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Entering history at The Rocks of Sydney
An English Rose in Georgia
Lesley Francis - SBF
Lesley Francis grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009.

My recent travels to Australia were wonderful. I loved the people, sights, outdoor lifestyle and Sydney.

Despite a number of strange similarities I saw Down Under with both my new home in the USA as well as jolly ol’ England, the land of my birth, some of the basic differences are striking. There is a completely different night sky, with no North Star and unfamiliar constellations like the Southern Cross; they move the clocks back during spring instead of forward; and everyone was gearing up for fall and winter when we were there in April.

All of this was doubly confusing after a 30-hour plane journey and being in a time zone 12 full hours ahead of the East Coast.

We were lucky enough during the first week of our trip to stay in a lovely hotel overlooking the Sydney Opera House in an area called The Rocks on Sydney Harbor. Much of Australia’s early colonial history started in these dozen or so square blocks. I have written before about a different type of rocks I discovered in Australia — opals — but The Rocks I’m referring to is a small waterside area in Sydney named in 1788, when landfall was made by a fleet sent by British King George III to colonize Australia.

Shamefully, the British at that time were driven by the need to empty their crowded jails and did so by sending convicts to Australia.  
According to the book “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes, before the American War of Independence, approximately 40,000 convicts from Britain and Ireland who had been spared the death penalty were sent across the Atlantic to labor on the American plantations of the Virginia Company.

By the 1780s, due largely to the push for independence in the 13 American Colonies, the British government needed a new continent onto which it could empty its jails, and Australia was chosen. It was a brutal regime and a dubious, uncharted start for a nation.

On arriving in Sydney Harbour in 1788, Capt. Arthur Phillip wrote that Sydney Cove was one “in which ships can anchor so close to the shore that in a very small expense, quays may be constructed, at which the largest vessels may unload.” The Rocks were named after the rocky sandstone soil found in this area, and convict labor was used to create permanent facilities and hack streets out of the cliff face.

The early beginnings of Australian colonization are full of disturbing tales about Europeans who were used to a different climate and land, struggled to create a new nation and manage the challenges of a predominantly convict population. Many mistakes were made and lives lost. It wasn’t until 1819 that a greater sense of lawfulness prevailed and the first prison was created. Before this, banishment to the hostile landscape was considered an adequate deterrent to escape for lawbreakers and convicts.

Under the governorship of Lachlan Macquarie (1810-21), there was a conscious push to transform the penal colony into a city, and the wool and whaling trades were beginning to flourish. By the 1840s, approximately 35,000 people lived in the town, and convict transportation from England had ceased. During times of wealth and prosperity, The Rocks became established as the commercial hub of the city, but also developed a reputation for drunken debauchery, brothels and unsavory characters. It seems that much of the character of Sydney’s convict roots grew wildly in this neighbourhood.  

Demolition seriously affected The Rocks over the years. For a decade starting in 1900, Sydney’s government demolished hundreds of buildings there in order to contain an epidemic of the bubonic plague.  In the 1920s, as part of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (with harbor spelled the British way with a “u”), another large section of The Rocks was razed. Plans in the 1960s to completely wipe The Rocks off the map and replace it with new hotels and shops were successfully thwarted by conservationists, who deemed The Rocks one of Australia’s most-important historic districts.

Today, the area is fashionable, popular with tourists and full of specialty shops, galleries, museums, restaurants and hotels. It is a lively, if expensive, part of the city.

I will leave you with a quote by Australian musician Dennis O’Keefe: “They who came here in chains were lashed while they worked in convict gangs. They who, like many others, were driven through starvation or oppression from their home-lands to the shores of this new country, Australia. They ... decided not to harbour grudges or discontent, but rather to look to the future. They who embraced this country as their own, said ‘Let’s get on with it, this is a new land, this is our home.’”

God bless America — and Australia, of course!

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