Background and planning
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 Commodore 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 cost to Britain of outfitting and despatching the Fleet was £84,000 (about £9.6 million as of 2015).
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.
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.
Food and supply transports (depart England 13 May 1787)
||Arr. Botany Bay
||20 January 1788
||20 January 1788
||20 January 1788
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 built in the mid-1980s are named after First Fleet vessels. The unused names are Lady Penrhyn and Prince of Wales.
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 the 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
|Marines' wives and children
||45 + 9 born
||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
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 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, 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 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 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; 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 the island, damaging the sails and masts of some of the ships.
On 25 November, Phillip had transferred to the Supply. With Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough, the fastest ships in the Fleet, which were carrying most of the male convicts, the 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.
Arrival in Australia
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.
An engraving of the First Fleet in Botany Bay at voyage's end in 1788, from The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay
is in the foreground; convict transports such as Prince of Wales
are depicted to the left.
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 the 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, 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.
After January 1788
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.
- 15 February – HMS Supply sails for Norfolk Island carrying a small party to establish a settlement.
- 5/6 May – Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn and Scarborough set sail for China.
- 14 July – Borrowdale, Alexander, Friendship and Prince of Wales set sail to return to England.
- 2 October – Golden Grove sets sail for Norfolk Island with a party of convicts, returning to Port Jackson 10 November, while HMS Sirius sails for Cape of Good Hope for supplies.
- 19 November – Fishburn and Golden Grove set sail for England. This means that only HMS Supply now remains in Sydney cove.
- 23 December – HMS Guardian carrying stores for the colony strikes an iceberg and is forced back to the Cape. It never reaches the colony in New South Wales.
- 19 March – HMS Sirius is wrecked off Norfolk Island.
- 17 April – HMS Supply sent to Batavia, Java, for emergency food supplies.
- 3 June – Lady Juliana, the first of six vessels of the Second Fleet, arrives in Sydney cove. The remaining five vessels of the Second Fleet arrive in the ensuing weeks.
- 19 September – HMS Supply returns to Sydney having chartered the Dutch vessel Waaksamheid to accompany it carrying stores.
On 26 January 1842, the Colonial Government in Sydney awarded a life pension of 1 shilling a day to three surviving members of the First Fleet. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported, on Saturday 29 January 1842: "The Government have 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 are not given.
William Hubbard: Hubbard was convicted in the Kingston Assizes in Surrey, England, on 24 March 1784 for theft. He was transported to Australia on the Scarborough in the First Fleet. He married Mary Goulding on 19 December 1790 in Rose Hill. In 1803 he received a land grant of 70 acres at Mulgrave Place. He died on 18 May 1843 at the Sydney Benevolent Asylum. His age was given as 76 when he was buried at Christ Church St. Lawrence, Sydney on 22 May 1843.
John McCarthy: McCarthy was a Marine who sailed on the Friendship. McCarthy was born in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland, circa Christmas 1745. He first served in the colony of New South Wales, then at Norfolk Island where he took up a land grant of 60 acres (Lot 110). He married the first fleet convict Ann Beardsley on Norfolk Island in November 1791 after his discharge a month earlier. In 1808, on the close of Norfolk Island settlement, he resettled in Van Diemen's Land and later took a land grant (80 acres at Melville) in lieu of the one forfeited on Norfolk Island. The last few years of his life were spent at the home of his granddaughter and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Budd, at a place called Kinlochewe Inn near Donnybrook, Victoria. McCarthy died on 24 July 1846, six months past his 100 birthday.
John Limeburner: The South Australian Register reported, in an article dated Wednesday 3 November 1847: "John Limeburner, the oldest colonist in Sydney, died in September last, at the advanced age of 104 years. He helped to pitch the first tent in Sydney, and remembered the first display of the British flag there, which was hoisted on a swamp oak-tree, then growing on a spot now occupied as the Water-Police Court. He was the last of those called the 'first-fleeters' (arrivals by the first convict ships) and, notwithstanding his great age, retained his faculties to the last." John Limeburner was a convict on the Charlotte. He was convicted on 9 July 1785 at New Sarum, Wiltshire of theft of a waistcoat, a shirt and stockings. He married Elizabeth Ireland in 1790 at Rosehill and together they establish a 50-acre farm at Prospect. He died at Ashfield in September 1847 and is buried at St John's, Ashfield.
John Jones: Jones was a Marine on the First Fleet and sailed on the Alexander. He is listed in the N.S.W. 1828 Census as aged 82 and living at the Sydney Benevolent Asylum. He is said to have died at the Benevolent Asylum in 1848.
Samuel King: King was a scribbler (a worker in a scribbling mill) before he became a Marine. He was a Marine with the First Fleet on board the flagship Sirius (1786). He shipped to Norfolk Island on Golden Grove in September 1788, where he lived with Mary Rolt, a convict who arrived with the First Fleet on the Prince of Wales. He received a grant of 60 acres (Lot No. 13) at Cascade Stream in 1791. Mary Rolt returned to England on the Britannia in October 1796. King was resettled in Van Diemen's Land, boarding the City of Edinburgh on 3 September 1808, and landed in Hobart on 3 October. He married Elizabeth Thackery on 28 January 1810. He died on 21 October 1849 at 86 years of age and was buried in the Wesleyan cemetery at Lawitta Road, Back River.
John Small: Convicted 14 March 1785 at the Devon Lent Assizes held at Exeter for Robbery King's Highway. Sentenced to hang, reprieved to 7 years' transportation. Arrived on the Charlotte in First Fleet 1788. Certificate of freedom 1792. Land Grant 1794, 30 acre "Small's Farm" at Eastern Farms (Ryde). Married October 1788 Mary Parker also a First Fleet convict who arrived on Lady Penrhyn. John Small died on 2 October 1850 at age of 90 years.
Elizabeth Thackery: Elizabeth "Betty" King (née Thackery) was tried and convicted of theft on 4 May 1786 at Manchester Quarter Sessions, and sentenced to seven years' transportation. She sailed on the Friendship, but was transferred to the Charlotte at the Cape of Good Hope. She was shipped to Norfolk Island on the Sirius (1786) in 1790 and lived there with James Dodding. In August 1800 she bought 10 acres of land from Samuel King at Cascade Stream. Elizabeth and James were relocated to Van Diemen's Land in December 1807 but parted company sometime afterwards. On 28 January 1810 Elizabeth married "First Fleeter" Private Samuel King (above) and lived with him until his death in 1849. Betty King died in New Norfolk, Tasmania on 7 August 1856, aged 89 years. She is buried in the churchyard of the Methodist Chapel, Lawitta Road, Back River, next to her husband, and the marked grave bears a First Fleet plaque. She was one of the first British women to land in Australia and was the last "First Fleeter" to die.