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It was trade that turned NSW from a prison camp into a thriving colony.  The very early years of the colony are typified by a sense of waiting on the edge of the world – waiting for the next ship to arrive with news of home, and supplies of food. In April 1790 Watkin Tench wrote:

… on the present ration the public stores contained salt meat sufficient to serve until the 2ndof July, flour until the 20thof August and rice, or peas in lieu of it, until the 1stof October. … When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear. The pork and rice were brought with us from England. The pork had been slated between three and four years, and every grain of rice was a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it.[i]

Crops failed and cattle strayed. Penal colonies on penal colonies were established to punish offenders who reoffended. Unable or unwilling to understand the food growing in the land around them, it was the establishment of working farms and trade lines that made the colonists less dependent on England for supplies. While many in the NSW Corps made fortunes through their produce and their trading, they were the people in those early years who had access to the farms, through grants of land, tools, seeds and convict labour. They also had access to money – or at least sources of credit in England – through their own pay, and through payments made to them by the Commissariat Store. They could ask their agents in England to send them goods paid for by their pay; they could sell goods (wheat, meat, maize etc) to the Commissariat Store in Sydney and be paid by Treasury Bills, again drawn on the banks in London and redeemable there to buy more goods.

Arguments about whether the officers were exploitative monopolists, pragmatic opportunists or altruistic life-savers invite analysis of Sydney’s development as if it was a city that reinvented the wheel. But look at the heritage of most of Sydney’s colonisers. In 1788, when the ‘town’ of Sydney housed a little over 1000 people in tents and huts, London was heading towards being the largest city in the world. It took that crown away from Peking in 1825 and in 1841 the census revealed that London had become the first city in the world with over 2 million inhabitants. London was a classic ‘merchants’ city’ that grew up to meet the needs of its people and surrounding areas. (This is as opposed to a ‘princes’ city’ that is developed to showcase the ruler’s wealth and might – for example, Rome as constructed by the popes, reliant on the tributes of its adherents for its survival.) A ‘merchants’ city’, according to John Reader in his book Cities,[ii]is the more robust form. A city built on trade is run by a group of people who have an interest in its survival. They make money from its functions and existence, and they will build up those functions to improve their own chances. It’s a vindication of capitalism that this should be the case, but neither the self-interest of the prince or the proclamations of the state build as strong a city.

John Reader argues that merchants and cities were entwined from the earliest days. Proto-merchants, he reasons, came from the very earliest cities and moved out into the countryside, trading their pottery and baskets, which then allowed farmers to create agricultural surpluses – no point in creating a surplus if you can’t store it in something impermeable like a pottery jar. These surpluses were created for hard times, but also for further trade. In time, these farmers could move away from subsistence living and use their (collective) spare time to develop new arts and technologies – and more cities.

So to criticise the early traders in Sydney for trying to make their fortunes is to deny the very basis of capitalism and of the traditions of the British people. Merchants trade in order to make money – that is their motivating force. They don’t trade to feed the hungry or to provide the homeless with shelter.


[i]Two classic tales of Australian exploration. Tim Flannery (ed). Text Publishing, 2002, p122.

[ii]Cities, John Reader. William Heinemann 2004