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First Fleet is the name given to the 11 ships which sailed from Great Britain on 13 May 1787 with about 1487 people to establish the first European colony in New South Walesmarker. It was a convict settlement, marking the beginnings of transportation to Australia. The fleet was led by Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip. The ships arrived at Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788. HMS Supply arrived on 18 January, The Alexander, Scarborough and Friendship arrived on 19 January and the remaining ships on 20 January 1788.

Ships of the First Fleet

The Charlotte at Portsmouth before departure in May 1787
Naval escorts:

Ship Type Captain Dep. England Arr. Sydney Duration
HMS Sirius converted merchant ship/armed naval vessel - Flagship of the fleet Captain John Hunter 13 May 1787 at Portsmouth 26 January 1788 at Port Jackson 250
HMS Supply armed tender Captain Henry Lidgbird Ball 13 May 1787 at Portsmouth 18 January 1788 at Botany Bay 250

Convict transports:

Ship Type Master Crew Dep. England Arr. Sydney Duration Male convicts arrived (boarded) Female convicts arrived (boarded)
Alexander Barque Duncan Sinclair N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 195 none
Charlotte heavy sailer Thomas Gilbert N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 88 20
Friendship Brig Francis Walton N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 76 21 - to Cape of Good Hope only
Lady Penrhyn transport William Cropton Server N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 none 101
Prince of Wales transport John Manson N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 1 49
Scarborough transport Captain John Marshall N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 208 none

Food and Supply Transports:

Ship Type Master Crew Dep. England Arr. Sydney (Port Jackson) Duration (days) Male convicts arrived (boarded) Female convicts arrived (boarded)
Golden Grove storeship William Sharp N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 21 - from Port Jackson to Norfolk Island 11 - from Port Jackson to Norfolk Island
Fishburn storeship Robert Brown N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 none none
Borrowdale storeship Houston Reed N/A 13 May 1787 26 January 1788 258 none none

Scale models of all the ships are on display at the Museum of Sydneymarker.

Nine Sydney harbour ferries in current service were named after these First Fleet vessels (the unused names are Lady Penrhyn and Prince Of Wales).

People of the First Fleet

The number of people directly associated with the First Fleet will probably never be exactly established, and all accounts of the event vary slightly. Mollie Gillen gives the following statistics:

Embarked at Portsmouth Landed at Port Jackson
Officials and passengers 16 14
Ships' crews 324 269
Marines 247 245
Marines wives and children 46 54

Convicts (men) 579 543
Convicts (women) 193 189
Convicts' children 14 18
Total 1,403 1,332

During the voyage there were seven births, while 69 people either died, were discharged, or deserted (61 males and 8 females). As no complete crew musters have survived for the six transports and three storeships, there may have been as many as 110 more seamen. See section below for list of notable Fleet members.The name of one of the boats on the First Fleet was donated.

Ropes, crockery, glass panes for the governor's windows, ready-cut wood, cooking equipment (including some complete cast-iron stoves), and a miscellany of weapons were needed. Other items included tools, agricultural implements, seeds, spirits, medical supplies, bandages, surgical instruments, handcuffs, leg irons and chains. A prefabricated house for the governor was constructed and packed flat. 5,000 bricks for construction and thousands of nails were loaded. As the party was venturing into unknown territory, it had to carry all its 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 Voyages

With fine weather the convicts were allowed on deck, and on 3 June 1787 the fleet anchored at Santa Cruzmarker at Tenerifemarker. Here fresh water, vegetables and meat were taken 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 Janeiromarker, 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. On Alexander a number of convicts fell sick and died. Tropical rainstorms meant that the convicts could not exercise on deck, and were kept below in the foul, cramped holds. On the female transports, promiscuity between the convicts and the crew and marines was rampant. 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 a month. The ships were cleaned and water taken on board, repairs were made, and Phillip ordered large quantities of food for the fleet. The women convicts' clothing, which had become infested with lice, was burned, and 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 kohi marine were punished for passing forged quarter-dollars made from old buckles and pewter spoons.

The fleet left Rio on 4 September to run before the westerlies to the Cape of Good Hopemarker 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 the Cape of Good Hope destined for the Colony of NSW 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. The Dutch colony of Cape Townmarker 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.” (Hughes, p.82)

Assisted by the gales of the latitudes below the 40th parallel, the heavily-laden transports surged through the violent seas. A freak storm struck as they began to head north around Van Diemen's Landmarker, damaging the sails and masts of some of the ships.

In November, Phillip transferred to Supply. With Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough, the fastest ships in the Fleet and carrying most of the male convicts, 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. However, this "flying squadron" reached Botany Baymarker only hours before the rest of the Fleet, so no preparatory work was possible. The Supply reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788; the three fastest transports in the advance group arrived on 19 January; slower ships, including the 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 had died on the journey, a death rate of just over three per cent. Given the rigours of the voyage, the navigational problems, the poor condition and sea-faring inexperience of the convicts, the primitive medical knowledge, the lack of precautions against scurvy, the crammed and foul conditions of the ships, poor planning and inadequate equipment, this was a remarkable achievement.

It was soon realised that Botany Bay did not live up to the glowing account that James Cook had given it. The bay was open and unprotected, fresh water was scarce, and the soil was poor. First contacts were 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 the Aborigines or foreign powers.

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 Jacksonmarker, 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. 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 on 23 January.

On the morning of 24 January the party was startled when two French ships were seen just outside Botany Bay. This turned out to be 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, but never returned to France, being wrecked with the loss of nearly all lives near Vanikoro Island in the New Hebridesmarker (Vanuatumarker).

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 Covemarker, after Lord Sydney the British Home Secretary. This date is still celebrated as Australia Day, marking the beginnings of the first British settlement. The British flag was planted and formal possession was taken. This was done by Phillip and some officers and marines from the Supply, with the remainder of the 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.

See also



  1. Mollie Gillen. The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet (1989). Page 445
  2. Chisholm, Alec H. (ed.), The Australian Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4, p. 72, “First Fleet”, Halstead Press, Sydney, 1963
  3. David Hill, 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet

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