The First Fleet Peat Family

Copyright Carol Baxter 2012
Prepared for Peat descendant Jeanette Bradley

The First Fleet Voyage

To all it must appear a striking proof of the flourishing state of navigation in the present age, and a singular illustration of its fast progress since the early nautical efforts of mankind; that whereas the ancients coasted with timidity along the shores of the Mediterranean, and thought it a great effort to run across the narrow sea which separates Crete from Egypt, Great Britain, without hesitation, sends out a fleet to plant a settlement near the antipodes.
[Captain Arthur Phillip, First Fleet Commodore, May 1787][22]

The eleven vessels of the First Fleet under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip crept out of Portsmouth harbour in the early hours of Sunday 13 May 1787, with little fanfare. Captain Watkin Tench, who sailed on board the Charlotte, described the convicts’ emotions some time after their departure: "By ten o’clock we had got clear of the Isle of Wight, at which time, having had very little pleasure in conversing with my own thoughts, I strolled down among the convicts, to observe their sentiments at this juncture. A very few excepted, their countenances indicated a high degree of satisfaction, though in some, the pang of being severed, perhaps for ever, from their native land, could not be wholly suppressed …"[23]

Despite months of organization and numerous delays, the Fleet still managed to depart without the Provost-Marshal, some crew members, ammunition for the marines (luckily the convicts were not privy to this deficiency), clothes for most of the female convicts, an important letter of introduction, and the list of convict crimes and sentences![24]

The first leg of the journey was to last three weeks. The weather was fine when the voyage commenced however the following day saw clouds and rain with Sergeant James Scott on the Prince of Wales noting that "a great number of women on board" were sea sick.[25] The weather deteriorated and the seas became wilder the further the fleet moved into the ocean, with the first two weeks of their voyage proving difficult for all onboard.[26]

On 3 June the Fleet arrived at Santa Cruz on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. During their week-long stay they took on fresh water and vegetables to prevent the onset of scurvy.[27] Captain Tench wrote of the island that "the eye receives little pleasure from the general face of the country, which is sterile and uninviting to the last degree," however he found the town interesting and the celebrated Peak of Teneriffe awe-inspiring.[28]

The Fleet departed from Tenerife on 10 June 1787 however due to shortages on the island they sailed without enough fresh vegetables or spirits.[29] The next leg of the journey - to Rio de Janeiro in South America - was to last two months, and Captain Phillip provided the following justification of his decision to take this route:

It may appear perhaps, on a slight consideration, rather extra-ordinary, that vessels bound to the Cape of Good Hope[30] should find it expedient to touch at a harbour of South America. To run across the Atlantic, and take as a part of their course, that coast … seems a very circuitous method of performing the voyage. A little examination will remove this apparently difficulty. The calms so frequent on the African side, are of themselves a sufficient cause to induce a navigator to keep a very westerly course; and even the islands at which it is so often convenient to touch will carry him a few degrees of the South American coast.[31]

The Tropic of Cancer was crossed on 15 June,[32] and the Fleet arrived at the harbour of Rio de Janeiro on 6 August where repairs were undertaken and fresh water and supplies were taken on board. They sailed again on 4 September 1787 to commence their 39-day leg to Cape Town. Surprisingly, most of the scribes noted that "nothing worth relating happened" during this period although Jonathan King in The First Fleet discloses that there were in fact "deaths, widespread sickness, the worst weather they had encountered, accidents, a scandalous structural collapse on Sirius and a dangerous mutiny attempt on board the notorious Alexander".[33]

On 13 October the ships reached the Cape of Good Hope, anchoring in Cape Town’s Table Bay where they were forced to stay for a month. The situation was unsatisfactory as the violent winds from nearby Table Mountain were enough to force ships from their anchorage and wreck them.[34] Captain Phillip had expected international co-operation from the Dutch authorities however instead met a cold formality and indifference to their plight. As a result those on board were initially living from hand to mouth on the few supplies provided by the port authorities.[35] After much negotiation the Fleet was granted permission to obtain enough supplies to meet their immediate and future needs.[36]

On 12 November the Fleet sailed from Cape Town on what was to prove the longest leg of the voyage. Judge-Advocate David Collins undoubtedly expressed the thoughts of all on board when he wrote:

It was natural to indulge at this moment a melancholy reflection which obtruded itself upon the mind. The land behind us was the abode of a civilised people; that before us was the residence of savages. When, if ever, we might again enjoy the commerce of the world, was doubtful and uncertain. The refreshments and the pleasures of which we had too liberally partaken at the Cape, were to be exchanged for the coarse fare and hard labour at New South Wales. All communication with families and friends now cut off, we are leaving the world behind us, to enter on a state unknown ...[37]

The final leg of the voyage took longer than expected as the Fleet met easterlies rather than westerlies for the first week out of Cape Town causing them to lose more than 300 miles.[38] Shortly after sailing, Captain Phillip decided to divide the Fleet into two groups with the faster vessels sailing ahead to Botany Bay to prepare for the arrival of the remainder of the Fleet. Convicts and marines with agricultural and building skills were transferred to the Supply and on 25 November the Fleet separated, with Charles’ transport the Scarborough moving ahead with the faster vessels while Hannah’s Lady Penrhyn remained behind.[39] Phillip’s plan, however, failed as the Fleet met heavy weather. Gales and high seas slowed the faster ships, allowing the slower vessels to keep pace. In fact only two days separated the arrival at Botany Bay of the fastest and slowest vessels.[40]

On 10 January 1788 the Fleet experienced the most frightening storm they had yet encountered. Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth on the Lady Penrhyn wrote:

The sky blacken’d, the wind arose and in half an hour more it blew a perfect hurricane, accompanied with Thunder, Lightening and Rain. In an instant … the ship was laid alongside so very much as alarm’d every body – Some prodigious flashes of lightning and loud thunder immediately followed … I never before saw the Sea in such a rage, it was all over as white as snow. The storm lasted about half an hour so very heavy – afterwards gradually abated … During the Storm the convict women in our ship were so terrified that most of them were down on their knees at prayers …[41]

Almost all of the vessels experienced some damage. The second division ships continued to experience foul weather for most of the final days of their voyage.

The Founding of a Nation

The vanguard anchored at Botany Bay on 18/19 January 1788, with the remaining vessels arriving on the 20th. On board the transport Charlotte, Captain Tench wrote: "The wind was now fair, the sky serene, though a little hazy, and the temperature of the air delightfully pleasant; joy sparkled in every countenance, and congratulations issued from every mouth".[42] Judge-Advocate Collins summarised the feelings on everyone on board:

Thus under the blessing of God was happily completed in eight months and one week, a voyage which before it was undertaken, the mind hardly dared venture to contemplate ... without some apprehensions as to its termination. This fortunate completion of it however, afforded even to ourselves as much matter of surprise as of general satisfaction; for … we had sailed five thousand and twenty-one leagues; had touched at the American and African Continents; and had at last rested within a few days sail of the antipodes of our native country, without meeting any accident in a fleet of eleven sail … [43]

After examining Botany Bay Captain Phillip judged it unsuitable for settlement so he sailed ahead to Port Jackson on board the Supply. They landed at daylight where "the English colours were displayed on shore and possession was taken for His Majesty".[44] The remainder of the Fleet was to leave Botany Bay on the 25th however strong winds into the Bay prevented their departure. Early on 26 January 1788 another attempt was made, with the flagship Sirius proving successful. The other nine ships were not so lucky, however, and Arthur Bowes Smyth recounted the events that followed:

The fleet having thrice attempted to get out of the Bay yesterday and being prevented, lay at single anchor till this morning but tho’ there is now not much wind, what there is still continues to blow directly into the Bay. We were obliged to work out of the Bay and with the utmost difficulty and danger with many hairbreadth escapes and got out of the Harbour’s mouth about 3 o’clock p.m. The Charlotte was once in the most imminent danger of being on the rocks. The Friendship and Prince of Wales who could not keep in stays came foul of each other and the Friendship carried away her jib boom – The Prince of Wales had her new mainsail and main topmast staysail rent in pieces by the Friendship’s yard. The Charlotte afterwards ran foul of the Friendship and carried away a good deal of the carv’d work for her stern … all agreed it was next to a miracle that some of the ships were not lost, the danger was so very great.[45]

The remainder of the Fleet anchored at Port Jackson later that day, Governor Phillip having decided upon a suitable site at Sydney Cove. As disembarkation began, Judge Advocate Collins noted sadly that "If only it were possible, that on taking possession of Nature, as we had thus done, in her simplest, purest garb, we might not sully that purity by the introduction of vice, profaneness, and immorality. But this though much to be wished, was little to be expected.[46] Considering that the expedition was intent upon establishing a penal settlement populated by the refuse of the lowest echelons of British society, this was an understatement indeed.

A new era began in "Terra Australis" with the disembarkation of the First Fleet. Captain Tench wrote of the embryonic settlement:

The landing of a part of the marines and convicts took place the next day, and on the following, the remainder was disembarked. Business now sat on every brow, and the scene, to an indifferent spectator, at leisure to contemplate it, would have been highly picturesque and amusing. In one place, a party cutting down the woods; a second, setting up a blacksmith’s forge; a third, dragging along a load of stones or provisions; here an officer pitching his marquee, with a detachment of troops parading on one side of him, and a cook’s fire blazing up on the other. Through the unwearied diligence of those at the head of the different departments, regularity was, however, soon introduced, and as far as the unsettled state of matters would allow, confusion gave place to system.[47]

And so the settlement at Port Jackson was established. On 7 February 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip officially announced Britain's sovereignty over the territory of New South Wales and Judge Advocate David Collins read out the King's commission appointing Phillip governor-in-chief of this new colonial outpost.[48]