‘The Way of War is a Way of  Deception. When able, feign inability; when deploying troops appear not to be’. Sun-Tzu, the Art of War, Penguin ed. 2002

1787 – 13 May, England: A large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ sailed from Portsmouth, England to invade the island continent of New Holland, occupy and claim British sovereignty over it from the ‘most northern extremity Cape York…to South Cape’.

‘In writing of the recruitment of criminals into armed forces, Stephen Conway observed. ‘It was still found necessary periodically to clear both the putrid and congested gaols and the equally overcrowded and insanitary hulks’. Conway, cited in Alan Frost, Botany Bay Mirages, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994

One-half of the fleet’s overwhelmingly male complement, 1500 souls, seven hundred and fifty (750) were common criminals left festering in England’s ‘putrid and congested gaols’ during the American War of Independence 1775-1783.

Many of its five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts ‘their labour is for the public’ boarded from ‘overcrowded insanitary hulks moored on the River Thames in the very heart of London. See: The Hulks Act

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the [245] marines and the [580 male] convicts….the standard adopted was that of troops serving in the West Indies. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, 1990

1717-1775: Prior to the American War of Independence (1775-1783) 50,000 convicted criminals, 1000 per year – reprieved death on condition of ‘transportation out of the realm’ – were shipped to Britain’s American colonies where ‘their labour’ was sold to plantation owners.

The war abruptly halted this lucrative trade leaving government, at great expense, to house feed clothe and guard an ever-increasing army of convicted criminals.

Post the Hulks Act of 1776 convicts reprieved death for transportation ‘beyond the seas’ were treated differently from prisoners whose sentence was to be served within the ‘realm’.

The legislation permitted male criminals their labour is for the public’ be held-over at home in gaols and on hulks. Government was confident transportation ‘to America’ would resume at war’s end.

‘…As has been pointed out the ratio between volunteer and pressmen cannot be ascertained accurately. Professor Lewis in his study of the navy during the Age of Nelson has estimated…pressed men [at] 50%.  Cited, Christopher Lloyd, The British Seaman, 1968

The fleet’s warships, flagship HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, were manned by two hundred (200) Royal Navy men.

‘Soldiers: three hundred knowing their work thoroughly may be stronger than three thousand less sure of their game. John Ruskin, The Cestus of Aglaia, 1866

Two hundred and forty-five (245) marines ‘knowing their work thoroughly’ twenty (20) officials, seven (7)physicians, thirty-one (31) marine wives, forty-five (45) free children, Chaplain Rev Richard Johnson and wife Mary, were distributed throughout the fleet’s three (3) store ships, Fishburn, Golden Grove, Borrowdale and (6) chartered troop ships – Alexander, Prince of Wales, Friendship, Scarborough, Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn.

Four hundred and forty (440) professionals, five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts ‘less sure of their game’ represented a formidable invasion force.

British merchant ships in the 18th century were crewed to a formula; eight (8) ordinary seamen and one (1) boy per hundred (100) ton. In addition each vessel carried officers and specialist crew – sailing master, mates, purser etc.

Subject to this formula approximately four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen crewed the fleet’s (9) chartered vessels. These men could also have been ‘impressed‘ for combat.

‘In November [1784] Henry Dundas, possibly Pitt’s closet advisor, warned that ‘India is the first quarter to be attacked, we must never lose sight of keeping such a force there as will be sufficient to baffle or surprise’.  Michael Pembroke, Arthur Phillip Sailor Mercenary Governor Spy, Hardie Grant Books, 2013  

When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet?  When it was the ‘First Fleet’.

‘The administration of the 24-year-old Prime Minister William Pitt was under no illusion about the pretensions  of its enemies’. Pembroke. op.cit.

Who were these ‘enemies’ and what were they after?

‘Our wealth and power in India is their great and constant object of jealousy; and they [French and Dutch forces in India] will never miss an opportunity of attempting to wrest it out of our hands’. Sir James Harris British ambassador at the Hague, cited Pembroke. op.cit. 

Why did Britain invade New Holland?

‘New Holland is a blind, then, when we want to add to the military strength of India…I need not enlarge on the benefit of stationing a large body of troops in New South Wales…Should any disturbance happen in the East Indies, they may be transported thither before our enemies in Europe know anything of the matter’. Anon, Historical Records of Australia


‘It is impossible that the government should forget that the original aggression was ours’. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol XX

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.