Wednesday, 23 November 2011

First Fleet Voyage to Australia

Two members of my family were convicts travelling to Australia on the First Fleet.

George Guest (also written in some records as Gess) was born at Prestbury, Gloucester in 1767. On 4 March 1784 at Gloucester Lenten Assizes he was sentenced to death on two counts of theft for stealing ten live pigs and a chestnut mare. The sentence was reduced to seven years transportation to America. Initially the seventeen year old was taken to the hulk Censor. At the end of February 1787 George was transferred to the Alexander to leave for New South Wales with the First Fleet.

William Roberts was born in the Cornwall region possibly in 1755. Little is known about his life in England. At Bodmin Assizes in August 1786 William Roberts was charged with stealing five pound and half weight of yarn, property of Wm Moffatt of Launceston resulting in a sentence of 7 years transportation. He was taken to the hulk, Dunkirk moored in Plymouth Harbour where he was kept with other prisoners until he was transferred initially to the convict ship Charlotte and finally to the convict ship Scarborough during March 1787.

The Alexander was the largest transport ship in the First Fleet measuring 114.3 feet in length and 31 feet wide. The barque built  ship with a quarter deck consisted of two decks without galleries or figurehead and had three masts. Two sets of figures have been provided for the weight of the ship but it was probably between 445 and 452 tons. The master of the ship was Duncan Sinclair, the surgeon was William Balmain and there were 195 male convicts aboard when the ship sailed.

The Scarborough was slightly smaller than the Alexander measuring 111 feet 6 inches in length and 30 feet 2 inches wide. The height between decks was 4 feet 5 inches. The ship consisted of two decks, had three masts and was rigged as a barque. Two sets of figures have been provided for the weight of the ship but it was probably between 411 and 418 tons. Another record provides the weight as 430 tons. The master of the ship was John Marshall, the surgeon was Denis Considen and there were 208 male convicts aboard when the ship sailed.

Most of the convicts on the Alexander embarked at Woolwich on January 6, 1867 though a few were boarded at Portsmouth. The convicts boarded the Scarborough at Portsmouth. Gales and bad weather delayed the loading of convicts and provisions on all the ships but eventually they anchored off the Motherbank near Ryde on the Isle of Wright across from Portsmouth. A plaque on the seawall at Ryde commemorates the departure of the First Fleet. Sixteen men from the Alexander died as the waited from March to May for the ship to sail. Some of the bodies of convicts who died at this time are buried at St Anne's Church on the Isle of Wight. It has been suggested that a reason for the high number of deaths was because a number of the convicts had been in poor health when they left the gaols.

The ships left England on Sunday 13 May 1787. On 20 May trouble was reported to be brewing on the Scarborough when the master of the ship was informed of a possible plot being organised by a group of convicts to take control of the ship. Two convicts were transferred to the Sirius where they each received 24 lashes before being transferred, in irons, to the Prince of Wales.  The ships then continued on the journey to Teneriffe arriving on 3 June. By this time there had been another five deaths on the Alexander and 21 prisoners were on the sicklist. The convict quarters on the ships were overcrowded and  infested with rats, cockroaches, bugs and other vermin. For the first week at sea the convicts were still in irons but once these were removed they had more freedom to move around and experience the novelty of being at sea. At Teneriffe the prisoners received the luxury of fresh food. John Powers, a convict from the Alexander, tried to escape in the jolly-boat but was recaptured the next day.

Leaving Teneriffe the weather was extremely hot with frequent rain squalls and little wind making progress in sailing difficult. With this leg of the trip taking longer than anticipated the daily water ration was reduced. The ships crossed the equator on July 14 with the sailors and marines paying tribute to King Neptune. The winds had improved so the water ration was increased to two quarts per person each day. The ships arrived at Rio de Janiero on 5 August where they stayed until 4 September checking the ships and replenishing supplies.

Under sail again the ships experienced storms and heavy seas resulting in the ships rolling and pitching and shipping water. The winds allowed the ships to travel quickly but the prison quarters would have been constantly wet, the convicts seasick and not allowed on deck. The conditions for the convicts must have been horrendous. Generally, though, the prisoners were well behaved except for one group who planned to escape once the ship reached the Cape of Good Hope. Three seamen helped these convicts obtain an iron crowbar and other possible weapons but the plot was revealed before the ship reached the Cape. John Powers, the ringleader of the group, was transferred to the Siruis where he spent the rest of the voyage in irons nailed to the deck and the seamen involved in the plot were also transferred to the Sirius. The informer spent the rest of the voyage aboard the Scarborough. It was not only the prisoners who were at times troublesome but the conditions and length of the voyage were also reported as affecting the tempers of the officers and crew on some of the ships. Crew members who misbehaved were severely punished with marines on the Scarborough receiving between 50 to 150 lashes for offences. The ships finally arrived at Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope, on 11 October.

The next month was once again spent obtaining supplies for the ships. Fresh food was available most days when in port which must have been a welcome change from slated and dry rations. The Dutch were not helpful in making available provisions but Captain Phillip and his officers purchased any livestock and fodder offered. The animals travelled primarily on the Sirius and the three storeships but the female convicts on the Friendship were transferred to the Lady Penrhyn, the Charlotte and the Prince of Wales to make way for sheep.

The fleet of ships left Cape Town on 13 November. Initially there were good winds but a week into the journey the ships were becalmed. This was the followed by a period of strong winds and high seas . By the 25th the weather was again moderate and the decision was made that the Supply accompanied by the Alexander, the Friendship and the Scarborough would go on ahead of the other ships. The weather grew colder as they sailed through gales and heavy seas. Once again the ships pitched and rolled and were swamped by water. The only diversion was the sighting of whales and seabirds including albatrosses, petrels, garnets and gulls. By December 6 the ships entered thick fog which must have been a frightening experience for all on board, especially for the convicts  once again confined below deck, as the ships rang their bells and fired the guns on the warship to alert each other of their position in the fog. The weather was extremely cold and the convicts must have suffered with only their normal clothes and one blanket to keep them warm. By 22 December the weather was again fine with a good sailing wind and the ships made good progress. On 5 January the coast of Van Diemen's land was sighted. Heavy seas again as the ships sailed up the Australian coast and the three transports arrived at Botany Bay on 19 January, one day after the arrival of the Supply. The remaining ships arrived the following day.

The ships on the voyage from England to Botany Bay had travelled 15,063 miles and had taken between 250 and 252 days to complete the journey. The average daily run was approximately 82 miles with an average speed slightly exceeding 3 knots per hour.

Captain Phillip decided that Sydney Cove would make a better settlement than Botany Bay so the eleven ships sailed into Port Jackson on 26 January.

  • Bateson, Charles. The convict ships 1787-1868. Library of Australian History, 2004

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