The First Fleet

The First Fleet is the 11 ships which left Great Britain on 13 May 1787 to found a penal colony that would become the first European settlement in Australia. The fleet consisted of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports, carrying more than 1,000 convicts, marines and seamen, and a vast quantity of stores.

From England, the Fleet sailed southwest to Rio de Janeiro, then east to Cape Town and via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay, arriving in mid-January 1788, taking between 250 and 252 days from first to last arrival.

British convicts were originally transported to the Thirteen Colonies in North America, but after the American Revolutionary War 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 fleet was commanded by Captain (later Admiral) 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.

The colony established by members of the Fleet was instrumental in the establishment of the state of New South Wales and subsequently the Commonwealth of Australia.

The fleet included two Royal Navy escort ships, the HMS Sirius and HMS Supply.

Ropes, crockery, agricultural equipment and a miscellany of other stores were needed. Items 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 only on its own provisions to survive until it could make use of local materials, assuming suitable supplies existed, and could grow its own food and raise livestock.

The majority of the people of the First Fleet were British, but there were also African, American and French convicts on board.

The group included seamen, marines and their families, government officials and a large number of convicts, amongst them women and children. The convicts had committed a variety of crimes, including theft, perjury, fraud, assault and robbery. The sentences the convicts received were transportation for 7 years, 14 years or for the term of their natural life.

The six convict transports each had a detachment of marines on board and 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. There are twelve known journals in existence and some letters.

The exact number of people directly associated with the First Fleet will likely never be established, as all 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.

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 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 understand Aboriginal society and its relationship with the land and the Aboriginal people did not understand the British practices of farming and land ownership. 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.

Copyright Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to as the source.