May 13, 1787 CE: 'First Fleet' Sets Sail for Australia

May 13, 1787 CE: 'First Fleet' Sets Sail for Australia

On May 13, 1787, the “First Fleet” of military leaders, sailors, and convicts set sail from Portsmouth, England, to found the first European colony in Australia, Botany Bay.


5 - 8


Geography, Social Studies, World History

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On May 13, 1787, a group of over 1,400 people in 11 ships set sail from Portsmouth, England. Their destination was a vaguely described bay in the continent of Australia, newly discovered to Europeans. In a stunning feat of planning and navigation, nearly all of the voyagers survived and arrived in Botany Bay several months later.

A wide variety of people made up this legendary “First Fleet.” Military and government officials, along with their wives and children, led the group. Sailors, cooks, masons, and other workers hoped to establish new lives in the new colony.

Perhaps most famously, the First Fleet included more than 700 convicts. The settlement at Botany Bay was intended to be a penal colony. The convicts of the First Fleet included both men and women. Most were British, but a few were American, French, and even African. Their crimes ranged from theft to assault. Most convicts were sentenced to seven years’ “transportation” (the term for the sending of prisoners to a usually far-off penal colony).

The First Fleet departed from Portsmouth, then briefly docked in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The ships then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they took on huge stores of supplies. Then the fleet sailed back across the Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa, where they took on even more food, including livestock. The main portion of the journey was across the entire Indian Ocean, from Cape Town to Botany Bay—they traveled about 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles) throughout the entire journey.

Botany Bay was not as hospitable as the group had hoped. The bay was shallow, there was not a large supply of freshwater, and the land was not fertile. Nearby, however, officers of the First Fleet discovered a beautiful harbor with all those qualities. They named it after the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. The day the First Fleet discovered Sydney Harbor is celebrated as Australia’s national holiday, Australia Day.

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National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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