Arrival of the first fleet: Convict settlement at Sydney Cove [chapter 5 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 5 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 15 July 1934.]

The story of Australia — V.

Arrival of the first fleet

Convict settlement at Sydney Cove

Very little importance was attached to the eastern coast of Australia by Captain Cook in 1770, and for some years afterwards the British Government took no interest in the possession designated by the name of New South Wales. During these intervening years, however, the American War of Independence had been fought, which proved disastrous to Britain. She not only lost her colonies, but when, in 1782, peace was declared, she was faced with two very complex problems.

The first was to find a home for the American Royalists who had fought on her side. A great number of them had arrived in England with the British troops, and were now herded together in London in a destitute condition. The second complication was the question of the future transportation of convicts. Before the war it had been the custom to send thousands of convicts to work in the American plantations, and always there had been a great demand for them; but this, of course, could no longer be done. Transportation was still the law of the land, and the gaols were crowded beyond measure. The British Government, alarmed at the state of affairs, instituted an examination of sites suitable for founding a settlement.

Transportation of convicts

Sir Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Captain Cook in the Endeavour, suggested that New South Wales would be a suitable place for a penal settlement, and that Botany Bay would be an ideal spot for the purpose. In 1786 his recommendation was accepted, and in the King’s speech, in January, 1787, it was announced that a scheme had been formed to transport a number of convicts to New Holland. No mention was made of the American Royalists, and as they were not sent to New South Wales it is probable they were left to their own devices.

Bound for Botany Bay

In the early days of May, 1787, the work of victualling, equipping, and officering the first fleet was completed, and the ships assembled at Spithead in readiness to commence their long journey over the seas to Botany Bay. Arthur Phillip, a captain in the navy, had been appointed to command the expedition, and he had eleven ships under his charge. The Sirius and the Supply were King’s ships, the former being commanded by Captain Phillip, with Captain John Hunter as second in command. The transports were the Alexander, Lady Penrhyn, Charlotte, Scarborough, Friendship, and Prince of Wales. The storeshops were the Fishburn, Golden Grove, and Barrowdale. The total tonnage of the whole fleet was 2892 tons — not half that of many Australian steamers that ply between Sydney and Brisbane.

The first fleet sailed on the morning of May 13, 1787. On board the ships were 771 prisoners and 16 children of convicts. There were 252 guards and officials, 210 seamen of the Navy, and 233 merchant seamen, making a grand total of 1482 persons.

On August 4 the ships arrived at Rio de Janeiro, where Captain Phillip was well received by the Portuguese Viceroy. Here the fleet remained for a month, and the ships were supplied with everything they needed at moderate charges. On October 13 Table Bay was reached, and the Dutch Governor gave the commander a cordial welcome, and supplies of fresh meat were served to the ships while they remained in port. Table Bay was left on November 15.

On November 25 Captain Phillip removed to the “Supply,” and, accompanied by the “Alexander,” “Scarborough,” and “Friendship,” sailed ahead to make ready for the landing at Botany Bay, which was reached on January 18. Captain Hunter anchored in Botany Bay just 40 hours after Captain Phillip. The voyage had taken eight months and one day, and 15,063 miles had been sailed. No ships had been lost, and until the fleet divided they had not lost sight of each other. Throughout the voyage there had been very little sickness, and the death rate, considering the crowded state of the ships, was remarkably low.

Unhealthy site

Captain Phillip, on his arrival, commenced an examination of Botany Bay. He came to the conclusion that the openness of the sea and the dampness of the soil, by which the people under his care would be rendered unhealthy, were factors that could not be ignored, and that it was his duty to seek a new situation elsewhere.

On the morning of January 22 Captain Phillip, together with Captain Hunter and other officers, set out on a boat expedition to commence the survey of Port Jackson. He entered the port in the afternoon, and had the satisfaction to find one of the finest harbours in the world, in which a thousand sail might ride in safety.

He examined several coves as quickly as possible, and final preference was given to one which had the finest spring of water, and in which it was possible to anchor close to the shore. The exceptional depth inshore was very gratifying to him, as it would be possible to build wharves at which the largest vessels could unload. To this cove he gave the name of Sydney, in honour of Lord Sydney, Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Landing at Sydney Cove

At daybreak on January 26, 1788, the first fleet left Botany Bay, and before the day was over they were anchored in Sydney Cove, the place now destined for their port, and for the making of a new settlement. On the same day a party landed, and after a portion of the bush had been cleared, and a flagstaff erected, the Governor and his staff assembled to witness the colours displayed. Volleys were fired, and toasts were drunk, and in this simple manner was the foundation of Australia celebrated.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 15 July1934, p. 27

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