Highlights from First Fleet Collections of the State Library of NSW

In late 18th-century Europe, the Industrial Revolution caused widespread economic displacement. People flocked to the cities where unemployment and cheap gin saw the crime rate rise dramatically. As British gaols became increasingly overcrowded, the government was forced to use dilapidated warships (or hulks) moored in various ports as makeshift floating prisons. Under English law, convicted criminals and other undesirables were transported to a penal colony as an alternative to capital punishment. With most prisoners being jailed for petty theft, the sentence of transportation was increasingly applied. England transported convicts to its colonies in the Americas until 1783, the end of the American Revolutionary War, when the newly formed United States refused to accept further shipments of British convicts. With Cook's discovery of the East Coast of New Holland came the proposal of a new penal colony and, between 1788 and 1868, the British government transported approximately 165,000 convicts to Australia.

In May 1787, the British government sent a fleet of 11 ships - carrying over 1500 men, women and children - 20,000 kilometres around the world.

This historic convoy, later known as the First Fleet, was led by Captain Arthur Phillip.

The First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788.

Leaving Portsmouth, England, on 13 May, the First Fleet was at sea for more than 252 days. The First Fleet's 11 ships comprised two Royal Navy escort ships, the HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, six convict transports, the Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Prince of Wales and the Scarborough, and three store ships, the Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove. Travelling via Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro, the Fleet then tracked back across the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, the last port of call before striking out for Terra Australis.
The First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788. Unfortunately, Botany Bay did not live up to the glowing account provided by the explorer Captain James Cook and was not suitable for the establishment of a colony. The bay was open and unprotected, the water was too shallow to allow the ships to anchor close to the shore, and fresh water was scarce. The poor quality and the dampness of the soil also made it an unhealthy place for a settlement. While Captain Phillip determined another site for the colony, First Fleeters on board ship caught glimpses of their new homeland and its local inhabitants. The State Library's First Fleet collections include letters, drawings, maps and charts created by those who actually travelled to Australia on the First Fleet. It is one of the Library's most treasured and valuable collections.

The Cadigal people of the Botany Bay area witnessed the arrival of the Europeans.

Several First Fleeters also recorded their encounters with Aboriginal people in their journals.

On 22 January Governor Phillip sailed north to Port Jackson with a small expedition party. There he selected a sheltered site for anchorage which he named Sydney Cove. Returning with the remainder of the Fleet on 26 January 1788 - now celebrated as Australia Day - the first permanent European colony on the Australian continent was established. This settlement has since developed into the city of Sydney.

Approximately 775 convicts were disembarked at Sydney Cove along with 645 free persons including officials, members of the ships crews and marines with their families and children.

First contacts were made in Port Jackson with the Eora, the local indigenous people, who seemed curious but suspicious of the newcomers.

It was the British Government's official policy to establish friendly relations with any Aboriginal Australians encountered. Governor Phillip ordered that all Indigenous people should be well treated but it was not long before conflict began.

A lasting outcome of the arrival of the First Fleet was the artwork produced, from early encounters with the Australian environment and Indigenous people, throughout the first decades of European settlement. The artists from the First Fleet included convicts and naval officers, whose formal training included sketching and watercolour painting. The State Library collection includes over 370 drawings and illustrations, dating from the first years of the colony, and recording many of the earliest depictions of Australia's unique native fauna and flora. 
The First Fleet brought supplies and animals from England including horses which were used by parties exploring the surrounding countryside and led to further interaction with the local Indigenous people. The ships of the fleet, and smaller boats on board, were used to sail up and down the coastline in search of farm land and resources. British naval officers used their navigation, chart making, surveying and sketching skills to record these discoveries and first impressions of all they encountered.

British naval officers such as John Hunter, Philip Gidley King and William Bradley formed the earliest exploratory parties.

After Arthur Phillip and John Hunter served successive terms as supreme commander, King returned to Australia, as the colony's third Governor, in 1799.

William Bradley accompanied John Hunter to survey and chart Sydney Harbour - the naming of various harbour landmarks included Bradley’s Point (now Bradley’s Head).

Over the next three months Bradley also accompanied Arthur Phillip on exploratory trips to Broken Bay, Manly Cove and the upper reaches of the Parramatta River, the site of the colony's first successful farming community.

Convicts transported to Australia were sentenced for 7 years, 14 years or for the term of their natural life.

A convict who re-offended could be sent to work on the chain gang. Well-behaved convicts, having served part of their sentence, could apply for a 'ticket of leave' allowing greater freedom to lead a normal life, to marry and raise a family.

Once freed, 'emancipated' convicts were allowed to return to England but many stayed, contributing greatly to the development of the colony.

The colony very nearly collapsed in its first few years. Crop failures forced the settlers to rely on infrequent supplies brought in by ship. Eventually colonists learned to grow their own food under Australian conditions. The population swelled with new arrivals, both convict and free, while increased trade and industry transformed the fledgling penal settlement into a bustling port within thirty years.
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