First Fleet Ships

At the time of the First Fleet’s voyage there were some 12,000 British commercial and naval ships plying the world’s oceans. The fleet of 11 ships that made its way to Botany Bay was comparatively small given the nature of its mission. The establishment of a new penal colony on the remote coast of New Holland would provide relief for Britain’s crowded prisons and stake a strategic claim in the Pacific ahead of Britain’s rivals.

At dawn on 13 May 1787 HMS Sirius gave the signal to weigh anchor and the First Fleet embarked. The convoy consisted of two naval ships, six convict transports and three storeships to carry the food and supplies necessary for establishing a settlement. Crowded on board were some 1500 people – marines, officers, seamen, their wives and children and at least 775 prisoners of the Crown. The departing convicts fretted over ‘the impracticability of returning home, the dread of a sickly passage, and the fearful prospect of a distant and barbarous country’ (Watkin Tench, 1789). They were unwilling participants in this colonial enterprise.

Altogether they formed a little squadron of eleven sail

Arthur Phillip, first governor of New South Wales, 1789

At journey’s end, eight months and one week later, the successful arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay was cause for celebration. All ships of the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay on 19 and 20 January 1788, before shifting to the superior location of Port Jackson, present-day Sydney, on 26 January. But to the Aboriginal peoples looking on, the arrival of the ships marked the beginning of an invasion that would catastrophically affect their lives.

Watercolour painting of ships entering Botany Bay.
Botany Bay. 'Sirius & convoy going in: Supply & agents division in the bay. 21 Janry 1788.' William Bradley, watercolour from his journal ‘A Voyage to New South Wales’, 1802+. State Library of New South Wales, [Safe 1 / 14].

The ships

The voyage