The Voyage Of The First Fleet

‘The Way of War is A way of Deception. When deploying troops, Appear not to be‘. Sun-Tzu, Penguin Books, 2009


‘We have come here today to take possession of this fifth great continental division of the earth on behalf of the British people. I do not doubt that this country will prove the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made’. Governor Arthur Phillip RN, 7 February 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales.

1770 – 22 August, Possession Island: In 1770 Lieutenant James Cook RN claimed that he had ‘discovered‘ New Holland and claimed its entire eastern coast for Britain.

‘The gates of the Pacific were open, and there seemed to be no good reason why the whale and seal traders should not be the means of establishing a general commerce in that ocean, thus providing Britain with fresh lines of trade with China and possibly Japan‘. Vincent T. Harlow, Founding of the Second British Empire 1763-1793, Vol. 2, Longmans, 1964

1756 – 1763, France: Although Britain comprehensively won the Seven Years’ War, under the terms of The Treaty of Paris, France retained fishing rights in Arctic waters, causing Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder great consternation.

1775 – 1783: America: A decade later Britain lost the American War (1775 -1783) and her ‘thirteen colonies’ – Connecticut, North and South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Britain’s defeat in the American War was due in no small part to France who supported General George Washington’s Patriot rebels with massive amounts of money, men and munitions.

Antoine de Bougainville the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe had been exploring the Pacific in the frigate Boudeuse with Etoile a support  vessel at approximately the same time (1767-9) as Cook. He sailed along the Great Barrier Reef but did not land.

In September 1781 we find Bougainville in command of  a ship during the decisive Battle of Virginia Capes (Cheaspeake).

Admiral De Grasse was able to prevent reinforcements reaching General Charles Cornwallis. On 19 October 1781 Yorktown fell to French and American forces. Britain’s loss at Yorktown led directly to the end of the American War.

In the meantime Bougainville, a mathematician of note, member of Britian’s Royal Society, published a book on his voyage of circumnavigation. King Louis XVI fresh from France’s success in America had similar plans for the Pacific and the race to invade and ‘effectively occupy’ New Holland was on between the English and the French.

Britain was deeply humiliated by defeat and determined neither France or Spain who also materially assisted Washington’s rebels should go unpunished.

In 1783 Lieutenant Arthur Phillip RN was given command of one (1) of four (4) ships with ‘secret instructions’ to mount hit and run raids on Spain’s Central and South American ‘treasure colonies’.

The raids were the brain child of Major John Dalrymple. The expedition under overall command of Sir Richard Kingsmill RN sailed from Portsmouth on 6 January 1783 bound for Buenos Aires, Monte Video, Chile, Peru and Mexico.

‘Shortly after sailing an armistice [mid 1783] was concluded between Britain and Spain’. (Alan Frost)

In the Bay of Biscay the ships were overtaken by a hurricane. Captain Phillip sailed his severely damaged HMS Europa to Rio, Brazil for repairs.


1786 – 12 October, London: ‘We, reposing especial trust and confidence in you [Arthur Phillip] loyalty, and experience in military affairs, do, by these presents, constitute and appoint you to be said Governor of our territory called New South Wales…from the Northern extremity of the coast called Cape York…to the Southern extremity of  New South Wales or South Cape. King George III, to our trusted and well-loved Captain Arthur Phillip’. London, 12 October 1786.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: At dawn Sunday 13 May 1787 a large armed convoy of eleven (11) sailing ships with a complement of 1500 souls commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, sailed from Portsmouth England bound New Holland on the other side of planet earth, a distance of 13,000 miles (21,000 km).

Captain Phillip, from years of sea-going, knew scurvy would be a major obstacle to the success of what he considered his primary mission, getting to New Holland before the French in order to secure Britain; ‘fresh lines of trade with China and possibly Japan’.

Phillip was familiar with the work of James Lind, a Scottish physician, on the prevention of scurvy. Lind favoured orange and lemon concentrate but these were hard to come by.

Phillip had even to fight for adequate amounts of wort-of-malt and sauerkraut, the anti-scurvy foods championed by Captain James Cook RN.

So obdurate was Sir Charles Middleton head of the Navy Victualling Board, but obviously not in on the ‘secret’ Phillip was forced to appeal privately to his ‘handler’ Evan Nepean under-secretary to Home Secretary Lord Sydney a cousin of Lord Charles Cornwallis.

‘The Way of War is A Way of Deception’. Sun-Tzu. ibid.

Nepean was in charge of espionage at the Home Office.

Evan Nepean was in charge of espionage at the Home Office. He was one of few officials fully aware of the strategic nature of the ‘First Feet’ mission. Establish military and naval bases in the Southern Oceans. From naval and military bases there Britain would establish alternate  strategic and trading routes to and from India and Asia.

‘New Holland is a good blind, then, when we want to add to the military strength of India’. Historical Records of New South Wales. Anon.

Most secret of all the south- eastern coast offered a jumping off point from where via the Southern Oceans ‘Panama Peru and the Phillipines’ were vulerable to attack or ‘reduction’.  See: Arthur Phillip – The Spy Who Never Came In From The Cold

‘There were plans to use the [New South Wales] Corps in expeditions against Panama, Peru and the Phillippines, but nothing eventuated’. Peter Stanley, the Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press Sydney 1986

Additional In time of war these bases could provide England a blockade-breaker, in peace-time they would support a ship-based ‘southern whale fishery’.

Captain George Blane RN in 1780 published A Short Account of the Most Effectual Means of Preserving the Health of Seamen.

Blane calculated scurvy appeared when ships were at sea longer than six (6) weeks (42 days). When the diet consisted chiefly of dry biscuit, salted meats and water was rationed.

Phillip, with Blane’s strictures in mind, planned the voyage to Botany Bay in five (5) stages; Portsmouth to Tenerife – St Jago – Rio de Janiero – Cape Town – Botany Bay.

At each stage the fleet should have been at sea no longer than forty-two (42 ) days. At each stop-over water, citrus fruits, bread, fresh meats and all manner of vegetables would be purchased.

1787 – 6 January, Portsmouth: At the beginning of January 1787 the first of five hundred and eighty (583) male convicts, many weak and emaciated after years of confinement on hulks – prison ships – moored along the River Thames, began boarding Alexander, one (1) of six (6) chartered troop ships.

1787 – 11 January: ‘I find that 184 men [from hulks] are put on board [Alexander]…amongst the men some unable to help themselves…and [at Woolwich] 56 women [and children] on board the Lady Penrhyn’. Arthur Phillip, Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol.I

1787 – March, Plymouth: By the middle of March 1787 most of the fleet’s one hundred and ninety (190) women prisoners were aboard  Friendship and Lady Penrhyn the main female transports.

‘The situation in which the magistrates sent the women on board the Lady Penrhyn stamps them with infamy – tho’ almost naked, and so very filthy that nothing but clothing them could have prevented them from perishing’. Phillip to Middleton, March 1787, Historical Records of New South Wales

The Navy Board was tasked, together with William Richards sole civilian contractor for the ‘First Fleet’, to supply all material things necessary for the expedition’s success. While the Navy Board was tardy William Richards the private contractor acted conscientiously.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The ‘First Fleet’ departed England for New Holland at 4 am on the 13th May 1787.

1787 – 3 June, Tenerife: The first port-of-call, the Spanish island of Tenerife, was reached in 18 days – on 3 June 1787. There one (1) vessel flying an English flag would have aroused suspicion; eleven (11) caused alarm. Phillip fluent in Spanish was able to calm anxious port officials.

He spent a dismal week assessing the fleet’s status with disturbing results. No paperwork accompanied the convicts so Phillip knew nothing of the character of any of its five hundred and eighty-three (583) male prisoners.

‘When Deploying troops Appear not to be’. Sun Tzu. ibid.

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

Under legislation – Hulks Act 1776 – convicted criminals reprieved death for ‘transportation beyond on the seas’ were deemed ‘servants of the Crown‘.

Fed as soldiers male convicts were available for combat as required both during the eight (8) months voyage and in the course of invading and occupying New Holland. See: All The King’s Men  – Arthur Phillip and the Criminals of the First Fleet

Captain Phillip also had concern for the women. Despite his complaints to Sir Charles Middleton, they had been issued ill-fitting, light cotton clothing that offered no protection from extreme weather. He feared for their lives as, after leaving Cape Town, the fleet would sail south into freezing waters and be buffeted by icy Antarctic winds.

Even more alarming all replacement ammunition had been left behind in England. The fleet would be vulnerable if it came under sustained attack from pirates who roamed the southern oceans.

Phillip held Major Robert Ross, the marine commander, responsible for this omission that he held amounted to dereliction of duty.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problems, including those of the terrible famine of 1789 and 1790, probably none was so harassing as the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursued against him’. John Moore, The First Fleet Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press,

Antipathy between Captain Phillip RN and Major Ross, from different arms of the naval service, burgeoned during the long eight (8) month voyage. At Sydney the marine commander’s behaviour would border on open rebellion. See: Rules of Engagement

1787 – June 1787, Tenerife: During two (2) weeks at Tenerife plenty of fresh water was taken on but apart from limited amounts of onion, pumpkin, figs and some mulberries no fresh foods were available to supplement the basic sea diet of salt meats and dry biscuit.

Carousing officers, drunken soldiers and, a last minute convict escape, very nearly created a crisis Phillip had been so anxious to avoid.

1787 -10 June, St Jago: The ships sailed from Tenerife on 10 June 1787 setting course for St Jago.

[However]‘there being only a light Breeze of Wind there was little probability of getting the fleet to anchor that Night. The signal was taken down and we Proceeded towards the Equator, which we Cross’d. on Sunday the 15 of July & on the 2d of August saw the Coast of Brazil’. Letter, David Blackburn RN, Master HMS Supply. Historical Records of New South Wales

Unable to gain safe anchorage at St Jago the fleet sailed onto Rio de Janeiro. They had been at sea for fifty-six (56) days.

1787 – August, Brazil: Phillip – alerted by a previous experience at the end of the American War (1783-84) – always anticipated he would face difficulties at Cape Town. If adequate provisions were denied him at Rio, he may have even had to consider returning to England.

However Phillip knew France already had two (2) ships on the high seas and given what was at stake – New Holland – failure was unthinkable.

1787 – 4 August, Rio: As the fleet lay off Rio Phillip proceeded with great  caution. Viceroy, Luis de Vasconcelos e Sousa was the official who, in 1783 had ordered a volley of shot that raked the bows of his then command – HMS Europa.

Phillip now wiser, with New Holland in the balance, played strictly by the rules. He offered up his ships for inspection, going so far as to script interviews to be used by his officers when presenting official documents.

Port officials searched HMS Sirius but waived their right to inspect the remainder of the fleet. The Viceroy, now well aware of Phillip’s earlier invaluable service to Portugal in the mid-1770s, treated him with great respect.

It does not take much reading between the lines to realize, without Arthur Phillip, the outcome at Rio could have been very different. See: Arthur Phillip -The Importance of Being Arthur

Phillip renewed old friendships and set about re-provisioning his ships. Of course it was business; the abundance of bread, flour, grains, fresh meats, vegetables, fruits, crates of oranges and 10,000 musket balls were paid for in English currency and Bills of Exchange.

As Borrowdale, Golden Grove and Fishburn, the fleet’s three (3) store-ships were being loaded, Phillip identified a potentially fatal flaw in planning and sought to rectify the situation for subsequent fleets.

‘The ships that bring out convicts should have at least two years’ provisions on board to land with them, for the putting of convicts on board some ships and the provisions that were to support them in others, as was done [with First Fleet] I beg leave to observe, much against my intimation, must have been fatal if the ship carrying the provisions been lost’. Arthur Phillip to Lord Sydney, 9 July 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales Vol. 1, Part 2

1787 – 4 September, Africa: With great fanfare and ceremony on the 4th of September the fleet sailed from Brazil and set course for Cape Town at the Cape of Good Hope.

1787 – 13 October, Cape Town: Thirty-nine (39) days later, 13 October, the fleet was standing off Cape Town. Ceremonial salutes between ship and shore were exchanged but a wary Phillip assessed the welcome cool.

Previously (November 1783 and March 1784) Phillip had been stationed at Cape Town. His task then, again with an eye to India, was to supervise the refit of a squadron of Royal Naval vessels. Despite determined efforts of the Dutch colonial administration to obstruct, Phillip succeeded.

1787 – October, Table Bay – Cape Town: From English spies on the ground Phillip learned La Perouse with two (2) ships La Boussole and L’Astrolabe was making ‘with all haste’ for Botany Bay. Phillip the spy was well aware of political manoeuvring between England, France and the Dutch who favoured the French.

Phillip and La Perouse – England and France – were running neck and neck in the race for New Holland so Phillip was not surprised when baulked at every turn by a hostile administration. See: Arthur Phillip – The Spy Who Never Came In From the Cold

He sought aid from General Gordon, a Scot who commanded Dutch troops at Cape Town. Gordon helped Phillip pick a pathway through a colonial bureaucracy determined to obstruct.

For a month the fleet rode at anchor in Table Bay. The Dutch not unreasonably were apprehensive at having such a large number – seven hundred and fifty (750) English criminals – in close proximity to their town, insisted all prisoners remain in chains on board.

While Phillip saw the convicts were fed adequate amounts of bread, fresh meat and vegetables, their living conditions were terrible. Buffeted by winds so strong some ships broke their moorings, a constant swell caused seasickness throughout the fleet.

While the rank and file drank, fought, were demoted, flogged or both, their officers went ashore to enjoy; ‘the refreshments and the pleasures of which we had so liberally partaken at the Cape’.

Merchant seamen scoured, disinfected, caulked and tarred the decks and hulls of the ships. Carpenters built stalls and boxes for the soon to be loaded livestock.

1787 – November, Table Bay: Soon each vessel resembled Noah’s Ark. Crammed with plants, trees and livestock – sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, horses – three (3) mares, three (3) colts, a stallion – ducks, geese, hens, cocks, cats, a number of dogs – in addition to Phillip’s greyhounds – and their collective sounds and smell.

Prodigious amounts of fodder and water needed to keep so many animals alive took up nearly all available cargo space leaving very little room for food Dr White, the fleet’s chief physician, knew would be needed at Botany Bay.

‘It is much to be lamented that the quantity we could find room for fell short of what we ought to have taken’. Dr John White, Chief Medical Officer, First Fleet Journal

The provisions Phillip purchased at the Cape proved to be of poor quality. The meat rancid, flour and rice full of weevils and vermin.

Most animals were not in good condition including those intended for breeding. Much poultry was already diseased when boarded and many sheep fed dry fodder on the long voyage to Sydney, when turned out onto fresh grass, developed acidosis and died.

The extended stay at Cape Town exposed the fleet to extreme weather. The last leg – Cape Town to Botany Bay – would prove a nightmare.

During its sixty-eight (68) day passage to Botany Bay the fleet would sail into the ‘Roaring 40s encounter atrocious conditions battle mountainous seas and dodge gigantic ice-bergs shrouded in fog.

Ship-board life would be miserable for soldiers, sailors, convicts and animals alike as cargo shifted, sails froze and shredded, masts splintered, ropes became hard as steel, hawsers snapped and bones broke.

At times ‘without a breath of wind’ the ships lay becalmed. As predicted, at sea beyond the planned forty-two (42) days, scurvy and ‘dysentery to a violent degree’ appeared in each ship’s company.


1787 – 13 November, Cape Town: To the strains of a brass band on the quayside and a traditional gunnery exchange, the large fleet left Cape Town on 13th of November 1787.

The first night out; ‘just as it was getting dark’ HMS Sirius sighted a vessel flying an English flag; ‘we was in hope of her being from England, probably to us.’

A surge of excitement ran through the fleet but she proved to be Kent a south sea whaler. Hopes were dashed but spirits rose when Kent; ‘informed us of some more ships being taken up for Botany Bay’.

Had they but known they would not see anyone or hear anything from England until June 1790. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

1787 – 25 November, at sea: Captain Phillip reassessed his strategy and ordered the fleet split into two (2) divisions. He would board HMS Supply and with Alexander, Friendship and Scarborough, the faster of the transports together with, two (2) of the fleet’s four (4) marine companies, to make a dash for Botany Bay.

Phillip however failed to consult Major Robert Ross the marine commander, on what was without doubt a high-risk manoeuvre. Ross wrote of his ‘hurt’ to Stephens, Secretary of the Navy.

‘His Excellency’s not having given me the most distant hint of his intention prior to our quitting the Cape…I received my first intimation of his design from the mess of the Sirius’s gun-room’. Major Ross, 10 July 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales.

Any hope that co-operation and harmony would exist between the two (2) arms of the naval service died in the; ‘mess of the Sirius’s gun-room’.

Perhaps the worst moment of the fleet’s eight (8) months voyage came very near its end.

’10 January 1788 : the Sky blacken’d, the wind arose & in 1/2 an hour more it blew a perfect hurricane…the Fishburn was very near us on the Starboard side & to leeward of us & every body expected we must have been foul of Each other…I never saw the Sea in such a rage, it was all over as white as snow… During the Storm the Convict Women in our Ship were so terrified that most of them were down on their knees at prayers’. Arthur Bowes Smyth, Surgeon, Lady Penrhyn, First Fleet Journal

1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay: At 2.15 pm – 18 January – eight (8) months and 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from England, HMS Supply with Captain Phillip aboard, a little ahead of Alexander Friendship and Scarborough entered Botany Bay.

1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay: Within thirty-six (36) hours – 10 am on 20 January 1788 – all eleven (11) ships – were ‘anchored on the north shore’ of Botany Bay in the lee of Bare Island. See: William Dawes & The Eternal Flame

‘On the first day of my arrival I [Hunter of HMS Sirius] went to examine the south shore, in order to fix on a spot for erecting some buildings; but we found very little fresh water, and not any spot very inviting for our purpose’. Captain John Hunter RN, First Fleet Journal.

Botany Bay offered little protection from strong contrary winds and the problematic cross-currents that ran across the bay’s wide open face.

1788 – 21 January: Sydney Cove: ‘The governor [Arthur Phillip], accompanied by me and two [2] other officers, embarked in three [3] boats, and proceeded along the coast to the northward, intending, if we could, to reach what Captain Cook has called Broken-bay, with a hope of discovering a better harbour, as well as a better country; for we found nothing at Botany-bay to recommend it as a place on which to form an infant settlement’. Hunter. op.cit.

1788 – 23 January, Port Jackson: Two (2) days later Captain Phillip and his officers returned to Botany Bay with good news – the ‘First Fleet’ had found a home.

Nine (9) miles fourteen (14) km to the north they found ‘a better harbour, as well as a better country’ and just in time.

‘There is some justification for the saying ‘England won Australia by six days’. Jenks, Cited. H. E.  Egerton, A Short History of British Colonial History, Metheun, 1928

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: On the morning of the 24th of January l’Astrolabe and La Boussole commanded by Captain Jean- Francoise La Perouse appeared over the horizon.

‘Aboard were copper plates engraved with the royal arms to be used as permanent notification of French ownership’. Michael Cannon, Australian Discovery and Exploration.

The arrival of La Perouse came as no surprise to Captain Phillip who knew, in terms of international law, the French presence presented a serious complication.

‘New South Wales had been formally annexed by [James] Cook in 1770. If La Perouse had arrived at Botany Bay before Phillip, and had fronted him with a French annexation, the act would have been equivalent to declaration of war on Great Britain’. G.A Wood, Challis Professor of History, The Discovery of Australia, ed. 1969.

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Phillip felt it imperative to get to Port Jackson before the French. In the teeth of a howling gale shrouded by sea-mist, on 25 January, HMS Supply put to sea again and just on dark – 7 pm  – Supply threw out her anchor.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Next morning at first light marines and convicts disembarked. A flagstaff was erected and, ‘English Colours‘ the Union Jack of Queen Anne hoisted, signifying Britain’s victory over France.

‘A firing party of marines formed up and fired a feu de joie, in between the volleys of which, toasts were drunk to His Majesty King George III, the royal family, and success to the new colony’. Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal, cited John Moore, the First Fleet Marines 1786-1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

1788 – 26 January, Botany Bay: Meanwhile despite ‘prodigious seas’ the English fleet effected a dramatic exit from Botany Bay and by dusk – 6 pm – the entire fleet was riding at anchor in Sydney Cove.

1788 – January 27/28, Sydney Cove: Over the following two (2) days the marines and male convicts disembarked and set about preparing a settlement.

1788 – 30 January, Sydney Cove: ‘At 10 pm a most outrageous storm of lightning, thunder and rain struck the settlement’. Lieutenant Ralph Clark, cited Moore. ibid

1788 – February 6: Between 6 am and 6 pm the fleet’s two hundred and twenty-two (222) women and their children, approximately twenty-seven (27), ‘were rowed ashore’ from the ships that had been their home for more than eight (8) months.

1788 – 7 February mid-day, Sydney Cove: At 11 am the following day – 7 February – the convicts were made sit in a circle while the soldiery paraded with fife, drum and Colours flying, to hear Governor Phillip’s commission read.

‘In the Governor’s commission, the extent of this authority is defined to reach from the latitude of 43º 49‘ south to the latitude 10° 37’ being the northern and southern extremities of New Holland….every source of litigation between the Dutch and us will be for ever cut off, as the discoveries of English navigators alone are comprized in this territory’. Tench.ibid.

Ed. note: ‘This statement ignores the discoveries of [Abel] Tasman and the Dutch explorers of the Gulf of Carpentaria, as well the Spanish and French voyages in the South Pacific’.

‘The marines formed up in inspection order and after being reviewed by [Governor] Phillip who marched along their front rank they gave him the general salute due to a captain general’. Moore. ibid.


1788 – 10 March, France:  Seven (7) weeks after entering Botany Bay – 24 January 1788 – La Boussole and L’Astrolabe took to the open sea and turned north for home. La Perouse and his men were never seen again. See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies

2018 – 18 February, Botany Bay: On the 17th of February 1788 Pere Laurent Receveur, a noted naturalist and the expedition’s Chaplain, died of wounds he received at Samoa on 11th of December 1787.

A monument erected at La Perouse marks his burial place and, each year on or about that date, a ceremony is held in memory Comte La Perouse and his men.

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