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Friday, 9 September 2016

First Fleet backgrounder

This is one of a series of pieces that may or may not ever see the light of day in a book: it is more likely than not that I will be self-publishing my Colonial Concerns, from which this is taken, as an e-book: it turned into a huge opus (a quarter of a million words of Australian history) that frightens print publishers. If and when the e-book happens, I will edit this to indicate where it can be obtained. In the interim, this is available to students of all ages, complete with sources.
The British public first learned about the government’s plans to settle Australia in their newspapers in 1786. It seems that The Times was a little confused about the location of Botany Bay:
Government is now about settling a colony in New Holland, in the Indian seas; and the Commissioners of the Navy are now advertising for 1500 tons of transports. This settlement is to be formed at Botany Bay, on the west side of the island, where Captain Cook refreshed and staid some time on his voyage in 1770. As he first sailed around that side of the island, he called it New South Wales, and the two Capes at the mouth of the river were called by the names Banks and Solander. There are 680 men felons and 70 women felons to go, and they are to be guarded by 12 marines and a corporal in every transport, containing 150 felons. There are several men of war and some frigates to go, but they all come back, but one or two of each, which are to remain there some time to assist in establishing a garrison of 300 men intended to be left there. The whole equipment, army, navy, and felons, are to be landed with two years provisions, and all sorts of implements for the culture of the earth, and hunting and fishing, and some slight buildings are to be run up immediately till a proper fort and town-house are erected. This place is in nearly the same latitude with the Cape of Good Hope, and about eight months voyage from England. [1]
 It took The Times three weeks to think about this.
…the measure of sending convicts to Botany Bay … must meet with the approbation of all moderate men. No measure has been yet devised, which so effectually combines the punishment and the security of the felons. [2]
 After that, the plans to go to Botany Bay were almost daily news. People talked about it, people sang about Botany Bay, but even if you can see and hear it said on television or read about it in story books, prisoners were not sentenced to be “transported to Botany Bay” until June 1791. [3]

In October, the fleet was said to be leaving in December 1786, a few days later, it was reported that 300 felons were already gathered together in Newgate. In April 1787, the fleet had still not sailed, though “Hughes’ troop” were performing the “favourite Opera of Botany Bay” [4]. Everybody important knew about Botany Bay, but the fleet was still at anchor.

On May 5, another 38 convicts were loaded onto a transport in Portsmouth Harbour [5], but on May 13, the fleet sailed escorted by the frigate H. M. S. Hyaena. Late in May, The Times reported that the Botany Bay fleet was “… all well the 20th instant in lat. 47:50 N. long 11: 30 West.” [6] That means the frigate Hyaena had left the fleet in that position on May 20, and now reached England. (The word “instant”, sometimes abbreviated to “inst.”, was commonly used then to mean “this month”.)

In summary, the ships left on May 13, 1787, and sailed all of 1787, and part of 1788, before reaching Botany Bay. They called at three ports along the way to take on supplies, and there would be a few incidents. In those eight months, some would die, babies would be born. Some who arrived alive would die in Australia, while others would return to Britain. Others would find a new and better life in what would become Australia.

The path followed.

The eleven ships of the First Fleet were a mixture. There were two navy ships, Sirius and Supply, there were store-ships Fishbourn, Golden Grove and Borrowdale, and the convict transports Alexander, Scarborough, Charlotte, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn and Friendship.
The main points on the route of the First Fleet (Peter Macinnis)

The frigate, Hyaena went with them for a few days, returning to England on May 29 with reports and letters. The fleet sailed on to Teneriffe, arriving on June 3.

They bought musket balls and paper for cartridges (somebody had forgotten these!), and a convict named John Powers tried to escape (see my next post). They left Teneriffe on June 9.

The fleet crossed the Equator on July 14, and those who had not “crossed the line” before were subjected to a set of rough ceremonies.

On August 2, the fleet sighted the coast of South America, and on August 4, they dropped anchor off Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. At noon, a ship passed by, headed for Portugal, and took letters and reports from the fleet that would later reach the government in England.
Captain Phillip had served at one time in the Portuguese navy and spoke Portuguese, so he was made very welcome. During their stay, all of the people on the fleet were given good food, with fresh vegetables and fruit. It took a lot longer for scientists to show that scurvy was caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, but by 1787, sensible sailors understood the disease, and knew that fruit and vegetables prevented it, somehow.

At Rio, they also bought seeds or plants (or both) of coffee, cocoa, cotton, banana, oranges, lemons, prickly pear with cochineal beetles (to be used to make a red dye), guava, tamarind and some medical plants.

They left Rio on September 4, heading for Cape Town in what is now South Africa, arriving there on October 13.
Arthur Phillip, frontispiece to his The Voyage to Botany Bay
Before they left Cape Town on November 12, Phillip and some of the officers and men bought cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and other stock to carry to the new colony.

They also bought fresh food for everybody, and took on supplies of water for drinking and cooking. Captain Phillip also sent back reports with an English army officer who was returning to England from India.

At Cape Town, they bought seeds or plants (or both) of figs, bamboo, “Spanish reed”, sugar cane, vines of different sorts, quinces, apples, pears, strawberries, oak and myrtle trees, rice, wheat, barley and corn. They had brought the last four from England, but those seeds might have been damaged, so the extras seemed like a good idea.

On November 25, Captain Phillip transferred to H.M.S. Supply, and with the three transports which had most of the men convicts (Alexander, Scarborough and Friendship), he went ahead to start making preparations at Botany Bay.

Captain Hunter took charge of the rest of the fleet. David Collins sailed with him and he wrote the best account of the trip, so we will now follow them.

On Christmas Day, Hunter’s seven ships were at 42° 10’ south, and on December 30, calculations based on the moon (called “lunar observations” or just “lunars”), they decided they were at 118° 19’ east, and by noon on January 3, they were at 44° south and 135° 32’ east. They had gone fast, and now they were ready to turn north.

On January 7, they sighted land, and just as night was falling on January 19, they saw Botany Bay. The next morning Hunter’s seven ships sailed in.

The rest is history, as they say.

[1] News report, The Times (London, England), Thursday, Sep 14, 1786; pg. 3; Issue 529. The stories from The Times are located in a Gale database which is hard to access. I use it through the State Library of NSW: ask your librarian for help.
[2] News report, The Times (London, England), Friday, Oct 06, 1786; pg. 2; Issue 548.
[3] Search for “Botany Bay” (with the quote marks) at
[4] News report, The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Apr 24, 1787; pg. 3; Issue 733. This probably refers to an opera of that name.
[5] News report, The Times (London, England), Saturday, May 05, 1787; pg. 3; Issue 742.
[6] News report, The Times (London, England), Saturday, May 26, 1787; pg. 1; Issue 757.

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