13 May 1787: Australia’s ‘First Fleet’ sails from Portsmouth

On this day in 1787 a fleet of 11 ships set sail from Portsmouth to establish a penal colony in New South Wales.

It is perhaps a little-known fact that, in the 1700s, Britain's American colonies provided a very handy place for the mother country to dump its undesirables (some 52,000 convicts were sent there between 1718 and 1775). Unfortunately, that all came to a stop when the pesky Americans declared independence, and Britain's jails soon became overcrowded.

Thankfully, Captain James Cook had recently “discovered” Australia and claimed it for King and country.

The Home Secretary, Thomas Townshend, AKA “Lord Sydney”, decided New South Wales would make a splendid new home for convicts, while at the same time adding a new land to the Empire. And so he ordered Captain Arthur Phillip to lead a fleet of ships to establish a colony down under.

The fleet was made up of 11 boats: two Royal Navy ships, six convict transports, and three supply vessels. Of the 1,400 people aboard (no accurate figures exist), only about half – some 580 men and 190 women (plus 14 of their children) – were actually convicts. The rest were the ships' crews and officials, plus 250 or so marines and their wives and children.

After weeks waiting in Portsmouth, they eventually put to sea on this day in 1787, and headed for the Canary Islands, where they took on fresh supplies. From there, they headed across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, where they stayed for a month, making repairs while the crew enjoyed Rio's delights. Then they headed for Cape Town, where they loaded up with plants and livestock.

After 250-odd days, 15,000 miles, and 48 deaths, the 11 ships finally arrived in Botany Bay. The first, HMS Supply, arrived on 18 January 1788, with the slower transports joining them on the 19th and 20th.

They didn't stay long – Botany Bay didn't live up to the star billing given it by Captain Cook. So they sailed round the corner, and, on 26 January, landed at Port Jackson, which Arthur Phillip immediately renamed Sydney.

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