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Austrailia's first fleet - The founding of a Nation





Between 1788 and 1850 the English sent over 162,000 convicts to Australia in 806 ships. The first eleven of these ships are today known as the First Fleet and contained the convicts and marines that are now acknowledged as the Founders of Australia.

Before 1788, Australia was populated by about 300,000 aborigines. These nomadic people had inhabited the world's oldest continent for more than 10,000 years. They had seen very few Europeans, but two events were to play an important part in changing their way of life forever.

Captain James Cook discovered the east coast of New Holland in 1770 and named it New South Wales. He sailed the whole of the coast and reported to the British government that he thought it would make a good place for a settlement. Britain did not recognise the country as being inhabited as the natives did not cultivate the land, and were, therefore, "uncivilized".

The agrarian revolution in Britain, and the population explosion in the cities, resulted in an increase in crime. As the American Revolution meant that no more convicts could be sent there, the only way to overcome the overcrowding in the jails was to establish a penal colony in the land discovered by Captain James Cook. The convicts would be transported, never to return to Britain.

With this in mind, the British Government hired 9 ships and set about provisioning them, together with 2 Naval vessels, with enough supplies to keep the 759 convicts, their Marine guards, some with families, and a few civil officers, until they became self-sufficient.

The convicts and marines embarked on the ships, which arrived at Portsmouth on 16th March 1787. They then waited on board until the arrival of Captain Arthur Philip signaled the time for their departure. By the time they departed, some convicts had been aboard these ships for seven months. Very few convicts (23) died during the voyage compared to the later convict fleets.

The First Fleet left England on 13th May 1787 for the 'lands beyond the seas' - Australia, stopping at Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, where food supplies were replenished. The fleet arrived at Botany Bay between 18th and 20th January 1788. However, this area was deemed to be unsuitable for settlement so they moved north arriving at Port Jackson on the Australian East coast on 26 January 1788.  Botany Bay was not suited for a settlement due to its lack of fresh water - even though it had been recommended by Captain James Cook in 1770 as a possible location for a settlement. Botany Bay had other shortcomings as well, it was open to the sea, making it unsafe for the ships and Captain Arthur Phillip (the Colony's first Governor) considered the soil around Botany Bay was poor for crop growing.

From the start the settlement was beset with problems. Very few convicts knew how to farm and the soil around Sydney Cove was poor. Instead of Cook's lush pastures, well watered and fertile ground, suitable for growing all types of foods and providing grazing for cattle, they found a hot, dry, unfertile country unsuitable for the small farming necessary to make the settlement self-sufficient. Everyone, from the convicts to Captain Phillip, was on rationed food.

The natives were wary and fearful of the settlers, who referred to them as Indians. Some African-American convicts, hoping to be accepted by the natives, escaped but were rejected by them. Other convicts, heeding rumours of other settlements nearby and that China was just over the horizon, also escaped. Those that managed to survive the rigors of the country returned to the colony to further punishment.

While the natives subsisted on local plants and fish, the settlers found few of the plants to be appetising. As the settlers appear to have been poor fishermen, most of their food had to come from the supplies brought with them on the ships. This resulted in their total dependence on a shipping trade monopolized by the East India Company and non-existent as far as Sydney was concerned. Rats, dogs, crows, an occasional kangaroo or emu were to be used to supplement the food.

Shelter was also a problem. They had very little building material and the government had provided only a very limited supply of tools, which were of a bad quality. With the local trees being huge, and the wood hard, these tools were soon blunt or broken and building slowed. Extra clothing had been forgotten and, by the time the Second Fleet arrived, convicts and marines alike were dressed in patched and threadbare clothing.

By July 1788, all the ships except the Naval vessels "Syrius" and "Supply" had left and the settlement was isolated.

On 2nd October the "Syrius" was despatched to Cape Town to purchase provisions. Until her return on 2nd May 1789, rations were cut back with the result that work on farming and building was reduced. During this time the "Supply" had taken a small contingent of convicts and marines to Norfolk Island to set up another penal colony. The land there was pronounced more fertile than Sydney Cove and the timber of better quality, but the rocky cliffs surrounding the island meant that it could not be loaded on the ship for transport to Sydney Cove. Green turtles were found there and "Supply" brought a few back on its voyages from Norfolk Island which helped to supplement the food in the colony.

Exploration of the country to the west of Sydney Cove resulted in the location of better land on the Parramatta River. A settlement was to develop there, called Rose Hill, and agriculture, although on a small scale at first, was eventually successful. But lack of transport meant that crops, when harvested, would not be readily available for Sydney.

In February 1790 the "Syrius" was ordered to proceed to China to purchase further supplies. This was delayed as, with the "Supply", she was needed to take more convicts to Norfolk Island, in an endeavour to reduce the strain on the dwindling supplies in Sydney. On 19th February the "Syrius" was wrecked off Norfolk Island and the colony was left with just one ship. When the "Supply" returned in April, it was decided that she should sail to Batavia to get supplies as the situation was becoming desperate, with only 3 months supply left of some foods. On 17th April the "Supply" set sail, leaving behind very anxious settlers.

On 3rd June a ship was sighted - the "Lady Juliana", a transport with 225 female convicts - the first of the ships in the Second Fleet. This was followed on 20th June by the "Justinian", which was loaded entirely with provisions for the colony. Rations were immediately increased and, with the arrival of further ships carrying convicts, even though they were in very poor condition, and many died after arrival, the old labour hours were restored. New buildings were planned and large areas of land near Rose Hill were cleared for cultivation.

After more than two years of isolation and near starvation, the settlement at Sydney Cove could begin to expand, although food was to remain a major problem until after the breaking of a year long drought in late 1791, when farming began to prosper, and shipping became more regular.

The Fleet consisted of six convict ships, three store ships, two men -o-war ships with a total of 756 convicts (564 male, 192 female), 550 officers/marines/ship crew and their families.

The six convict ships were:

The Alexander - William Douglas on board
The Charlotte
The Lady Penrhyn
The Friendship
The Prince of Wales - Mary Groves on board
The Scarborough

Other ships of the Fleet were:

H.M.S. Sirius
H.M.S. Supply
The Fishburn
The Borrowdale
The Golden Grove

The planning of Britain's colonisation of New South Wales was not the best. British gaols were overcrowded with petty criminals and convicts were no longer able to be sent to America as a result of the American War of Independance. It was decided to establish a Penal Colony in the lands of New South Wales which was discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770. The supply of women's clothing was left behind in Britain, which naturally caused problems until the colony was up and running.

The voyage itself also had its own troubles. Some of the convicts on Scarborough attempted a mutiny which failed. There was also a second attempt of mutiny later in the voyage which failed. Captain Arthur Phillip, who was in charge of the Fleet on its 15,000 mile voyage, reported that there were only 23 deaths on the journey. (Phillip, the first Governor of NSW from 1788 - 1792).


It was a perilous journey for small sailing vessels and one that could be expected to result in death for some of the people on board, particularly given the poor health of many of the convicts. Two factors, however, helped most of them survive the voyage to Australia.

First, in the transportation contract awarded to London merchant William Richards Jnr, payment was based on the number of convicts delivered to New South Wales, which meant the contractor had a vested interest in keeping them alive. Second, the First Fleet preparations took place under the keen and intelligent eye of the new colony’s first Governor, Arthur Phillip, who insisted on convicts and marines being supplied with fresh beef and vegetables in the weeks before they sailed, to build up their strength for the long ordeal ahead of them.

Once at sea their diet was also an improvement on their prison fare. They benefited too from exercise, which was incorporated into their routine during the voyage, and from Phillip’s insistence on a good standard of hygiene. He also organized fresh food stops for the fleet at Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope.

These convicts, guilty of petty crimes that were the result of trying to survive the conditions of England at the time (eg stealing a loaf of bread), were the pioneers who - through hard work and perserverance, made the colony survive and expand to the stage of self sufficiency.

The date of arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson (26 January) is today celebrated as Australia Day and is considered in a similar way as the Americans consider 4 July - the day of the birth of a nation.


See also:
•  Convicts shipped to Australia

•  List of early Australian arrivals



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Last modified: Wednesday, 18 July 2018