Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet

Mike Wood - January 24, 2018

“It is impossible to conceive a Country that promises fairer from its Situation than this of TERRA AUSTRALIS, no longer incognita, as this Map demonstrates, but the Southern Continent Discovered. It lies precisely in the richest climates of the World… and therefore whoever perfectly discovers and settles it will become infalliably possessed of Territories as Rich, as fruitful, and as capable of Improvement, as any that have hitherto been found out, either in the East Indies or the West.” Emanuel Bowen, on a map that speculated on the characteristics of Australia

Australia Day, January 26th, marks the landing of the First Fleet at Botany Bay and the founding of modern, European, Australia. It was the moment at which one world began to end – that of the Aborigines, who had inhabited this great Southern land for well over 50 decades, unencumbered by the rest of the world – and the moment at which another began, an ersatz England in the Southern Hemisphere, populated by soldiers and prisoners locked a perpetual battle between technology, nature and social order.

The scale of the social experiment that was the colony of New South Wales is utterly inconceivable for modern readers. Most of those who went there had at that juncture progressed little further than their own narrow homes, this being a world still 70 years away from the first railway. The average Briton worked, lived and died within walking distance of where they were born. For these men (and it was predominantly men) the act of travelling to the other side of the world was akin to a modern person travelling to Mars. Moreover, the majority of those that made the journey did so against their will, case asunder by a society that had rejected them, and with all but no hope of ever returning. Plenty of those who were transported as convicts had barely avoided the hangman, but their death sentence was commuted to a more abstract form of permanent exile. They did not think that they would be sailing over the edge of the world, but for all that they knew about their new home, they might as well have done.

That these people – the vagabonds and their keepers, the outcasts and the outcasters – formed a community that survived at all is an amazing feat, and that the community that they formed has become one of the leading nations of the world is perhaps more amazing still. While those that already inhabited the land suffered immensely – Australia Day is rightly protested as Invasion Day by Indigenous Australians – the legacy of the First Fleet of convicts, soldiers and mariners is one that has created modern Australia.

Few, however, know quite the circumstances of their passage to the Antipodes, or quite how large a role chance played in the foundation of Australia. This Australia Day, let us go back and revisit their story with 12 things that most people do not know about the First Fleet.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Captain Cook lands at Botany Bay. Wikipedia.

1 – Captain Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770 – but then nobody came back for nearly 20 years

“If a Colony from Britain was established in the large Tract of Country, & if we were at war with Holland or Spain, we might very powerfully annoy either State from our new Settlement. We might with a safe, & expeditious voyage, make Naval Incursions on Java, & the other Dutch Settlements, & we might with equal facility, invade the Coasts of Spanish America . . . This check which New South Wales would be in time of War on both those Powers, makes it a very important Object when we view it in the Chart of the World, with a Political Eye.” James Mario Matra

The story of Captain James Cook, a humble Yorkshire sailor, and the voyage of the HMS Endeavour from Plymouth to Botany Bay is well known. The ship left England for Tahiti with orders to document the transit of Venus from the Pacific, and once that mission was completed, with a second set of orders that instructed the crew to try and find the Terra Australis Incognita, the presumed southern continent. They achieved this in 1770, landing at Botany Bay and documenting the whole eastern coast all they way up to Cape York in Far North Queensland. So far, so obvious.

What happened thereafter, however, is something that many Australians are unaware of. Between the “discovery” of Botany Bay and the arrival of colonists, 17 long years passed, in which absolutely nothing was done. Captain Cook, and especially his botanist, Joseph Banks, recommended that a colony should be established on the new discovery, but the government back in London paid little heed to them. Banks envisioned a society made up of American loyalists – that is, British people in America who remained loyal to the Crown during the ongoing American War of Independence – and free settlers from China and the Pacific.

Banks lobbied for Australia as a new settlement alongside James Matra, a New York-born loyalist who had also travelled aboard the Endeavour. Matra saw New South Wales as a replacement for the lost American colonies – home to “those unfortunate loyalists to whom Great Britain was bound by every tie of honour and gratitude and with visions, perhaps, of a reproduction of the life of the planters of Virginia and Carolina”. Matra’s plans did not initially include convict labour, though penal transportation to the Americas had long been a facet of the English judicial system, but later amended his proposals to include it.

Arguably what swung the argument in favour of New South Wales (there had been discussions about founding penal colonies in Africa too) was the perceived strategic location of Australia. With the jewel in the British imperial crown still India, it was thought that an outpost in the Pacific might be used to help support that major colony from incursions by the French and the Dutch. A major problem was finding a safe harbour for ships to be refitted, and, given the maritime technology of the time, such a place had to be abundant in pine trees and flay, as they were the chief components of 18th-century ships. Previously, America had been ideal for this, but with George Washington et al ruining both Britain’s wood supply and their dumping ground for miscreants, a new option for both had to be found.

Norfolk Island, a thousand miles east of Australia, was designed to be the provider of pine wood and flax (a scheme that never worked) and New South Wales the staging post for both ships and criminals. The government agreed to the scheme and engaged Arthur Phillips, a semi-retired naval captain, to be the leader of the expedition. On May 13, 1787, he set off from Portsmouth with 11 ships, packed with somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred convicts, for the shores of Botany Bay.

How Britain had come to be in possession of quite so many felons, however, is another question altogether – one that we will answer on the next page.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Hogarth’s Gin Lane, a prominent Georgian view of the horrors of poor urban life.

2 – Britain saw Australia as the solution to a law and order crisis at home

From there, the convicts would never return. The names of Newgate and Tyburn, arch-symbols of the vengeance of property, were now joined by a third. Botany Bay.” Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore

Britain in the 1770s was a society that was in the foothills of the greatest social change in its history. The population had been stable for the first half of the century, hovering around 6 million people, but had skyrocketed within the previous generation. The onset of the Industrial Revolution, which would come to completely change the entire makeup of Great Britain, had forced people off the land and into the cities, breaking centuries of tradition and creating a social class that had never been seen before in such numbers.

Britain’s cities were spectacularly unable to cope with the influx. Urban diseases were rife and the authorities were utterly incapable of controlling a mass of people in such a small geographic area. Law and order had been designed with a largely rural population in mind and a broadly neighbourly attitude, meaning that parish watches and local informers were the most likely way in which a criminal might be brought to justice. In the cutthroat modern city, these were altogether too corruptible. Moreover, the so-called “Gin Craze” was in full swing, bringing cheap alcohol to everyone. City-dwellers were largely poor, often underemployed and readily supplied with booze – so the crime wave that followed was understandable.

The government became increasingly draconian. The number of capital crimes quadrupled in a century, with the vast majority of new death sentences handed down for offences against property. With a poor, hungry and neglected majority living side-by-side with a small, wealthy minority, theft was always going to be a problem and thus punishment for larceny was incredibly harsh. Hungry people, however, fear starvation as much as the hangman and it had little effect.

On top of that, as more and more people were sentenced to death, it was a public relations disaster for the government to kill everyone that it said it would. Judges deliberately valued stolen goods at just below that amount that mandated a death sentence, saving thousands from the noose but ballooning the prison population. Old warships were pushed back into service as “hulks”, huge floating prisons moored off cities, while transportation to the Americas became a regular punishment. It is thought that somewhere between 60 and 120,000 convicts were sent to North America in the century preceding independence – between a third and two-thirds of the number that were shipped to Australia. As soon as the seeds of revolution began to be sown in America, however, it was seen as foolish to send a class of people that were already-disposed towards the British crown to a place where they could conceivably fight against it.

With America no longer a viable option, the hulks began to crowd again and the British government’s hand was forced. They would find a new home for their unwanted criminals, a place where they could be put to work, where they could not possibly escape and where nobody cared if they lived or died. At the very worst – if the colony failed and all the convicts died – they would have done something to ease the ongoing problem of prison overcrowding.

Why the British saw fit to send their criminals out of sight and out of mind lay largely in the way that they saw criminality itself. It was not an act, but a lifestyle, and one into which we will delve in the next page.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
A prison hulk moored off the River Thames. PortCitiesUK.

3 – Britain saw Australia as a dumping ground for its worst citizens

“The “thief-colony” was indeed a measure of experiment…but the subject-matter of experiment was, in this case, a peculiarly commodious one; a set of animae viles, a sort of excrementitious mass, that could be projected, and accordingly was projected—projected, and as it should seem purposely—as far out of sight as possible” Jeremy Bentham

It isn’t an unreasonable question, given the current mores on justice and prisons, to wonder why the British authorities of the 18th-century saw fit to execute and transport so many of its citizens. After all, at the time that Australia was first envisaged as a permanent place of banishment, the Walnut Street Prison, later to become the Eastern State Penitentiary, was being opened in Philadelphia as the first modern prison, with a philosophy that focussed as much on rehabilitation and repentance as punishment.

The forward-thinking colonists in America might have embraced the new idea of the penitentiary, but back in the old country, the prison was – like it had been since time immemorial – a holding cell that sequestered the criminal from society. The prevailing ideology of the time was not that acts were criminal per se, but that there was a criminal class, who were predisposed towards crime and always would be. This encapsulated everyone from prostitutes on street corners and petty thieves to master forgers, dashing highwaymen and political dissidents. This was, as Edmund Burke put it, the “swinish multitude”.

It was the origins of the great working class that would form in the middle of the 19th century, but in this period, was more embryonic. Without regular factory work, people scraped to get by and, for those in power and the upper classes, it was difficult to see what they did. Thousands of irregular trades existed, many of them on the borderlines of legality, many of them barely providing enough income for sustenance and many of them leading to chronic illnesses in later life. Criminal might as well have been a synonym for poor.

When the rich of the time spoke of the “criminal classes”, they saw them as unreformable. Certainly, the common thinking of the time was that punishments should be harsh, so as to act as a deterrent, and permanent, so any criminal would be forever marked as such. Execution was obviously both harsh and permanent, but beneath that were other options. Criminals were imprisoned in private jails, which made money based on how many prisoners they held and then by extorting those in captivity. Prisoners had to pay for their irons to be loosened, for their food, their access to exercise and light and their bedding. There was no sex segregation, no segregation by age and no heed paid to offence.

Prison reformer John Howard wrote:

“The prisoners have neither tools nor materials of any kind but spend their time in sloth, profaneness and debauchery…Some keepers of these houses, who have represented to magistrates the wants of their prisoners, and desired for them necessary food, have been silenced with the inconsiderate words, Let them work or starve. When these gentlemen know the former is impossible, do they not by that sentence inevitably doom poor creatures to the latter?

When everyone agreed on the permanence of criminality among the populace, then it became logical to send these prisoners to a permanent prison, where, even at their end of their sentence, they would be so far away as to never be able to re-offend. Or at least, if they did re-offend, they would be so far away that it wouldn’t matter. Thus was the viability of penal transportation established.

There was a class of criminals that needed a holding cell so big that an inexhaustible number could be sent. There was a huge land, about which nobody knew almost anything, to which no settler would go by choice, but was there to be colonised. The logic of Australia was easy to see.

The problem, of course, was the people that were already there. The Aborigines, the original Australians, about whom we will talk on the next page.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
A First Fleet colonist’s drawing of Aborigines. ABC.

4 – The genocide of Indigenous Australians did not begin straight away – in fact, relations were quite good

“From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in Tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition” Captain James Cook

The idea of Australia Day is heavily contested in Australia by the original inhabitants of the land. It is known to many as Invasion Day, synonymous with the beginning of the genocide of Aboriginal people by Europeans. Words should not be minced on the issue: it was a genocide, in which whole cultural groups that had existed for thousands of years were wiped off the map, whether deliberately through the violence of colonisation or through imported diseases to which the native people had no immunity. Common estimates hold that at least 100,000 people were killed in the conquest of Australia, but the number is far, far larger and in truth, nobody on the British side was counting.

Captain Cook sighted Aborigines when he first sighted Australia. On the landing at Botany Bay, they had attempted to make contact but most of the tribe fled, while two remained to throw spears at them. Cook shot one in the arm and the two retreated. Cook and his men landed on the beach and entered a small hut, in which they found Aboriginal children and left them beads as a present. Back in London, however, he told his superiors that the native Australians would put up no real resistance, unlike the Maori in New Zealand.

When the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay, they arrived with specific instructions that the natives they encountered should not be harmed. The orders given to Captain Phillips read:

“You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an Intercourse with the Natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all Our Subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of Our Subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary Interruption in the exercise of their several occupations.”

Conflict was inevitable – the British had just invaded the local tribe, the Iora’s, land – and yet Phillips ordered that restraint be shown. Some of the convicts were prosecuted for stealing from Aborigines, who were wont to leaving their tools lying around. After all, there had previously been nobody to steal them, let alone a band of convicts of whom 80% had prior convictions for theft. The convicts, less bound by the laws of the Navy, resented the natives yet more: they represented the walls of this new prison, a malevolent force keeping them within the confines of the colony, as well as a group that they saw as savages but whom their captors seemed to value more than them. Even when Aborigines killed convicts, revenge against them was forbidden.

Alas, it would not last. As the colony expanded, the parameters of Aboriginal land were rolled back as the British frontier extended. The first wars began in 1795 as the British advanced into the Blue Mountains behind Sydney and spread wherever the colonists went. No treaties were signed with the tribes and eventually, they were stripped of all rights.

It would take over a century for Indigenous Australians to gain the rights afforded to White Australians and indeed, their numbers were not even counted in many areas. It would not be until the mid-1990s that their numbers would reach pre-colonisation levels again.

With the colonists in the ascendancy, the mood turned to establishing a functioning society. On the night before Captain Phillips was to raise the British flag over Sydney, however, there would be an incident that set a precedent for the harsh living that was to follow…

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Female Convicts. Independent Australia.

5 – British colonisation of Australia began with a huge orgy of rape

” What with the stinking Fish-Oil with which they seem to besmear their Bodies, & this mixed with the Soot which is collected on their Skins from continually setting over the Fires, and then in addition to those sweet Odours, the constant appearance of the Excrementitious Matter of the Nose which is collected on the upper pouting Lip, in rich Clusters of dry Bubbles, and is kept up by fresh Drippings; I say, from all these personal Graces & Embellishments, every Inclination for an Affair of Gallantry, as well as every idea of fond endearing Intercourse, which the nakedness of these Damssels might excite one to, is banished.” George Worgan, ship’s surgeon on the Sirius

Among the 1000 or so convicts transported on the First Fleet, women made up around 200. The criminal class which so obsessed Georgian England was just as likely to be female as male and there was a whole litany of crimes that were alleged of women – prostitution being the highest allegation amongst them, though the majority that sailed on the First Fleet were actually petty thieves. The British realised that, were the colony to be successful, women would be necessary to propagate it and thus a substantial number were transported, though the men still outnumbered them 6 to 1.

Once the fleet had landed and the men been set to work on the land, the women were finally allowed to disembark. They had been cooped up on the ship for almost two weeks from the first landfall on January 26 until February 6, and as the day advanced, they were gradually allowed out occupy the shacks that had been constructed for them by the male convicts. “Some few among them might be said to be well dressed,” wrote Arthur Bowes Smyth, a ship’s surgeon, of the female convicts, many of whom had worn their finest clothing for the occasion.

As the last descended at around 6 in the evening, a terrible storm whipped in from the Pacific, undoing all the work that had been done to house the women. The ramshackle houses blew away and the rain turned the soil to mud, leaving the women disorientated and stumbling around. The convict men set about them, chasing the women around with the intent of raping them. Some of the sailors, encouraged by the extra rations of rum that they had been given to celebrate the success of the colony and the arrival of the women, joined them in their pursuit. Thus was the new colony christened.

The next day, Captain Arthur Phillips sat at a folding table on the shore of what is now Circular Quay to do the same, though officially this time. He made the official proclamation of the colony to the ranks of squatting convicts, gun-toting guards and assorted naval figures that made up the newly named Sydney. Thus Captain Arthur Phillips became Governor Phillips, the first leader of New South Wales, empowered by the King to make a new outpost for the empire in the Antipodes. They raised the flag, fired a volley of musket shots and sat down to a luncheon of mutton, which they discovered to be filled with maggots.

The formalities over, Phillips harangued the convicts and the sailors for their behaviour the night before, warning them starkly that life in this new land would require the utmost of discipline and the hardest of work. Anyone who was not up to the task would find themselves dead. The job of the First Fleet, now the New South Wales colonists, was to prepare the settlement for the arrival of the Second Fleet, which they were reliably informed had departed while they had been at sea.

Little did they know what a sorry affair that voyage had become…

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
The windswept Second Fleet. Looking at History.

6- The Second Fleet nearly killed the First Fleet

“The sending out of the disordered and helpless, clears the gaols and may ease the parishes from which they are sent; but…it is obvious that the settlement, instead of being a colony which will support itself, will, if this practice is continued, remain for years a burthen to the mother-country.” Captain Arthur Phillip, Governor of New South Wales

It can get lost in the stories of the early life of the New South Wales colony that the First Fleet was arguably the most successful maritime mission ever made. Most talk of the journey – this article included – focusses on the conditions that made Australia a viable location, or the impact of the British when they arrive, but the passage from Portsmouth to Botany Bay was a minor miracle of seamanship.

It is not known exactly how many people died en route, but the general consensus is that the number was low, around 3% of the between 1,000 and 1,500 that made the journey. That sounds like a lot, but for the time it was considered quite exceptional, especially given the poor health and advanced age of some of those who made the trip. Indeed, it would be one of the most successful in terms of death rate of any of the convict transportations that followed.

The same, unfortunately, could not be said for the Second Fleet. The first convict transport had been engaged by the Crown directly with the intention of keeping as many men alive as possible so as to adequately establish and build the colony. Thus, healthy food and regular exercise had been prioritised by Captain Phillips. This goal achieved, the British government decided to subcontract the Second Fleet, intended to bolster the numbers in New South Wales and provide a boost in supplies, to a company named Camden, Calvert & King, who were to be paid a flat fee per convict, regardless of whether they arrived in Australia alive.

Camden and Calvert scrimped and saved on everything, with little oversight from their government paymasters. The ships were converted slave galleons, more used the passage from Africa to America, and their conditions were dire. “It was impossible for them to move but at the risk of both their legs being broken,” wrote a New South Wales corps soldier guarding prisoners on one of the ships, while a convict later recalled “When any of our comrades that were chained to us died, we kept it a secret as long as we could for the smell of the dead body, in order to get their allowance of provision, and many a time have I been glad to eat the poultice that was put to my leg for perfect hunger. I was chained to Humphrey Davies who died when we were about half way, and I lay beside his corpse about a week and got his allowance.”

Hunger and disease were rife and the Second Fleet turned out to be the worst voyage in the entire history of penal transportation to Australia. Hundreds had died en route and of those who survived, almost half were so ill that they could not work. The whole Sydney Cove colony had been precipitated on the idea that help was coming to relieve them, that they would lay the groundwork and then be resupplied from the motherland with able-bodied men and provisions. Instead, they were nearly extinguished by the weight of sick and dying men that their fledgeling community could barely sustain.

Sustain them they did, however, and soon a Third Fleet was underway. A fourth would follow, and a fifth, until the small colony looked more and more like the Australia that we know today.

There was a hitch, however, with the penal transportation system: Britain soon had far bigger fish to fry closer to home…

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Convicts on a prison ship. Pilot Guides.

7- At first, convict transportation to Australia was very slow indeed

“My Dear Wife belive me my Hark is almost broken to think I must lave you behind. O my dear what shall I do i am all Most destracted at the thoughts of parting from you whom I do love so dear. Believe me My Dear it Cuts me even to the hart and my dear Wife there is a ship Come into Portsmouth harber to take us to New Southweals.” Peter Withers, a convict, writing to his wife in 1831

It was always the idea that Australia, once established, would be the dumping ground for all those excess prisoners that the British jails could not hold. The prison hulks that floated off the major cities, however, barely emptied over the first 15 years of the colony in New South Wales. “There was no year from 1801 to 1813 in which more than five convict transports anchored in Sydney,” wrote Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore, his seminal history of convict transportation to Australia, “and not until 1814 would as many as a thousand convicts arrive in a single year.”

The First Fleet begat the Second and the Third and so on, but it was a trickle rather than the flood. Why, if the colony had been established and desperately needed manpower to keep it going, was the flow so slow? There was a surfeit of potential prisoners and it was being added to by the day – the harsh laws in England certainly hadn’t changed. What held the tide back was a change of opinion at home and a drastic realignment of priorities.

In 1787, when the First Fleet departed Portsmouth, Britain was enjoying a rare period of peace. The American Revolution had ended – prompting the need for a new destination for convicts in the first place – and there were no foreign wars drawing valuable resources from the British Exchequer. There had been prolonged conflicts with the French and the Dutch, which had taken place both in Europe and in the East Indies, but these were now settled, for the meantime at least. Thus, time and money could be dedicated to solving the problem of law and order at home.

By the time of the Third Fleet, however, that had all changed. The French Revolution had overthrown the old order and the delicate balance of power in Europe, and suddenly the potential for a new war close to home skyrocketed. When war finally did break out with France in 1792, the convicts that might have been slated for a trip to Australia were repurposed, either as fodder for the Army or as indentured labourers on the docks and in the harbours, returning to the hulks at night.

Moreover, a vital aspect of shipping convicts to Australia was a provision of soldiers to guard them and medical personnel to ensure that they were in a fit state when they arrived. With war against the revolutionaries in France, an uprising in Ireland in 1798, fighting between the newly independent Americans and the British forces in Canada in North America and a whole colonial empire to maintain in India and Africa, there was little purpose to be found in funding the exportation of potential labourers. Australia would have to wait.

For many of those who were already in Australia, however, the time of their service was coming to an end. Most had sentences of seven years which, from the mid-1790s, began to expire. They had the option to leave and return back to England, of course, but rarely had the funds to do so and even less inclination. This new land presented opportunities that were unachievable at home: endless expanses of land that they could occupy and own, free from the stigma of being a criminal – or at least, being surrounded by other emancipated criminals who didn’t mind as much.

It would be on the backs of these Emancipated convicts that the colony would grow. They would remain, however, marked with the whiff of criminality and the new Australia would have to deal with it. After all, they couldn’t all be merely political prisoners…

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
A wanted poster for “Swing” rioters. BBC.

8 – Contrary to the beliefs of most Australians, very few convicts were political prisoners

“You will make our children read, and get off, the above Scripture passages. Never let them read any political works. Keep their minds from being entangled with political men, and their productions. This, you will not need to be told, has been the prelude to all my present misery” An unknown convict and former Swing Rioter, writing to his wife in 1835

One the many ways in which modern Australia has come to deal with its convict past is a pervading myth that many of the prisoners were political dissidents, rebels sent from the motherland to forge their own new society. It suits the idea of the larrikin, devil may care Aussie battler, always poking at authority and striving for the endless freedom of the bush. The problem with that idea, of course, is that it is nonsense.

The vast majority of convicts fell into a fairly specific legal subgroup, created by the British state’s aforementioned obsession with the defence of property. They were not big time criminals – anyone who stole anything over the value of 5 shillings would end up on the scaffold rather than a prison ship – nor were they generally violent offenders. One of the useful things about studying a society of convicts is that court records are available to tell historians exactly who these people were, where they came from and what they had done to merit transportation. Those records tell us at almost 80% were convicted for petty theft and 66% had prior convictions. They were generally urban, young, single, male and overwhelmingly propertyless, landless labourers. In short, they were the proto-working class.

The low-end estimate of the number of political prisoners sent to Australia is around 1800 in total in the 60 year period of transportation. There were economic activists, such as the Swing Rioters and Luddites who destroyed industrial machinery in defence of their jobs. There were political activists, most famously the Tolpuddle Martyrs, sent to Botany Bay in 1834 for attempting to form trade unions, as well as Chartists who campaigned for the right to vote and members of the Pentrich Rising, who had taken arms against the state in Derbyshire in 1817.

While these rag-tag band of rebels were statistically unimportant in the wider scale of penal transportation, there is perhaps, one unintended consequence of Britain’s scheme to deport its urban poor. The revolution that spurred in France at the same time as the fledgeling New South Wales colony was taking root in Australia was, to a large extent, the work of a class of people known as the “san-culottes“. These were the urban, underemployed, neglected youth of the big cities, the first to join the demonstration and the spiritual driving force behind the radicalism.

While the British could never have known what events were to take place over the water in Paris, they inadvertently took a huge step towards limiting the potentiality of any similar uprising taking place on their own shores by instituting a system by which the most radical and revolutionary figures from the lower classes could simply be picked up and dropped off on the other side of the world, never to trouble the authorities again. Many of those who were transported were not political activists, but they were certainly exactly the sort of people were likely to join in any demonstration against the established order that sprung up. They were the potential san-culottes.

There was, of course, one group of convicts that were already very ill-disposed towards the British. They provided the bulk of the political prisoners that were sent to Australia, while also creating an underclass even within the ranks of the convicts. They were the Irish.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
An Irish chain gang at Botany Bay, 1830. The Irish Times.

9 – Unless they were Irish

“In 1803 we sailed out to sea
Out from the sweet town of Derry
For Australia bound if we didn’t all drown
And the marks of our fetters we carried

In our rusty iron chains we cried for our weans
Our good women we left in sorrow
As the mainsails unfurled, our curses we hurled
On the English, and thoughts of tomorrow”
“Back Home In Derry”, Bobby Sands

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone with any knowledge whatsoever of Irish history that the Irishmen and women sent to Australia were treated horrendous when they arrived. From Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the 1640s – in which an estimated 40% of the population of Ireland were killed – until the time of the First Fleet, discrimination had been a fact of life for people in Ireland.

Britain had instituted a series of laws that denied basic rights to Catholics, who made up over 80% of the Irish population. In 1788, when the First Fleet landed, Catholics could not hold any public office, sit in Parliament, vote, teach or join the army, while property laws were designed to make inheritance as difficult as possible. The penal laws, as they were known, were not just designed to affect Catholics: they also targetted Protestant dissidents, most of whom lived in the North and practised Presbyterianism, a form of the religion imported from Scotland and ill-disposed towards the Anglican English.
Somewhere in the region of 10,000 Irish had already been transported as convicts to the Americas, as well as thousands more as indentured servants and over the course of penal transportation to Australia, some 40,000 would be sent. While their ranks included the same petty criminals that made up the British convicts, it is thought that around a fifth were political prisoners who had risen against the British.

1798 provided the major catalyst. It was in this year that a group known as the United Irishmen – inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and including both Protestants and Catholics – took up arms against the British. Their rising failed, and many of the leaders found themselves on ships to Botany Bay. The colonial authorities treated them horrendously. They were subject to brutality well beyond what other convicts would endure, marked out by their Catholicism – as hated by British in Australia as in the homeland – and their previous actions against the Crown. The New South Wales authorities had asked that Irish not be sent, as they feared their potential for rebellion could threaten the new colony, but arrive they did.

For their own part, the new arrivals were not in a mood to take the punishment lying down. There was an uprising of Irish convicts at Castle Hill, north of Sydney, in 1804, lead by many of those who had fought in 1798. It was planned that the 600 or so prisoners could overwhelm the English and then set a course for the Hawkesbury River, in order to meet up with another 1000 that were put to work there, before marching on Sydney and challenging the colonial government directly. They stole weaponry and mustered a force, but were eventually defeated. Later, 13 were executed and scores more whipped for their part in the rebellion.

There would be no more large-scale uprisings, but the discrimination against the Irish continued. Many of those who would become bushrangers – including Ned Kelly, the most famous bushranger of all – were of Irish descent, often driven to their actions by the prejudices of the British colonial authorities.

The bushrangers, of course, were the Australian equivalents of the outlaws, the escapees from the continent-sized prison. HMP Australia was not as impenetrable as it had been thought to be: plenty escaped – read on to hear their stories.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Mary Bryant. Emaze.

10 – The prison of Australia was not inescapable

“They got Clear off, but its a very Desperate attempt, to go in an open boat for a run of about 16 or 17 hundred Leags and in pertucalar for a Woman and 2 small Children the eldest not above 3 years of age—but the thoughts of Liberty from such a place as this is Enoufh to induce any Convicts to try all Skeemes to obtain it, as they are the same as Slaves all the time they are in this Country.” John Easty, a marine, on Mary Bryant’s escape

The punishment for escaping penal servitude was harsh. Hanging was the most obvious sentence that resulted, of course, but even for a successful escapee, getting away from the prison colony was just the start of it. Sydney was surrounded by bush of indeterminate thickness and size, which all knew to be populated by Aborigines who were presumed to hold nought but ill will towards any white man. This was not a prison that needed to build walls.

Life on the chain gang was harsh enough for people to take their chances with the Aborigines, however, and while the vast majority failed, there were a few who made it. Among the most famous was Mary Bryant, who travelled on the First Fleet and managed to make it all the way back to England. She had been arrested in her native Cornwall and sentenced to hang, only to have that commuted to transportation. She was pregnant when the First Fleet departed – having met her husband, William Bryant, on a prison hulk – and had the child on the ship. On arrival, her and William soon decided to make an exit and, with William an experienced fisherman, decided that they would do it by sea.

Along with several other convicts, they made one of the most remarkable journeys of all time, stealing a boat from Captain Phillip himself and making it all the way from Sydney Cove to Timor, some 5,000 miles to the north. They claimed to be survivors of a shipwreck, but William drunkenly spilled the beans and they were all arrested and shipped back to England. Both of the couple’s children, as well as William himself, died en route to Britain, but Mary and four of the other escapees made it all the way. By the letter of the law, they should have been executed for escaping the colony, but they avoided the noose and Mary, her seven year sentence having elapsed, was released with a pardon.

Another escapee was William Buckley, who made his way off a work party near Melbourne in 1803 and attempted to walk to Sydney, which he thought was close by. After weeks of wandering aimlessly, he came to meet a family from the Wathaurung people and was taken in by the tribe, learning their language and living among them for the next thirty years. He eventually recontacted the colonists in 1835, when a group of Wathaurung spotted white men on the Bellarine peninsula. Buckley introduced himself and, showing them the tattoo on his arm, revealed himself as a man thought to have been missing for three decades.

Buckley received a pardon from the British authorities and eventually settled on Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, where he lived until the age of 76 before dying in 1856. His time spent with the Wathaurung, living with them outside of regular contact from Europeans, gleaned much information about their customs and the everyday life of Aboriginal people in southern Australia. Buckley later published a book which told of his adventures in the bush, and he became the source of the Aussie phrase “You’ve got Buckley’s chance”, referring to something very unlikely to happen.

Of course, for those convicts that didn’t successfully escape, there was always a prison within a prison: Norfolk Island.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
A gravestone of a convict on Norfolk Island. The Irish Times.

11 – New South Wales had its own penal colony – Norfolk Island

The flogger was a County of Clare man a very powerful man and [he] took great pleasure in inflicting as much bodily punishment as possible, using such expressions as “Another half pound, mate, off the beggar’s ribs.” His face and clothes usually presented an appearance of a mincemeat chopper, being covered in flesh from the victim’s body. Major Foveaux delighted in such an exhibition and would show his satisfaction by smiling as an encouragement to the flogger. He would sometimes order the victim to be brought before him with these words: Hulloa you damn’d scoundrel how do you like it? and order him to put on his coat and immediately go to his work” Convict Robert Jones

What is to be done to those already in a prison who offend further? In New South Wales, the death penalty was ever present as an option, and one that was regularly used, but the colony could not simply execute everyone. Instead, they had a second option: Norfolk Island. What better way for a society constituted from those sent as far as possible away from one country because of criminality to deal with its criminals than to transport them again, to somewhere even more isolated?

Norfolk Island is some 900 miles to the east of New South Wales, a drop in the Pacific Ocean almost directly in between Australia and New Zealand. It had been occupied by Polynesians but, when it was sighted by Captain Cook, and when he landed it was totally empty. When Captain Phillips returned with the First Fleet, he despatched a ship to the island almost immediately. As mentioned elsewhere, it was a major plan for the new colony in the Antipodes to source valuable pines and flax from Norfolk Island, but when that was swiftly proved to be impossible, a penal settlement was established.

It was renowned for violence, particularly as meted out by one Joseph Foveaux, the administrator. He was a stickler for rules and hellbent on making Norfolk Island into a place of order, with little compassion or care for anyone who stood in his way. Stuck on a rock miles from any form of oversight, he was allowed to indulge his love of discipline to the full. Men were flogged into line and hard work was enforced on all, with convicts breaking rocks from dawn until dusk to create bricks for their own jail. All who complained were whipped. 200 lashes was the standard punishment, with a bucket of salt water tipped over the open back the only medical treatment afforded. There were many tales of convicts deliberately committing crimes so that they could be sent back to Sydney for trial – anywhere but Norfolk Island.

For all Foveaux’s efforts, the first penal colony failed – it was too isolated from Sydney – and the island returned to being uninhabited in 1814. In 1825 a second prison was created with the intention of it becoming a jail for the now large New South Wales. Its isolation was now a strength, and those imprisoned there were thought to be the most recidivist from the Sydney settlement. Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales between 1825 and 1831, described it as “as a place of the extremest punishment short of death” while his counterpart in Van Diemen’s Land, George Arthur, remarked that “when prisoners are sent to Norfolk Island, they should on no account be permitted to return. Transportation thither should be considered as the ultimate limit and a punishment short only of death”.

Norfolk Island would survive until 1855, when its inhabitants were moved to a similar facility at Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land. It would soon find new people, however, in the form of the Pitcairn Islanders. Pitcairn had been populated by the crew of the Bounty, who had mutinied against their captain and set up on the isolated island, before moving en masse to Norfolk. To this day, the majority of the population of Norfolk Island are their descendants.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
The flag of the Australasian Anti-Transportation League and a forerunner to the modern Australian flag. Flags of Empire.

12 – Transportation was stopped – because Australians didn’t want it any more

“Hurra for the noble Leaguers!
Hurra for our British Queen!
Hurra for the tread of Freemen
Where Bondsmen erst have been!

Peal on, ye shrill-voiced heralds
Your thrilling music tells
Tasmania’s happy future;
Peal on, ye English bells!

From city hall to cottage,
O’er all our island homes,
Ring round your benediction!
The Unstained Future comes!”
The Hobart Town Daily Courier, 1853

As the colony grew, the numbers of free settlers from Britain, Ireland and other countries began to increase. Within 30 years of the landing of the First Fleet, Sydney had grown from an outpost clinging to the side of a continent to a viable colony, fully capable of sustaining itself. In short, it was no longer necessary to force people to go there to keep it going.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that Australia was fruitful and held rewards for those willing to make something of the opportunities there. When convicts came to the end of their sentences, they would take over land and farm it, producing notable profits and generating economic activity – though crucially, they did not own the land on which they were farming. There was an obvious incentive for many poor people in England to migrate to Australia and make something of themselves in the new land, something which the New South Wales colonial government was enthusiastic to promote. By the time of the cessation of transportation to New South Wales in 1840, almost a third of those who came to Australia were coming of their own volition.

The mood in the colonies, too, had changed. The newly prosperous middle classes that had sprung up in the cities objected to the association with criminality – though they were never bothered by the brutal nature of convictism – and campaigned for abolition. It was granted in 1846 across all colonies, but was soon reinstated as the prisons of England immediately began to fill again. The Australians – no longer British colonists – were outraged and the protests against transportation sparked up again.

The last ship would sail for Botany Bay in 1853, by which point gold had already been struck in Victoria. Amid the floods heading for the goldfields, the final detachment of convicts paled into insignificance. From just one ship a year in the first decade to a peak of 36 ships and 7,000 people in the peak year of 1833, a major swath of British society had been uprooted and rehoused in Australia. Across the whole period of transportation, around 150,000 people were sent from the British Isles to the other side of the world against their will. Those sent, exiled from their homes, torn from their families and everything they had ever known, would become the bedrock of a new society.

The vast majority stayed in Australia when their sentences were served. To this day, an estimated 20% of all Australians have convict ancestry and the perceived stain carried by a convict heritage has largely dissipated. Even John Howard, Australian Prime Minister between 1996 and 2007, was the descendant of convicts, and to many Australians, their heritage as the criminal class of Britain is taken as an ironic source of pride, a vindication of the anti-authoritarianism and larrikin spirit of their nation.