A Philatelic History of the Royal Navy Pt 14 – The First Fleet to Australia

The First Fleet to Australia – 1788

The name Australia is derived the Latin term Terra Australis Incognito meaning “unknown southern land”, a name given to a hypothetical continent that was presumed to exist in the Southern Hemisphere that would balance out the large continents in the Northern Hemisphere. This massive continent did not exist and the term Terra Australis became applied to the Australian continent. Until the 19th century Terra Australis was known as New Holland, a name given to the continent in 1644 by Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer.

William Dampier

William Dampier, explorer and pirate, was the first Englishman to explore New Holland in 1688.

James Cook was the next famous Englishman to arrive in New Holland on 29 April 1770. After sailing up the east coast, he claimed possession of the entire east coast of the continent for the British Crown, which he then named New South Wales. The name Australia was popularised by the English explorer Michael Flinders during his voyages between 1791 and 1810 and came to be applied to the whole continent.

George III & convicts

The British Government decided to create a penal colony in Australia after the American War of Independence ended and the American government would no longer accept convicts. The First Fleet was assembled in Portsmouth Harbour, in May, 1787, consisting of eleven cargo ships led by HMS Sirius and HMS Supply. The Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788.

The Departure: 13 May 1787

HMS Sirius
HMS Supply
HMS Sirius with HMS Supply in the distance.

The Fleet consisting of thirteen ships left Portsmouth Harbour on 13 May, 1787, carrying 630 Officers, Marines, and wives and 775 convicts and 14 convict children. Captain Arthur Philip was in overall command of the fleet, and transferred from Sirius to Supply in Cape Town. Captain John Hunter commanded Sirius. Arthur Philip became the first governor of the new colony, followed by John Hunter after his retirement.

Arthur Philip
John Hunter

The Fleet also had to carry not only stores and provisions for the voyage but also enough provisions for the party to survive on arrival until local materials could be collected and food could be grown and harvested.

Convict children on the quay
Marine officer with his wife
Loading supplies at Deptford.
The Fleet leaving Portsmouth
Sailors loading supplies
The Fleet leaving from Spithead, Portsmouth

Arrival at Tenerife: 3 June 1787

The first port of call was Tenerife, a Spanish island off the coast of Africa. The Fleet anchored at Santa Cruz where fresh water, vegetables and meat were brought on board. Captain Philips and his officers were entertained by the local Governor.

The Fleet arriving at Tenerife
Canary Island fishermen
Ferrying supplies at Santa Cruz

The fleet departed on 10 June 1787, bound for the Brazilian coast.

Arrival at Rio de Janeiro: 5 August 1787

The Fleet reached Rio de Janeiro where it stayed for a month. The ships were cleaned, repairs made and water brought on board. This was also an opportunity to bring large quantities of food on board. During the time in Rio the convicts were kept below decks while the officers explored the city and were entertained by the locals.

British officers in the market
The Fleet off shore of Rio de Janeiro with a Sperm whale
Entering Rio de Janeiro harbour
A religious procession
The Fleet departing Rio de Janeiro

The Fleet left Rio on 4 September 1787 to sail to Cape Town, taking advantage of the westerlies to carry them across the Atlantic to Table Bay.

Arrival at Cape Town: 13 October 1787

This was the last port of call before setting forth on the final leg of the journey to Australia. The main task here was to stock up on plants, seeds, and livestock for their arrival in Australia. This was the last European outpost that the fleet members would see for years, if in fact ever. Before them stretched the vast and lonely void of the Indian and Southern Oceans.

Arriving at the Cape of Good Hope
Loading Livestock

Arrival in Australia: 18 January 1788

After a very difficult voyage across the Southern oceans, braving storms and violent seas in overladen transports, HMS Supply and three ships arrived in Botany Bay on 18 January while HMS Sirius and the rest of the fleet arrived two days later.

Aboriginals watching the ships approach
Ships at Anchor, watched by an Aboriginal family
The ships arriving at Sydney Cove
The ship’s boat approaching the shore.
Raising the flag at Sydney Cove.
Lord Sydney

It soon became evident that Botany Bay was not a good site to establish a colony. The water in the bay was shallow and unprotected and fresh water was scarce. After an exploratory sail up the coast, Philip discovered Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), which was an excellent site for the new colony, so on 26 January 1788 the fleet weighed anchor and sailed up the coast to anchor off a small Cove where they planted the British flag. This cove was named Sydney Cove after Lord Sydney, the British Home Secretary, and this date is celebrated as Australia Day and marks the beginning of the British settlement. When Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770 and left to sail north along the coast, he sailed past without exploring the entrance to what is now Sydney Harbour.

This was one of the world’s great sea voyages with eleven vessels, carrying about 1,500 people and stores for 252 days, traveling 24,000 km without the loss of a single vessel.

The French ships La Boussle & L’Astrolabe

Two days after coming ashore in Botany Bay, two French ships, L’Astrolabe and La Boussole, commanded by Compte de Laperouse, arrived and spent six weeks at the British colony. They left Botany Bay on 10 March 1788 and were never heard from again. It was much later discovered that the two ships had foundered in a storm on a reef off the Solomon Islands.

After January 1788

Many of the ships of the first fleet did not remain in the colony. Several of the merchant ships returned to England or other ports and some remained in the service of the Governor for some months.

15 February
HMS Supply sailed to Norfolk Island carrying a small party to establish a settlement and a penal colony.

The wreck of HMS Sirius

19 March
HMS Sirius is wrecked off Norfolk Island in a violent storm under the command of Captain John Hunter.

The wreck of HMS Sirius
Map of the wreck site
Divers retrieving artifacts from the wreck site

A number of artifacts have been salvaged from the wreck site including three anchors.

HMS Supply

17 April
With HMS Sirius now wrecked, the only re-supply ship for the colony, HMS Supply, had to sail to Batavia for emergency food supplies; the colony was in danger of starvation.

3 June
The first vessel from the Second Fleet arrives in Sydney Cove. The remaining five vessels arrive during the following weeks.

Smallpox: After the first fleet established a settlement, the indigenous population was decimated by smallpox of which they had no immunity against. There are a number of theories as to whether this was a consequence or deliberate act. Some researchers have argued that smallpox was deliberately introduced into the native community, as a response to attacks by indigenous people, either by an aggrieved individual or by the marines. There is another theory that Makassar fishermen introduced smallpox from Indonesia and it spread across the continent independent of the new settlement.

The Early Years of the Colony

Development of a settlement at Sydney Harbour took place over the next few years. Some of the building erected are depicted in these stamps:

1890 – Government House

The first Government House in Sydney was the first permanent building in the colony and was completed in 1789, with the foundation stone laid by Governor Phillip in 1788. It stood in what is now the CBA (Central Business District) of Sydney at 41 Bridge Street. It was generally in poor condition and was vacated in 1845 and demolished in 1846.

1791 – Government Farm, Parramatta

This farm was established on rich river flats to insure initial crops of wheat, barley, corn and oats that helped ensure the survival of the early colony.

1796 – Parramatta Road, Sydney

The Parramatta road joined Sydney to the first township of Parramatta where there was a dramatic movement outwards of settlers from Sydney during 1792-95. The image is from a painting done by a convict.

1800 – The Rocks & Sydney Cove

Sydney Cove is a small cove on the southern shore of Sydney harbour where the First Fleet landed in 1788. The Rocks is an urban area that was established shortly after the colony’s foundation in 1788. In its early history, it had a reputation as a slum frequented by sailors, gangs and prostitutes.

1803 – Sydney Hospital

The original Sydney Hospital started as a ‘tent’ hospital erected in The Rocks to care for convicts arriving from England suffering from a variety of diseases. In 1790, a prefabricated portable hospital was shipped out from England replacing the tents.

Norfolk Island

HMS Supply

First sighted by Captain Cook in 1774 on his second voyage to the South Pacific. At that time, it was uninhabited although there were signs of earlier settlements long since abandoned. It was included in the plan for the colonization of New South Wales as Russia had started restricting supplies of hemp to Britain, critical for making sailcloth and ropes. Norfolk Island had abundant growth of New Zealand Flax and so when the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson, a party of 15 convicts and seven free men under Lieutenant Gidley King were sent to take control of the island in HMS Supply, which now remained the only link between the colony and the outside world.

Landfall, Sydney Cove
Lt. Philip Ridley King
King with a small party struck inland to explore.
Governor Philip meeting the Home Secretary.
Hoisting the flag.
The early settlement

Norfolk Island was also opened as a penal colony but as the island was remote and too costly to maintain, the penal colony was eventually closed. The next settlement began in 1856 when descendants of the Bounty mutineers and Tahitians were resettled from the Pitcairn Islands, which had become too small for the growing population. They arrived on HMS Morayshire on 8 June 1856.

The Norfolk, 1788

The Norfolk

The Norfolk was built on Norfolk Island in 1798 of Norfolk Pine. This vessel was necessary to keep up a line of communication and trade between the island and the new colony of Sydney and was commanded by Mathew Flinders. It later became a survey vessel and was used by Flinders and George Bass to circumnavigate Tasmania, proving the existence of the Bass Strait. She was eventually wrecked in 1800 after being seized by convicts who ran her aground at the mouth of the Hunter River.

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