The First Fleet was the 11 ships that departed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May 1787 to New South Wales, the penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia. The First Fleet consisted of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports, carrying between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts, marines, seamen, civil officers and free people (accounts differ on the numbers), and a large quantity of stores. From England, the Fleet sailed southwest to Rio de Janeiro, then east to Cape Town and via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay (Australia), over the period of 18-20 January 1788, taking 250 to 252 days from departure to final arrival. During the period 25-26 January 1788 the fleet moved from Botany Bay to present-day Sydney.
Convicts were originally transported to the Thirteen Colonies in North America, but after the American War of Independence ended in 1783, the newly formed United States refused to accept further convicts. On 6 December 1785, Orders in Council were issued in London for the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales, on land claimed for Britain by explorer James Cook in his first voyage to the Pacific in 1770.
The First Fleet was commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, who was given instructions authorising him to make regulations and land grants in the colony. The ships arrived at Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788; HMS Supply arrived on 18 January, Alexander, Scarborough and Friendship arrived on 19 January, and the remaining ships on 20 January.
The First Fleet included two Royal Navy escort ships, the ten-gun sixth-rate vessel HMS Sirius under the command of Captain John Hunter, and the armed tender HMS Supply commanded by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball.
|HMS Supply||Yard craft||50||Spithead||250|
|Convicts arrived (boarded)|
|Alexander||Barque||Duncan Sinclair||30||19 January 1788||251||210
Two were pardoned
|Charlotte||Transport||Thomas Gilbert||30||20 January 1788||252||100||24|
|Friendship||Brig||Francis Walton||25||19 January 1788||251||80||24|
To Cape of Good Hope only
|Lady Penrhyn||Transport||30||20 January 1788||252||None||101|
|Barque||John Mason||29||20 January 1788||252||2||47|
Ropes, crockery, agricultural equipment and a miscellany of other stores were needed. Items transported included tools, agricultural implements, seeds, spirits, medical supplies, bandages, surgical instruments, handcuffs, leg irons and a prefabricated wooden frame for the colony's first Government House. The party had to rely on its own provisions to survive until it could make use of local materials, assuming suitable supplies existed, and grow its own food and raise livestock.
|Ship||Type||Master||Crew||Arr. Botany Bay||Duration (days)|
|Golden Grove||storeship||William Sharp||22||20 January 1788||252|
|Fishburn||storeship||Robert Brown||22||20 January 1788||252|
|Borrowdale||storeship||Hobson Reed||22||20 January 1788||252|
Scale models of all the ships are on display at the Museum of Sydney. The models were built by ship makers Lynne and Laurie Hadley, after researching the original plans, drawings and British archives. The replicas of Supply, Charlotte, Scarborough, Friendship, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn, Borrowdale, Alexander, Sirius, Fishburn and Golden Grove are made from Western Red or Syrian Cedar.
The people of the fleet included seamen, marines and their families, government officials, and a large number of convicts, including women and children. All had been tried and convicted in Great Britain and almost all of them in England. However, many are known to have come to England from other parts of Great Britain and, especially, from Ireland; at least 14 are known to have come from the British colonies in North America; 12 are identified as black (born in Britain, Africa, the West Indies, North America, India or a European country or its colony). Further identifications are made on the basis of the surname, for example as typically an Irish name.:421-4 The convicts had committed a variety of crimes, including theft, perjury, fraud, assault, and robbery, for which they had variously been sentenced to penal transportation for 7 years, 14 years, or the term of their natural life.
The six convict transports each had a detachment of marines on board. Most of the families of the marines travelled aboard Prince of Wales. A number of people on the First Fleet kept diaries and journals of their experiences, including the surgeons, sailors, officers, soldiers, and ordinary seamen. There are at least eleven known manuscript Journals of the First Fleet in existence as well as some letters.
The exact number of people directly associated with the First Fleet will likely never be established, as accounts of the event vary slightly. A total of 1,420 people have been identified as embarking on the First Fleet in 1787, and 1,373 are believed to have landed at Sydney Cove in January 1788. In her biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, Mollie Gillen gives the following statistics::445
|Embarked at Portsmouth||Landed at Sydney Cove|
|Officials and passengers||15||14|
|Marines' wives and children||46||45 + 9 born|
|Convicts' children||14||11 + 11 born|
While the names of all crew members of Sirius and Supply are known, the six transports and three storeships may have carried as many as 110 more seamen than have been identified - no complete musters have survived for these ships. The total number of persons embarking on the First Fleet would, therefore, be approximately 1,530 with about 1,483 reaching Sydney Cove.
Other sources indicate that the passengers consisted of 10 civil officers, 212 marines, including officers, 28 wives and 17 children of the marines, 81 free people, 504 male convicts and 192 female convicts; making the total number of free people 348 and the total number of prisoners 696, coming to a grand total of 1,044 people.
According to the first census of 1788 as reported by Governor Phillip to Lord Sydney, the white population of the colony was 1,030 and the colony also consisted of 7 horses, 29 sheep, 74 swine, 6 rabbits, and 7 cattle.
The following statistics were provided by Governor Phillip:
|Convicts & their children||548||188||17||753|
David Collins' book An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales gives the following details:
The Alexander, of 453 tons, had on board 192 male convicts; 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 29 privates, with 1 assistant surgeon to the colony.
The Scarborough, of 418 tons, had on board 205 male convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 26 privates, with 1 assistant surgeon to the colony.
The Charlotte, of 346 tons, had on board 89 male and 20 female convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 3 corporals, 1 drummer, and 35 privates, with the principal surgeon of the colony.
The Lady Penrhyn, of 338 tons, had on board 101 female convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, and 3 privates, with a person acting as a surgeon's mate.
The Prince of Wales, of 334 tons, had on board 2 male and 50 female convicts; 2 lieutenants, 3 sergeants, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 24 privates, with the surveyor-general of the colony.
The Friendship, ... of 228 tons, had on board 76 male and 21 female convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 3 corporals, 1 drummer, and 36 privates, with 1 assistant surgeon to the colony.
There were on board, beside these, 28 women, 8 male and 6 female children, belonging to the soldiers of the detachment, together with 6 male and 7 female children belonging to the convicts.
The Fishburn store-ship was of 378 tons, the Borrowdale of 272 tons, and the Golden Grove of 331 tons. Golden Grove carried the chaplain for the colony, with his wife and a servant.
Not only these store-ships, but the men of war and transports were laden with provisions, implements of agriculture, camp equipage, clothing for the convicts, baggage, etc.
The Sirius carried as supernumeraries, the major commandant of the corps of marines embarked in the transports* [*This officer was also lieutenant-governor of the colony], the adjutant and quarter-master, the judge-advocate of the settlement, and the commissary; with one sergeant, three drummers, seven privates, four women, and a few artificers.
The chief surgeon for the First Fleet, John White, reported a total of 48 deaths and 28 births during the voyage. The deaths during the voyage included one marine, one marine's wife, one marine's child, 36 male convicts, four female convicts, and five children of convicts.
The First Fleet left Portsmouth, England on 13 May 1787. The journey began with fine weather, and thus the convicts were allowed on deck. The Fleet was accompanied by the armed frigate Hyena until it left English waters. On 20 May 1787, one convict on Scarborough reported a planned mutiny; those allegedly involved were flogged and two were transferred to Prince of Wales. In general, however, most accounts of the voyage agree that the convicts were well behaved. On 3 June 1787, the fleet anchored at Santa Cruz at Tenerife. Here, fresh water, vegetables and meat were brought on board. Phillip and the chief officers were entertained by the local governor, while one convict tried unsuccessfully to escape. On 10 June they set sail to cross the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, taking advantage of favourable trade winds and ocean currents.
The weather became increasingly hot and humid as the Fleet sailed through the tropics. Vermin, such as rats, and parasites such as bedbugs, lice, cockroaches and fleas, tormented the convicts, officers and marines. Bilges became foul and the smell, especially below the closed hatches, was over-powering. While Phillip gave orders that the bilge-water was to be pumped out daily and the bilges cleaned, these orders were not followed on Alexander and a number of convicts fell sick and died. Tropical rainstorms meant that the convicts could not exercise on deck as they had no change of clothes and no method of drying wet clothing. Consequently, they were kept below in the foul, cramped holds. On the female transports, promiscuity between the convicts, the crew and marines was rampant, despite punishments for some of the men involved. In the doldrums, Phillip was forced to ration the water to three pints a day.
The Fleet reached Rio de Janeiro on 5 August and stayed for a month. The ships were cleaned and water taken on board, repairs were made, and Phillip ordered large quantities of food. The women convicts' clothing had become infested with lice and was burnt. As additional clothing for the female convicts had not arrived before the Fleet left England, the women were issued with new clothes made from rice sacks. While the convicts remained below deck, the officers explored the city and were entertained by its inhabitants. A convict and a marine were punished for passing forged quarter-dollars made from old buckles and pewter spoons.
The Fleet left Rio de Janeiro on 4 September to run before the westerlies to the Table Bay in southern Africa, which it reached on 13 October. This was the last port of call, so the main task was to stock up on plants, seeds and livestock for their arrival in Australia. The livestock taken on board from Cape Town destined for the new colony included two bulls, seven cows, one stallion, three mares, 44 sheep, 32 pigs, four goats and "a very large quantity of poultry of every kind". Women convicts on Friendship were moved to other transports to make room for livestock purchased there. The convicts were provided with fresh beef and mutton, bread and vegetables, to build up their strength for the journey and maintain their health. The Dutch colony of Cape Town was the last outpost of European settlement which the fleet members would see for years, perhaps for the rest of their lives. "Before them stretched the awesome, lonely void of the Indian and Southern Oceans, and beyond that lay nothing they could imagine."
Assisted by the gales in the "Roaring Forties" latitudes below the 40th parallel, the heavily laden transports surged through the violent seas. In the last two months of the voyage, the Fleet faced challenging conditions, spending some days becalmed and on others covering significant distances; Friendship travelled 166 miles one day, while a seaman was blown from Prince of Wales at night and drowned. Water was rationed as supplies ran low, and the supply of other goods including wine ran out altogether on some vessels.Van Diemen's Land was sighted from Friendship on 4 January 1788. A freak storm struck as they began to head north around the island, damaging the sails and masts of some of the ships.
On 25 November, Phillip had transferred to Supply. With Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough, the fastest ships in the Fleet, which were carrying most of the male convicts, Supply hastened ahead to prepare for the arrival of the rest. Phillip intended to select a suitable location, find good water, clear the ground, and perhaps even have some huts and other structures built before the others arrived. This was a planned move, discussed by the Home Office and the Admiralty prior to the Fleet's departure. However, this "flying squadron" reached Botany Bay only hours before the rest of the Fleet, so no preparatory work was possible.Supply reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788; the three fastest transports in the advance group arrived on 19 January; slower ships, including Sirius, arrived on 20 January.
This was one of the world's greatest sea voyages - eleven vessels carrying about 1,487 people and stores had travelled for 252 days for more than 15,000 miles (24,000 km) without losing a ship. Forty-eight people died on the journey, a death rate of just over three per cent.
It was soon realised that Botany Bay did not live up to the glowing account that the explorer Captain James Cook had provided. The bay was open and unprotected, the water was too shallow to allow the ships to anchor close to the shore, fresh water was scarce, and the soil was poor.First contact was made with the local indigenous people, the Eora, who seemed curious but suspicious of the newcomers. The area was studded with enormously strong trees. When the convicts tried to cut them down, their tools broke and the tree trunks had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder. The primitive huts built for the officers and officials quickly collapsed in rainstorms. The marines had a habit of getting drunk and not guarding the convicts properly, whilst their commander, Major Robert Ross, drove Phillip to despair with his arrogant and lazy attitude. Crucially, Phillip worried that his fledgling colony was exposed to attack from Aborigines or foreign powers. Although his initial instructions were to establish the colony at Botany Bay, he was authorised to establish the colony elsewhere if necessary.
On 21 January, Phillip and a party which included John Hunter, departed the Bay in three small boats to explore other bays to the north. Phillip discovered that Port Jackson, about 12 kilometres to the north, was an excellent site for a colony with sheltered anchorages, fresh water and fertile soil. Cook had seen and named the harbour, but had not entered it. Phillip's impressions of the harbour were recorded in a letter he sent to England later: "the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security ...". The party returned to Botany Bay on 23 January.
On the morning of 24 January, the party was startled when two French ships, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, were seen just outside Botany Bay. This was a scientific expedition led by Jean-François de La Pérouse. The French had expected to find a thriving colony where they could repair ships and restock supplies, not a newly arrived fleet of convicts considerably more poorly provisioned than themselves. There was some cordial contact between the French and British officers, but Phillip and La Pérouse never met. The French ships remained until 10 March before setting sail on their return voyage. They were not seen again and were later discovered to have been shipwrecked off the coast of Vanikoro in the present-day Solomon Islands.
On 26 January 1788, the Fleet weighed anchor and sailed to Port Jackson. The site selected for the anchorage had deep water close to the shore, was sheltered, and had a small stream flowing into it. Phillip named it Sydney Cove, after Lord Sydney the British Home Secretary. This date is celebrated as Australia Day, marking the beginning of British settlement. The British flag was planted and formal possession taken. This was done by Phillip and some officers and marines from Supply, with the remainder of Supplys crew and the convicts observing from on board ship. The remaining ships of the Fleet did not arrive at Sydney Cove until later that day. Writer and art critic Robert Hughes popularized the idea in his 1986 book The Fatal Shore that an orgy occurred upon the unloading of the convicts, though more modern historians regard this as untrue, since the first reference to any such indiscretions are as recent as 1963.
The First Fleet encountered Indigenous Australians when they landed at Botany Bay. The Cadigal people of the Botany Bay area witnessed the Fleet arrive and six days later the two ships of French explorer La Pérouse, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, sailed into the bay. When the Fleet moved to Sydney Cove seeking better conditions for establishing the colony, they encountered the Eora people, including the Bidjigal clan. A number of the First Fleet journals record encounters with Aboriginal people.
Although the official policy of the British Government was to establish friendly relations with Aboriginal people, and Arthur Phillip ordered that the Aboriginal people should be well treated, it was not long before conflict began. The colonists did not sign treaties with the original inhabitants of the land. Between 1790 and 1810, Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal clan led the local people in a series of attacks against the British colonisers.
The ships of the First Fleet mostly did not remain in the colony. Some returned to England, while others left for other ports. Some remained at the service of the Governor of the colony for some months: some of these were sent to Norfolk Island where a second penal colony was established.
On Sat 26 January 1842 The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported "The Government has ordered a pension of one shilling per diem to be paid to the survivors of those who came by the first vessel into the Colony. The number of these really 'old hands' is now reduced to three, of whom, two are now in the Benevolent Asylum, and the other is a fine hale old fellow, who can do a day's work with more spirit than many of the young fellows lately arrived in the Colony." The names of the three recipients were not given, and is academic as the notice turned out to be false, not having been authorised by the Governor. There were at least 25 persons still living who had arrived with the First Fleet, including several children born on the voyage. A number of these contacted the authorities to arrange their pension and all received a similar reply to the following received by John McCarty on 14 Mar 1842 "I am directed by His Excellency the Governor to inform you, that the paragraph which appeared in the Sydney Gazette relative to an allowance to the persons of the first expedition to New South Wales was not authorised by His Excellency nor has he any knowledge of such an allowance as that alluded to". E. Deas Thomson, Colonial Secretary.
Following is a list of persons known to be living at the time the pension notice was published, in order of their date of death. At this time New South Wales included the whole Eastern seaboard of present day Australia except for Van Diemen's Land which was declared a separate colony in 1825 and achieved self governing status in 1855-6. This list does not include marines or convicts who returned to England after completing their term in NSW and who may have lived past January 1842.
Historians have disagreed over whether those aboard the First Fleet were responsible for introducing smallpox to Australia's indigenous population, and if so, whether this was the consequence of deliberate action.
In 1914, J. H. L. Cumpston, director of the Australian Quarantine Service put forward the hypothesis that smallpox arrived with British settlers. Some researchers have argued that any such release may have been a deliberate attempt to decimate the indigenous population. Hypothetical scenarios for such an action might have included: an act of revenge by an aggrieved individual, a response to attacks by indigenous people, or part of an orchestrated assault by the New South Wales Marine Corps, intended to clear the path for colonial expansion. Seth Carus, a former Deputy Director of the National Defense University in the United States wrote in 2015 that there was a "strong circumstantial case supporting the theory that someone deliberately introduced smallpox in the Aboriginal population."
Other historians have disputed the idea that there was a deliberate release of smallpox virus and/or suggest that it arrived with visitors to Australia other than the First Fleet. It has been suggested that live smallpox virus may have been introduced accidentally when Aboriginal people came into contact with variolous matter brought by the First Fleet for use in anti-smallpox inoculations.
In 2002, historian Judy Campbell offered a further theory, that smallpox had arrived in Australia through contact with fishermen from Makassar in Indonesia, where smallpox was endemic. In 2011, Macknight stated: "The overwhelming probability must be that it [smallpox] was introduced, like the later epidemics, by [Indonesian] trepangers ... and spread across the continent to arrive in Sydney quite independently of the new settlement there."
There is a fourth theory, that the 1789 epidemic was not smallpox but chickenpox - to which indigenous Australians also had no inherited resistance - that happened to be affecting, or was carried by, members of the First Fleet. This theory has also been disputed.
After Ray Collins, a stonemason, completed years of research into the First Fleet, he sought approval from about nine councils to construct a commemorative garden in recognition of these immigrants. Liverpool Plains Shire Council was ultimately the only council to accept his offer to supply the materials and construct the garden free of charge. The site chosen was a disused caravan park on the banks of Quirindi Creek at Wallabadah, New South Wales. In September 2002 Collins commenced work on the project. Additional support was later provided by Neil McGarry in the form of some signs and the council contributed $28,000 for pathways and fencing. Collins hand-chiseled the names of all those who came to Australia on the eleven ships in 1788 on stone tablets along the garden pathways. The stories of those who arrived on the ships, their life, and first encounters with the Australian country are presented throughout the garden. On 26 January 2005, the First Fleet Garden was opened as the major memorial to the First Fleet immigrants. Previously the only other specific memorial to the First Fleeters was an obelisk at Brighton-Le-Sands, New South Wales. The surrounding area has a barbecue, tables, and amenities.
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