Topic: Politics & GovernmentGovernment

Last updated: March 6, 2019

Convict transportation to Australia officially began in 1788 when Britain’s First Fleet arrived at its shores. The Government organised operation meant great care and consideration was taken into account when transporting the people and also providing for their basic needs while onboard.

The voyage of the First Fleet was a journey of its own kind and is seen as a remarkable achievement. Given the hardships of the voyage, the navigational issues, poor conditions, inexperience, lack of knowledge and precautions, inadequate equipment and poor planning, it was quite a success. Gov. Arthur Phillip was appointed to command the First Fleet in 1786, and would depart from Portsmouth on the 13 May, 1787, with two naval escorts, six convict transports carrying 1,400 convicts, and three food and supply transport ships. Onboard the convict ships of the First Fleet, with fine weather, the convicts were allowed on deck to spend time and exercise, mainly throughout the first stages of the voyage. This was until the weather became increasingly hot and humid while travelling through the tropics. Vermin and parasites tormented the convicts, marines and officers during this time and a number of convicts fell sick and died. Tropical rainstorms meant that the convicts were not able to exercise above deck and were held below in cramped conditions.

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After this period on sickness onboard the ships, Gov. Phillip ordered large quantities of food for the fleet and new clothing for women made from rice sacks, to replace those that had been infested with lice and consequently burned. Leading to the final stages of the voyage, the convicts were provided with fresh beef and mutton, bread and vegetables, to build up their strength for the journey. Despite poor conditions and planning, Gov. Arthur Phillip placed great effort and actions to ensure the safe arrival of his fleet to Botany Bay, using a strategic route and consistently providing provisions and needed materials at each stop of the journey. The First Fleet first sailed through the Canary currents and stopped at Santa Cruz for one week to collect food supplies from the 3-10 of June. The ships continued to sail to Rio de Janeiro, taking advantage of the Brazil currents and gales of the latitudes. The fleet arrived in Rio on the 5th of August and stayed for a month for repairs and to collect provisions.

Once these were complete, the ships left Rio on the 3rd of September for the Cape of Good Hope, and would arrive in mid-October. This was the last port of call, at this stop, the fleet collected its final provisions, all livestock, plants and seeds and continued on the final leg of the journey. The first ship reached Botany Bay on 18th of January, 1788, followed by the rest of the fleet on the 19-20 of January. On arrival, the conditions greeted by Gov. Arthur Phillip and his fleet were quite different to that of Captain Cook expedition during winter.

The Fleet Fleet arrived in January, during the summer season. Fresh water was scarce and there was poor quality soil. The bay was open and unprotected and was unsuitable to begin a colony. With this judgement, Gov. Arthur Phillip took a small party to explore other surrounding bays on 21 January. On this short exploration, he discovered Port Jackson, immediately to the north. This port was sheltered, and had water and fresh soil.

The port had a narrow entrance and was safe and secure inside. On the 26th of January, 1788, the colony weighed anchor in Port Jackson and began establishing a colony within Sydney Cove, within the protected bay’s deep waters.The Second Fleet of British convict transportation ships was dramatically different to the experience of the pioneering fleet and held quite different conditions and treatments to that of the First Fleet. The Second Fleet was comprised of one Royal Navy Escort, four convict transport ships and on supply ship. They were intended to sail together and arrive at Sydney Cove in 1789, though the escort was disabled on route and failed to make the destination and one convict ship was delayed and arrived two months after the fleet. One defining difference between the First and Second Fleets was that the Second Fleet was contracted by a private business, who had no obligation to ensure the health and wellbeing of the convicts, and therefore held the convicts in terrible conditions. The firm assigned to transport the convicts had previously transported slaves to North America and for this transportation, wee paid ahead of the voyage by head instead of how many would arrive.

The Second Fleet departed England on 19 January 1790, carrying 1,006 convicts (928 men and 78 women) on board. The fleet made a faster trip than the previous fleet of ships as they only stopped at the Cape of Good Hope during their journey. The fleet arrived in Port Jackson in the last week of June 1790, with many sickly and starving. Although the voyage was relatively fast for the time, the mortality rate was the highest ever recorded in the history of transportation to Australia.

Of the convicts that embarked the transport ships, 26% died during the journey. Convicts were deliberately starved, kept heavily ironed, and were consistently refused access on deck


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