Australia's "First Fleet" was a group of 11 ships and about 1,400 people who established the first European settlements in Botany Bay and Sydney.
Illustration by E. Le Bihan, courtesy State Library of New South Wales
On May 13, 1787, a group of over 1,400 people in 11 ships set sail from Portsmouth, England. Their destination was a vaguely described bay in the continent of Australia, newly discovered to Europeans. In a stunning feat of planning and navigation, nearly all of the voyagers survived and arrived in Botany Bay several months later.
A wide variety of people made up this legendary “First Fleet.” Military and government officials, along with their wives and children, led the group. Sailors, cooks, masons, and other workers hoped to establish new lives in the new colony.
Perhaps most famously, the First Fleet included more than 700 convicts. The settlement at Botany Bay was intended to be a penal colony. The convicts of the First Fleet included both men and women. Most were British, but a few were American, French, and even African. Their crimes ranged from theft to assault. Most convicts were sentenced to seven years’ “transportation” (the term for the sending of prisoners to a usually far-off penal colony).
The First Fleet departed from Portsmouth, then briefly docked in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The ships then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they took on huge stores of supplies. Then the fleet sailed back across the Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa, where they took on even more food, including livestock. The main portion of the journey was across the entire Indian Ocean, from Cape Town to Botany Bay—they traveled about 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) throughout the entire journey.
Botany Bay was not as hospitable as the group had hoped. The bay was shallow, there was not a large supply of freshwater, and the land was not fertile. Nearby, however, officers of the First Fleet discovered a beautiful harbor with all those qualities. They named it after the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. The day the First Fleet discovered Sydney Harbor is celebrated as Australia’s national holiday, Australia Day.
body of water partially surrounded by land, usually with a wide mouth to a larger body of water.
goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.
to observe or mark an important event with public and private ceremonies or festivities.
edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.
people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
prisoner or person who has been convicted of a crime.
place where a person or thing is going.
to bring and secure a ship or boat to a space or facility.
to form or officially organize.
accomplishment or achievement.
able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.
group of ships, usually organized for military purposes.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.
period of celebration or honor.
welcoming or inviting.
famous, heroic, or celebrated.
animals raised for human use.
art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.
having to do with prison or punishment.
part of a whole.
path or way.
community or village.
long journey or trip.