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Sydney: A Colonial Capital

Alan Birch visits mid-nineteenth century Sydney, a city formally incorporated in 1842 after fifty-four years of rapid and dramatic development.

“To treat of culture and society in Australia in the sense that one does of the greater European capitals would be like treating of the snakes of Ireland.”

(F. W. L. Adams, The Australian, A social sketch, London, 1893.)

It is significant that an article in History Today on the founding of Sydney (February 1962) should have begun by quoting Charles Darwin. For the founding of Sydney is partly to be explained in terms of the outcome of the struggle for survival, both among the classes and the European nations, that was powerfully illuminated by Darwin’s teaching.

Moreover, the comparative isolation of the city in the world, even today, is accounted for by the same circumstances of oceanic insulation that provided Darwin in the Pacific with the examples of living fossils that were the activators of his great hypothesis. Darwin’s note of pride in his race was not wholly sustained: “Upon seeing more of the town afterwards, however, perhaps my admiration fell a little but yet it is a fine town...”

On remarking that the streets were regular, broad, clean, the houses of a good size and the suburbs growing, he may well have called to mind the lines of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. For had not this priest of science composed a benediction for the settlement’s future in 1788, at a time when the natural philosophers were keenly interested in the antipodean observations of the skies? One might add that they were also immediately concerned with solving social problems of poverty and crime by establishing the new convict settlement as far away as possible from the suburban serenity of Greenwich.

“Where Sydney Cove her lucid bosom swells, Courts her young navies, and the storm repels, High on a rock amid the troubled air Hope stood sublime...”

Erasmus Darwin invoked a vision:

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