‘Camden, Calvert and King…were to preside over a great loss of life in a context of cruelty and suffering’. Michael Flynn, A Second Fleet, Britain’s Grim Armada, 1993.

1718-1775 – America:: Between 1718 and 1775 Britain shipped approximately 50,000 convicts – 1,000 a year – to her American colonies. In America their ‘service’ – labour – was sold to cotton and tobacco planters.  Transported convicts served their sentence alongside Negro slaves shipped there from Africa.

1775 – America: The War of American Independence (1775-1783 ) began at Lexington in July 1775 and interrupted the convict trade between Britain and her colonies in America.

See: Britons Never, Never Shall Be Slaves.

Prior to the war England’s gaols served as short-term holding pens. During the conflict gaols became grossly  overcrowded.

1776 – England: Parliament pass the Hulks Act. Under this legislation male convicts sentenced ‘for transportation to America’ could be confined on derelict ship – hulks – moored along the River Thames.

The Home Office was responsible for finding alternate destinations for an increasing army of criminals, whose death sentence had been commuted ‘ for transportation to America’ were held over in gaols and hulks.

1779-1782 – Africa: During the war various attempts were made to use Africa as a penal destination. Edmund Burke in the House of Commons vehemently opposed these schemes describing Britain’s fort settlements in Africa; ‘the capital seat of plague, pestilence and famine…the gallows would rid them of their lives more mercifully’.

See: Amigos – Three Amigos + One

1783 – September, Paris: Britain lost the American war. Via the Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783, Britain lost her thirteen (13) ‘middle colonies’ and her offshore prison.

By the end of hostilities approximately 10,000 criminals awaiting transportation, were festering and dying in gaols and on filthy  Thames hulks. The situation worsened at the end of hostilities when Britain refused to allow convict-soldiers, impressed into military service during the war, return to England before expiry of sentence’.

A Select Parliamentary Committee under Lord Beauchamp came down in favour of  continuing transportation declaring it; ‘answered every good purpose which could be expected from it’.

1783-1784 – London: Despite the American Congress legislating to stop the convict trade Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary  authorised two (2) voyages. Swift with one hundred and forty-three (143) prisoners and Mercury with one hundred and seventy-nine (179) sailed for America.

See: Swift and Mercury

Britain no longer possessed territory; ‘subject to the Crown of Great Britain that could be forced to accept English criminals’. So by invasion and occupation Britain expropriated one – New Holland, New South Wales, now Australia.


‘The naval and marine force that proceeded to New South Wales was not chosen solely to preserve discipline on the voyage; a much smaller force could have done that; it was but incidental to the duty of establishing a new British settlement and it is probably that in their selection that fact received first consideration’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, 1990

See:A Cracker Jack Opinion – Your Land Is My Land  

1787 – 13 May: Portsmouth: An armed convoy of eleven (11) ships known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from Portsmouth, England to Botany Bay.

‘Apart from the allowance of spirits…in determining the ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male]convicts. Wilfrid Oldham. op.cit.

One-half of the fleet’s overwhelmingly male complement, 1500 souls, were convicted criminals .The marines and five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts were ‘rationed as troops serving in the West Indies’.

Arthur Phillip’s mission was to get to the island continent of New Holland before the French and establish naval and military bases in the Southern Hemisphere and people it with a population of criminal-soldiers and their military guards

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: Within 36 hours between 18-20 January 1788 the ships of the ‘First Fleet’ reached Botany Bay.

1788 –  23 January, Botany Bay: L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, two (2) French ships under command of Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse appeared off the entrance to Botany Bay but wild weather forced them south to shelter at Point Sutherhland.

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: The English fleet quit Botany Bay and sailed nine (9) miles (14 km) north to a safer anchorage in Sydney Cove sheltered deep within Port Jackson; where a Thousand Ships of the line may shelter in safety’.

See: Britain By a Whisker


The shipping out of seven hundred and sixty (760) soldier-prisoners by way of the ‘First Fleet’ in 1787 made very little difference to the population of criminals housed in Britain’s gaols and prison-hulks and they remained hopelessly over-crowded.

Newgate prison, situated in the heart of teeming London, was crammed with criminals sentenced for transportation ‘beyond the seas’.

1788July, London: In the middle of a very hot summer Judge Sir William Ashurst informed Lord Sydney an outbreak of typhus (gaol-fever) had broken out in Newgate. There was great fear diseases carried by rats, fleas and lice infesting the stinking prisons and, especially the dank, filthy Thames hulks, would escape to infect rich and poor alike in densely populated London.

1788 – 31 October, London: Lord Sydney, the then Home Secretary, announced two hundred (200) women prisoners would be taken from Newgate and sent to Australia on the Lady Juliana. She was one (1) of four (4) ships that was to form a second fleet. ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ was Britain’s first true convict transportation fleet.

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1788 – mid November, Whitehall: William Richards Jnr had in partnership with the Navy Board been sole civilian contractor for the ‘First Fleet’. In November 1788 Treasury approached Richards for a price to supply and fit-out a vessel, the Lady Juliana, to transport two hundred and twenty-six (226) female prisoners to Australia.

1789 – 2 February, London: William Richards signed a formal contract in early February 1789.

1789 – 23 March, Falmouth:  Shipping more convicts – one thousand (1,000) males and  three hundred (300)  females to Australia had been held up because, not until the Prince of Wales a returning ‘First Fleet’ transport reached Falmouth on 23 March 1789, could anyone in England be certain any of the  ‘First Fleet’ Robinson Crusoes marooned 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland since 1788 were still alive.

See: Buried Alive.

1789 – June, London: In mid June 1789 William Wyndham Grenville – aged 29 years – first cousin of Prime Minister William Pitt replaced Lord Sydney as Home Secretary. Grenville’s marriage to Ann Pitt further cemented his already close relationship with Prime Minister Pitt.

Prior to the American War private contractors had shipped convicted criminals to America for profit. Home Secretary Grenville  reverted to a version of that system. He rejected William Richard’s tender for provisioning the fleet’s other vessels Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize and ordered the Navy Board advertise for tenders.

See: A Tale of Two Fleets

1789 – 29 July, England:  The convict transport Lady Juliania sailed unescorted for New South Wales with two hundred and twenty-six (226) female convicts and eight (8) children. The colony sorely needed more women to redress an extreme gender imbalance but their departure made no inroads upon Britain’s increasing prison population.

‘From the present crowded state of the hulks, and the increase which must be expected of the number of felons under sentence of transportation not only in this kingdom but in Ireland after the next Spring Assize, it is intended that about one thousand [1,000] men shall be sent abroad [Australia] and preparation must be made for their reception. Dispatch, The Right Hon. William W. Grenville to Governor Phillip.

Due to a vigorous anti-slavery movement, the Clapham Sect in general and, William Wilberforce ‘God’s Politician’ in particular, the end of Britain’s participation in the international slave trade was in sight.

‘In comparison with the slave trade, the capitalization required by transportation was modest…studies of the British slave trade during the second half of the eighteenth century have concluded that merchants earned profits of less than 10 per cent.

Meanwhile [transporting merchants] earned an estimated profit of roughly 26 per cent from sixteen trips from Bristol to Maryland, not including fees paid by localities for the removal of their transports’. Kenneth Morgan, The Organisation of the Convict Trade to Maryland, William and Mary Quarterly.

English slavers lobbied government for a substitute cargo. Grenville, young, cold and calculating jumped at the chance and offered them ‘transports’ – criminals.

Camden, Calvert and King, a firm of slave traders working the notorious ‘middle passage’ out of London to Guinea, submitted the cheapest quote and won the contract for Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize.

Grenville anticipated difficulties would arise on any voyage contracted to slavers.

‘The disembarking the convicts at Sydney…seems to be a measure highly necessary as from the length of the passage from hence, and the nature of their food, there is every reason to expect that many of them will be reduced to so debilitated a state that immediate relief will be found to be expedient for the preservation of their lives’. The Right Hon. W.W. Grenville to Arthur Phillip.

1790 – 17 January, Plymouth: Unarmed and un-escorted Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough sailed from Plymouth in mid January 1790 with one thousand and seventeen (1,017)  mainly male prisoners from the hulks, seventy-eight (78) women prisoners, and one hundred and fifteen (115) officers and men of the New South Wales Corps who would replace the ‘troubled’ Sydney garrison already overdue for repatriation.

1790 – 5 June, Sydney Cove Lady Juliana reached Sydney on the 5th June 1790. During her year-long voyage from England five (5) convicts died and seven (7) babies were born. Mortality was reckoned at 2%.

1790 – 26/7/8 June, Sydney: The three (3) second division ships reached Sydney towards the end of June 1790. But by then 26.5% of prisoners embarked at Plymouth were dead.

‘The irons used upon these unhappy wretches were barbarous. The contractors had been in the Guinea trade, and had put on board the same shackles used by them in that trade, which are made with a short bolt, instead of chains that drop between the legs and fasten with a bandage about the waist, like those at the different gaols; these bolts were not more than three-quarters of a foot in length, so that they could not extend either leg from the other more than an  inch or two at most; thus fettered, it was impossible for them to move but at the risk of both their legs being broken.

Inactivity at sea is a sure bane, as it invites the scurvy equal to, if not more than, salt provisions; to this they were consigned, as well as a miserable pittance of provisions, altho’ the allowance by Government is ample; even when attacked by disease their situations were not altered, neither had they any comforts administered. The slave trade is merciful compared with what I have seen in this fleet… Captain William Hill, New South Wales Corps to William Wilberforce, June 1790.

Neptune:  839 tons with 502 convicts – 424 male and 78 female of these – 147 males and 11 females died – mortality 31%;  269 were hospitalized on landing.

Suprize:  418 tons with 256 male convicts, of these 36 died – mortality 14%,  126 were hospitalized.

Scarborough: 400 tons with 259 male convicts, of these 73 died – mortality 28% – 96 were hospitalized.

‘Donald Trail, [ master of  Neptune] like a guard in a concentration camp or a gulag, had probably been dehumanized by the degradation of the African slaves, seamen and British convicts over whom he was given absolute power. Michael Flynn, The Second Fleet, Britain’s Grim Armada,  1993.

Aside from the appalling death rate among prisoners on the overcrowded Neptune her master Captain Donald Trail, although acquitted at his London trial, was believed responsible for murdering three (3) crew members.  The court-room appearance of Captain Horatio Nelson, as character witness for Trail, may have influenced the favourable verdict.

A question mark also hangs over Donald Trail when considering the mysterious death of Lieutenant John Shapcote RN on Neptune between Cape Town and Sydney. Lieutenant Shapcote was the Royal Naval Agent for the 2nd division ships.

See: Titanic -Australia’s Titanic:  HMS Guardian – The Missing Link

1790: Home Secretary William Grenville awarded a further contract to the slave-trading firm of Camden, Calvert and King a further contract for the transportation of one thousand-eight hundred (1,800)  predominantly male convicts to Australia. Left to Grenville convict transportation to Australia may well have remained in the hands of cruel slave-traders.

1791: Grenville was raised to the peerage in 1791 and left the Home Office to become government leader in the House of Lords.

1806: In 1806 Prime Minister William Pitt died.

1807: William Wyndham Grenville, as Prime Minister, oversaw passage of the Abolition of Slavery Bill.

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