The First Fleet First European Settlers Arrive in Australia

First Fleet Entering Sydney Cove

"The First Fleet" is the name given to a group of 11 ships that sailed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May 1787 and arrived in Australia on 18 January 1788, with the first European settlers of Australia. They were the founders of the Australian nation we know today.

These first settlers were convicts from Britain's overcrowded prisons who were forcefully resettled in Australia to colonise the country. They were accompanied by guards, civilian officials and the sailors who manned the ships that brought them on a 24,000 km journey half-way across the world to a dry and desolate continent.

Unlike The Pilgrims, the first European settlers of America, who arrived there by choice; the first European settlers of Australia were shipped out to this far away land against their will.

Let's Start with Australia Where was Australia?

Map of teh World with Australia

For over a thousand years people in the West had an idea that there was a large area of land in the southern oceans past India and China but they had no idea where it was. They called this "must be there somewhere land " Terra Australis Incognita" which means the Unknown Southern Land. Many earlier European explorers sailed right past it or bumped into it and didn't realise they had reached this huge southern landmass – Australia.

On 20 April 1770, the British explorer James Cook on board the sailing ship HMS Endeavour arrived off the east coast of Australia at Point Hicks, Victoria. He continued up the eastern coastline and came ashore in an area he named Botany Bay (now part of the city of Sydney). He then went on the chart parts of the eastern coastline of the Australia including the Great Barrier Reef.

James Cook firmly established that there was indeed a southern land. He also claimed the land for Britain; naming it New South Wales. Cook, like most European explorers at the time totally ignored the fact that the land was already occupied by native inhabitants, the Aborigines. He had no idea at the time that the land he was claiming was over 31 times larger than his own homeland of Great Britain. Nothing much came of Cook's discovery. Britain was too busy fighting in the American War of Independence and the discovery on the other side of the world was all but forgotten.

Related Article: Who Discovered Australia?

The Terrible Situation in Great Britain in the 1700'sReasons for the Increase in Crime and Imprisonment

Terrible Poverty, Unemployment and Crime

Great Britain in the 1770's and 1780's was a grim and nasty place. Poor people, of whom there were many, lived in abject poverty. Their dwelling were overcrowded hovels. Their cloths were mostly hand-me-downs and were in tatters. Their lives were short, filthy and riddled with disease. Unemployment and alcoholism was rampant. There were a number of reasons for this situation. Key amongst these were the social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution, Britain's lose of its American colonies, the displacement of tenant farmers from the grand estates and the resultant huge influx of people into the cities. With little employment and unable to feed and clothe themselves more and more people turned to crime. They were forced to steal and resort to other criminal acts just to survive. This, together with the availability of cheap alcohol – namely gin, inevitably led to a huge increase in crime.

Harsh Penalties Handed Down by the Courts

The laws, at the time, were harsh and punishment severe. By the 1780s there were over 200 offences which carried a mandatory death penalty. Even petty crimes such as burglary, theft or chopping down a tree, were punishable by death. Over the years judges and juries become more adverse to sentencing people to death for what seemed like less serious offenses. Juries in particular, adopted a more lenient attitude towards petty crimes, deliberately undervaluing the worth of stolen goods, for example, in order to avoid defendants getting a mandatory death sentence. As a consequence many criminals were either being released or put in jail on lesser charges.

Overcrowded Prisons

Soon a huge increase in the prisoner population in Britain resulted with a severe overcrowding of its jails. The situation was so bad that convicts were being housed in derelict old ships, known as 'hulks', that had been converted into floating jails. Conditions on these floating jails was horrid. In some instances nearly 300 prisoners were crammed into a hulk just 65 meters in length (about 6 bus-lengths). In these overcrowded and filthy conditions, over 30% of the convicts died from diseases.

An Urgent Solution Required

The government could not stiffen the sentencing regime because there would have been a huge outcry from the public; but it still needed an urgent solution for its overcrowded jails. The solution they came up with was transportation.

Penal Transportation What was Transportation?

The Meaning of Transportation

Transportation meant, a person convicted of a crime, was forcefully taken ("transported") against their will to a penal colony in a distant part of the British Empire to work in servitude for the term of their sentence.

Why Was Transportation Used?

The British government had a policy of very harsh punishments, even for minor offenses, in order to deter people from crime. Transportation was seen as a more humane alternative to the death penalty.

What Crimes Could Earn you Transportation?

Death sentences for lesser crimes such as larceny which included burglary, robbery, fraud, theft, and similar crimes, were usually commuted to "transportation" for a set period of time, usually 7 or 14 years. Or in the case of more serious crimes this meant "transportation for the term of their natural life".

Where Shall We Transport Convicts To? To the Colonies of Course

Impact of the Loss of Britain's American Colonies on Transportation.

Up until American Independence, Britain relieved some of the pressure on its prisons by transporting over 52,000 convicts to its American colonies. The loss of these colonies meant that that prisoners who had previously been earmarked for America were now also being housed in prison hulks.

Canada Says No

Canada, a British colony at the time, refused to accept convicts and furthermore, the British thought it would be unwise to transport convicts (that also included political agitators) there as it was too close to the newly independent US. These convicts might then stir up trouble in Canada.

Slaves on plantation in the Caribbean

Plantation Owners in the Caribbean Say No Too

Another idea was to transport convicts to sugar plantations in the British colonies in the Caribbean. The plantation owner squashed that idea because it was more economical for them to use black slaves than white convicts who would cost them more, demand more rights and possible cause them trouble.

Lets Ship Convicts Off to Australia! Transportation to the Land Down Under

In 1784 the British government was in desperate need of a solution to its overcrowded prisons. Joseph Banks, who had been with James Cook when he explored Australia 1770, suggested just the place – Botany Bay in New South Wales – Australia. After all James Cook had claimed ownership of the land for Britain. Why not ship the prisoners off to far off Australia to set up a settlement there before some other European nation such as France did so, he suggested. The British government saw merit in this suggestion as it addressed both its long-term strategic interests of colonising Australia and the more immediate social problem of prison overcrowding at home. On 18 August 1786 a decision was reached to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay consisting of convicts, their guards and government officials to mange this new settlement.

Preparation of the First Fleet When Did the First Fleet Leave England?

Provisioning the Fleet

On the 1st September 1786 the British Government placed newspaper advertisement for the supply of ships to transport convicts and supplies to New South Wales (as Australia was known at the time). A ship-broker by the name of William Richards was awarded the contract for the princely sum of £54,000. (About 6 million Australian dollars today). From the outset the enterprise was badly organised and poorly managed.

Ships of the Fleet

In total 11 ships were assembled. These consisted of 6 transport vessels, 3 supply ships and two Royal Navy escort vessels. The little flotilla was under the command of Arthur Phillip, a junior naval officer who had been in enforced retirement on half pay at the time of his appointment as the future governor of the soon to be established penal colony in Australia. His yearly salary in his new role was to be £1,000 per year. (A$220,000 in 2014).

On 13 May1787 the 11 ships of the First Fleet departed Portsmouth, England on their epic eight month journey to a distant continent on the other side of the world.

Who were the Convicts of the First Fleet? Convict Statistics

Number of Convicts on the First Fleet

Number of Convicts on the First Fleet


Left England

Arrived in Australia

Convicts (men) 582 543
Convicts (women) 193 189
Convicts' children 14 11 + 11 born
Total 789 754

The vast majority of convicts transported to Australia were from England and Wales (70%), Ireland (24%) and Scotland (5%). However, there were also convicts from America (including blacks), India, Canada, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean. Most convicts were from the cities and sentenced for larceny which at the time included burglary, robbery, fraud, theft, and similar crimes. The average age was 29 years and the median age was 27 year.

Number of Convicts Transported on the First Fleet

The exact number of convicts transported on the First Fleet varies from between 756 to 789 depending on how the numbers are determined. It appears that 789 convicts were shipped out from England. The lower number of 756 seems be the number of persons who actually arrived in Australia. This number is derived by taking into account the 43 deaths and 22 births amongst the convicts during the voyage to Australia. So 789 convicts left England and 754 convicts and their newborn children arrived in Australia.

The Youngest & Oldest Convict on the Fist Fleet

The youngest convict was John Hudson, a 11 year old chimney sweep. John was only 8 years old when he was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. His crime is unrecorded but mostly likely robbery. Given that he was transported at such a young age, he may have been a repeat offender. The oldest convict transported on board the First Fleet was Elizabeth Beckford who was 75 year old and died on the voyage. The oldest convict to arrive in in Australia was Joseph Owen. He was 68 years old.

Journey of The First Fleet to Australia Eight Months and 24,000 km

On the 13th May 1787 a fleet of eleven ships sailed from Portsmouth, Britain with two years supplies and 1420 people on board. These consisted of 736 convicts, 17 children of convicts, 211 marine guards, 27 marines' wives, 14 marines' children and about 300 officers and ships' crew. They were to set up the first British colony in Australia.

The little fleet, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, sailed from Portsmouth to Tenerife, then to Rio de Janeiro and from there they set across the Atlantic through the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town and on to Australia. The journey took eight months. The distance the ships travelled was 24,000 km. During their voyage there were 104 deaths and 20 births on board.

The first ships of the fleet, lead by H.M.S. Supply, sailed into Botany Bay in New South Wales on the 18th of January 1788.

Who Was On the First Fleet


Left England

Arrived in Australia

Officials and passengers 15 14
Ships' crews 323 269
Marines 247 245
Marines' wives & children 46 45 + 9 born
Convicts (men) 582 543
Convicts (women) 193 189
Convicts' children 14 11 + 11 born
Total 1,420 1,336

First European Settlement in Australia Finding a Suitable Location

Why Didn't The First Fleet Settle at Botany Bay?

The original intention was to establish the new settlement at Botany Bay. However, after just three days, Captain Phillip realised that it wasn't a suitable place for settlement. The reasons for his decision were the lack of a suitable supply of fresh water, the poor quality of the soil and the bay was too exposed to the sea with strong winds which didn't provide a safe harbour for his ships.  

How Sydney was Chosen for the First Settlement

While the ships of the fleet, with their human cargo, remained anchored at Botany Bay, a scouting party set out in search of a more suitable location for the new settlement. They visited a site just 12 kilometres to the north that James Cook had named Port Jackson nearly 18 years earlier. They spent three days there before selecting an area Phillip named Sydney Cove in honour Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney, the British Home Secretary. This location had an excellent natural harbour and a stream with a reliable water supply. Philip and his team returned to the waiting fleet at Botany Bay.


Philip returned to Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, officially came ashore, raised the British Flag and took possession of the area in the name of the British government.

We know this location today as the city of Sydney and we celebrate the 26th of January as "Australia Day".

The first convicts came ashore in Australia on 27 January 1788.

Establishment of the Colony of New South Wales

On 7 February 1788, Phillip officially read out his commission from the British government founding the colony of New South Wales and becoming its first governor. He reaffirmed Great Britain's claim of all of the land from the Pacific Ocean westward to the 135th meridian east between latitudes of 10°37'S and 43°39'S.

An inventory taken by Phillip recorded that his little colony consisted of 1030 Europeans, 7 horses, 29 sheep, 74 swine (pigs and hogs), 5 rabbits, 7 cattle, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens, 19 goats, provisions to last two years and tools to establish a settlement. . One bull and 4 cows strayed from the settlement and were lost only to be found alive 7 years later.

Life in the new settlement was very hard and most of the people didn't have the skills (like farming, carpentry, etc.) to tame the new land. Starvation was always a major problem.

There Will Be No Slavery in Australia The Rule of Law

When establishing his settlement Governor Arthur Phillip declared that the European inhabitants of colony would enjoy all the rights and responsibilities under English Law.

He also declared that 'There will be no slavery in a new country and hence no slaves'. This edict was a godsent for the native Aboriginal people. While they were to suffer terribly as a consequence of white settlement they were never enslaved.

Australia’s First Police Force were Criminals

The First Court Case in Australia

The first court case in the new colony was by Henry Kable and his wife Susannah, who claimed that Duncan Sinclair, the captain of the convict transport ship the Alexander, had stolen their belongings during the voyage to Australia.

In Britain convicts had no rights, and Sinclair boasted that a criminal could not sue him in a court of law. Unfortunately for Sinclair the court in Australia thought otherwise and ordered that Sinclair pay restitution to Henry and Susannah Kable for the stolen goods. This was a clear indication that the new colony was on the path to a more egalitarian and democratic society than the mother country.

Henry Kable went on to become a successful businessman and landowner in the new colony.

Originally the Royal Marines who accompanied the first fleet were put in charge of law enforcement but crime soon began to increase in the new colony. Due a server scarcity of manpower, Governor Phillip had no choice but to employ the 12 best behaved convicts to form his first police force known as the Night Watch.

Ownership and Distribution of Land "Terra Nullis"

The concept of "Terra Nullis"

Terra nullis is a Latin term from ancient Roman law, meaning "nobody's land". Many European colonialists and imperialists conveniently adopted this concept to justify the occupation of foreign lands they settled in. Because the native Aboriginals were hunter gathers and did not have permanent settlements; the British conveniently declared them to be uncivilised and not owning any land. On this premise they declared that all land in the new colony was Crown Land. That is; public land owned by the British government.

First Distribution of Land

In order to expand the colony and make it self-sufficient the government actively gave away crown land to ex-convicts and marines on the proviso that they demonstrated that it would be used for some productive purpose. Because of this condition of use, only small parcels of land were distributed in the first five years or so of settlement.

The first land grant was issued on the 3 January 1792 to Isaac Archer and John Colethread in the area of today's City of Ryde. Contrary to folklore it was not James Ruse who had been the first person to successfully grow a crop of wheat in the harsh environment of the new colony. James Ruse was, however, the first registrant in the New South Wales Lands Registry. (James Ruse had been sentenced to 7 years prison for breaking and entering and transported to Australia).

Ex-convicts and free settlers were entitled to 30 acres with an addition 20 acres if they were married and 10 additional acres for every child. Non-commissioned marines were entitled to an additional 100 acres above that given to ex-convicts and free-settlers.

Related Article: The History of Immigration to Australia

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