1500-1799 | Convicts

The first convicts arrive at Botany Bay

Convict ships arriving at Botany Bay.
(W. Bradley – via the SLNSW and Wikimedia).

19 January 1788

On 19 January 1788, the first batch of British convicts, about 498 men in three ships, arrived at Botany Bay, on the remote south eastern coast of Australia. The following day a further two ships dropped anchor, carrying 102 men and 172  women. Over the next eighty years, about 160,000 people in Britain and Ireland would suffer the same fate of transportation to penal colonies in Australia. Most of them had been convicted of petty crimes, which desperate poverty had driven them into, such as stealing clothing from washing lines, pick-pocketing or prostitution. They were, to borrow George Orwell’s useful phrase ‘unpeople,’ who’s fate was of little consequence and who were, to quote the Ipswich Journal, to be sent to ‘wherever the commodore can conveniently dispose of them, at Botany Bay, New Norfolk or the Lord knows where. Wherever he can shoot his rubbish.’1

Commodore Arthur Philip, commanding the first convict fleet, soon realised that the land at Botany Bay was totally unsuitable for cultivation, so a week later he decided to relocate the settlement to what seemed a more promising site at Port Jackson a few miles to the north.  However, first appearances were deceptive, as George Wogan, the colony’s principal surgeon, noted in a letter to his brother. ‘Here, a romantic rocky craggy precipice, over which a little purling stream makes a cascade. There, a soft, vivid-green, shady lawn attracts your eye. Such are the prepossessing appearances which the country that forms Port Jackson presents… [H]appy were it for the Colony, if these appearances were not so delusive.’2

Male convicts were given a diet which, even before rations had to be cut, was barely sufficient to allow the fittest to work a full day, while the female convicts only received two thirds of that of the men and were frequently forced to prostitute themselves for a few handfuls of food.  Yet, conditions continued to deteriorate, as salt carried by the wind destroyed much of the crops and even those crops and vegetables that were grown were quickly devoured by birds, rats and insects.  They were forced to sell their clothes and even their eating utensils for food, the elderly and the weak soon died, and when more ships eventually arrived they brought minimal supplies but numerous more mouths to feed. Those who disembarked were, as Philip himself described them, ‘so emaciated, so worn away.’3


  1. ‘Abridgement of the State of Politics,’ The Ipswich Journal, 13 January 1787, p. 1.
  2. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Vintage Books, London 2003, p. 92
  3. Ibid p. 105.

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