First convicts sent to Australia

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First convicts sent to Australia

The 13th of May 1787 AD

With the loss of her American colonies as a dumping ground for criminals and social misfits once the War of Independence was underway in 1775, Britain needed another conveniently distant and empty land to serve the same purpose. With Cook 's discovery of Australia (or rather New Holland as it was until 1800 or so) in 1770 just such a place was already available.
The British Government would be able, by transporting a sizeable number of men and women to the new territory, to achieve two goals: rid Britain of undesirables, and provide an instant colonisation force for the distant continent. As such not only 775 prisoners were sent in what became known to Australians as The First Fleet, but 645 officials, marines, and even their wives and children in some cases. The decision to send a fleet was taken in the summer of 1786, but the necessary organisation, the obtaining of ships and supplies, dragged on for months. Indeed, though the prisoners and their marine escort embarked at Portsmouth on March 16 1787 the 11 ships did not finally leave port until May 13 that year.
When the first ships of the fleet finally landed at Botany Bay on January 18 1788, having made stops at Tenerife and Cape Town among others to buy supplies and take on fresh water, only 23 of the convicts had died, a remarkably small number for such a voyage at that time. The nascent colony quickly found that Botany Bay was a poor site for them to begin their new lives - the soil was poor, and as a mooring it left much to be desired - and they moved along the coast to Port Jackson, known today as Sydney.
Though the voyage had been a mercifully healthy one, life in the new colony was far from it: supplies sufficient only to see them through to growing their own food were taken, but with very little farming experience among the city thieves and malcontents sent, and a lack of livestock in the planning, food rapidly became a major problem, and rationing was quickly brought in, even for the highest officials. Equally disastrous was the supply of tools taken with the fleet to facilitate building - they were cheap, poor quality, and within a short time were blunt or broken, making the provision of anything but rudimentary shelter incredibly wearisome. Clothing too wore out in the hot and humid conditions, and when the next fleet arrived in 1790 things had become desperate - a situation not helped by the poor condition of the new arrivals - the supplies brought were a lifesaver but only a very temporary one, and the fresh intake proved more of a burden than a boon.
Captain Arthur Philip, who had commanded the fleet and became head of the colony on its arrival, was industrious and seemingly humane, but struggled with almost impossible odds. Even when better land to the west of the colony was found, and crops grown, beasts and carts were in short supply to transport produce. Under such conditions only the hardiest survive, and it is from such tenacious stock that modern Australia owes its beginnings. Little wonder for Aussies that winning is everything; for their ancestors losing meant death.

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