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Sunday, May 13, 2007

The First Fleet Sets Sail For Australia, May 13, 1787

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Today in 1787, the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth, England bound for New South Wales on the continent of Australia. This marked the beginning of European settlement of the future country, although it was for less than noble reasons.

Human beings have been living in Australia for as long as 65,000 years, but there is no surviving written history of that time. While it has been theorized that the ancient Phoenicians, the Chinese or Portuguese were the first outsiders to explore the area, the first documented European contact occurred in 1606 when Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon made landfall on the Cape York Peninsula. The Dutch continued to visit the continent throughout the 17th century and were eventually joined by the English and French. By the beginning of the 18th century, the western and northern coastlines had been charted as well as the technology of that century would allow. However, it was not until 1770 and the arrival of the HMS Endeavour that the east coast of Australia was mapped. Lieutenant James Cook, captain of the Endeavour, claimed the entire eastern coast (and eventually half the continent) for King George III and named it New South Wales.

Another decade and a half would pass before the British Government gave serious thought to colonizing New South Wales. In August, 1786, the decision was taken to send convicts to the new land (specifically Botany Bay) in the hope of relieving some of the overcrowding that had long troubled the British prison system. To imagine the scope of such an undertaking, it is necessary to today envision setting up a farm prison on another planet. The convicts, their Marine guards, the colony Governor (who was Captain Arthur Phillip, the commander of the fleet) and his staff would very possibly never see their families in England again. The Marines and the Governor's staff were allowed to bring their immediate families despite the fact that the journey was incredibly dangerous and life in the new colony would be hard at best. Eleven ships left Portsmouth on May 13, 1787: two naval escorts, six convict transports and three cargo ships. Of the convicts, 579 men, 193 women and 14 children were onboard. Including the ships' crews, the Marines and their families and the Governor, his family and staff, approximately 1420 people were embarked.

The convict ships were re-designed to keep the prisoners in one area of the ship away from the crew and officers. The fleet left Portsmouth carrying everything needed to start a colony, including a house for the Governor that had been built on shore and then taken apart and packed as flatly as possible for the journey. Since nothing was known of the trees in the area, 5,000 bricks were brought along. The convicts had been chosen with no regard to their skills; thus, the colony would have to rely on an untested labor force to survive.

The fleet's first port of call was the Canary Islands. From there, the path led to Rio de Janeiro. During the Atlantic crossing, the heat and humidity made life onboard the convict vessels nearly unbearable. It was during this time that Captain Phillips had to limit everyone's water intake to three pints a day. The crossing took seven weeks, after which time the ships were cleaned from stem to stern. The fleet stayed in Rio for a month while the convicts were kept below decks and the Navy and Marine officers explored the country.

The next leg of the journey was the run to the Cape of Good Hope, a voyage that was completed in October, 1787. There was a Dutch colony at Cape Town that would serve as the fleet's last port of call before the long sojourn across the Indian and Southern Oceans. Livestock was purchased as was as much fresh food as could be carried. When the fleet sailed beyond the tip of Africa, it left all contact with European settlements behind.

In November, 1787, Captain Phillips took the decision to take the four fastest ships and speed ahead to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the fleet. However, the weather worked against such a plan. Below the 40th parallel, violent gales pushed the heavy ships hard. As they rounded Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, the ships encountered a violent storm that damaged many of their masts and sails. In the end, Phillips' advance squadron reached Botany Bay less than a day before the fastest transports; by January 20, 1788, all eleven ships had arrived.

It didn't take long for the colonists to realize that Captain Cook's description of Botany Bay was, to put it mildly, a little on the fanciful side. The bay itself was open to the rough sea, there was no fresh water and the soil did not appear to be able to grow anything edible. There were trees in the area, but their wood was so tough that they had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder. Two days after his arrival, Captain Phillips and a scouting party left the bay in three small boats with the intention of finding a more suitable bay to the north. On January 23rd, they returned with news of a better anchorage. Phillips described it as "the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security". The fleet and the colonists moved to their new home on January 26, 1788 and anchored in a deep water cove which Phillips named after the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney.

Although the exact numbers have been lost to history, it is believe that just under 70 people died during the 252 day voyage from Portsmouth to Botany Bay. For such a long journey under rough conditions, this number was remarkably low. Future fleets would encounter greater losses on their journeys to New South Wales. The transport of convicts to Australia slowly waned beginning in 1840 and was phased out entirely in 1868.

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