The Charlotte at Portsmouth before departure in May 1787

The First Fleet is the name given to the eleven ships that left Great Britain, bound for Australia on 13 May 1787, with the first ship arriving at Botany Bay on the 18 January 1788 (with the fleet moving on to the more suitable Port Jackson on 26 January). The journey took between 250 and 258 days – from first to last ship arrival – from Portsmouth to Botany Bay: the route taken was via Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope.[1] The exact number of passengers and crewmen is not certain, but well over one thousand men, women and children were aboard the ships. That number included officers, their wives and children, some free settlers, 504 male convicts and 192 female convicts, plus infants born along the way.


The Fleet was sent to Botany Bay in New South Wales (as the east coast of Australia was named by its European discoverer Lieutenant – later Captain – James Cook) in order to establish a British colony — specifically, a penal colony — in Australia.[2] Orders-in-Council for establishing the colony were issued in London on 6 December 1785.[3] The fleet was commanded by Captain (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip. The ships arrived at Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788.[4] HMS Supply arrived on 18 January; Alexander, Scarborough and Friendship arrived on 19 January, and the remaining ships on 20 January.

Ships of the First Fleet[]

Captain Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the colony of New South Wales recorded the details of the fleet in The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay:[5]

Naval escort[]

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

Ship Type Captain Dep. England Arr. Botany Bay Duration
HMS Sirius converted merchant ship/armed naval vessel - Flagship of the fleet Captain John Hunter 13 May 1787 at Portsmouth 20 January 1788 at Botany Bay 252
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. Botany Bay Duration Male convicts arrived (boarded) Female convicts arrived (boarded)
Alexander Barque Duncan Sinclair N/A 13 May 1787 19 January 1788 251 210 - two were pardoned none
Charlotte heavy sailer Thomas Gilbert N/A 13 May 1787 20 January 1788 252 100 24
Friendship Brig Francis Walton N/A 13 May 1787 19 January 1788 251 80 24 - to Cape of Good Hope only
Lady Penrhyn transport William Cropton Server N/A 13 May 1787 20 January 1788 252 none 102
Prince of Wales transport John Mason N/A 13 May 1787 20 January 1788 252 none 100
Scarborough transport Captain John Marshall N/A 13 May 1787 19 January 1788 251 210 none

Food and supply transports[]

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. 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.

Ship Type Master Crew Dep. England Arr. Botany Bay Duration (days)
Golden Grove storeship William Sharp N/A 13 May 1787 20 January 1788 258
Fishburn storeship Robert Brown N/A 13 May 1787 20 January 1788 258
Borrowdale storeship Houston Reed N/A 13 May 1787 20 January 1788 258

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

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 exact number of people directly associated with the First Fleet will likely never be established, as all accounts of the event vary slightly. Mollie Gillen[6] gives the following statistics:

Embarked at Portsmouth Landed at Sydney Cove
Officials and passengers 15 14
Ships' crews 323 269
Marines 247 245
Marines wives and children 46 45 + 9 born
Convicts (men) 582 543
Convicts (women) 193 189
Convicts' children 14 11 + 11 born
Total 1,420 1,373

A total of 1420 people have been identified as embarking on the First Fleet in 1787 and 1373 are believed to have landed at Sydney Cove in January 1788. While the names of all crew members of Sirus and Supply are known, the six transports and three storeships may have carried as many as 110 more seamen than have been identified — no complete musters have survived for these ships. The total number of persons embarking on the First Fleet would, therefore be approximately 1530 with about 1483 reaching Sydney Cove.

Other sources indicate that the passengers consisted of: 10 civil officers, 212 Marines, including officers, an additional 28 wives and 17 children of the marines, 81 free people, 504 male convicts and 192 female convicts; the total number of free people was 348 and the total number of prisoners was 696, coming to a total of 1044 people.

According to the first census of 1788 as reported by Governor Phillip to Lord Sydney, the colony consisted of 7 horses, 29 sheep, 74 swine, 6 rabbits, 7 cattle. White population of the whole country was 1030.[7]

The following statistics were provided by Governor Phillip:[8]

Male Female Children Total
Convicts & their children 548 188 17 753
Others 219 34 24 277
Total 767 222 41 1030

David Collins gave the following details in his book An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales:[9]

The Alexander, of 453 tons, had on board 192 male convicts; 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 29 privates, with 1 assistant surgeon to the colony.

The Scarborough, of 418 tons, had on board 205 male convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 26 privates, with 1 assistant surgeon to the colony.

The Charlotte, of 346 tons, had on board 89 male and 20 female convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 3 corporals, 1 drummer, and 35 privates, with the principal surgeon of the colony.

The Lady Penrhyn, of 338 tons, had on board 101 female convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, and 3 privates, with a person acting as a surgeon's mate.

The Prince of Wales, of 334 tons, had on board 2 male and 50 female convicts; 2 lieutenants, 3 sergeants, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 24 privates, with the surveyor-general of the colony.

The Friendship, ... of 228 tons, had on board 76 male and 21 female convicts; 1 captain, 2 lieutenants, 2 sergeants, 3 corporals, 1 drummer, and 36 privates, with 1 assistant surgeon to the colony.

There were on board, beside these, 28 women, 8 male and 6 female children, belonging to the soldiers of the detachment, together with 6 male and 7 female children belonging to the convicts.

The Fishbourn store-ship was of 378 tons; the Borrowdale of 272 tons; and the Golden Grove of 331 tons. On board this last ship was embarked the chaplain of the colony, with his wife and a servant.

Not only these as store-ships, but the men of war and transports, were stored in every part with provisions, implements of agriculture, camp equipage, clothing for the convicts, baggage, etc.

On board of the Sirius were taken, as supernumeraries, the major commandant of the corps of marines embarked in the transports* [*This officer was also lieutenant-governor of the colony], the adjutant and quarter-master, the judge-advocate of the settlement, and the commissary; with 1 sergeant, 3 drummers, 7 privates, 4 women, and a few artificers.

The Surgeon John White reported a total of 48 deaths and 28 births during the voyage.

The voyages[]

The journey began with fine weather, and thus the convicts were allowed on deck. On 3 June 1787, the fleet anchored at Santa Cruz at Tenerife. Here, fresh water, vegetables and meat were brought 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, 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 for 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 had become infested with lice and was burnt. They 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 a marine were punished for passing forged quarter-dollars made from old buckles and pewter spoons.

The fleet left Rio de Janeiro on 4 September to run before the westerlies to the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, which it reached on 13 October.[10] 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".[11] 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 Town 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."[12]

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 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, 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 Bay only hours before the rest of the Fleet, so no preparatory work was possible. Supply reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788; the three fastest transports in the advance group arrived on 19 January; slower ships, including Sirius, arrived on 20 January.[13]

This was one of the world's greatest sea voyages — eleven vessels carrying about 1,487 people and stores[11] 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.

It was soon realised that Botany Bay did not live up to the glowing account that the explorer Captain James Cook had provided. 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 Jackson, 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 Hebrides (Vanuatu).[14]

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 Cove, 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 taken. This was done by Phillip and some officers and marines from Supply, with the remainder of 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.[14]

The voyage of the Lady Penrhyn[]

In an attempt to put into execution one of the reasons given for founding the Botany Bay colony (that is, to use the colony as a base to develop the fur trade of the North West Coast of America and for trade with China, Korea and Japan), the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn sailed on from Port Jackson on 5 May 1788 under a contract with George Mackenzie McCaulay, an alderman of the City of London, to go to the "North West Coast of America to Trade for furrs & after that to proceed to China & barter the Furrs &ca for Teas or other such Goods..."[15] Her owners, Timothy and William Curtis (merchants and, in William’s case, like McCaulay, a London alderman), had obtained a license to sail to the North West coast from the South Sea Company, which still maintained its ancient monopoly rights over British trade to the eastern Pacific.[16] The poor condition of the ship and sickness among her crew compelled the Lady Penrhyn to turn back from this voyage when she had gone only as far as Tahiti from where, after the crew had recovered and the ship been repaired, she proceeded to Canton (Guang Zhou) on the China coast to take on a cargo of tea.[17]

First Fleet smallpox[]

Recent scholars, Christopher Warren (2007),[18] Craig Mear (2008),[19] and Michael Bennett (2009)[20] have argued that the First Fleet probably introduced live smallpox virus into Australian aboriginal tribes. Earlier writers were divided over 1) whether the First Fleet introduced smallpox and 2) whether this was deliberate. Mear's paper argues that the First Fleet was the origin of the disease but says there is no proof that smallpox was deliberately released [see Mear (2008) pg 17]. Bennett suggests that brutalised veterans from the American War of Independence could have used smallpox, but Bennett notes that convicts were more likely to release smallpox as an act of revenge after Australian natives killed and attacked unarmed convicts.

Historian Judy Campbell previously argued that it was highly improbable that the First Fleet was the source of the epidemic as "smallpox had not occurred in any members of the First Fleet" and as the only possible source of infection from the Fleet was the variolous matter imported for inoculation against smallpox. Campbell argues that the variolous matter was probably inactivated by heat and humidity and that there is no evidence that Aboriginal people were exposed to the material. She points to regular contact between Macassans from the Indonesia archipelago, where smallpox was episodic (excluding Macassar), and Aboriginal people in Australia's North as a possible source for the introduction of smallpox.[21] There remains some disputation in avowedly conservative media such as Quadrant particularly as it now appears there was no recorded outbreak of smallpox at Macassar prior to the Sydney outbreak.[22]

Commemoration Garden[]

The First Fleet Memorial Garden, Wallabadah, New South Wales

After Ray Collins, a stonemason, completed years of research into the First Fleet, he sought approval from about nine councils to construct a commemorative garden in recognition of these immigrants. Liverpool Plains Shire Council was finally the only council to accept his offer to supply the materials and construct the garden free of charge. The site chosen was a disused caravan park on the banks of Quirindi Creek at Wallabadah, New South Wales. In September 2002 Ray commenced work on the project. Additional support was later provided by Neil McGarry in the form of some impressive signs and the council which contributed $28,000 for pathways and fencing. Ray hand-chiseled the names of all those who came out to Australia on the eleven ships in 1788 on stone tablets along the garden pathways. The stories of those who arrived on the ships, their life, and first encounters with the Australian country are presented throughout the garden.[23] On 26 January 2005, the First Fleet Garden, was opened as the major memorial to the (approximately 1,500) First Fleet immigrants. Previously the only other specific memorial to the First Fleeters was an obelisk at Sans Souci, New South Wales.[24] The surrounding area has a barbecue, tables, and amenities.



  1. ^ "The first fleet". Discover Collections. State Library of New South Wales. Retrieved 24 April 2013. 
  2. ^ "AUSTRALIAN DISCOVERY AND COLONISATION". Empire (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1875) (Sydney, NSW: National Library of Australia): p. 8. 14 April 1865. 
  3. ^ "HISTORIC LANDMARKS.". Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1885 - 1954) (Qld.: National Library of Australia): p. 5. 2 October 1952. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  4. ^ Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. ISBN 978-1-74110-492-9. 
  5. ^ Phillip, Arthur; Currey, John, 1940-; Banks Society (2010), The voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay : compiled from authentic papers, Banks Society, ISBN 978-0-949586-19-3 
  6. ^ Mollie Gillen. The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet (1989). Page 445
  7. ^ "THE MAYOR'S OPENING ADDRESS.". The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) (NSW: National Library of Australia): p. 7. 28 November 1889. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  8. ^ 'CONVICTISM AND COLONIZATION, 1788 TO 1828 LACHLAN MACQUARIE', Journal of the Australian Population Association Vol. 5, Supplement 1 (March 1988), pp. 31-43 (article consists of 13 pages) Published by: Springer Stable URL:
  9. ^ Collins, David (2004) [1798]. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. Project Gutenberg. 
  10. ^ Hill, David (2008). 1788. Random House. pp. 120–123. ISBN 978-1-74166-800-1. 
  11. ^ a b Chisholm, Alec H. (ed.), The Australian Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4, p. 72, “First Fleet”, Halstead Press, Sydney, 1963
  12. ^ Robert Hughes (1988). The Fatal Shore: a History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia 1787-1868. London: Pan Books. p. 82. ISBN 0-330-29892-5. 
  13. ^ "Timeline - 1788". The World Upside Down: Australia 1788–1830. National Library of Australia. 2000. Retrieved 2006-05-27. 
  14. ^ a b David Hill, 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet
  15. ^ Arthur Bowes Smythe, "A Voyage to Botany Bay & Oteheite, 1787, by A.B.S. Surgeon, Lady Penrhyn", National Library of Australia MS 4568. Cf. G. Fidlon and R.J. Ryan (eds.), The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth: Surgeon, Lady Penrhyn, 1787-1789, Sydney, Australian Documents Library, 1979, p.86.
  16. ^ South Sea Company Court of Directors Minutes, 8 and 10 March 1787, South Sea Company Papers, British Library, Additional MS 25,521; cited in Edouard A. Stackpole, Whales and Destiny, Amherst, U. Mass., 1972, p. 118.
  17. ^ Smythe, "Voyage"; Fidlon and Ryan, Journal.
  18. ^ Warren C., "Could First Fleet smallpox infect Aborigines? - A note", Aboriginal History 31, pp 152-164. Online:
  19. ^ Mear C. "The origin of the smallpox in Sydney in 1789". Journal of Royal Australian Historical Society 94 (1): 1–22. 
  20. ^ Bennett, MJ, "Smallpox and Cowpox under the Southern Cross: The Smallpox Epidemic of 1789 ...", Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 83(1), Spring 2009, pg 48.
  21. ^ Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia 1780 - 1880, by Judy Campbell, Melbourne University Press, 2002, pp 55, 61, 73-74, 181
  22. ^ Willis, HA, "Poxy History" Quadrant, September 2010 and Letters to Editor, April 2011
  23. ^ Wallabadah - Places to See Retrieved on 4 May 2009
  24. ^ Dunn, John, First Fleet remembered, p.93, Outback Magazine, Issue 71, R.M.Williams Publishing, June/July 2010

External links[]

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