The First Fleet is the name given to the 11 ships which left Great Britain on 13 May 1787 to found a penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia. The fleet consisted of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports, carrying more than 1,000 convicts, marines and seamen, and a vast 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, arriving in mid-January 1788, taking 250 to 252 days from departure to final arrival.
- 1 History
- 2 Ships of the First Fleet
- 3 People of the First Fleet
- 4 The voyages
- 5 First contact
- 6 First Fleet smallpox
- 7 Commemoration Garden
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
British convicts were originally transported to the Thirteen Colonies in North America, but after the American Revolutionary War 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 (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip, who was given instructions authorising him to make regulations and land grants in the colony. The ships arrived at Botany Bay on 18 to 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 cost to Britain of outfitting and despatching the Fleet was £84,000.[a] The colony established by those who arrived on the Fleet was instrumental in the establishment of the State of New South Wales and the Commonwealth of Australia.
Ships of the First Fleet
The First Fleet included two Royal Navy escort ships, HMS Sirius and HMS Supply.
|Ship||Type||Captain||Dep. Portsmouth||Arr. Botany Bay||Duration (Days)|
|HMS Sirius||converted merchant ship/armed naval vessel
– Flagship of the fleet
|Captain John Hunter||13 May 1787||20 January 1788||252|
|HMS Supply||armed tender||Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball||18 January 1788||250|
|Ship||Type||Master||Crew||Dep. England||Arr. Botany Bay||Duration (Days)||Male convicts arrived (boarded)||Female convicts arrived (boarded)|
|Alexander||Barque||Duncan Sinclair||40||13 May 1787||19 January 1788||251||210 – two were pardoned||none|
|Charlotte||heavy sailer||Thomas Gilbert||30||20 January 1788||252||100||24|
|Friendship||Brig||Francis Walton||20||19 January 1788||251||80||24 – to Cape of Good Hope only|
|Lady Penrhyn||transport||William Cropton Server||31||20 January 1788||252||none||102|
|Prince of Wales||Barque||John Mason||25||20 January 1788||252||2||47|
|Scarborough||transport||Captain John Marshall||35||19 January 1788||251||210||none|
Food and supply transports
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||Dep. England||Arr. Botany Bay||Duration (days)|
|Golden Grove||storeship||William Sharp||N/A||13 May 1787||20 January 1788||252|
|Fishburn||storeship||Robert Brown||N/A||13 May 1787||20 January 1788||252|
|Borrowdale||storeship||Houston Reed||N/A||13 May 1787||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 the Supply, Charlotte, Scarborough, Friendship, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn, Borrowdale, Alexander, Sirius, Fishburn and Golden Grove are made from Western Red or Syrian Cedar.
Nine Sydney harbour ferries in current service are named after First Fleet vessels. The unused names are Lady Penrhyn and Prince of Wales.
People of the First Fleet
The majority of the people on the First Fleet were British, but there were also African, American and French convicts on board. The group included seamen, marines and their families, government officials, and a large number of convicts, including women and children. The convicts had committed a variety of crimes, including theft, perjury, fraud, assault and robbery. The sentences the convicts received were transportation for 7 years, 14 years or for 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 the Prince of Wales. A number of people on the First Fleet kept diaries and journals of their experiences, including the surgeons. There are twelve known journals in existence as well as some letters.
The exact number of people directly associated with the First Fleet will likely never be established, as all 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, researcher Mollie Gillen gives the following statistics:
|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. On board this last ship was embarked the chaplain of the colony, with his wife and a servant.
Not only these as store-ships, but the men of war and transports, were stored in every part with provisions, implements of agriculture, camp equipage, clothing for the convicts, baggage, etc.
On board of the Sirius were taken, 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 1 sergeant, 3 drummers, 7 privates, 4 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 1 marine, 1 marine's wife, 1 marine's child, 36 male convicts, 4 female convicts, and 5 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 the 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 the 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 and 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 Cape of Good Hope 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 the Cape of Good Hope destined for the colony of NSW 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 the 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 of the 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; the Friendship travelled 166 miles one day, while a seaman was blown from the 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 the Friendship on 4 January 1788. A freak storm struck as they began to head north around Van Diemen's Land, damaging the sails and masts of some of the ships.
On 16 January, Phillip 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 pre-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 contacts were 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; Phillip immediately named the site Sydney. 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 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 still celebrated as Australia Day, marking the beginnings of the first 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 Supply's 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.
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 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 understand Aboriginal society and its relationship with the land and the Aboriginal people did not understand the British practices of farming and land ownership. 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.
First Fleet smallpox
In 1977, a representative of Australian Aborigines, Jack Davis noted that smallpox-infected blankets, venereal disease and other European introduced diseases were the cause of their death" Davis's comments were attacked by Peter Biskup of the then Canberra College of Advanced Education, as indicating a ‘biased, one-sided brand of new Australian history, as false as the old one has been’. 
In 1983, Noel Butlin also found that it was likely that the British deliberately released smallpox, and his comments were attacked by Alan Frost and Charles Wilson in the pages of Quadrant magazine. However in 1996 David Day reviewed this dispute and concluded that "there remains considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that officers other than Phillip, or perhaps convicts or soldiers angered by Aboriginal attacks on their fellows, deliberately spread smallpox among the Aborigines".
In 2002, historian Judy Campbell argued that it was highly improbable that the First Fleet was the source of the smallpox epidemic first sighted in the Aboriginal population near Sydney in 1789 as "smallpox had not occurred in any members of the First Fleet" and the only possible source of infection from the Fleet was various matter imported for use in inoculations against smallpox. Campbell argued that the variolous matter was probably inactivated by heat and humidity and claimed that there was no evidence that Aboriginal people were exposed to this material. However there was prevailing expert historical and medical speculation that smallpox "spread somehow from the 'variolous matter in bottles' brought to the colony by the surgeons." She pointed to regular contact between fishing fleets from the Indonesia archipelago, where smallpox was endemic, and Aboriginal people in Australia's North as a possible source for the introduction of smallpox. She also claimed that “[t]here is little disagreement that later outbreaks, in the 1860s, arose from contacts of Aboriginals living in northern Australia with infected sailors coming from the islands to the north” and then argued that the earlier outbreaks including that of 1789-90 were most probably from the same source. It is now known that the smallpox virus would have retained enough virus to infect local tribes and that there was no smallpox at Macassar for any early introduction of the disease at Port Jackson [Warren (2007), Mear (2008), Warren (2014) cited below].
In 2004, Jan Kociumbas dismissed the Macassan theory and argued that the situation confronting the First Fleet settlers was "propitious for a genocidal response".
More recent scholars, Christopher Warren (2007) and Craig Mear (2008), have argued that the First Fleet probably introduced live smallpox virus into Australian aboriginal tribes. Earlier writers were divided over 1) whether the First Fleet introduced smallpox and 2) whether this was deliberate. There remains some disputation in media such as Quadrant, a conservative magazine.
In 2009, Michael Bennett argued "... that it was communicated deliberately" in Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Bennett proposed that convicts may have been responsible, as an act of revenge against local Aboriginal tribes.
In 2014, Warren reanalysed the controversy and concluded that British marines were most likely to have spread smallpox when they ran out of ammunition and needed to expand the settlement to Parramatta. See Warren, C., Smallpox at Sydney Cove - Who, When, Why? (2014 [2013 online]).
Prior to the publication of Warren's article (2013), John Carmody argued that the epidemic was an outbreak of chickenpox which took a drastic toll on an Aboriginal population without immunological resistance. With regard to smallpox, Dr Carmody claimed: "There is absolutely no evidence to support any of the theories and some of them are fanciful and far-fetched.."  Carmody did not cover the evidence provided by Ms Jan Kociumbas in her 2004 piece Biological Warfare in Early New South Wales. Kociumbas's approach has been corroborated in part by Mear and Bennett and, more strongly, by Warren. Warren subsequently covered the chickenpox theory at endnote 3 of Smallpox at Sydney Cove - Who, When, Why? and effectively refuted it in United Service, Journal of the Royal United Services Institute of New South Wales, vol. 65 (1), March 2014, pg. 7.
In 2009, Mear argued in Ockham's Razor an ABC Radio presentation that, "There is no proof that smallpox was deliberately released by the British in Sydney". Contrary to Mear, Michael Bennett and Warren argue that the spread of smallpox in 1789 may have been, or most likely was, deliberate. Michael Bennett argued "... that it was communicated deliberately" in Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Bennett proposed that convicts may have been responsible, as an act of revenge against local Aboriginal tribes.
There are six key facts (6 key facts - transcript) suggesting that the deployment of smallpox was deliberate:
- Serious errors in supplying marines’ equipment,
- A fatal insufficiency of military manpower,
- The failure to resupply the colony,
- The presence of bottles of smallpox virus,
- A requirement for official sanction to row boats down the harbour, and
- The range of military tactics used against native peoples in the eighteenth century.
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 Sans Souci, New South Wales. The surrounding area has a barbecue, tables, and amenities.
- Arthur Bowes Smyth - surgeon on the Lady Penrhyn
- Australian frontier wars
- Convicts in Australia
- Convict women in Australia
- European exploration of Australia
- History of Australia
- History of Australia (1788–1850)
- History of Indigenous Australians
- Journals of the First Fleet
- Penal transportation
- Prehistory of Australia
- Second Fleet (Australia)
- Terra nullius
- Third Fleet (Australia)
- In today's terms this equates to approximately £9 million.
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- William Stuart Long, The Exiles, ISBN 0-8264-021-4
- William Stuart Long, The Settlers, ISBN 0-8624-021-4
- William Stuart Long, The Traitors, ISBN 0-86824-021-4
- D. Manning Richards, Destiny in Sydney: An epic novel of convicts, Aborigines, and Chinese embroiled in the birth of Sydney, Australia, ISBN 978-0-9845410-0-3
- Marcus Clarke, For the Term of his Natural Life. Melbourne, 1874
|Library resources about
- Complete list of the convicts of the First Fleet
- Searchable database of First Fleet convicts
- The First Fleet – State Library of NSW
- State Library of NSW – First Fleet Re-enactment Company records, 1978–1990: Presented by Trish and Wally Franklin
- State Library of NSW – First Fleet Re-enactment Voyage 1987–1988
- An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales at Project Gutenberg
- The Voyage of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay at Project Gutenberg
- Project Gutenberg Australia: The First Fleet
- Convict Records