Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The First Fleet

The First Fleet consisted of six convict ships (Alexander, Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn, Friendship, Prince of Wales and Scarborough), three food and supply transports (Fishburn, Borrowdale and Golden Grove) and two Royal Navy escorts (HMS Sirius and HMS Supply).[1] It left England on 13 May 1787 stopping at Tenerife on 3 June[2], Rio de Janeiro between 5 August and 3 September[3] before running before the westerly winds to Cape Town, where it arrived in mid-October.[4] Food supplies were replenished and the Fleet was stocked up on plants, seeds and livestock for its arrival in Australia. Assisted by the gales of the latitudes below the fortieth parallel, the heavily-laden transports surged through the violent seas. A freak storm struck as they began to head north around VDL, damaging the sails and masts of some of the ships. In November, Phillip transferred to Supply. With Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough, the fastest ships in the Fleet and 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 to build some huts and other structures before the other ships arrived.[5] However, the Supply reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788 only hours before the rest of the Fleet, so no preparatory work was possible. The three fastest transports in the advance group arrived on 19 January; slower ships, including the Sirius arrived the following day. Eleven vessels carrying about 1,400 people and stores had travelled more than 15,000 miles in 252 days without losing a ship. Forty-eight people had died on the journey, a death rate of just over three per cent. Given the rigours of the voyage, the navigational problems, the poor condition and sea-faring inexperience of the convicts, the primitive medical knowledge, the lack of precautions against scurvy, the crammed and foul conditions of the ships, poor planning and inadequate equipment, this was a remarkable achievement.

The Founding of Australia, 26 January 1788, by Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove
Original oil sketch [1937] by Algernon Talmadge R.A. ML 1222

During the voyage there were seven births, while 69 people either died or were discharged or deserted (61 males and 8 females). As no complete crew musters have survived for the six convict transports and three supply ships, there may have been as many as 110 more seamen. The number of people directly associated with the First Fleet will probably never be exactly established and all accounts of the event vary slightly. Mollie Gillen gives the following statistics.[6]

Embarked at Portsmouth

Landed at Port Jackson

Officials and passengers



Ships’ crews






Marines’ wives and children



Convicts (men)



Convicts (women)



Convicts’ children






It was soon realised that Botany Bay did not live up to the glowing account that Captain James Cook had given it in 1770. The bay was open and unprotected, fresh water was scarce and Phillip considered the soil around Botany Bay was poor for growing crop. 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.[7] 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 and their commander, Major Robert Ross was arrogant and lazy and this caused some difficulties for Phillip.[8] Crucially, Phillip worried that his fledgling colony was exposed to attack from the local indigenous people, the Eora, who seemed curious but suspicious of the newcomers or foreign powers. On 21 January, Phillip and a party that included John Hunter left Botany Bay in three small boats to explore other bays to the North. Phillip discovered that Port Jackson, immediately 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’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...’[9] The party returned on 23 January and was startled when two French ships, a scientific expedition led by Jean-François de La Pérouse came into sight and entered Botany Bay.[10] The French remained until 10 March and had expected to find a thriving colony where they could repair ships and restock supplies, not a newly arrived fleet of convicts worse off than themselves.

On 26 January 1788, the fleet weighed anchor and by evening had entered 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 Home Secretary. It was to be almost two and a half years before other ships arrived with their cargo of new convicts and provisions. From the start the settlement was overwhelmed 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 land unsuitable for the small farming necessary to make the settlement self-sufficient. Everyone, from the convicts to Captain Phillip, was on rationed food. Shelter was also a problem. They had very little building material and the government had provided only a very limited supply of poor quality tools.[11] Extra clothing had been forgotten and, by the time the Second Fleet arrived, convicts and marines alike were dressed in patched and threadbare clothing.[12] By July 1788, all the ships except the Sirius and Supply had left and the settlement was isolated.

The Sirius

On 2 October, the Sirius was despatched to Cape Town to purchase provisions.[13] Until her return on 2 May 1789, rations were cut back and this reduced work on farming and building. In early 1788, the Supply had taken a small contingent of convicts and marines led by Second Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, Phillip’s protégé, to Norfolk Island to set up another penal colony. The land proved 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. The Supply brought a few green turtles back on its voyages from Norfolk Island that helped to supplement the food in the colony.[14] 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.[15] In an attempt to deal with the food crisis, Phillip in 1789 granted James Ruse, a convict the land of Experiment Farm at Parramatta on the condition that he developed a viable agriculture and became the first person to grow grain successfully in Australia.[16] However, lack of transport meant that crops, when harvested, would not be readily available for Sydney.[17]

In February 1790, the Sirius was ordered to proceed to China to purchase further supplies. This was delayed as she and the Supply were needed to take more convicts to Norfolk Island, in an attempt to reduce pressure on the dwindling supplies in Sydney. On 19 February the Sirius ran aground and was wrecked off Norfolk Island leaving the colony with just one ship.[18] The Supply returned in April and on 17 April left to sail to Batavia to get supplies as the situation was becoming desperate with only three months’ supply left of some foods.[19] On 3 June, the Lady Juliana,[20] a transport with 222 female convicts arrived at Sydney Cove followed on 20 June by the Justinian with provisions for the colony. Rations were immediately increased and, with the arrival of further ships carrying convicts, the old labour hours were restored. New buildings were planned and large areas of land near Rose Hill were cleared for cultivation. In October 1790, the Supply returned safely from its voyage to Batavia, and eight weeks later, a Dutch ship, the Waaksamheyd, which Lieutenant Ball had hired, arrived with a full cargo of rice flour and salted meat. It turned out though, that much of the food was of such poor quality, as to be inedible, and after only a few months, the colony was once again on the verge of starvation.

[1] On the First Fleet, see ibid, Gillen, Mollie, The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet and ibid, Bateson, Charles, The Convict Ships 1787-1868, pp. 94-119. Among the more important accounts published by officers of the First Fleet are Phillip, Arthur, The voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay: with an account of the establishment of the colonies of Port Jackson & Norfolk Island, (John Stockdale), 1790, White, John, Journal of a voyage to New South Wales with sixty-five plates of nondescript animals, birds, lizards, serpents, curious cones of trees and other natural productions, (J. Debrett), 1790, Tench, Watkin, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay: With an Account of New South Wales, Its Productions, Inhabitants, &c. To which is Subjoined, a List of the Civil and Military Establishments at Port Jackson, (printed for Messrs. H. Chamberlaine, W. Wilson, L. White, P. Byrne, A. Gruebier, Jones, and B. Dornin), 1789, ibid, Hunter, John, An historical journal of events at Sydney and at sea, 1787-1792 and Collins, David, An account of the English colony in New South Wales from its first settlement in January 1788, to August 1801: with remarks on the dispositions, customs, manners, &c., of the native inhabitants of that country, (T. Cadell and W. Davies), 1798. See also, Irvine, Nance, (ed.), The Sirius Letters: The Complete Letters of Newton Fowell, midshipman and Lieutenant aboard the Sirius, Flagship of the First Fleet on its voyage to New South Wales, (Fairfax Library), 1988.

[2] Phillip to Lord Sydney, 5 June 1787, Phillip to Under Secretary Nepean, 5 June 1787, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 106-108.

[3] Phillip to Lord Sydney, 2 September 1787, Phillip to Under Secretary Nepean, 2 September 1787, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 109-117.

[4] Phillip to Lord Sydney, 10 November 1787, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 118-119.

[5] Phillip to Lord Sydney, 15 May 1788, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 121-136 considers the first three months at Sydney Cove.

[6] Ibid, Gillen, Mollie, The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet, p. 445.

[7] HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 121-122, 348 gives Phillip’s assessment of Botany Bay and his reasons for choosing Sydney Cove.

[8] Moore, John, The First Fleet marines, 1788-1792, (University of Queensland Press), 1987. See also, Macmillan, David S., ‘Ross, Robert (1740?-1794)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 397-398. Tensions between Phillip and Ross were evident from the founding of the settlement.

[9] HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 67-70.

[10] Dyer, Colin, The French Explorers and Sydney, (University of Queensland Press), 2009 draws on French observations of the British convict settlement at Sydney Cove.

[11] HRNSW, Vol. 2, p. 388 lists the articles sent with the First Fleet

[12] Phillip to Nepean, 5 July 1788, Phillip to Lord Sydney, 5 July 1788, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 142-144, 145-151.

[13] Phillip to Lord Sydney, 30 October 1788, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 207-209.

[14] Phillip to Lord Sydney, 28 September 1788, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 185-193.

[15] On the early development of Rose Hill see, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 198, 209-217.

[16] An account of Ruse’s methods is given in Tench, Watkin, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, (Nicol and Sewell), 1793, pp. 80-81. See also, Fitzhardinge, L.F., ‘Tench, Watkin (1758?-1833)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 506-507 and Wood, G.A., ‘Lieutenant William Dawes and Captain Watkin Tench’, Journal and Proceedings, (Royal Australian Historical Society), Vol. 10, (1), (1924), pp. 1-24.

[17] The problem of the lack of artisans and farmers identified by Phillip was quickly acknowledged in London and ‘it is advisable that twenty-five of those confined in the hulks...who are likely to be the most useful should be sent out in the ship [Lady Juliana] intended to convey provisions and stores’: see Lord Sydney to the Lords of the Admiralty, 29 April 1789, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 230-231.

[18] Captain John Hunter had expressed concerns over the soundness of the ship the previous year especially ‘that the copper has not been taken off her bottom...between eight and nine years’: Hunter to Secretary Stephens, 18 February 1789, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), p. 227. See also, Ross to Phillip, 22 March 1790 and Phillip to Lord Sydney, 11 April 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 319-321, 326-327, Harris to Clayton, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 340-342 on the loss of the ship and Lieutenant Fowell to his father, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), 31 July 1790, pp. 373-386.

[19] Phillip to Nepean, 15 April 1790, 16 April 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 330-331.

[20] Phillip to Nepean, 17 June 1790, HRNSW, Vol. 1, (2), pp. 346-351.

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