The Long Trip to Botany Bay

Diabolical conditions abroad the hulks, the floating prisons which took up the slack when transportation to America ended, forced Britain to rethink its penal policy. The consensus was that Britain urgently needed another colony. First under consideration was the island of Lemane in the Gambia, West Africa. Its advantage was isolation. No guards would be needed to watch over the felons. But it would have amounted to signing the death warrant of the desperate souls abandoned there. Happily the scheme was dropped. Another African venue, this time Das Volatas Bay in the south-west, became favoured choice. But the survey commissioned in 1785 reported that it was a barren land. Without opportunity to hack a living out of the soil the convicts would surely die. The only route now open to the government was the one that led to Botany Bay, on the Tasman Sea south of Sydney, Australia. The doubters comforted themselves that the opportunities for convicts to return home from this colony would be scarce.

Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lover
Captain Arthur Philip and his band
Captain Arthur Phillip, a retired naval man aged 48, was put in charge of the first transport voyage to Australia. On arrival he would be governor of the colony. His fleet amounted to 11 ships, none of them large. Aboard were officers, seamen, marines, their wives and children and 736 male and female convicts.
Captain Arthur Philip, founder of the British colony in Australia
Phillip was a conscientious man. Repeated attempts by the entrepreneurial transporter and the goverment to skimp on supplies enraged him. There was nothing aboard to combat scurvy, the dread sea-farers’ disease. He wanted linen so the prisoners’ rags could be replaced but got none. fresh meat and vegetables arrived only at the last moment.

Ships in Phillip’s fleet

The Fleet consisted of six convict ships, three store ships, two men-o-war ships with a total of 756 convicts (564 male, 192 female), 550 officers/marines/ship crew and their families.
Naval warships – H.M.S. Sirius and H.M.S. Supply
Store ships – Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove
Transports (convict ships) – Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Prince of Wales (with 100 women convicts) and Scarborough

Gaol – fever

In February and March convicts rolled up at the Portsmouth docks to be stowed beneath the decks. The prisoners’ quarters were in darkness. There were no portholes and lamps were banned. The only fresh air they enjoyed came via hatchway – which was closed in bad weather. While the ships were within sight of shore the convicts were barred from the desk. It wasn’t until12th May 1787 that the fleet sailed, before which time 17 convicts were died in the gloom of the holds following an outbreak of gaol-fever.

First port of call was Tenerife on 3rd June. After a week of loading supplies, the ships sailed for Rio de Janeiro. It took two searingly hot months to trek the Atlantic. Conditions below deck were intolerable with effluent fouling the convicts’ cramped accommodation. But at least they could exercise daily in the fresh air. The fleet then spent a month in Rio – which meant a four weeks confined to quarters for the transportees.
Another six weeks at sea and the ships berthed in Cape Town, again spending a month in the colony. Taken on board were fresh supplies, also pigs, sheep, cows, horses and hens.
The last leg was the roughest with towering waves and storm squalls. They rounded Van Diemen’s Land on 10th January 1788 and saw mainland Australia nine days later. It had taken 252 days and there had been 48 fatalities of which 40 were convicts and five were children.
The first prisoners in Botany Bay

Meeting the locals

Australia was an exotic new world. The sights, sounds, smells and weather were alien to the intrepid British. There were bleating kangaroos, wallabies, possums, cute koalas and the curious duck-billed platypus. The British band arrived in the middle of summer and the glaring sun beat down day after day. For them it was as alien as life on Mars.The vast majority of convicts were poorly educated, petty thieves and fraudsters from urban areas. They were unprepared for the privations of the sea voyage, let alone picking a living from uncultivated earth in the “new world”.
“Warra warra!”, cried native Australians as they emerged at Botany Bay on the arrival of Phillip and his ships. It meant “Go away!”. There were no welcome for the white man from the aborigines. In reply, a marine fired a blank cartridge over their heads and the natives fled.  Soon they returned, intrigued to discover more about uninvited visitors. Aborigines, who had lived for 20,000 years on the continent, were completely naked and were perplexed by the garb of the marines. When they prodded the breeches of one embarrassed marine Phillip ordered that the trousers be dropped. There was a responding whoop from the aborigines who perhaps feared they had been overrun by woman. A guarded convivial atmosphere prevailed between natives and the British. But little did the aborigines realise what was in store. For along with the fancy gifts, beads and ribbons, the visitors brought cholera and ‘flu, bugs which quickly claimed the lives of unprepared locals.

The Facts

Court records then, as now, give quite specific details as to the nature of the crime committed. In a database such as this it is necessary to engage in some classification and consolidation in order to enable significant searching and counting.

The terms used were selected keeping in mind the fact that they would be used in a sentence context, whilst at the same time providing sufficient detail about the kinds of things which were held to be valuable in those times, as well as the crimes for which people were transported.
Thus the main categories were:

Crimes with a value

– Stealing is theft. There are a number of variations of the word ‘petty’ including its more original version ‘petit’, a French word meaning very small.
– Assault is when the victim is harmed in some way.
– Robbery is when the victim is confronted by the thief who demands goods.
– Highway robbery is robbery whilst on a public street.
Burglary was, in the past, only used to describe cases where a lodging was entered while it was occupied. If not occupied the crime was one of housebreaking. In this database burglary is used in the modern sense of when a place of lodging was entered, and goods stolen. In a legal sense there is a distinction but for the sake of simplicity the two have been combined in this database to cover the more common crime of burglary.

Crimes with no value

– Perjury is lying whilst under an oath to tell the truth
– Fraud [impersonation] refers to instances where one sailor has assumed the identity of a second sailor in order to draw the second sailor’s pay.
– Other cases of fraud involve forgery or some other attempt at financial deceit.
– Sacrilege is the destruction of religious objects.
– Receiving stolen goods, like theft is self explanatory.


There were three main terms of transportation: 7 years, 14 years and Life. For the purposes of the database Life is given the number 99 years. Two convicts received sentences of transportation for 5 years. The term of 7 years was so common that in one of these cases there was an initial, and later corrected, clerical error.