1788: Australia Day and the Founding of Sydney

On this day in 1788 a settlement was founded on Sydney Cove that would become the capital of the new British colony of New South Wales and then grow into the great international city that it is today. Offering fresh water and a good location on Australia’s east coast, British governor Arthur Phillip enthusiastically proclaimed that it is “without exception the finest harbour in the world.”

The area had been discovered eighteen years earlier by the great explorer James Cook, who had landed in a bay in what is now the southern suburbs of Sydney and been so impressed by its variety of plants and animals that it had been christened “Botany Bay.” He returned to London highly recommending it as a place to start a settlement. In an age where European Imperial competition was hotting up, and particularly after the loss of the American colonies, this idea was seized upon by the British government. There was also a slightly less positive motive for the founding of a new colony, however. After the loss of the 13 colonies in America the government were looking for a new place to dump their criminals outside of Britain’s overcrowded jails, and as a result six of these boats were convict transports. In May 1787 eleven ships of The First Fleet left England to embark on one of history’s greatest sea voyages as this ragtag group of over a thousand people travelled into the unknown for 250 days through storm-tossed seas.

The First Fleet leaves Portsmouth

The first stage of the journey – from Portsmouth to Tenerife – was easy and pleasant enough, and both crew and passengers were allowed to sun themselves on deck. The turn southwards towards Rio de Janiero, however, brought the First Fleet’s first taste of hardship. Torrential tropical rains ceased access to the decks, and weeks without favourable winds left the passengers – particularly the convicts stuck below decks in sordid conditions as the ships drifted aimlessly and slowly ran out of water. Several died during these weeks, and the sailors allayed their boredom by going below and having illicit sex with female convicts and passengers. Predictably, there were several children conceived and born over the course of the long journey. A month-long stop in Rio from August brought respite and supplies, before the fleet set sail on a course to the east. One last stop at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa followed, before the last challenging months of the voyage began.

As the ships reached the Indian Ocean, sighted Tasmania and then finally began to head up the east coast of Australia, they were beset by freak storms that tested endurance to the limit. However, miraculously, they reached Botany Bay on the 19th January 1788 without having lost a single ship, and with only 48 deaths out of 1500 on such a long difficult voyage. That was the good news. The bad was that Botany Bay did not live up to Cook’s glowing description. The water was too shallow, the soil too poor, fresh water limited, and the natives suspicious. Even worse, their exposed position and drunken fighting between marines and convicts threatened the colony’s very existence. As a result, the commander of the exhibition, Captain Arthur Phillip, sought and gained permission to move elsewhere. On the 21st he and a few companions headed north to explore, and twelve miles north of Botany Bay he found Port Jackson, a place which had been named but barely noticed by Cook, but that met all his expectations of his Eden-like new home.

Captain Phillip

Over the next few days the convicts and settlers were moved to Port Jackson, which was then renamed Sydney, after the then-British Home Secretary Lord Sydney. The flag was planted, New South Wales was proclaimed a British Colony, and the history of Australia had begun. The settlers’ struggles did not end there. The First Fleet left them to fend for themselves, and sporadic fighting continued with local tribes until 1810, despite official British policy being to set up friendly relations with the indigenous peoples. The settlement survived and grew however, and was unrecognizable by the time the last “first-fleeter,” a female convict from Manchester called Betty King, died in 1856. Today the 26th January is celebrated every year across Australia as “Australia Day,” and is a key date in their calendar.

Australia Day 2017 – the arrival of the First Fleet is re-enacted