On 26 January 1788 a settlement was founded in Sydney Cove. It subsequently became the capital of the British colony of New South Wales. With fresh water and a gainful location on Australia’s east coast, British governor Arthur Phillip enthusiastically proclaimed that it was “without exception the finest harbour in the world.”
Its settlers were the officers, sailors and over 700 convicts of the First Fleet, a group of 11 ships that had set sail 250 days earlier from Portsmouth, England, over 15,000 miles away. The First Fleet was constituted by six convict transports, three store ships and two Navy vessels. On arriving in New South Wales, territory then inhabited by Aboriginal Australian groups, they founded a penal colony and initiated the European colonisation of Australia.
By the early 20th century, the First Fleet’s arrival was officially commemorated as “Australia Day”. Since the 1938 Day of Mourning protest, counter-observances have been held on the same day to recognise prejudice and discrimination against Indigenous Australians.
Charting Botany Bay
The area around Sydney Cove had first been charted on Europeans maps 18 years earlier by English explorer Captain James Cook. Cook surveyed land inhabited by clans of the Eora people, and what became the southern suburbs of Sydney.
He was so impressed by the region’s variety of flora and fauna that he gave it the name Botany Bay. He returned to London highly recommending the location at the place to start a settlement. In a period of increasing competition between imperial powers in Europe, and particularly after Britain’s loss of its American colonies, the prospect of colonising Australia was seized upon by the British government.
Central to the government’s objectives was the establishment of a penal colony where criminals could be transported beyond Britain’s overcrowded jails. Consequently, six of the boats in the First Fleet were convict transports.
In May 1787, the 11 ships of the First Fleet left England. The first stage of the journey, from Portsmouth to Tenerife, was pleasant enough: both crew and passengers were allowed to sun themselves on deck. The turn southwards towards Rio de Janiero, however, introduced new hardships.
Torrential tropical rains prevented access to the decks. Weeks without favourable winds left the passengers, particularly the convicts, stuck below decks in sordid conditions with diminishing supplies of water.
Several died during these weeks. A month-long stop in Rio from August brought respite and supplies before the fleet set sail on a course to the east. At the Dutch colony of Cape Town, the ships left the last European settlement of their journey. The fleet faced difficult conditions in the violent seas below the 40th parallel, where they encountered the strong westerly winds known as the “Roaring Forties”.
A land down under
Van Diemen’s Land was sighted by the ship Friendship on 4 January 1788. As the ships crawled along the eastern coast of Australia, the crews were beset by freak storms that tested their endurance. Nonetheless they reached Botany Bay on 19 January 1788 without having lost a single ship. Of the 1,500 people who had set off, 48 had died during the voyage.
The settlers discovered that Botany Bay did not quite live up to Cook’s glowing description. The water was too shallow, the soil too poor and the fresh water limited. Neither did they receive an excessively warm welcome from the Aboriginal Australians who already lived there.
Meanwhile, the colony was exposed to attack and poor discipline among the marines perturbed the expedition’s commander, Captain Arthur Phillip.
Phillip had been authorised to establish a colony elsewhere if necessary. As a result, Philip and a few companions travelled in three small boats to a better site 12 kilometres north. With sheltered anchorages, fresh water and fertile soil, Port Jackson — a place named but hardly noticed by Cook — proved much more suitable.
Philip later wrote of “the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand ship of the line may ride in the most perfect security.”
Settlement of Sydney
Over the next few days in January 1788, the convicts and settlers were moved to Port Jackson. The site was renamed Sydney Cove, after the then-British Home Secretary Lord Sydney. On 26 January, Philip and officers from the ship Supply planted the British flag and New South Wales was proclaimed a British colony.
The settlers’ struggles did not end there, and nor did those of the Indigenous Australians whom they would engage in sporadic conflict with until 1810. The settlement of Sydney grew and was unrecognizable by the time the last “first-fleeter,” a female convict from Manchester called Betty King, died in 1856.
What is Australia Day?
By the early 19th century, residents of the colony alluded to the date of the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney as a special occasion, and the first official celebration took place in 1818.
By the end of the century, most colonial capitals in Australia celebrated the anniversary, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that 26 January was being widely celebrated as “Australia Day”.
26 January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of British settlement in Australia. It was also the first year that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people publicly protested the brutality of colonisation and the dispossession of Indigenous land.
Purposefully coinciding with Australia Day celebrations, the 1938 Day of Mourning protest rejected reverential treatment of European settlers for demands that Aboriginal Australians achieve “full citizen status and equality within the community”, which they did not possess.
Day of Mourning protests and commemorations have been held in Australia since 1938.