‘On 1 April 1776 [‘whereas the transportation of convicts to H.M. Colonies in America is found to be attended with various inconveniences’] Lord North moved to bring in a Bill to authorise for a limited time punishment, by hard labour, of offenders who were liable to transportation’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1993

1775- April, America: Conflict between England and her American colonies – the War of Independence (1775-1783) – brought a sudden halt to convict transportation to America.

‘Convict transportation in its original manifestation was a uniquely American phenomenon.’ Anthony Vaver Bound With An Iron Chain, The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 convicts to Colonial America, Pickpocket Publishing, 2011

England’s convicted criminals, reprieved death and commuted ‘for transportation to America’ were held over in England’s gaols. These prisons, previously short-term holding pens, were quickly overwhelmed.

1776 – 23 May, England: The Hulks Act – 16 Geo. III, c 43 – received Royal Assent on 23rd May 1776. Lord North’s Bill was a game-changer, in so far as it changed the status of prisoners sentenced ‘for transportation’.

It created a legal distinction that applied only to convicts reprieved death on condition they be ‘transported out of the realm…beyond the seas’. See: April Fools Day

Legislated ‘Servants of the Crown’ until expiry of the term of sentence, their ‘service’ was for the ‘nation’, thereby ensuring ‘its original manifestation [remained] a uniquely American phenomenon’.

The Hulks Act allowed male prisoners to be confined on decaying warships moored in London’s River Thames. De-commissioned, badly maintained and overrun with rats, no vessel was water-tight.

1777 – River Thames: As space was very limited men were housed six (6) to a mess. At the insistence of John Howard a prison reformer a Commission of Inquiry was set up to examine living conditions on the hulks.

As a result of its intervention some improvements were made. Men now slept only two (2) to a bed and, although the quantity of food increased, quality remained poor.

‘Britain’s decision in 1786 to occupy New South Wales [Australia] was partly to compensate for the loss of the American colonies to which unwanted convicts (some 50,000 before the Declaration of Independence in 1776) had been sent; and partly to protect Britain’s control of the sea route to Asia via the southern Oceans’. Professor Martyn Webb, University of Western Australia, cited Oxford Companion to British History,

1786 – October 1786, London: Captain Arthur Phillip RN was selected to command the ‘First Fleet’ and lead Britain’s thrust into the ‘southern Oceans’. 

Phillip’s primary objective, getting to ‘New South Wales’ before the French, was known to very few. Front and centre of those in the know was Evan Nepean, Under-Secretary to Lord Sydney head of the Home Office.

To this end – control over the southern oceans – a large squadron of eleven (11) vessels would sail across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ to establish military and naval bases on the south eastern coast of the island continent of New Holland at Botany Bay.

‘The administration gave no consideration to the date of expiry of sentences, and several of the First Fleet had been tried as early as 1781 and 1782. As seven [7] years transportation was the most common sentence, many had already served five-sevenths of their time on embarkation, and six- sevenths on disembarkation at Sydney Cove. Dr John Cobley, Crimes of the First Fleet, Vol. 1, Angus and Robertson, Sydney

1787 – 25 April, London. Far from giving ‘no consideration to the date of expiry’ the administration’s decision was as cynical as it was appalling.

‘It is our will and pleasure…with all convenient speed to the convicts so emancipated….To every male shall be given 30 acres of land, and in the case he shall be married, 20 acres more; and for every child with them…a further quantity of 10 acres’. George III to Captain Arthur Phillip, 25 April 1787.

Government knowingly sent male criminals who had ‘already served six-sevenths of their time’ to invade, occupy and dispossess Australia’s First Peoples and have their villainy rewarded with land – lots of land.

1787 – January, Portsmouth: When the first of five hundred and eighty-three (583) male prisoners boarded fleet transports from the hulks they were more dead than alive. Dirty hungry covered in lice, sick with ‘putrid gaol fever’ – typhus, many also had ‘the flux’ – dysentery and syphilis.

On the hulks, for five (5) days a week, six (6) men had shared a daily ration of 4 & 1/2 lbs of ‘second flour’, 1/2  lb of ‘rough meat’ usually an ox cheek and 3 pints of rice.

The remaining two (2) days they shared, 3 pints of oatmeal made into gruel – porridge, 5 lbs of bread and 2 lbs of cheese. In addition four (4) days a week each man was issued one (1) quart of ‘small beer’.

It took months to ready the fleet. Some prisoners died before the ships left Portsmouth. Their bodies were simply tossed overboard and could be seen floating in the Thames.

But for those convicts who survived to make the voyage ‘to Botany Bay’ conditions were about to change radically especially for male prisoners taken from the hulks.

‘In determining the ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] convicts…Apart from the allowance of spirits the standard adopted was that of troops serving in the West Indies. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts To The Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1993

Oldlham- the ‘standard [weekly] ration’:

rum -3 and one-half pints (2 litres) @ 1/2 pint per day for enlisted men only

bread or biscuit – 7 lb (3.17 kg)

beef salted – 4 lb (1.8 kg)

pork salted – 2lb (907 g)

dried peas – 2 pints (1.1 litre)

oatmeal – 3 pints (1.7 litre)

butter – 6 oz (170 g)

cheese – 3/4 lb (350 g)

vinegar – 1/2 pint (284 ml) issued on Saturday

Captain Arthur Phillip RN, like Captain James Cook RN before him, carried ‘secret instructions’. His eyes were fixed firmly on his ‘secret’ task – establishing command of the ‘southern Oceans…to protect Britain’s control of the sea route to Asia’. 

Sir Charles Middleton, presiding over the Navy Victualing Board, was not in on the ‘secret’. Middleton resisted Phillip’s strenuous efforts to obtain the meat and vegetables he knew were needed to build-up the health and vitality of his convict combatants.

Phillip denied foods necessary to keep scurvy at bay and strengthen his troops – marine and criminal – appealed to his ‘handler’ Evan Nepean.

‘Evan Nepean at the Home Office acted as intermediary and persuaded Middleton to give way’. Michael Flynn, The Second Fleet, Britain’s Grim Armada, 1993

A humiliated Middleton determined now to exert his influence. As, on the voyage of 13,000 miles (21,000 km) parade-ground drilling would be out of the question, he rated their operational status somewhere between ‘stand to’ and ‘stand down’ .

While the full standard ration was to be issued on disembarkation Middleton decreed; ‘two-thirds of the [standard ration] of troops serving in the West Indies’ would be sufficient to maintain health during the voyage.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: At 4 am on the 13th May 1787 the armed squadron of eleven (11) vessels – two warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply six (6) troop transports – Alexander, Charlotte, Prince of Wales, Scarborough, Friendship, Lady Penryhn – three (3) stores-ships – Borrowdale, Fishburn Golden Grove known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ – with a complement of 1500 souls , one-half common criminals, set sail from Portsmouth for Botany Bay.

Although only two (2) ships – Friendship and Lady Penrhyn – can be truly described as ‘convict transports’. They carried most of the fleet’s one hundred and ninety – three (193) women convict camp-followers, a number woefully inadequate for their intended ‘Service’; to gratify the sexual needs of 1300 males.

The remaining transports carried five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts and their military guards both available to satisfy whatever ‘Service’ their commander saw fit to enforce. See: John M’Entire – Death of A Sure Thing

‘The main battle was about having enough to eat’. Don Watson, The Story of Australia, 1984 

1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay: At 2.15 in the afternoon HMS Supply the first of the eleven (11) ships arrived off Botany Bay. An hour or so later her trawling nets (seine) were deployed setting the scene for what was to come for Australia’s First Peoples. See: Smallpox –  Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: Within thirty-six (36) hours, between 18- 20 January, eight (8) months after leaving England, the entire fleet lay safely at anchor in Botany Bay. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson:  A week later the ships sailed nine (9) miles (14 km) north – through the towering Heads guarding Sydney Harbour – to a sheltered and eminently defensible anchorage in Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson.

There the Robinson Cruscos of the ‘First Fleet’ waited and waited and waited; ‘the misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’. Marine Watkin Tench, Sydney’ First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

See: Abandoned and Left To Starve – Sydney Cove – January 1788 to June 1790


1790 – 1 January, Sydney Cove: ‘We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two  months from England, in which long period…we had been entirely cut off, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May, 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth’. Tench. ibid. 

1790 – April, Sydney Cove:  In mid April 1790 HMS Supply sailed for Jakarta to buy urgently needed food and medicines leaving the harbour empty of English ships.

The English men women and children were now completely isolated with no hope of escape or means of communicating with the outside world. See: Missing In Action HMS Sirius & HMS Supply

‘Per week to every child of more than eighteen (18) months old and to every grown person; pork – two (2) pounds, flour – two and one-half (2 ½) pounds, rice two (2) pounds or a quart of pease.

When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear. The pork and rice were brought with us from England: the pork had been salted between three and four years and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged within it’. Tench. ibid.


1788 – 7 February, Sydney Cove: Without the consent of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples or, entering into treaty with them as required by international law, Governor Captain Arthur Phillip RN on the 7th of February 1788 raised English colours’ and with all the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ formally claimed sovereignty over New Holland; ‘this fifth great continental division of the earth on behalf of the British people’. Historical Records of New South Wales

Male prisoners having ‘already served six-sevenths on disembarkation [were] emancipated with all possible speed’awere gifted Aboriginal lands. See: A Cracker-Jack Opinion – Your Land is My Land – Cape York to South Cape



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