‘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’. Historical Records of Australia

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, 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 festering in England’s ‘putrid and congested gaols’ during the American War of Independence 1775-1783.

‘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

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


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 to house, feed, clothe and guard an ever-increasing army of convicted criminals.

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

The Hulks Act of 1776 permitted male criminals sentenced to death but reprieved on condition of ‘transportation to America’ – ‘their labour is for the public’ – be held-over to await war’s end when government was confident transportation ‘to America’ would resume.

‘…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%. Christopher Lloyd, The British Seaman, 1968

The fleet’s two (2) Royal Navy warships – HMS Sirius the flagship and HMS Supply were manned by two hundred (200) personnel.

Twenty (20) officials, six (6) surgeons, two hundred and forty-five (245) marines, thirty-one (31) marine wives, forty-five (45) free children, Chaplain Rev Richard Johnson and wife Mary, were distributed throughout three (3) store ships, Fishburn, Golden Grove, Borrowdale and six (6) chartered troop ships – Alexander, Prince of Wales, Friendship, Scarborough, Charlotte, Lady Penrhyn.

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 and also available for combat.

‘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

Professionals ‘knowing their work thoroughly’ –  five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts fed as combatants, four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen ‘less sure of their game’ represented a formidable invasion force.

‘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 

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

‘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


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