the convicts, raised funds for their employment, provided reading books, and taught lessons himself. He also spent countless hours visiting convicts, distributing spelling books and Bibles, and encouraging the literate to help the illiterate.
What remarkable stories began in this harbour, began with convicts sailing in, and ended with new lives, new identities, and with a new nation growing so dramatically. Doesn’t that make you wonder? What made the difference?
What had such a huge influence on the early settlement? Well, amongst other things, it was the Christian churches. They assisted people in need, and educated the children. They promoted Christian principles and values. They proclaimed the Good News of God’s unconditional love and helped to turn a penal colony into a progressive nation. They helped turn convicts into upright citizens, and gave them a new identity.
Christianity proclaims that faith in Jesus is the biggest source of transformation in all of history. It claims Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross can change us more powerfully than anything else. But that doesn’t happen automatically. There are challenges!
For many people in our world today, the life of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice hasn’t come alive. It’s a misty event in the past. And here’s one big reason: the cross doesn’t seem to have their name on it. Many people see the cross in generic terms. Sure, it was something done for humanity. Maybe a heroic gesture. But it doesn’t have my name on it. I wasn’t there.
You know, those criminals or convicts, who sailed into Sydney Harbour, had to have a pardon, a reprieve with their name on it, to get their freedom. It had to be legal. Now, the Bible talks about the pardon that Jesus offers each one of us.
When Jesus Christ stretched his arms out on the cross, his reach was very wide indeed, even wider than Sydney Harbour, even wider than the Australian continent! Now, you’re probably not a convict sailing to another land. But here’s where the cross gets personal. We all have problems. The cross is about your problems, your weaknesses, your addictions, your challenges and your feelings of low self-worth.
How could Jesus transform us? How do we get a new identity? Well, the cross of Christ is about your new identity. The cross has your name on it. It speaks to you personally. It’s a message that comes out of the shadows, down through the years, and tells you: God loved you then. And God loves you now!
That’s a wonderful message to receive – even in a very secular world. God the Creator holds you in his hands. He holds your unique human identity in his hands. And he held you in his hands when he died!
If you would like to make a personal response to God’s gift to you, if you would like to find out more about how you can transform your life and find true inner peace and happiness, then I’d like to recommend the free gift we have for all our Incredible Journey viewers today.
It’s the booklet, Does God Really Make A Difference? This booklet is our gift to you and is absolutely free. I guarantee there are no costs or obligations whatsoever. So make the most of this wonderful opportunity to receive the gift we have for you today.
Be sure to join us again next week, when we will share another of life’s journey’s together. Until then, let’s pray for God’s blessings and guidance in our lives.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of Jesus and for your promise of a new identity, a new life when we believe and trust in you. We need to be redeemed, free from our past problems and challenges. We pray for forgiveness and peace and the assurance of a new identity in Jesus. And we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.