The First Fleet entering Botany Bay (Public domain)

Australia’s Surprising Origin As A Prison At The Edge Of The World

This day in history

Grant Piper
Jan 18 · 3 min read

On this day in history, January 18th, 1788, the first ships of a British convict convoy landed at Botany Bay, Australia. The convoy was dubbed The First Fleet and had departed from Portsmouth, England almost a year earlier. The convoy was made up of eleven ships. Two Royal Navy vessels, six convict transports and three cargo ships filled with provisions.

A group numbering around 1,500 landed on the shores of Australia with the intent of building a new penal colony from scratch to house current and future convicts from the British Empire. This colony would later evolve into the current Commonwealth nation of Australia.

A globe spanning move

Australia had been discovered and documented by the explorer James Cook in 1770 and it was considered to be a remote spit of uninhabited land at the edge of the world. Cook was the first European to discover and document the eastern coastline of the continent.

Before the establishment of Australia as a penal colony for the empire, the British had sent their convicts to the Thirteen Colonies in North America. The state of Georgia had its origins as a British penal colony where thousands of convicted citizens were shipped to live out the rest of their days.

After the American Revolution saw the United States become an independent nation, they unsurprisingly no longer wanted to take on British prisoners. The American Revolution officially ended in 1783 leaving the British without a port for its large prisoner population.

In 1785 it was proposed that the new lands discovered by James Cook on the other side of the world would be a suitable replacement for the southern United States.

In 1787, the First Fleet departed from England with its eleven ships and made a voyage of 252 days to Australia on the complete opposite side of the globe.

Australia as a penal colony

Painting depicting a convict uprising in Australia. (Public domain)

While the first convicts arrived in 1788, more would soon follow. As trade was established between Australia and the rest of the empire, news began to circulate that Australia was a good place to live. It had plenty of open land, plenty of new opportunities and it quickly became alluring to many people.

Without the United States as a suitable place for citizens of the British Empire to settle, they began to turn their attention to Australia. For the first few decades, many of the people arriving in Australia were convicts and imperial attendants sent to manage the penal colony, trade and construction in the territory. However, those numbers soon began to shift with an increasingly large number of free settlers arriving in Australia as well.

Soon, the newly arrived colonists began demanding an end to the penal colony as they feared for their safety. The penal colony was moved to various locations around the continent and was eventually shifted entirely to western Australia where it resided far from the newly booming cities on the eastern coastline.

The last prisoner transports came ashore in 1868. All together, over 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868 often coming over in penal convoys 1,000 at a time.

It all started on this day in history, in 1788, when the First Fleet arrived in the shallow waters of Botany Bay.

Delving into the past to understand the world we live in today

Grant Piper

Written by

Professional freelance writer with an eye for history and storytelling. Mining stories from history is my passion. Sharing is caring.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Grant Piper

Written by

Professional freelance writer with an eye for history and storytelling. Mining stories from history is my passion. Sharing is caring.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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