‘In writing of the recruitment of criminals into the 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, Melbourne University Press, 1994

When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When It was the First Fleet.

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

‘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 New South Wales. Anon.

The fleet’s complement of 1500 souls was overwhelmingly male one-half, seven hundred and fifty (750) were common criminals. Legislation, the Hulks Act of 1776, deemed criminals reprieved death on condition of ‘banishment from the kingdom’ were deemed ‘servants of the Crown’. See: April Fool’s Day

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

During the term of their sentence the fleet’s five hundred and eighty-five (583) male convicts; ‘their labour is for the public’ were available for combat.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [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

The ‘First Fleet’ comprised two (2) Royal Naval vessels HMS Sirius and HMS Supply with two hundred (200) personnel.

Two hundred and forty-five (245) enlisted and officers of the Sydney marine garrison, with thirty-one (31) marine wives and thirty (30) free children were distributed throughout four (4) troops transports – Alexander, Prince of Wales, Scarborough, Charlotte and, two (2) convict transports Lady Penrhyn and Friendship with mainly female prisoner camp-followers, accompanied  by three (3) stores vessels Fishburn, Golden Grove and Borrowdale .

‘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

In the 18th century British merchant ships were crewed to a formula; eight (8) ordinary seamen plus one (1) boy per hundred (100) ton. In addition each vessel carried officers; specialist crew – sailing masters, mates, pursers etc. According to this formula crews of the six (6) transports numbered approximately four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen.


Professionals, two hundred and forty-five (245) marine officers, non-commissioned and rank and file, two hundred (200) officers and ratings of the Royal Navy – ‘knowing their work thoroughly’, four hundred and forty (440) merchant seamen and five hundred and eighty (580) prisoners, ‘less sure of their game’.

‘It is impossible that [His Majesty’s] government should forget that the original aggression was ours. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps [Governor of New South Wales], Dispatch, London, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. XX.

The First Fleet, a large squadron of eleven (11) ships almost always referred ‘a small fleet’ was  a formidable force, an army on the move.

‘How moral was the Empire? In North America, as in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and then later in East Africa, the process was the same: acquire land by seizure or trickery and then ignore the native, or shoot him if he acted as if he still owned the place.  

There is a need for a re-writing of history, for the purging of some guilt by its contemplation. Donald Horne, God Is An Englishman, Donald Horne, Penguin, 1969


After a voyage of eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’, all eleven (11) ships reached Botany Bay within thirty-six (36) hours between 18-20 January 1788

1788 – 24 January: ‘When leaving Botany Bay [for Sydney Cove] Phillip noticed two French ships in the offing….there would seem to be “some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days“. Edward Jenks, History of Australian Colonies, cited in British Colonial Policy, Hugh E. Egerton, Metheun, 1928. See: Britain By A Whisker THE BACK STORY

Prior to the American War of Independence (1775-1783) between 1717 and 1775, Britain transported 50,000 of her convicted criminals to her American colonies where their labour was sold to plantation owners. In 1775 war abruptly halted this lucrative trade leaving  government to deal with an ever-increasing army of convicted criminals to feed clothe and guard.

Reprieved death on condition of ‘transportation out of the realm – beyond the seas’ these prisoners were treated differently from those who were to serve their sentence within the ‘realm’. 

The Hulks Act of  1776 had legislated this difference. Under the Act criminals sentenced to death and reprieved on condition of exile ‘out of the realm’ were declared; ‘Servants of the Crown….their labour is for the public.’ 

‘Nineteenth century Australians fostered the belief in the uniquely peaceful settlement of Australia…the premise, sometimes unspoken, was either the original inhabitants had simply made way for the Europeans, or that the Aboriginals had no title to the land. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1790, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001

1992 – 3 June, Canberra: The premise’, Australia’s First Nation’s Peoples’ held no ‘real estate’ title to their land as Britain claimed in [Privy Council Cooper V Stuart, 1889] was addressed by the High Court of Australia in Mabo No.2 and found to be ‘legal fiction’.

‘The whole claim of sovereignty and ownership on the basis of terra nullius was manifestly based on a misreading of Australian circumstances’. Stuart Mac Intyre, a Concise History of Australia, Melbourne University Press, 2004

The High Court’s finding introduced the legal doctrine of native title into Australian law and belatedly altered land law in Australia. But the judgement stopped short of delivering justice to Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

‘A similar recognition of prior or continuing sovereignty has yet to occur’. Stuart Mac Intyre. op.cit

Britain invaded New Holland. It is time to revisit the ‘First Fleet’ and unravel a carefully constructed;‘ belief in the uniquely peaceful settlement of Australia…[that] the original inhabitants had simply made way for the Europeans…frontier conflict between European settlement and the Aboriginal peoples, was for much of our history, greatly downplayed’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia. ibid.

‘Amity and kindness’, non-Aboriginal Australia’s foundation myth, were the weasel words of their day.

‘We know that Aboriginal resistance was widespread, consistent and determined…The pattern of conflict in Australia ran parallel to the pattern settlement…From the early days around Sydney Cove the hostility of the Aboriginal peoples to the depredations of the whites was clear to all. As settlement extended beyond the environs of Sydney the dimensions of the conflict grew’. Jeffrey Grey. ibid.

The tipping points of violent dispossession were greed – guns – grog and gender.




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