The First Fleet

In August 1786, the Royal Navy captain Arthur Phillip received official instructions to prepare a convoy of ships for the ‘conveyance of seven hundred and fifty convicts to Botany Bay, together with such provisions, necessaries and implements for agriculture as may be necessary for their use after their arrival’.1

The aims of the mission remained unclear. Having claimed the entire eastern half of the Australian continent as its territory, Britain needed an actual foothold – not only as a place to banish criminals, but also to sow the seeds of a future settlement. A far-flung colony served other needs as well – the towering pines on Norfolk Island could supply the Royal Navy with masts and spars (which later proved to be incorrect), while a presence in the Pacific Ocean would thwart the lurking ambitions of rival colonial powers.

Rushed into shape by an impatient government, the fleet was assembled on the Solent off Portsmouth, combining a Royal Navy ship and brig, three storeships, and six convict transports filled with prisoners recently shipped from the London hulks. There were 759 transportees, 568 men and 191 women; 13 children sailed with their convict mothers.

The fleet departed on 13 May 1787, and the eight-month voyage proved uneventful, with low mortality and few delays. Replenishing stops at the Canary Islands, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town topped up supplies of fresh fruit, vegetables and water and bolstered the incipient colony’s inventories of livestock, grain, plants and seeds.

Entering Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, Phillip, to his bitter disappointment, found the country unsuitable. Water was scarce and the anchorage was windy. A few days later, the convoy regrouped in Port Jackson, around 15 kilometres to the north. By the evening of 26 January 1788, all 11 ships were quietly anchored in Sydney Cove, their passengers and cargo strewn around the shores.

  • 1. Quoted in John Cobley, Sydney Cove, 1788, Hodder and Stoughton, 1962, p13.