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Reference group
First fleeters (act. 1788) is the term used to describe the 1373 men, women, and children who sailed on the eleven ships of the first fleet from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 to begin Britain's colonization of Australia, reaching Sydney, New South Wales, as January turned to February in 1788. This large group comprised a dozen officials (two of them married), including the governor, Captain Arthur Phillip; John Hunter (1737–1821), second captain of the Sirius; Major Robert Ross (c.1740–1794), commandant of marines; Watkin Tench, captain-lieutenant of marines and the author of the most attractive of the early narratives of the venture; David Collins, captain of marines, deputy judge-advocate and chronicler of the colony; William Dawes, marine officer and astronomer; John White, chief surgeon (1756?–1832); and Richard Johnson (bap. 1755, d. 1827), clergyman. There were 245 marines with 31 wives and 23 children; 543 male and 189 female convicts, with 22 children; a handful of civilians, including Henry Dodd (d. 1791), a farmhand who had previously worked for Phillip; and 306 officers and sailors on the two Royal Navy ships, six convict transports, and three store ships.

Reflecting the fact that there had been some selection of both convicts and seamen according to age and skills, some 33 per cent of the men and 6 per cent of the women were aged between twenty-one and thirty, with 12 per cent and 2 per cent respectively aged between thirty-one and forty. Children under ten constituted 3 per cent of the group, and youths between eleven and twenty 10 per cent. Only 4 per cent were aged between forty-one and fifty, and just 1 per cent were over fifty. (The ages for 25 per cent of the men and 3.5 per cent of the women are unknown.)

Not all the group were British. A few of the seamen came from Europe, and there were also small numbers of West Indians, Africans, and North Americans. Among the last was Jacob Nagle, a seaman captured during the American War of Independence (1776–83), who subsequently led an extraordinary voyaging life.

It is impossible to draw a precise picture of the trades of these people, beyond the obvious features that hundreds were either seamen or marines. One reason for this is that many of them had been convicted in the years after the conclusion of the American war, when tens of thousands of men were demobilized in England's southern ports, and left to fend for themselves. The fact that they had recently served as soldiers or sailors does not necessarily tell us what they had previously worked at. Details of trades before conviction survive for only one-third of the group; and these reflect the diversity of employments then available in Britain.

Despite the evidence of a wide variety of skills, it would be a mistake to think—as has so often been asserted—that the convict men and women of the first fleet were the hapless victims of a savage penal code and an uncaring society. While some had been sentenced for crimes now considered trivial, the great majority had committed serious offences, and many were habitual criminals. The habit of magistrates, prosecutors, and victims colluding to bring in ‘partial’ verdicts (understating the value of goods stolen), so as to avoid mandatory death sentences, and the operation of the king's mercy (whereby death sentences were remitted on condition of transportation) make their crimes now frequently appear less serious than they were.

It is also noteworthy that, once in New South Wales, the first fleet convicts were not imprisoned in a modern sense. Their sentences involved the loss of legal rights because of conviction for felonies and transportation ‘beyond the seas’. Unless and until they reoffended, they had very considerable liberty. They were not shackled during the day nor locked up at night. After they concluded their official labour for the colony they were free to work for themselves or for others.

The first fleeters found the business of planting a colony in the Antipodes daunting. Many of the convicts were unable to sign their own names, and the same is presumably true of the marines and seamen. It is doubtful that those who were uneducated had any real idea of the magnitude of the voyage before them as they left England, or of the conditions they would find in New South Wales. They were fortunate to have as their governor Arthur Phillip, a much travelled, far-sighted, and humane naval captain. Whether he was as fortunate in his charges is another matter.

Phillip was installed as governor on 7 February 1788, when Collins read his commission, and the letters patent establishing the courts, to the whole colony. Phillip used the occasion to tell the convicts that while he knew there were many fundamentally good persons among them who had succumbed to momentary temptation, there were also ‘some Men & Women … so thoroughly abandoned in their Wickedness, as to have lost every good Principle’; that as ‘good Men … should not be slaves for the Bad’, if they did not work they would not be fed; and that they should regularize their personal relationships by marriage. He told them that they now had the opportunity, not only ‘to expiate their offences’, but also ‘to become good, and even opulent men’; and ‘nor could shame be imputed to such as reformed and became useful members of society’ (Frost, 170–71).

In the first weeks only about one-third of the male convicts showed themselves willing to work, but gradually Phillip obtained more social cohesion. This business was made the more difficult by poor relations with the Aborigines in the neighbourhood of Sydney; by the marine officers' churlish refusal to supervise the convicts at labour; by the habit of many convicts to consume their weekly ration in the first days and then to steal from those who were more provident; by the theft of the colony's stores by the marines charged with guarding them; by the disappearance of the colony's small herd of cattle; by a long drought, brought on by el niño, which hindered agricultural progress into 1790; and by the loss of the Guardian, bringing more supplies from England and the Cape of Good Hope, and of the Sirius at Norfolk Island. The convict John Arscott (b. c.1767) so distinguished himself in swimming out to salvage goods from the stricken Sirius that the governor recommended him for emancipation.

To speed progress Phillip gave individuals particular tasks and made small groups responsible for their own welfare. For example, he appointed the convicts John McIntyre (d. 1790), who treated the Aborigines brutally and was murdered in revenge by the legendary warrior Pemulwoy, Patrick Burn (c.1760–1791), and John Randall (b. c.1764), a black American, as gamekeepers, and gave them muskets. The convict waterman William Bryant (c.1757–1791) was put in charge of fishing. Garden Island was allocated to the crew of the Sirius. In March 1790 Phillip sent several hundred to the more fertile Norfolk Island. Progress was also helped by the discovery of good agricultural land at Rose Hill (Parramatta), 20 miles to the west of Sydney, and by the demonstration of how a diligent farmer might succeed.

This demonstration came in the person of James Ruse (1760–1837), a farmer from Cornwall, convicted of burglary in 1782, who had shown himself a willing worker in the colony. In November 1789, wishing to see ‘in what time an industrious active man, with certain assistance, would be enabled to support himself in this country as a settler’, the governor gave him 2 acres of land at Parramatta, and ‘tools and implements of husbandry necessary for cultivating his ground, with a proportion of grain to sow it, and a small quantity of live stock to begin with’ (Frost, 209–10). By the end of 1791, with 30 acres now granted to him, Ruse was supporting himself and his family without the help of the government store. There was similar progress at the government farms and those of the civil and military officers, other convicts, and marines.

Among the officers who turned to agriculture were the lieutenant of marines George Johnston (1764–1823), who decided to remain in the colony when his regiment was withdrawn, and the chaplain Richard Johnson, whose success with the hoe probably exceeded that with the Bible—though this was perhaps not entirely his fault, for he had to preach in the open air for a number of years, in the end building a church at his own expense. The arrival of more stores and equipment in the ships of the second and third fleets also helped. By the end of 1792, when Phillip left it, it was clear that the colony might survive.

And in the New World there had been some strange reversals. In August 1789 at Sydney, at their request, Phillip instituted a night watch of twelve trustworthy convicts to prevent thieving. In 1790 at Parramatta James Ruse complained that the ‘greatest check’ to his progress was ‘the dishonesty of the convicts, who, in spite of all my vigilance, rob me almost every night’ (Frost, 210). Despite Ruse's complaint, though, there had been a steady, if slow, improvement in the behaviour of the first fleeters. When the convicts of the second and third fleets arrived, who were yet to be persuaded to abandon socially destructive ways, there were spates of violence and theft. It is noteworthy, though, that comparatively few of the first arrivals were involved—a demonstration of the possibility that James Matra, one of the colony's original proposers, had alluded to in 1784, when he told the Home Office:
Give [the convicts] a few Acres of Ground … in absolute Property, with what assistance they may want to till them … [and] that they are not by any means to be reproached for their former Conduct … it is highly probable they will be useful … it is very possible, they will be moral Subjects of Society. (James Matra, addendum of 6 April 1784 to his proposal of August 1783, TNA: PRO, CO 201/1, fol. 65)
The colony's progress (in a broad sense) is summed up in the story of Henry Kable. On 10 February 1788, heeding the governor's admonition, he married Susannah Holmes. Both were from the village of Thetford in Norfolk and already had a child. Phillip and Collins allowed him to sue the master of the transport on which he had come out for recovery of property stolen from him, a recourse that would have been unavailable to him as a felon in England. Subsequently the governor appointed him an overseer of other convicts, then a constable and night watchman. By the early 1800s he was a prosperous businessman.

After the initial period of dearth the first fleeters enjoyed good food and a benign climate. Women who had been infertile for a considerable time produced children; and, similarly well-fed and unravaged by the usual diseases of childhood, their children grew as much as six inches taller than their parents.

There is evidence that 668 of the first fleeters died in New South Wales. Some 572 left it, sometimes in striking ways. For example in March 1791 William and Mary Bryant, with their two young children and seven other convicts, sailed a small boat out of Sydney Heads, reaching Timor on 5 June in a voyage that rivalled that of William Bligh. Mary Bryant's cause was later famously taken up by James Boswell.

There are no details of the staying or leaving of the other 268 first fleeters. Given that most of the ships' crews left, these figures mean that roughly two-thirds of the rest—officials, marines, and convicts—chose to settle. These people, the majority of whom ‘had left their country for their country's good’ (G. C. Ingleton, ed., True Patriots All, 1952, viii), were the founders of modern Australia. They were the first to know some of those features (such as ownership of land and houses, and egalitarianism) that marked the emergent nation.

The term first fleeter had gained currency by the mid-1820s, but though the colony strenuously celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1838 much opprobrium continued to attach to the possession of convict forebears. By the mid-twentieth century this stigma had waned, and tens of thousands of people gleefully set to scouring the records in the hope of finding a first fleet link. The Fellowship of the First Fleeters was founded in 1968.

Alan Frost


W. Tench, Sydney's first four years: being a reprint of ‘A narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay’ and ‘A complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson’, ed. L. F. Fitzhardinge (1979) · A. Frost, Arthur Phillip, 1738–1814: his voyaging (1987) · M. Gillen, The founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the first fleet (1989)