With the American revolt and subsequent Declaration of Independence in 1776, transportation fell, for some time, into disuse. Many criminals who would formerly have been transported were instead employed at hard labour in their native land under the terms of an Act passed in 1776. The prisons became overcrowded and prison hulks (disused warships moored in the Thames at Woolwich, and at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth) were used to house those convicts who had been given a sentence of transportation. The conditions for the prisoners became worse and worse, and as an alternative the government considered transporting convicts to Gibraltar or Africa. Gibraltar was, however, found unsuitable and the Admiralty sent the sloop Nautilaus to explore the west coast of Africa. Africa, too, was considered unsuitable for a penal colony, although there is evidence to show that a small number of convicts were in fact sent there – twenty-two convicts were transported in the Recovery to Cape Coast Castle in 1785.
Eight years after transportation to America had ended it was felt that the large numbers of criminals given this punishment and held on board prison hulks could be more usefully employed in Britain’s proposed settlement in the southern hemisphere. In 1784 another Act was passed, which, although it did not specifically mention New South Wales as a destination for transportees, ordered that transportation should resume as a regular procedure. This, the Act stated, would relieve the pressure that had built up in the gaols and prison hulks.
Eventually Botany Bay was chosen and Arthur Phillip was given the task of establishing a settlement there for both convicts and free settlers. The First Fleet, carrying 778 convicts, departed on 13 May 1787 from Portsmouth. It sailed via Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Cape Town, South Africa. The fleet consisted of six transport vessels under contract from private owners: Alexander (448 tons; master, Duncan Sinclair), Charlotte (339 tons; master, Thomas Gilbert), Friendship (276 tons; master, Francis Walton), Lady Penryn (331 tons; master, William Sever), Prince of Wales (334 tons; master, John Mason), Scarborough (420 tons; master, John Marshall). There were also three store ships: Borrowdale (274 tons; master, Readthon Hobson), Fishburn (378 tons; master, Robert Brown), Golden Grove (master, Captain Sharp). The Royal Navy escort consisted of two ships: HMS Sirius (540 tons; commodore, Captain Arthur Phillip) and HM brigantine the Supply (170 tons; commanded by Lt Henry Ball). On 18 January 1788 the Supply was the first ship to arrive at Botany Bay, two days in advance of the rest of the fleet, after a voyage of eight months.
There is often confusion about the first place of settlement of the people of the First Fleet. Captain Phillip soon discovered that Botany Bay offered no shelter from the easterly winds; that the land was swampy and the fresh water was of poor quality. He explored the coast further north and discovered what he described as, ‘Without exception, the finest and most extensive harbour in the universe and at the same time the most secure, being safe from all winds that blow.’ He named this place after Viscount Sydney, who was responsible for sending him on his mission. On 26 January 1788 the fleet assembled in Sydney Cove. Captain Phillip hoisted the British flag, ‘and possession was taken for His Majesty’.
The transportation of convicts continued uninterrupted until 1836 when there was much discontent voiced in Britain about its utility. Some believed it far too harsh a punishment, while others argued that an even more severe punishment should be enforced. In 1837 a House of Commons Select Committee was set up to enquire into transportation of convicts. The outcome of this enquiry was that those convicts sentenced to seven years’ transportation, or less, should either remain in Britain or be sent to Bermuda or Gibraltar. Some male convicts who were of the right age and physical stature were given the option of joining the army or navy as an alternative to being transported.
Transportation to New South Wales continued until 1840. Up to that time many of the convicts of ‘worst character’ had been transferred from New South Wales to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Much to the relief of the authorities and free settlers, transportation to New South Wales then ceased and in 1841 convicts were shipped directly to either Van Diemen’s Land or Norfolk Island, and this continued until 1853. It was not until 1850 that convicts were transported to Western Australia, the last ship being the Hougoumont, with 279 male convicts on board, which arrived in 1868 (one convict had died on the voyage).
Many convicts were granted pardons in Australia after serving a period of good behaviour, a number of these taking up minor positions in government service. The prisons in Australia were almost entirely staffed by ex-convicts.
To return from transportation within the period of sentence was punishable by death until 1834, when this was reduced to transportation for life. Transportation was finally abolished in 1868 and was superseded by a system of penal servitude. It is estimated that between 1788 and 1868 about 170,000 men and women (and some children) had been transported, and for the first fifty years about 40 per cent of the total population in Australia was made
up from the criminal classes.
It is the ambition of many Australians to trace their ancestry back to one of the people who arrived in Australia on board a ship in the First Fleet, and thereby qualify for membership of the Fellowship of First Fleeters, or the 1788–1820 Pioneers Association. Although the fleet brought officials, free settlers and, of course, many seamen to Australia, the largest single group was that of the 788 convicts and it is probable that most genealogists who prove
their right to be a First Fleeter will do so through a convict ancestor. Many more will be able to trace their descent from one of the many thousands of convicts who subsequently found themselves bound for Australia during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Not all Australians with links back to the early nineteenth century can claim criminal ancestry. Free Settlers had decided to make a life for themselves in the new land and were encouraged to do so by government land grants and other concessions. Most officials posted by the government in London to this remote outpost served out their term of duty and returned to Britain, but not all. Some preferred to stay and their descendants are now Australians. Some naval personnel also remained in New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land when their ship sailed for home – sometimes with the permission of their captain and sometimes without.
Extracted from Bound for Australia by David T. Hawkins