British Empire and colonisation

The ships setting sail in 1836 to found the Province of South Australia were part of the global network of trade, communication and governance that was the British Empire.

Britain had already established the Australian colonies of New South Wales (1788), Van Diemen’s Land   (later Tasmania, 1803) and Western Australia (Swan River Colony, 1829).  In 1836 the areas of Australia later to be the colonies of Queensland and Victoria were still part of New South Wales.

 In the 1830s the British Empire was in a phase of expansion. It included New Zealand, colonies in Canadian North America, islands in the West Indies and the Pacific, British Guinea in South America, the Cape Colony in Africa, and strategic and trading ports across the globe, including St Helena, Singapore and Malacca. It was also consolidating power and territory in India, and able to exert considerable political power in many more countries through its dominant position in trade. Companies, including the British East India Company, had played a crucial role in expanding British interests.

Russia was Britain’s major rival for colonial power in this period. The previously powerful European colonial powers of France, the Netherlands and Spain were in decline.

British colonies in the 1830s had varying levels of local control, but the Australian colonies were ruled by a resident Governor, who represented the British monarch and communicated with the British Government through the Colonial Office.

Britain acquired its colonial ‘possessions’ in a range of ways, including treaty with other colonial powers and Indigenous peoples, exploration, war and invasion. The establishment of the Australian colonies was based on the doctrine of terra nullius: the idea that Britain could claim sovereignty as the land was ‘belonging to no one’ and hence open to acquisition through occupation. This was overturned by the Mabo case of 1992 which recognised that Australia’s Indigenous peoples had native title at the time of colonisation.

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