In the 17- and 1800s, Great Britain ruled the seas. They traded around the globe and explored the oceans looking for new lands. One of the reasons they needed new lands was for ‘exporting’. The Crown wasn’t exporting goods, though. They found it was less expensive to ship criminals off to penal colonies than to house them in prisons in England. In fact, after Captain James Cook discovered the east coast of New Holland in 1770 and named it New South Wales, the Crown decided that one place in particular would make an excellent penal colony: a place called Botany Bay. The Crown was at war with the American colonies and could no longer export prisoners there, and Captain Cook wrote glowing recommendations about this new land.
So on 13th May 1787, Captain Arthur Phillip and 11 ships set sail for the ‘lands beyond the seas’. The First Fleet, as it is now known, consisted of six convict ships, three store ships and two men-o-war ships. On the convict ships were 756 convicts (564 male, 192 female). The 11 ships also had 550 officers, marines, ship crew, and their families. They sailed a circuitous route to stay with the winds and they arrived at Botany Bay between 18th and 20th January 1788. The journey was seven months, but once they arrived, they found that Captain Cook was wrong and the land was ill fit for farming and had little fresh water. So they moved north, arriving at Port Jackson on 26 January 1788.
The journey was not an easy one by any means. Some of the convicts on one of the ships, the Scarborough, attempted a mutiny, which failed; there was also a second attempt of mutiny later in the voyage, which also failed. Captain Arthur Phillip, who was in charge of this First Fleet on its 15,000 mile voyage, reported that there were only 23 deaths on the journey. (Succeeding trips lost many more.)
Once they settled in, life was far from easy. The soil around Port Jackson was poor and hardly suitable for farming, not that the convicts had the skills required to tame the land. This was far from the paradise that Cook had promised. Everyone, from the convicts to Captain Phillip, was on food rationing. Shelter was also a problem. Although the convicts lacked the expertise to build proper housing, the tools provided were insufficient for the task. The native Aborigines avoided the settlement and while they ate the local vegetation and fish, the settlement could only supplement the ships’ stores with rats, dogs, crows, and an occasional kangaroo or emu.
Still, the settlement continued on. Between 1788 and 1850 the English sent over 162,000 convicts in 806 ships. Yet in all these difficult times, the colony survived and eventually flourished. “The Land Down Under”, as it came to be known, became the great nation of Australia, and they celebrate their beginnings every year on 26 January, the anniversary of their landing at Port Jackson… which is now known as Sydney.