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First Fleet

The First Fleet is the name given to the group of people and ships who sailed from England in May 1787 to establish the first European colony in New South Wales. It was a convict settlement, marking the beginnings of transportation to Australia. The fleet was led by Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip.


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. Gillen (see References below, p.445) gives the following statistics:

Embarked at Portsmouth

  • Officials and passengers: 15
  • Ships' crews: 323
  • Marines: 247
  • Marines wives and children: 46
  • Convicts (males): 582
  • Convicts (females): 193
  • Convicts' children: 14
  • Total embarked: 1420

Landed at Port Jackson

  • Officials and passengers: 14
  • Ships' crews: 306
  • Marines: 245
  • Marines wives and children: 54
  • Convicts (males): 543
  • Convicts (females): 189
  • Convicts' children: 22
  • Total landed: 1373

During the voyage there were 22 births (13 males, 9 females), 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.

Preparation for the voyage

The decision to send convicts to Botany Bay was taken by the British Government on 18 August 1786. Preparations to obtain ships, convicts, guards and provisions began soon after. At the time the five hulks in service held about 1300 men, and selected convicts, including women from county gaols were transferred to the Dunkirk hulk at Plymouth and the New Gaol in Southwark. Optimistically, it was hoped to be able to sail in October, but a series of postponements were made. In mid April 1787 the St James's Chronicle commented that “strange as it may appear, we are credibly informed of the Fact that the Transports for Botany Bay have not as yet sailed". [Gillen, p.xxiv]

By October 1786, more than 200 marines had volunteered for Botany Bay duty, and Major Robert Ross was chosen to command them. The man chosen to lead the expedition, command HMS Sirius, and take on the governorship of the colony, was Captain Arthur Phillip, of whom the first lord of the admiralty said “the little I know of [him] would [not] have led me to select him". [Gillen, p.xxiv]

The convict ships were fitted out with strong hatch bars between decks, bulkheads to divide convicts from crew, and guns and ammunition. Provisions included food such as flour, pease, rice, butter, salted beef and pork, bread, soup, cheese, water and beer. Coal and wood were provided for fuel. Beads, looking glasses and other gifts for native inhabitants were included. 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. 5000 bricks for construction 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.

Convicts were delivered to the transports from the hulks and gaols with no reference to skills, or fitness to contribute to the creation of the new colony. The first arrivals embarked on the transports at Woolwich and Gravesend in early January, and continued throughout the next three months. Gradually the ships made their way to Portsmouth, where the last convicts were loaded on the day the fleet sailed. Eventually the fleet set sails and moved off down the English Channel on 13 May 1787.

The voyage

The departure of the fleet must have been greeted with fear and trepidation by the convicts and marines. They were embarking on the longest voyage ever attempted by such a large group. They were heading for a destination that was completely unexplored by Europeans, and whose conditions were only to be guessed at. Few would have had any confidence in seeing England, their families and friends, ever again.

With fine weather the convicts were allowed on deck, and on 3 June 1787 the fleet anchored at Santa Cruz at Teneriffe. 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 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, 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 on 5 August and stayed a month. Ships were cleaned and water taken on board, repairs were made, stores bought. The clothing of the women convicts was disintegrating and was replaced. 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 on 3 September to run before the westerlies to the Cape of Good Hope, where they arrived in mid October. This was the last port of call, so the main task was to stock up on plants, seeds and livestock. The women convicts on Friendship were moved to other transports to make room for livestock purchased there. The strength of the convicts was built up with fresh beef and mutton, bread and vegetables. This Dutch colony was the last outpost of European settlement which the fleet members would see for years, perhaps for ever. “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 fortieth parallel, the heavily-laden transports surged through the swells and troughs. A violent storm struck as they began to head north around Van Diemen's Land, 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, hastened ahead to prepare for the arrival of the rest. He intended to select a suitable location, find good water, clear the ground, and perhaps even have some huts and other buildings erected. However, this 'flying squadron' reached Botany Bay only hours before the rest of the Fleet, so no preparatory work was possible.

On 19 January, the coast on mainland Australia was sighted, and by next morning all the vessels were anchored in Botany Bay. This was one of the world's greatest sea voyages - eleven vessels carrying about 1400 people and stores had travelled for 252 days for more than 15,000 miles without losing a ship. Forty-eight people had died on the journey, a death rate of just over three per cent. Given the rigors 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.

Arrival at New South Wales

It was soon realised that Botany Bay did not live up to the glowing account that Captain James Cook had given it in 1770. 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.

Sirius was sent to explore the coastline and the crew soon returned with news of a harbour to the north, with sheltered anchorages, fresh water and fertile soil. This was Port Jackson, which Cook had seen and named, but not entered. A decision was taken to relocate the party to this new site.

The party was startled when two French ships came into sight and entered Botany Bay. This turned out to be a scientific expedition led by Jean-François de La Pérouse. The French group remained until 10 March, but never returned to France, being wrecked with the loss of all lives in the New Hebrides.

On 26 January, the fleet weighed anchor and by evening had entered 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 still celebrated as Australia Day, marking the beginnings of the first European settlement, although it is remembered as 'invasion day' by many indigenous Australians.

Unknown to the first European arrivals, it was to be almost two and a half years before other ships arrived with their cargo of new convicts and provisions. These were the Lady Juliana and the three ships of the infamous Second Fleet.

Ships of the First Fleet

There were eleven ships in the fleet, namely:

Naval escorts:

Convict transports


Notable First Fleet members

Some of the notable First Fleet members were:


  • Augustus Alt , surveyor
  • Richard Johnson , chaplain

Crew members who remained in the colony

  • Arthur Phillip, governor
  • King, Philip Gidley , 2nd lieutenant, later lieutenant governor of Norfolk Island, and 3rd governor of the colony
  • John Hunter, captain of HMS Sirius, later 2nd governor of the colony
  • Henry Lidgbird Ball , captain of HMS Supply
  • John White, principal surgeon
  • Thomas Arndell , assistant surgeon, later settler
  • William Balmain, assistant surgeon, later principal surgeon
  • Arthur Bowes Smyth , assistant surgeon, author of journal
  • Dennis Considen , assistant surgeon
  • Thomas Jamison , surgeon's mate
  • Henry Brewer , clerk to Phillip, provost marshall, administrator
  • Quartermaster Henry Hacking , settler, explorer


  • Major Robert Ross, commander, later lieutenant governor of Norfolk Island
  • 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark , author of journal
  • Captain David Collins, judge advocate, later commandant of first settlement at Hobart
  • Lieutenant William Dawes , engineer, surveyor, humanitarian
  • Lieutenant George Johnston , later commander of NSW Corps
  • Captain Watkin Tench, author of journal
  • Lieutenant William Bradley , author of journal, water colourist


  • Ann Inett , de facto relationship with Philip Gidley King
  • Margaret Dawson, de facto relationship with William Balmain
  • Esther Abrahams , partner and wife of George Johnston
  • Mary Braund and William Bryant , escapees from colony
  • James Ruse, farmer and landowner
  • John Baughan , carpenter, mill owner, attacked by NSW Corps
  • Jacob Bellett , landowner at Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land
  • Matthew James Everingham , landowner
  • Edward Garth and Susannah Gough/Garth , pioneer family
  • Nathaniel Lucas and Olive Gascoigne , pioneer family
  • Henry Kable/Cabell , constable, landowner
  • John Caesar , Madagascan, absconder
  • Joshua Peck , landowner
  • Charles Peat and Ann Mullins , pioneer family
  • Robert Sidaway , theatre owner, landholder

Many other convicts made significant contributions to the early years of the colony, but few are remembered today, except by their descendants.


  • Gillen, Mollie, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1989.
  • Bateson, Charles, The Convict Ships, 1787-1868, Sydney, 1974.
  • Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, London, Pan, 1988


See also

Last updated: 05-07-2005 02:16:01
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04