On January 26, 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip (now buried in Bath Abbey) was rowed ashore on a longboat to claim the continent of Australia for England. It became the first settlement by Europeans of Australia, the aborigines having a record of over 40,000 years of continuous settlement before this time.

Though it has caused arguments over the years, it is generally accepted that Able Seaman Owen Cavanough was the first permanent white settler to set foot in Australia. Cavanough stood at the bow of the rowboat that took Phillip and his crew ashore from HMS Sirius, jumping onto land to secure the boat to allow the officers easy passage.

Every year on January 26, Australians celebrate their national day (Australia Day), recalling the First Fleet, a group of eleven ships and around 1400 people (over half being convicts) who took a treacherous eight month journey from England to settle a new land. The day continues to have a tinge of controversy with Aboriginals not holding the commemorated day in the same positive light, sometimes calling it Invasion Day.

After his time in the navy and a journey to Norfolk Island, Cavanough was granted 100 acres a little north of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River to farm vegetables for the infant colony. He had married a convict First Fleeter (seven years and transportation for stealing a dozen knives and forks) a few years after settling in Australia. They had six children and a long peaceful life, Cavanough passing away from drowning at the ripe old age of 79.

Cavanough donated a small piece of his land to build a small sandstone church and school on a river bend in the tiny Hawkesbury village of Ebenezer that holds the distinguished title as Australia’s Oldest Church. He is buried here in an undistinguished grave, being the first white Australian in a nation that now boasts a population of over 21 million, built on the back of convict settlement. Up to six generations of the same family (and several First Fleeters) are buried in the historic cemetery of Ebenezer church.

Today, many Australians actively seek their heritage looking for links to early English arrivals, especially First Fleeters. For many this makes a link to a convict past, once kept as a dark and uncomfortable family secret but now paraded with pride as being the greatest number of generations Australians – some kind of “ultimate” Australian.

Happy Australia Day to all!

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4 Responses to Owen Cavanough: The First European Australian?

  • Michel Hedley says:

    It is contended that Owen Cavanough was the first European ashore at Sydney Cove. He is said to have done this when he alighted from the rowing boat carrying Captain Phillip and held the boat steady to enable Phillip to step ashore dry foot on 26 January 1788 at Sydney Cove (Arndell, R.M. ‘Pioneers of Portland Head’ and the Fellowship of First Fleeters).

    If Owen Cavanough went ashore at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, there would have been many European footprints already.

    The First Fleet ships collected in Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788.

    The first European foot to touch soil at Sydney Cove must have happened between 21 and 23 January 1788 when members of Phillip’s expedition explored the area around Sydney Cove to assess its suitability as the alternate location for settlement. As they were looking for a site with fresh water supply they would have certainly walked to find the Tank Stream.

    HM Brig Supply was the only vessel to leave Botany Bay and move to Port Jackson on 24 January 1788 and Phillip was on HM Brig Supply on that day. Bad weather stopped the other ships of the fleet getting out of Botany Bay until 26 January 1788.

    Early in the morning on 26 January 1788, Governor Phillip along with a few dozen marines, officers and oarsmen, rowed ashore at Sydney Cove and took possession of the land in the name of King George III. The remainder of HM Brig Supply’s company and the convicts watched from on board the ship.

    It was only late on 26 January 1788 that the HMS Sirius and the other ships were safely moored at Sydney Cove.

    For the claim to be true, able seaman Owen Cavanough would have had to be a member of Phillip’s expedition to Port Jackson on 21 January 1788. Phillip’s expedition consisted of three open boats armed by Marines and manned by coxswains and seamen. The issue is whether the expedition‘s boats and their crews were just from HM Brig Supply or also included boats and crew from HMS Sirius which had arrived the night before.

    Diaries such as those of David Collins, Watkins Trench, William Bradley and Ralph Clark may provide definitive evidence to support the claim that Owen Cavanough was the first European ashore at Sydney Cove.

    • Mark H says:

      You have researched much deeper than I have. As you say, it is pure speculation as to who really touched the sands of Australia first as a permanent European settler but it does make a nice story with Cavanough’s grave (along with is wife) being known at Australia’s oldest extant church.

  • N Cavanough says:

    Hmm Nice to know I descend from this guy – crazy stuff.

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My name is Mark and I’m a keen traveller. In fact, over the last 25 years, I’ve travelled to every continent and over 80 countries. This blog is about the most memorable destinations – the places I regard as the travel wonders of the world. I’m also a keen photographer, and have taken nearly all the photos you’ll see. During my travels, I’ve met some incredible people, seen inspiring places, viewed extraordinary wildlife and scenery and had some amazing experiences, and I’m writing these stories not only to entertain but primarily to inspire others to discover their own travel wonders.
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