In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook sailed to the east coast of Australia and named it New South Wales. He claimed possession of the region for the British Empire under the doctrine of Terra Nullius. Terra Nullius is Latin for land belonging to no one. It was used to describe Australia, a land that was legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited. He then sailed the whole coastline of Australia and declared to the British government that it would make a good place for a settlement.
A decade later, Britain had lost its colonies in America as a result of the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The British saw colonisation of Australia as an opportunity to expand their territory and trade in the South Pacific, and a solution to growing social and political problems such as unemployment, crime rates and incarceration. Britain founded a penal settlement in New South Wales and shipped their convicts to Australia.
European settlement began when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay in January 1788. Their arrival watched by the Aboriginal owners of the land, the Gweagal and Kamaygal people. The 11 ships which made up the First fleet carried more than 1300 Europeans, comprising officers, marines and 780 convicts. To the new arrivals this new land and everything within it was unfamiliar and excited intense curiosity
In Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, 1902, Australian artist, E. Philips Fox (1865-1915) has depicted the moment Cook arrived in New South Wales. Fox shows Cook ceremoniously coming ashore to claim the land for Britain. The colonisers are presented as powerful figures, the bearers of learning and civilisation in a land thought to have been empty of culture. In images such as these, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often absent or relegated to the background.
Since Fox was born almost a century after Cook’s arrival, he wasn’t there at the time so he painted the scene using his imagination. He created the work in celebration of the Federation of Australia, when the six separated colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia on the 1st January 1901.