First Fleet


May 17, 2022

The fleet of ships that left Portsmouth in England on May 13, 1787 to colonize Australia is referred to as the First Fleet. A total of 756 prisoners and 550 crew members were on board. Captain Arthur Phillip was in command of the eleven ships.


At the end of the 18th century, a permanent solution to the deportation of convicts was urgently needed in Great Britain. Convicts had been exiled to North America since 1611, but with the start of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 and recognition by the United States in 1783, this was no longer possible. As a way out, convicts were housed on disused and dismantled warships (hulks), on the Thames and elsewhere, where they vegetated in catastrophic conditions. For fear of epidemics and revolts, Home and Colonial Secretary Lord Sydney convened a committee of experts to find a new place of exile. Botany Bay in Australia was chosen, which according to James Cook's reports seemed suitable. In early 1787, the first criminals, sentenced to years in exile - often for comparatively minor crimes such as stealing food - were brought from dungeons and hulks onto the ships. The youngest was John Hudson (age 13), the eldest Elizabeth Beckford (age 70).


The fleet put to sea on May 13, 1787. The first stop was in Tenerife, where fresh meat and water were picked up. In Rio de Janeiro they bought rum for the marines, seeds and seedlings of plants from warm countries, such as coffee, cotton, indigo and prickly pears. The last stop was at the Cape of Good Hope where cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens were taken away. Then the Roaring Forties crossed the Indian Ocean. Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) was sighted on January 1, 1788, and the first ships landed in Botany Bay on January 18. A few days later, the ships of the La Pérouse expedition were encountered here. Contrary to James Cook's reports, Botany Bay proved unsuitable for a settlement. Arthur Phillip looked for a better place and found Sydney Cove, a cove in the natural harbor of Port Jackson. The ships reached this bay on January 26, today celebrated as Australia Day. The new settlement was named Sydney in honor of Lord Sydney. The Supply continued sailing to Norfolk Island in February, where another settlement was established.

Ships of the Fleet

The fleet consisted of eleven ships: naval escort HMS Sirius, 511 tons, flagship HMS Supply Convict Transporter Alexander Charlotte friendship Lady Penrhyn Prince of Wales Scarborough Supply Ships Borrowdale Fishburn Golden Grove models of all ships are on display at the Museum of Sydney. Nine Sydney harbor ferries in service today are named after ships in the First Fleet (Lady Penrhyn and Prince of Wales are not currently used).


The death rate was rather moderate for that time.

Composition by Nations

Among the 732 convicts were, in addition to the English and Welsh who could be identified, about 180 Scots and Irish, 14 North Americans, 12 Africans, 9 Jews, and persons from France, Germany, Norway, Portugal, India, Sweden and the West Indies islands.

See also

Second Fleet Third Fleet history of Australia Penal colony Australia


Georg-Michael Fleischer: The ship's surgeons of the First Fleet. In: Surgical General, Volume 21, Issue 9 (2020), pp. 431-436, with biographical appendix pp. 437-439.

Web Links

Single image of all ships of the First Fleet A Society of Descendants of First Fleet Settlers Article about the First Fleet List of First Fleet prisoners including their sentences