The ‘First Fleet’ Voyage

” . . . It became necessary, after the rebellion of those Colonies now known as the United States, for Britain to send her convicts elsewhere; and the wide, distant, and almost totally unknown regions of Australia, were adjudged most suitable for the purpose.  Accordingly, eleven ships, since known in Colonial History as the “First Fleet,” sailed for New Holland on the 15th of May, 1787, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, and arrived in Botany Bay on the 20th day of January in the following year.  Finding the spot in many respects unfit for an infant settlement, and but scantily supplied with water, Captain Phillip determined to explore the coast; and proceeded northward, with a few officers and marines, in three open boats.  After passing along a rocky and barren line of shore for several miles, they entered Port Jackson, which they supposed to be of no great dimensions, it having been marked in the chart of Captain Cook as a boat harbour.  Their astonishment may be easily imagined when they found its waters gradually expand, and the full proportions of that magnificent harbour (capable of containing the whole navy of Britain) burst upon their view.  The site of the intended settlement was no longer a matter of doubt; and, after first landing at Manly Beach (so named on account of the behaviour of the natives), they eventually selected a spot on the banks of a small stream of fresh water, falling into a Cove on the southern side of the estuary.  Having returned to Botany Bay with the news of their discovery, the whole fleet was soon anchored in this creek, which, in compliment to the Secretary of State, they named Sydney Cove.  On the 26th of January (a sufficient space for the military and convicts to encamp upon having been previously cleared) they were all landed, near where the Obelisk now stands, and the National Flag was hoisted.  The succeeding days were, of course, spent in active employment; and the woods, soon to be replaced by a large and flourishing city, everywhere resounded to the woodman’s axe.  Some were clearing the ground for cultivation, some busily erecting the tents and huts, and some engaged in landing the necessary supplies . . . “

Source:  Excerpt – ‘Sydney in 1848’ – by Joseph Fowles – published 1848

The ‘First Fleet’ consisted of:  2 Naval Escort Ships, 3 Supply Ships, and 6 Transport Ships.  More than 1,300 people made that first journey to Botany Bay, New South Wales, Australia:  569 male convicts, 191 female convicts → the marines → their wives & children → and, the government officials . . .

The Transport Ships:

ALEXANDER– the largest of the transport ships.

Specifications:  Barque – built in 1783 – 452 tons.

Master – Duncan Sinclair

Surgeon – William Balmain

Notes:  Before leaving England 16 men died when fever broke out on board

– Dep. Portsmouth 13th May 1787

– Arr. Botany Bay – 19th January, 1788

– Arr. Port Jackson – 26th January 1788


Specifications:  3 Masted, Square Rigged Ship – built 1788 – 335 tons – 32 m (105 ft) long x 8.5 m (28 ft) wide

Master – Thomas Gilbert

Surgeon – John White

– 30 Crew

– 42 Marines

 – 84 male convicts, 24 female convicts, 6 convicts children

FRIENDSHIP– the smallest of the transport ships.

Specifications:  Built 1784 – 278 tons

Master – Francis Walton

Surgeon – Thomas Arndell

– 6 male convicts, 21 female convicts

Arr. Botany Bay – 19th January, 1788


Specifications:  Built 1786 – 333 tons

Master & Part Owner – William Cropton Sever

Surgeon to the Ship – Arthur Bowes Smyth

Surgeon to the Convicts – John Turnpenny Altree

– 101 female convicts

Notes:  The ‘Lady Penrhyn’ carried the first horses to Australia. 


Specifications:  Built 1786 – 350 tons

Master – John Mason

– one male convict, 49 female convicts


Specifications:  Built 1782 – 430 tons

Master – John Marshall

Surgeon:  Dennis Considen

 – 208 male convicts

Arr. Botany Bay – 19th January, 1788


The following extracts originated in a collection of newspaper articles assembled and titled “Early News from a New Colony:  British Museum Papers by Various, Unknown”.   First published in 1893, this compilation of articles relates to the new colony of New South Wales – from the years 1785 to 1795 – the introduction into this fascinating record of Australia’s colonisation reading:

The accounts of the colony (many of them written by private individuals to their friends in England), which appeared from time to time in the newspapers and magazines of one hundred years ago, . . .  contained, in very many cases, information for which we look in vain in the official despatches of the Governor or his subordinates . . .

cropped-POI-Australia-Favicon-e1406709399487.png  The following extract was published in the ‘Dublin Evening Herald’ on the 4th December 1786:


THURSDAY an entry was made of a very large quantity of stores for the supply of the colony intended to be established at Botany Bay.  Amongst other articles were thirteen tons weight of slop clothing, furnished by Mr. James Wadham; half a ton weight of woollen stockings, by Mr. John Yerbury; two tons weight and a-half of shoes, by Mr. Wm. Goodman; half a ton weight of stockings, by Mr. Pope; and one ton weight of hats, by Mess. Wm. Richardson and Borradaile.


cropped-POI-Australia-Favicon-e1406709399487.png  The following extract was published in ‘The World’ on the 8th January 1787:


CAPTAIN PHILLIP, the officer who is to have the conduct of the ladies and gentlemen to Botany Bay, is very highly spoken of as a man of knowledge and intrepidity in the naval world.  He has been in the Portuguese service, and from his different expeditions is said to be well informed on the subject of forming settlements.


cropped-POI-Australia-Favicon-e1406709399487.png  The following extract was published in the ‘Public Advertiser’ on the 12th January 1787:


TUESDAY a party of the soldiers who were drafted from the Guards to go to Botany Bay set out for Portsmouth, where they are to embark with other soldiers who are to guard the convicts.  They are allowed additional pay for their service, and clothing suitable to the climate.  They are to continue there five years, then to be relieved by other troops from England, and return home.

A correspondent assures us that the female convicts in Newgate are to be sent with the first vessels to Botany Bay, but that the male convicts in the same jail and the other jails in the metropolis are to be sent to Africa.  The convicts in the county jails are, however, to be sent to Botany Bay.  The policy of this distinction is obvious—the country convicts are supposed to be fittest for agriculture, &c.; while the villains of London are thought to be most proper to be sent to Africa.


cropped-POI-Australia-Favicon-e1406709399487.png  The following extract was published in the ‘Public Advertiser’ on the 29th March 1787:


GOVERNOR PHILLIP is still in town, and it is supposed his sailing with the fleet to Botany Bay will be postponed till after Lord George Gordon’s trial on the second libel he is charged with by the Attorney-General.  With respect to the felony laws and executions, the Act of Parliament lately passed for the government of the felons convict, when they arrive at their destination, gives powers unknown to the practice in the courts of law in England, but puts them nearly on a footing with the loyal subjects in India under the new Board of Controul.


cropped-POI-Australia-Favicon-e1406709399487.png  The following extract is from a letter published in the ‘Dublin Evening Herald’ on the 6th June 1788:


Table Bay, November 1787

WE left Rio Janeiro the 4th of August, 1787.  Nothing material happened until the 19th, when a convict fell overboard from the Charlotte, transport, and in despight of every effort to save him was drowned.  From that time to the 25th we had bad weather, rain, and heavy lightning.  On the 3rd of September we discovered an intent among the seamen of our ship to mutiny, but by the timely exertions of our Commodore and officers the ringleader was punished, and we were happily relieved from danger.  At this time the Charlotte had thirty sick, and the rest of the ships’ crews, marines, and convicts had many ill; but by the blessing of God, soon after, the weather clearing up, the sick were sent upon deck, which method, with the cleanliness preserved throughout the fleet, proved restorative; health was reinstated among us, and we prosecuted our voyage in high spirits.  About this time some female convicts on board different ships increased the number of souls by an addition of seven children.  Our doctor baptized them on an appointed day, and the weather being exceeding fine, the christenings were kept on board the respective ships with great glee, an additional allowance of grog being distributed to the crews of those ships where births took place.

On the 7th of October, the Alexander, transport, threw out three signals of distress, upon which the Commodore ordered our boats to be manned and sent on board.  The captain of the Alexander informed the commanding officer that his men had mutinied, and attempted to release the convicts, in order to strengthen themselves; but our well-timed assistance prevented those desperadoes from effecting their evil intention.  Our people secured four of the most daring and sent them in irons on board the Siris [Sirius].  The principal part of the marines on board the Alexander being ill, and therefore unable to prevent any attempt they might make after our departure, the next day the Alexander sent two convicts on board our ship, they having been very disorderly the preceding night.

On the 12th of October, to our great joy, we made Table Bay, and our Commodore having ordered the signal to be thrown out for all the ships to come into his wake, the captains received their instructions for the disposition in which the fleet was entered and moored.

They immediately hoisted their colours, saluting the Commodore as they passed by, sailing into the bay.  Joy now beamed in every countenance, and we congratulated each other on the pleasing prospect of plenty of fresh provisions, with abundance of herbs, roots, and fruits, the production of this fine country.  Judge, then, after a run of 1,094 leagues, our happiness at the pleasing scene before our eyes.

In passing into the bay our satisfaction was allayed by the loss of the second mate of the Friendship, a worthy character and a good seaman; he fell overboard and perished.

On the 1st of November one of the Lady Penrhyn’s women, a convict, fell overboard, but was saved by our boat.  The next day we had the further satisfaction of preserving some Dutch seamen belonging to an East Indiaman, whose boat had overset in a gust of wind and was lost.

Our worthy Commodore and our Agent, to whom the greatest praise is due for their humanity and attention, have given public notice to the masters of the different ships to hold themselves in readiness to receive sailing instructions on the 10th of December, as it is intended to quit the Cape of Good Hope on the 11th day of December.

We have plentiful provision of live stock and other necessaries for the new settlement, an enumeration of which I here subjoin, viz., 3 bulls, 10 cows, 3 stone-horses, 12 mares, 220 rams and ewes, 4 male and 20 female goats, 80 dozen fowls, 20 dozen ducks, 6 dozen of geese, and 4 dozen of turkies, corn, wheat, flour, garden seeds, spirits, and other necessaries, independant of the live stock, to the amount of 2,000l.

Whilst we remain here every person is allowed one pound and a-half of meat, one pound and a-half of bread, and one gallon of beer per diem; and I can assure you our agent has purchased plenty of belly timber for the remainder of the voyage.

The only place proposed to stop at between the Cape and Botany Bay is the Island of Desolation, so called from its being a rock on which no herbage grows, in the centre of which rock is a beautiful lake of fresh water, a supply of which will be necessary to preserve our live stock. This island was discovered by Captain Cook, and, of course, named by that gallant commander.  It has but one port, called Christmas Harbour, so called from being discovered and entered into on that day.

To be brief, our fleet will be in good repair; our seamen, soldiers, and convicts are in high spirits. The provision made by Government has filled the hearts of the new settlers with gratitude, and now has reconciled them to their fate.  The more rational part of them are convinced that on their arrival at Botany Bay, by industry and attention, they will enjoy all the requisites reasonable beings can desire; that the disgrace they suffered in England, due to their crime, will by good behaviour at Botany Bay be buried in oblivion; that, removed from their wicked companions at London, they will have no seducing opportunities to swerve from the cause of virtue; and that in all probability they may be the founders of an empire greater than that from which they are banished.


Source:  Excerpts – ‘Early News from a New Colony:  British Museum Papers’ – by Various, Unknown [Newspaper Extracts concerning the Colony of New South Wales, 1785-1795.] – published 1893


View other important events in Australia’s History . . .

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View other important information on The Evolution of Australia (formally New Holland) . . .

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