First Fleet Convicts Transported to Australia

The First Fleet, an assembly of 11 British ships, embarked on a historic voyage to transport the first group of British convicts and colonists to Australia.

This fleet included two Royal Navy ships, three store ships, and six vessels designated for carrying convicts. Commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, the fleet set sail from Portsmouth, England, on 13 May 1787.

It carried over 1,400 individuals, comprising convicts, marines, sailors, civil officers, and free settlers. Their journey spanned more than 15,000 miles and lasted over 250 days. This monumental expedition culminated in their arrival at Botany Bay, New South Wales, on 20 January 1788, marking the establishment of the first British penal colony and settlement in Australia.


Britain was well versed in sending criminals across the Atlantic to serve as cheap labour on plantations in Virginia, Maryland, and the West Indies dates back to the early 17th century. However, this practice was interrupted in 1775 when the American Revolutionary War broke out, closing off the route to America.

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It wasn’t until a decade later that transportation to Australia, situated 15,000 miles away, emerged as a feasible alternative. Between 1788 and 1853, Australia became the distant destination for approximately 136,000 male and 25,000 female prisoners.

Prison Hulks

The interruption of the American transportation route left England’s prisons severely overcrowded. This dire situation was exacerbated by the “Bloody Code,” which included over 200 offenses punishable by death. Judges, however, were often hesitant to impose the death penalty for the myriad of minor crimes listed, leading to an increasing number of individuals being sentenced to transportation instead.

During the 1700s, approximately 44,000 convicts were transported to the American colonies, a practice that continued until the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). The hulk depicted in the image was moored on the River Thames in 1856.
During the 1700s, approximately 44,000 convicts were transported to the American colonies, a practice that continued until the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). The hulk depicted in the image was moored on the River Thames in 1856.


The dilemma of how to manage Britain’s criminal population emerged prominently during the Industrial Revolution, a period that saw a significant rise in minor criminal offenses.

This uptick in petty crime was primarily attributed to the socioeconomic challenges and joblessness triggered by the introduction of machines, which supplanted traditional human labour. As rural inhabitants increasingly migrated to cities, urban areas expanded swiftly, and for the jobless, theft became a desperate strategy for survival.

The letters the arrow is pointing to? It’s the statute reference – it was the 30th act that started in a parliamentary session of the 7th year and ended in the 8th year of the reign of George IV. The s.13 means it was the 13th parliamentary session.

TRANSPORTATION FOR LIFE – Simply fighting for a living wage. Dorset is full of quirks and this bridge sign from the 1800s is a great example near Evershot. It is warning you if you damage the bridge you will be transported. But why such a sign? I think it was a warning to the rioters of the Swing Riots.

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The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising in 1830 by agricultural labourers in southern and eastern England mainly, and was in protest at agricultural mechanisation and harsh working conditions, high rents and low wages.

It began with the destruction of threshing machines that was replacing labourers on farms – think how modern day technology has replaced jobs. Have to bear in mind too that labourers would also have to give a tithe (10%) of their wages to the church.

Captain Swing

Swing gangs would roam the countryside and destroy what they could, set fire to ricks, damage water meadows sluices, would attack the tithe barns, engine sheds and it wasn’t uncommon for a gang of 400 men to descend on to the estates of wealthy farmers and threaten them.

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The name “Swing Riots” was derived from Captain Swing (guessing ‘swing’ was in reference to hanging) the fictitious name often used sign the threatening letters sent to farmers and other people of influence and power.

Here in Dorset, landowners received letters threatening to roast them alive in their beds if they do not give them money, food or beer – often demanding all three. 2000 were caught, 19 sentenced to death and 500 were transported to Australia, most never returning. All they were fighting for was a living wage.

Tolpuddle Martys

On the morning of February 24, 1834, as the sun dawned, Dorset farm labourer George Loveless departed for work, bidding farewell to his wife Betsy and their three children. Little did they know that it would be three years before they could enjoy each other’s company in solitude again. That day, as he left his home in the quaint village of Tolpuddle, 37-year-old Loveless was confronted with a warrant for his arrest.

The Green in Tolpuddle. It is thought that beneath this sycamore tree, the six Tolpuddle Martyrs came to the agreement to establish a trade union.
The Green in Tolpuddle. It is thought that beneath this sycamore tree, the six Tolpuddle Martyrs came to the agreement to establish a trade union.

Loveless, along with five other labourers – his brother James, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield, and Thomas’s son John – faced charges for allegedly taking an illegal oath.

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However, their true transgression, as perceived by the authorities, was the formation of a trade union to challenge their scant wages of six shillings a week, which was yet another reduction following two previous cuts, amounting to a contemporary equivalent of around 30p (or approximately £50 adjusted for today’s inflation).

The backdrop of the bloody French Revolution and the recent Swing Rebellion was still vivid in the collective memory of the British ruling class, making them resolute in quashing any organised dissent. James Frampton, a local squire and landowner, upon discovering that his labourers had established a union, was quick to suppress it.

Clandestine Pledge

The union meetings were held discreetly, either beneath a village sycamore or in Thomas Standfield’s cottage’s upper room, where they pledged an oath of secrecy. This clandestine pledge led to their arrest and the harsh judgment of transportation for seven years.

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While incarcerated, George Loveless penned the words, “We raise the watchword, liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!” encapsulating the unyielding spirit of the Martyrs. This phrase would echo through time, inspiring countless individuals to stand against tyranny and suppression.

Steam thrashing machine
Steam thrashing machine at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, these machines put many farm labourers out of work

The sentence of transportation to Australia was notoriously severe, with many unable to survive the grueling journey and the subsequent enslavement. The conviction sparked an uproar among the working class, leading to a significant demonstration in London and the delivery of an 800,000-signature petition to Parliament, protesting the harsh sentencing of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Capital Offense

Notably, theft, a capital offense, was the most prevalent crime, reflecting the desperate circumstances of the populace. Crime was running wild.

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The closure of the American colonies to British convicts placed immense pressure on the government to find an alternative solution. This urgency was amplified by the voices of social reformers like John Howard, the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, and Patrick Colquhoun, the founder of the Thames River Police, who advocated for significant reforms to the prison system.

Responding to the crisis, the British government passed an Act of Parliament in 1776 authorising the use of decommissioned ships, known as hulks, as floating prisons. This was initially intended as a temporary measure to alleviate the overcrowding in jails, with the hulks stationed along the Thames and later in other naval ports. These floating prisons became an interim solution that lasted until the establishment of the Australian penal colonies, marking a pivotal shift in the British penal transportation system.

First Fleet

Many Australians are proud of their heritage and ancestors who are termed as ‘First Fleeters as their people arrived in Sydney Cove with the First Fleet on 26 January 1788. So much so that there is an organisation called About Fellowship of First Fleeters:

‘The Fellowship was formed in 1968, and since then over 9167 descendants have established their lineage, and joined the Fellowship. Links have so far been established in 137 families to no fewer than 195 individual First Fleet Ancestors. There are currently over 1650 active members’.

These are the cells on an 1800's convict ship
These are the cells on a 1800’s convict ship

As mentioned previously, and on a local level to me – the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentenced and transported to Australia.

‘From their smoke-filled, stinking cell below the Crown Court in Dorchester, five of the convicted men were taken in chains to the prison hulks, York and Leviathan, lying off Portsmouth. George Loveless was too ill to travel but on 5th April 1834 he was declared fit and taken to the York hulk, six weeks later, on 17th May, he sailed aboard the William Metcalfe for Van Diemen’s Land’ ~Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, Dorset.

HMS Supply

September 1786, Captain Arthur Phillip was selected to helm the expedition aimed at founding a colony in New South Wales.

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By 15 December, Captain John Hunter had been appointed as Phillip’s deputy. During this time, HMS Sirius was designated the fleet’s flagship, under Hunter’s command, while the armed tender HMS Supply was placed under the leadership of Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball.

While Captain Phillip was in London awaiting the Royal Assent for the colony’s management bill, Lieutenant John Shortland, the agent responsible for the transports, oversaw the loading and provisioning of the vessels.

first fleet Convicts were shackled for the journey
Convicts were shackled for the journey

By 16 March 1787, the fleet started congregating at its predetermined gathering point, the Mother Bank, located off the Isle of Wight. The assembly included His Majesty’s frigate Sirius and the armed tender Supply, along with three store-ships — the Golden Grove, Fishburn, and Borrowdale — tasked with carrying enough provisions and stores to last two years.

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Additionally, six convict transports were part of the fleet: Scarborough and Lady Penrhyn from Portsmouth; Friendship and Charlotte from Plymouth; and Prince of Wales and Alexander from Woolwich. Captain Phillip reached Portsmouth on 9 May, and by the following day, he was on board the ships, issuing commands to ready the fleet for its imminent departure.

First Fleet Passengers

As you would expect, the majority of the First Fleet’s passengers were convicts, all of whom had been tried and convicted in Great Britain, predominantly in England. A significant number of these convicts were originally from other regions of Great Britain, particularly Ireland, and some had even arrived in England from the British colonies in North America.

Records indicate that 1,420 individuals embarked with the First Fleet in 1787, with an estimated 1,373 successfully arriving at Sydney Cove in January 1788. Mollie Gillen provides detailed statistics in her biographical dictionary dedicated to the First Fleet.

Notably, 12 individuals among the convicts were identified as being of African descent, originating from various places such as Britain, Africa, the West Indies, North America, India, or European countries or their colonies.

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These convicts were guilty of various offenses ranging from theft, poaching perjury, and fraud to assault and robbery, with many initially sentenced to death before having their sentences commuted to transportation for terms of 7 years, 14 years, or life. Some of the Africans who were aboard were freed slaves, and fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War, they returned to Britain after the war to settle.

First-Hand Accounts

Accompanying the convicts, four companies of marines volunteered to serve in the new colony, forming the New South Wales Marine Corps. This unit was commanded by Major Robert Ross and included detachments stationed on each convict transport, with their families also joining the voyage.

"Convicts Setting Sail for Botany Bay" by Thomas Rowlandson.
“Convicts Setting Sail for Botany Bay” by Thomas Rowlandson.

Remarkably, the journey of the First Fleet was extensively documented through diaries and journals kept by a range of individuals on board, including surgeons, sailors, officers, soldiers, and ordinary seamen. There exist at least eleven known manuscript journals from the First Fleet, alongside various letters, providing invaluable first-hand accounts of the expedition.

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While the precise number of individuals associated with the First Fleet might never be definitively known due to varying historical accounts, it is recorded that 1,420 people embarked on the voyage in 1787, with 1,373 believed to have arrived at Sydney Cove in January 1788. In her comprehensive biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, Mollie Gillen provides detailed statistics, offering insight into the people who undertook this monumental journey.

The 11-Ship First Fleet

During the period of the First Fleet’s journey, the oceans were navigated by approximately 12,000 British commercial and naval vessels.

The 11-ship fleet that embarked for Botany Bay was relatively modest, especially considering its significant mission. The creation of a new penal colony on the far shores of New Holland was intended to alleviate the overcrowding in Britain’s jails and to secure a strategic foothold in the Pacific, positioning Britain advantageously against its international competitors.

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The fleet ultimately left Portsmouth, England, on 13 May 1787. The voyage commenced under favorable weather conditions, allowing the convicts to be permitted on deck. The fleet was escorted by the armed frigate HMS Hyaena until it exited English waters.

"Lithograph depicting the entry of the First Fleet into Port Jackson on 26 January 1788," created by Edmund Le Bihan.
“Lithograph depicting the entry of the First Fleet into Port Jackson on 26 January 1788,” created by Edmund Le Bihan.

On 20 May, a convict aboard the Scarborough revealed a conspiracy for mutiny; the alleged conspirators were whipped, and two were moved to the Prince of Wales. Despite this incident, most records from the journey suggest that the convicts generally maintained good conduct.

By 3 June, the fleet had reached Santa Cruz in Tenerife, where they resupplied with fresh water, vegetables, and meat. Phillip and his senior officers received hospitality from the local governor.

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Meanwhile, an escape attempt by a convict was thwarted. The fleet set off again on 10 June, navigating across the Atlantic towards Rio de Janeiro, aided by favorable winds and currents.

Lice, Cockroaches, and Fleas

As they sailed through tropical regions, conditions on board became increasingly challenging due to the hot, humid climate. The passengers, including convicts, officers, and marines, suffered from infestations of vermin like rats and parasites, including bedbugs, lice, cockroaches, and fleas.

The ships’ bilges emitted foul odors, and despite Phillip’s orders for daily pumping and cleaning, these directives were neglected on the Alexander, resulting in illness and death among some convicts. Torrential tropical rains hindered the convicts from exercising on deck, as they had no means to dry wet clothing, forcing them to remain in the unhygienic and cramped conditions below deck.

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On the ships carrying female convicts, widespread promiscuity occurred between the convicts, crew, and marines, leading to punishment for some of the men involved. In the stagnant air of the doldrums, Phillip had to implement water rationing, limiting the supply to three pints per person per day.


The convicts were beset with anxiety about never returning home, the fear of a perilous voyage, and the daunting uncertainty of settling in a remote and unknown land, reflecting a deep apprehension towards their forced participation in this colonial venture, as articulated by Watkin Tench in 1789.

The Fleet arrived in Rio de Janeiro on 5 August, where it remained for a month. During this stopover, the ships underwent a thorough cleaning, fresh water was replenished, and necessary repairs were carried out. Phillip also took this opportunity to procure substantial amounts of provisions.

First Fleet in Sydney Cove
First Fleet in Sydney Cove

The clothing of the female convicts had become louse-infested, leading to its incineration. Since additional garments for the women had not been supplied prior to the Fleet’s departure from England, they were provided with new attire fashioned from rice sacks. While the convicts were kept below deck, the officers had the chance to venture into the city, enjoying the hospitality and entertainment offered by the local residents.

First Fleet Leaves

Departing Rio de Janeiro on 4 September, the Fleet set its course to harness the westerly winds towards Table Bay in southern Africa, arriving there on 13 October.

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As the final stop before their destination, the primary goal was to procure essential supplies such as plants, seeds, and livestock, vital for establishing the new colony in Australia. The array of animals sourced from Cape Town for the colony encompassed two bulls, seven cows, one stallion, three mares, 44 sheep, 32 pigs, four goats, and a substantial variety of poultry.

Port Jackson
Port Jackson

To accommodate the livestock acquired at Cape Town, female convicts from the ship Friendship were redistributed to other vessels. This reshuffling allowed for the livestock’s transportation while ensuring the convicts received nutritional sustenance, including fresh beef, mutton, bread, and vegetables, aimed at fortifying their health and strength for the remainder of the voyage.

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The fleet’s stopover in the Dutch colony of Cape Town marked their last encounter with European civilisation before embarking on the daunting traverse of the Indian and Southern Oceans.

Ahead of them lay the vast, uncharted expanse of open sea, leading to an unfathomable future in a land entirely beyond their imagination, a stark reminder of the isolation and challenges they were about to face.

First Fleet Arrives

Departing from England on 13 May 1787, the First Fleet completed its eight-month voyage, reaching Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. However, Governor Arthur Phillip deemed Botany Bay unsuitable for the establishment of the colony and opted for Port Jackson, located to the north, as a more favorable site.

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On 26 January 1788, the Fleet set sail for Port Jackson, anchoring in a location that offered deep waters close to shore, shelter, and access to a fresh stream. Governor Arthur Phillip named this site Sydney Cove in honor of Lord Sydney, the British Home Secretary, today, we know it as Sydney Harbour.

First fleet reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788
The reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788

This pivotal date is now commemorated as Australia Day, symbolising the inception of British colonisation in Australia. Contrary to widespread belief, the formal assertion of the British flag and the official proclamation of possession did not occur until 7 February 1788.

However, a British naval ensign was indeed erected at the military encampment site on the evening of 25 January 1788. This event involved a modest ceremony led by Phillip, alongside some officers and marines from the Supply, while the crew and the convicts watched from the ship. The rest of the Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove later on the same day.

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The notion that an unruly celebration, often described as an “orgy,” took place when the convicts were unloaded has been popularised by writer and art critic Robert Hughes in his 1986 book “The Fatal Shore.” However, contemporary historians challenge this account, noting that the first mention of such events only surfaced in 1963 and are not supported by earlier records.

Vessels of the First Fleet

Upon their arrival at Botany Bay, the First Fleet encountered the local Indigenous Australians, specifically the Cadigal people of the area, who witnessed the fleet’s arrival. Shortly afterward, two French ships, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, led by explorer La Pérouse, entered the bay.

The Founding of Australia By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N., Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788.

Subsequently, as the Fleet relocated to Sydney Cove to find more suitable conditions for the colony, they met the Eora people, which included the Bidjigal clan. Several journals from the First Fleet documented these encounters with the Aboriginal populations.

Despite the British Government’s official stance promoting amicable relations with the Indigenous Australians, and Governor Arthur Phillip’s directive for their humane treatment, tensions and conflicts soon emerged.

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The settlers did not engage in treaty-making with the land’s original inhabitants, leading to a breakdown in relations. Between 1790 and 1810, Pemulwuy from the Bidjigal clan orchestrated a series of resistances against the colonists.

Post January 1788, the vessels of the First Fleet did not stay long in the colony. Many returned to England, while others set sail for different destinations. A few ships stayed to serve the colony’s Governor for several months, with some dispatched to Norfolk Island to help establish a secondary penal settlement.