State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 41 Autumn 1988


The Voyage of the First Fleet

The establishment of a permanent settlement in New South Wales, the most enduring single change to the history of the Pacific, began when the eleven ships of the First Fleet under Commodore Arthur Phillip set sail in May 1787. The voyage of the First Fleet was the most significant act of longdistance colonization ever undertaken and was the largest incursion of ships into the Pacific, equalled only by the United States Exploring Expedition in 1838.
Following Britain's defeat in the American War of Independence, the British government began seeking a new site for a penal colony. In 1779 Sir Joseph Banks advocated Botany Bay but his suggestion was not pursued. Meanwhile the pressure to solve the convict problem mounted. The resumption of transportation to Africa, where several earlier attempts had failed disastrously, was again suggested and in 1783–4 new attempts were made to land convicts in North America. These proved unsuccessful. In 1783 James Mario Matra, an American Loyalist who had sailed in the Endeavour, possibly acting as spokesman for a small, informal group which included Banks and Admiral Sir George Young, proposed New South Wales as a trading post, peopled with American Loyalists and perhaps convicts. In 1785 Young published a pamphlet recommending Botany Bay for a naval base and trading post.1
By August 1786 Botany Bay had been fixed upon as the site for a convict settlement.2 In September, following the decision by George III, the future colonisation of the east coast of Australia and the establishment of a penal colony at Botany Bay became reality. In October Captain Arthur Phillip was appointed Governor of New South Wales. Seven months later, on 13 May 1787, the First Fleet sailed from Spithead, consisting of two naval vessels, H.M.S. Sirius and H. M.Brig Supply, three store ships, the Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove, and six convict transports, the Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Prince of Wales and Scarborough.
On 18 January 1788 Phillip arrived at Botany Bay but soon decided that it was unsuitable for permanent settlement. After examining Port Jackson to the north he quickly moved the ‘thief settlement’ to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson, although in the public imagination it was permanently known after the name of its intended destination at Botany Bay.
On 26 January 1788, with the entire fleet anchored in Port Jackson, the British flag was raised and Governor Phillip took formal possession of New South Wales. Within days Phillip set about establishing a secondary settlement on Norfolk Island to begin cultivating the flax plant which was needed for ropes. On 14 February Lieutenant Philip Gidley King sailed for Norfolk Island in the Supply accompanied by two surgeon's mates, a petty officer, two marines, two seamen to cultivate flax, nine convict men and six convict women.
The transports and store ships which had made up the First Fleet began to leave Port Jackson as soon as they landed their cargoes. When the Alexander, Borrowdale, Friendship and Prince of Wales left on 14 July 1788 to make their way back to England they took with them, in addition to many letters from the isolated community in New South Wales, the manuscript of Captain Watkin Tench's narrative of the expedition which was to be published in London, a long letter from Surgeon James Callam of the Sirius to his brother in London and the Governor's detailed despatches to the British government. The last vessels to leave, the storeships Fishburn and Golden Grove, departed on 19 November.
Although there is as much truth as wit in Sir John Seeley's much-quoted observation that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind, there can be no doubt that the English public showed more than a passing interest in the progress of the ‘thief settlement’ at Botany Bay when, at the end of March 1789, First Fleet ships began to arrive back in England after an absence of almost two years. There was a ready market for the six individual published accounts which came out within twelve months of the return of First Fleet ships. Public interest in New South Wales remained keen enough over the following decade to encourage the publication of three other substantial accounts by officers who accompanied the First Fleet. In several cases these books went through several editions and were translated into French, German, Dutch and even Swedish. By and large these various accounts demonstrate a remarkable consistency, with little intrusion of personality and bias. Although there are some small anomalies and although there is some indication that the ‘gentlemen’ were careful to protect each others' reputations,3 these books offer the modern reader a detailed insight into the foundation of our nation.
The earliest separately printed account of the new settlement was probably an undated broadside Extract of a journal from England to Botany Bay written by Richard Williams, a common seaman. This ephemeral production — a single sheet printed on one side and without an imprint — is of special interest since it gives us some idea how the common man saw the adventure of the First Fleet voyage and his reactions to the new land. Williams shows himself to be a gentle, good man, very interested in the aborigines. Such broadsides were frequently printed at that time as a way of broadcasting news before the days of the mass-circulation newspaper. The first authentic account of the colony to be published in book form was a small volume by a marine officer, Watkin Tench. It was published in London at 3s. 6d. by the noted London publisher Debrett on 24 April, 1789 under the title A Narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay.
Tench, a widely-read man and an accomplished writer, was born in Chester, where his father conducted a boarding school. He entered the marine corps in 1776 and fought in the American War of

‘Natives of Botany Bay’. From Arthur Phillip's The voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay.

Independence. In 1786 he volunteered for a tour of duty in New South Wales and sailed aboard the Charlotte transport as captain-lieutenant, celebrating his thirtieth birthday shortly after he landed at Botany Bay. His charitable and sensitive disposition ensured that he was a well-liked member of the isolated community in Sydney Cove. A most acute and perceptive observer of men, his shrewd judgement of their motives and weaknesses never turned to cynicism or censure. He liked his fellow man and wrote of him with generosity and gentle irony. An enthusiastic explorer, he discovered the Nepean River, tracing it to the Hawkesbury.
Tench had arranged with his publisher to write an account of the voyage and the settlement before he left England4 and in his leisure hours he set down his observations of events and personalities in the new settlement in an easy, natural, but literate, style that remains eminently readable today. His book was an immediate success and went through three editions by the end of 1789, was pirated in Dublin and was translated into Dutch, French and German. In 1793, after his return to
England, Tench published a second — and grander — account of New South Wales which brings his record of events down to the end of the first four years of settlement.5
When Tench's 1789 Narrative was published it competed for public attention with one or two other books or pamphlets. The first and most important was an anomymous fraud, hastily put together by a hack writer on the basis of an interesting series of articles published in the “London Chronicle” newspaper between 24 March and 28 March. These newspaper articles are the earliest printed accounts of the settlement of historical Australia.6 Two enterprising London publishers, Forster and Stock-dale, quickly brought the articles together into a slim — but, at 2s. 6d., not an inexpensive — book which was published on 2 April 1789.7 This was the first of four or five editions under different titles to be published over the next few months. As well, another short but authentic eye-witness account was published in June or July 1789. This sixpenny pamphlet was, in fact, a private letter written by James Callam, surgeon on the Sirius, which was published in London by his brother.8 But Tench's little book towers over its cheap competitors; with his words we are as close to the first settlement as the printed word can take us.
The best-known and most detailed publication from that remarkable year 1789 is The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay published by a leading London publisher, John Stockdale. Governor Arthur Phillip was born in 1738 and served his apprenticeship in the mercantile service. He was transferred to the Navy during the Seven Years War and appointed lieutenant in 1761. Between 1774 and 1778 he served as captain in the Portuguese navy, returning to the British service in 1778. On 12 October 1786 he was appointed Governor of the proposed colony in New South Wales. From the moment he accepted his new commission, Phillip confirmed the wisdom of his appointment and showed a notable aptitude for administrative matters. He had a clear vision of the new settlement as a free society and not merely a repository for criminals. Although he tried to pursue this policy in the colony, he was to find himself constantly frustrated by the indifference and short-sightedness of British politicians.
Stockdale's substantial volume, issued originally in parts between July and December 1789, was compiled from several sources, including Phillip's official reports to the government, but was published without his active collaboration. These various official papers, personal logs of ships' masters and other private communications were worked up and given the appropriate literary feel by Stockdale's editor, which was normal pratice at the time. It is a full record of events both on land and on sea in the first months of the settlement, describing newly discovered animal life and providing detailed charts of Port Jackson, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. The most interesting and famous of the charts is the earliest plan of the settlement at Sydney Cove, drawn in July 1788 by Lieutenant William Dawes and Captain John Hunter and published by Stockdale on 7 July 1789, over two weeks before the earliest separately issued plan of the settlement, believed to be the work of the convict Francis Fowkes, which was published in London by R. Cribb on 24 July.9
As the officially sanctioned account, this book was highly successful and was printed in a large edition. Nevertheless, the first edition was poorly arranged and put together haphazardly as information came in from the different sources. Consequently, Stockdale published a more carefully arranged second edition in 1790, followed by a third edition and two abbreviated editions. Phillip's Voyage continued to be reprinted in various forms for many years in English and several editions were published in French and German. In the years following 1789 the later despatches of Governor Phillip found an interested public. As with the earlier Stockdale publication these later books are based on Phillip's reports to government and were not written with publication in mind.10
In the last months of 1789, Debrett, who had published Tench's first book, put out another book related to the expedition of the First Fleet: Thomas Gilbert's Voyage from New South Wales to Canton. Gilbert was Commander of the convict transport Charlotte, which sailed from Port Jackson to Canton to pick up a cargo of tea for the return trip, and his journal commences with the departure of his ship from New South Wales. Debrett published it as a companion volume to another of his First Fleet books, Surgeon General John White's Journal of a voyage to New South Wales, and for this reason Gilbert unfortunately does ‘not enter upon any account of the new settlement.’
White's Journal, published in 1790, commences with the sailing of the First Fleet and describes the first ten months of settlement. Little is known of John White's early life. It is thought that he was born in 1756. We do know that he entered the navy in 1778 as third surgeon's mate aboard H.M.S. Wasp. He was awarded his surgeon's diploma in 1781 and in the following years travelled widely on naval service. In October 1786 he was appointed chief surgeon to the First Fleet and stayed on in
the colony as Surgeon General, a post he held until his departure in December 1794.
White spent his few free hours in the colony recording the natural history of this new world. In particular, he investigated the curative powers of native plants, a necessary exercise due to the scarcity of medical supplies in the early years. While White's interest in natural history was typical of his time and his class, he brought to it a zeal that was not at all typical. He appears to have had assigned to him a number of convicts who were competent draughtsmen, most notably the convict artist Thomas Watling, who produced many sketches and finished watercolour drawings for him. Whether White himself had any artistic ability is not known but he did send drawings, and possibly specimens, for inclusion in Phillip's Voyage and the sixteen plates in Sir James Smith's Specimen of the botany of New Holland of 1793 are said to be from his drawings. As might be expected, White's journal contains much detailed observation of animal and, above all, bird life in the colony. It includes sixtyfive engraved plates illustrating the natural history of New South Wales accompanied in the text by scientific descriptions from English experts. It was a popular book at the time and appealed particularly to the gentry — an interest in natural history was particularly fashionable then — and Debrett produced a special issue with the plates hand-coloured for this aristocratic market. White's journal was highly regarded in Europe and was translated into German, Swedish and French.
On 1 January 1793 Stockdale published a sequel to his 1789 publication of Phillip's Voyage: Governor John Hunter's An Historical journal of the transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island. Hunter was born on 29 August 1737 at Leith in Scotland. He enrolled in the navy as an able seaman in 1755. Rising through the ranks, he was appointed to the rank of first lieutenant in 1782 and given command of his own sloop. In 1786 Hunter was appointed second captain of the HMS Sirius under Governor Phillip and was given a dormant commission as successor to the Governor. He gave loyal service in New South Wales, but on 19 February 1790 the Sirius under his command was wrecked off Norfolk Island and he had to return to England where he was completely exonerated. At the beginning of 1794 he was commissioned as Governor of New South Wales, assuming office on 11 September 1795.
While in England Hunter collaborated in the publication of his journal. However, as with Stock-dale's edition of Phillip's Voyage, his edition of Hunter's Journal was also a compilation based on

‘An amphibious animal of the mole kind’. From David Collins' An account of the English colony in New South Wales.

material from several sources, including official ones. Quite apart from the historical value of the text, all the maps and plates in this volume are important. One plate in particular, “View of the Settlement on Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 20th August, 1788” after an original sketch by Hunter, is well known as the earliest representation of the town of Sydney. Another plate, of an aboriginal family, is after a sketch by Philip Gidley King and is engraved by the famous English poet and artist William Blake. An abridged edition of Hunter's journal was published in 1793 and it was translated into German and Swedish
The last and most thorough of the First Fleet journals was written by Judge Advocate David Collins, who was also the Governor's Secretary and close friend. From the time of his arrival in Sydney Cove Collins was preparing a detailed chronicle of the colony.11 Collins finally left New South Wales in 1796 — he was the last of the First Fleet authors to do so — and two years later in London he published his chronicle under the title An Account of the English colony in New South Wales. The great value of Collins' text is that because of his close association with Governor Phillip and his central role in the colony's administration he was in a perfect position to compile a detailed and informed record of all important transactions in the colony. His account commences in 1786 with the preparations for the First Fleet expedition and follows in painstaking detail the progress of events from that point until his departure in 1796. In a long appendix he reports his own intelligent and compassionate observations of aboriginal life and customs.
Collins' Account has aptly been described as the first history of New South Wales, not just because
he strives for meticulous completeness but because he was careful to be as objective as possible. Collins writes not as a private individual sharing in a new adventure, as Tench, White and Hunter had, but as a chronicler who takes care not to intrude his personality and private interests between his reader and the events he records. The finely engraved plates which illustrate his book, considered to be after sketches by Thomas Watling, the convict artist who worked for John White, offer a topographically accurate picture of Sydney and Parramatta in the 1790s. The Watling plates in the appendix illustrating aboriginal customs are of the greatest interest as the earliest ethnographically accurate portrayal of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Sydney area in the years following the first settlement. Collins' volume was well received and in 1799 was translated into German.
In 1802 Collins published a second volume bringing the account down to the departure of Governor Hunter in 1800. Although it was not openly admitted, most of this second volume is based on

‘Yoo-long Erah-ba-diang 1.’ From David Collins' An account of the English colony in New South Wales.

Hunter's own papers, supplemented by official Government Orders, court records and official despatches. As well, Collins had access to several early journals of exploration, including those of Bass, Flinders, Price and Hacking in which the existence of the koala, the first sighting of a wombat on mainland Australia, and the discovery of the lyrebird are recorded and illustrated. An abbreviated second edition in one volume was published in 1804. Collins started work on this late in 1802 but when he was appointed to found a colony at Port Phillip in January 1803 the job was completed by his wife, Maria. For decades Collins' massive work was the basis of most plagiarized ‘histories’ and historical compilations on New South Wales and it was not until 1819 that this role was superseded in some degree by William Charles Wentworth's Statistical, historical and political description of the colony of New South Wales.
The unique way in which historical Australia was first settled by Europeans, through a single act of long-distance colonization, made it possible for a
thorough contemporary published record to be created. That a detailed chronicle of our nation's origins remains available to succeeding generations of Australians is a privilege shared by few other peoples. The First Fleet books are the foundation of that continuous record.

Exhibition Items

Phillip, Arthur, 1738–1814
The voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay; with an account of the establishment of the colonies of Port Jackson & Norfolk Island … London, Printed for John Stockdale …, 1789. (4to)
Ferguson 47.
Tench, Watkin, 1759?–1853
A narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay; with an account of New South Wales … London, Printed for J. Debrett …, 1789. (4to)
Ferguson 48.
Hunter, John, 1737–1821
An historical account of the transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island … London, Printed for John Stockdale …, 1793. (4to)
Ferguson 152.
Collins, David, 1756–1810
An account of the English colony in New South Wales …, London, Printed for T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies …, 1798–1802. (4to)
Ferguson 263, 350.
White, John, d. 1832
Journal of a voyage to New South Wales with sixty-five plates of nondescript animals, birds, lizards, serpents … London, Printed for J. Debrett …, 1790. (4to)
Ferguson 97; Ford, E. Bib. Aust. medicine, 2495.


Sir George Young … Rough outline of the many advantages that may result to this nation, from a settlement made on the coast of New South Wales (n.p., n.d. [London, 1785]).


Historical records of New South Wales Vol. 1, Part ii, p. 14.


3. While the published journals are quite candid about the private lives of the convicts, they omit ‘delicate’ personal details of the officers. One scours them in vain, for instance, to find mention of the convict mistresses almost all the officers took, much less the children they fathered. Selective reporting in even lesser matters is also evident, as for instance in the case of the — probably drunken — duel fought between Surgeon General John White and his assistant William Balmain which is only known from the letters of the gossipy Lieutenant Ralph Clark and the diary of Private John Easty; see Paul Fidlon and R. J. Ryan (ed.) The Journal and letters of Lt. Ralph Clark (Sydney, 1981, p. 269) and John Easty Memorandum of the transactions of a voyage from England to Botany Bay (Sydney, 1965, p. 105).


George Worgan, Journal of a First Fleet surgeon (Sydney, 1978, p. 57).


Watkin Tench, A Complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales, including an accurate description of the situation of the colony; of the natives; and of its natural productions (London, 1793).


For an edition of these articles and a discussion of their importance see Jonathan Wantrup First news from Botany Bay (Sydney, 1987).


An Authentic journal of the expedition under Commodore Phillips to Botany Bay with an account of the settlement made at Port Jackson; and a description of the inhabitants, &c. With copy of a letter from Captain Tench of the Marines; and a list of the Civil and Military Establishment. To which is added an historical narrative of the discovery of New Holland, or, New South Wales. By an Officer. Illustrated with a general chart of New Holland and Botany Bay, with the adjacent countries, and new-discovered islands. (London, C. Forster, 1789).


A letter from Mr James Callam, surgeon of his Majesty's ship Supply, to his brother, Mr Alexander Callam, of East Smithfield, London; containing an account of a voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay, &c. With a short description of the inhabitants, and the settlement of the colony. (London, Stalker, 1789).


9. ‘Sketch and description of the settlement at Sydney Cove Port Jackson …’ (London, Cribb, July 24 1789). See Tim McCormick et al First views of Australia 1788–1825 (Chippendale, N.S.W., 1987, Plate 3).


10. Phillip's reports and despatches appeared in three Parliamentary Papers in 1791 and 1792: Extracts of letters, &c. and accounts, relative to the settlements in New South Wales. (April 1791); Accounts and papers relating to convicts on board the Hulks, and those transported to New South Wales. (March 1792); Extracts of letters, &c. from Governor Phillip relating to New South Wales. (May 1792). In 1791 the London publisher Debrett made the first of these available in a more public form as Extracts of letters from Arthur Phillip. He issued a public version of the second and third Parliamentary Papers in 1792 as Copies and extracts of letters from Governor Phillip.


George Worgan, Journal of a First Fleet surgeon (Sydney, 1978, p. 57).