On this day 228 years ago the first ships of the so-called First Fleet – a convoy of two Royal Navy escort ships, six convict transports, and three store ships – arrived at Botany Bay, New South Wales, Australia. The territory had been claimed for Britain in April 1770 by the explorer James Cook while on his first voyage to the Pacific. In December 1785 it was declared a penal colony, as England needed a new alternative to the former North American penal colonies they had lost to the by then independent United States. The First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip (later first Governor of the new colony), set off from Portsmouth harbour on 13 May 1787 with ca. 1,500 people on board (convicts, crew, marines and officers, some with family), to arrive about 250 days later (after a voyage of 24,000 km) at the destination recommended by James Cook and his botanist Joseph Banks. Upon inspection, Captain Phillip found Botany Bay inhospitable and discovered 12 km further north what Cook had named Port Jackson (part of today’s harbour of Sydney). Here all ships finally anchored, and on 26 January 1788 Phillip hissed the British flag on land at a place he baptised Sydney Cove. It marked the beginning of European settlement in Australia, and the end to the continent’s 40,000 years of relative isolation. The day is still celebrated as Australia Day.

Facts about the First Fleet and interesting links to related material can be found at Project Gutenberg Australia. Diverse documents about the First Fleet and its cargo are offered at the Discover Collections page of the State Library, New South Wales. The Australian government provides yet another angle on Convicts and the British Colonies in Australia.

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