First Fleet

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The First Fleet is the name given to the fleet which established the first European settlement in Australia. It comprised the flagship, HMS Sirius, the armed tender HMS Supply, six transports (Alexander, Scarborough, Friendship, Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn, and Prince of Wales) and three storeships (Borrowdale, Golden Grove and Fishburn) – a total of eleven craft. It was under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip who would become Governor of the colony of New South Wales and carried 1473 persons, including 778 convicts - 192 of them women - and 12 children. Forty five people (36 men, 4 women and 5 children) died during the voyage. Seven children were born.

Britain had long exported criminals as labour to the New World, mainly Virginia and its colonies in the Caribbean. The social turmoil brought on by the Industrial Revolution had brought an increase in crime and this, added to the sudden unavailability of America after 1783, put enormous pressure on the prison system. James Cook had discovered - and claimed for the Crown – the east coast of Australia (then New Holland) during his first voyage in 1770. It was felt that not only would this faraway place be suitable as a penal colony, but British presence in the area would be a disincentive to French expansion in the region. (It is one of the coincidences of history that within days of the fleet’s arrival, the French navigator, La Perouse would sail into Botany Bay.)

The fleet left Portsmouth, England 13th May 1787 and arrived in Botany Bay, New South Wales on various days after 18th January 1788. The voyage had taken 8 months but included lengthy stays at Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, Rio de Janeiro and a month at Cape of Good Hope where it had taken on as much fresh food as it could carry and about 500 head of livestock.

Botany Bay was found to be unsuitable - too windswept, poor soil, insufficient fresh water – but a suitable harbour was found only a few miles up the coast. The fleet transferred to Port Jackson, now better known as Sydney Harbour, where the new colony of Sydney - named in honour of the British Home Secretary - was proclaimed on 26 January 1788 – now Australia’s National Day.

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