First Fleet




David Whitley raises a glass to the unwilling pioneers who first settled in Australia back in 1788


Captain Cook wasn’t, as many people believe, the first person to discover Australia. The Aboriginal people who’d been on the continent for 50,000 years might have something to say about that, but Dutch and Portuguese explorers had been here way before Cook arrived in 1770.


It was Cook’s timing that counted, however. The industrial revolution was just about to properly kick in, and there was both massive population growth and urbanization. People were moving to the cities to find work, then discovering that no work was available. Many had to steal food to survive. 


By 1788, the American Revolution had ensured that the convenient option of sending criminals to the States was no longer an option. With prisons chock-a-block, the powers that be decided that it may be worth investigating the mysterious landmass on the other side of the world that Cook had claimed for Britain.


And so the First Fleet was sent, in what must have been an incomparable journey. No European had visited what was then known as Botany Bay since Cook 18 years earlier; these people were being sent completely into the unknown. It’s like being sent to the moon in order to set up a colony, but with even less knowledge of what to expect than we have about Neil Armstrong’s conquest.


Also, if we were colonizing the moon, we would probably send those with the skills to do so. In 1788, this was about getting rid of undesirables rather than providing the talents needed to complete such a task. Aside from a few military types whose job it was to keep order and the odd trained craftsman who had ended up on the wrong side of the tracks, most of Australia’s first settlers were unskilled labourers.


These people were being sent, almost certainly permanently, to somewhere that had nothing. All they had to go on were tales of strange creatures; it wasn’t known whether the land would be suitable for farming, there was zero infrastructure and it could have been a disease-ridden hellhole for all they knew. 


Think about it; these people spent months at sea in horribly cramped conditions – many would die at sea in later voyages until the Government started paying by the convict safely landed rather than the convict taken away. And they didn’t know what to expect when they finally disembarked. No-one knew what to expect, even those nominally in charge. It was one of the greatest leaps of faith in history, and most of those taking it were not doing so by choice.



As it happens, there was good land (although not at Botany Bay as first expected – the First Fleet hit lucky by going slightly further up the coast to Port Jackson – now better known as Sydney Harbour). The diseases were also largely brought in by the Europeans – far more Aboriginal Australians died as a result of imported disease than skirmishes with the settlers. It is still less than 250 years since these unwilling pioneers arrived – tens of thousands were to follow as the transportation system kicked in – and how Australia has changed since is remarkable.


Many indigenous Australians now regard January 26th 1788 as Invasion Day. To other Australians, January 25th is Australia Day in commemoration of when the First Fleet landed. Leaving aside the race politics and moral issues, it’s a day to raise a glass. Not to the system, not to the repercussions and not necessarily to the country itself – but to those undoubtedly terrified petty criminals who were unwillingly sent completely into the unknown. There will probably never be another journey like it.


The Immigration Museum in Melbourne gives a decent overview of the transportation system, as does Port Arthur in Tasmania. But if you want to properly read up on it, then The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes is magnificent.


Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at