The British Convicts Who Shaped Australia’s History

The story of Australia’s modern founding is deeply intertwined with the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships on the shores of Sydney Cove. On January 26th, this historic event is commemorated as Australia’s official national day. Let’s dive into the remarkable journey that led to the establishment of the first European settlement and penal colony in Australia.

The First Fleet’s Historic Voyage

The First Fleet, consisting of 11 ships, embarked on its voyage from Portsmouth, England on May 13th, 1787. This daring expedition aimed to transport around 1,000 convicts, along with seamen, officers, and free individuals, to the other side of the world. Two Royal Navy vessels and six ships were used for this momentous journey.

A Challenging Arrival

The Fleet initially sailed south towards South America before turning eastwards at Cape Town and venturing through the treacherous Great Southern Ocean. Finally, on January 21st, 1788, the ships arrived at Botany Bay, their intended destination. However, the bay fell short of their expectations.

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Arthur Phillip
Commodore Arthur Phillip, leader of the First Fleet

Botany Bay proved to be too shallow for the fleet to anchor near the shore and lacked strategic protection against potential attacks. Moreover, the area suffered from a scarcity of fresh water and poor soil quality. Attempts to establish primitive accommodations and clear land for settlement proved futile.

Discovering a New Home at Port Jackson

Realizing the unsuitability of Botany Bay, Commodore Arthur Phillip and his men embarked on a journey to search for a more suitable location. They explored the shoreline further north and stumbled upon Port Jackson. The bay showcased fertile soil, access to fresh water, and better anchorage for boats. This discovery marked the turning point for the new colony.

The First Fleet enters Port Jackson

Captain James Cook had previously noted the harbor’s potential but had not fully explored it. Commodore Phillip recognized Sydney Cove, within Port Jackson, as the perfect spot for their new settlement. They returned to Botany Bay to share the exciting news with the rest of the fleet.

On January 26th, the fleet sailed from Botany Bay to Port Jackson, where Commodore Phillip named the area Sydney Cove to honor Lord Sydney, the British Home Secretary. This momentous day marked the beginning of British settlement in Australia, a moment that continues to be celebrated centuries later.

The Convict Dilemma and the Rise of Transportation

During the Industrial Revolution, Britain faced a surge in petty crime due to economic hardship and unemployment. As prisons became overcrowded, the transportation of convicts to British colonies in North America became a solution. However, the American War of Independence brought an end to this practice as the new United States refused further convict transportations.

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With nowhere else to send their criminals, Britain decided that Australia would serve as the next destination for penal colonies. On December 6th, 1785, the Orders in Council were given, and the transportation of convicts to Australia began.

Life as a Convict

Convicts sent to Australia had committed various crimes, including theft, assault, robbery, and fraud. They were sentenced to penal transportation for seven, fourteen, or even life, despite the often minor nature of their offenses.

The journey to Australia was treacherous, and many convicts did not survive. Over 2,000 of them died during the voyage, mainly from illnesses caused by cramped and unsanitary conditions. The lack of adequate supplies led to widespread hunger and starvation.

Upon arrival, convicts faced grueling labor as part of their punishment. Whether it was brick-making, timber cutting, or other necessary tasks for the settlement’s survival, the convicts toiled under sweltering conditions with meager food. Tobacco was often the only reward for a job well done.

Flogging of a convict in Tasmania, Australia

The treatment of convicts was harsh, with lashings and excessive punishment being the norm. Those who did not behave accordingly were sent to places like Tasmania and Norfolk Island for further punishment and prolonged periods of solitary confinement.

The Changing Tide

Over time, opposition to the severe treatment of convicts grew. Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Bourke, the ninth Governor of New South Wales, passed the Magistrates Act to limit the use of force, signaling a shift in attitudes towards excessive punishment.

The transportation penal system reached its peak in the 1830s, after which the number of convicts dwindled. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia on January 10th, 1868. Other settlements, such as Victoria and South Australia, were established as free colonies. Gradually, protests and changing perspectives on crime and punishment led to the end of the penal system.

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Convicts who survived their sentence eventually became emancipated and joined their fellow Australians as free settlers. However, the social stigma attached to their pasts continued to affect them throughout their lives.


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The transportation of convicts from Britain to penal colonies in Australia played a significant role in shaping the country’s history. Thousands of lives endured immense hardships as punishment for minor crimes committed in the UK. Today, as we commemorate Australia Day, let us remember the sacrifices and struggles that paved the way for the vibrant nation we know today.

Jessica Mind is a freelance writer specializing in history. She is based in Kent and has a deep passion for all things historical.

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