On this day in history : 26th January 1788 – The British First Fleet sails into Port Jackson, led by Arthur Phillip, to establish Sydney – the first permanent European settlement in Australia….

On the 6th of December 1785 orders had been given for the establishment of a new penal colony in New South Wales, on land claimed for Britain by the explorer James Cook, in 1770…. Convicts had originally been transported to the Colonies in North America – but after the American War of Independence the United States refused to take any more of Britain’s convicts….

Eleven ships left Portsmouth on the 13th of May 1787, to set sail for Australia…. The Fleet comprised of two Royal Navy vessels ~ ‘HMS Sirilus’, a 10-gun ship and ‘HMS Supply’….six convict transport ships ~ ‘Alexander’, ‘Charlotte’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Lady Penrhyn’, ‘Prince of Wales’ and ‘Scarborough’ ~ and three store ships…. The Fleet carried seamen, marines and their families, government officials and a large group of convicts, including women and children (some of which were born on the voyage)….

The Lady Penrhyn – convict transport ship – Gooreen Collection

The Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Botany Bay between the 18th and 20th of January 1788…. Immediately it was obvious that Botany Bay was not suitable for a new settlement ~ it was not quite as James Cook had described it…. The Bay was unprotected, the water too shallow to allow ships to anchor close to shore, there was a lack of fresh water available and the soil was poor….

Engraving depicting First Fleet arriving at Botany Bay in January 1788 – State Library of New South Wales

Arthur Phillip decided to explore further afield…. On the 21st of January he and some of his officers travelled 7.5 miles north to Port Jackson, to see if it was more suitable…. They stayed for a couple of days, getting a ‘feel for the place’ and even making contact with the local Aboriginal people…. Phillip named it ‘Sydney Cove’ – after the Home Secretary, Thomas Townsend the 1st Viscount of Sydney….

The scout party returned to Botany Bay to rejoin the other ships and Phillip gave the order for the whole Fleet to move to Sydney Cove the following day, the 24th of January…. Unfortunately a huge gale raged the next day and so the departure had to be delayed…. The 25th of January saw little improvement in the weather but the Fleet attempted to leave anyway…. Only ‘HMS Supply’ managed to leave the bay; on board were Captain Phillip, a few officers, some marines and about 40 convicts…. They sailed on ahead leaving the other vessels to catch up when they finally managed to get out of the bay….

‘HMS Supply’ arrived at Sydney Cove and anchored – and the next morning, on the 26th of January, Phillip was rowed ashore and took possession of the land in the name of King George III…


Meanwhile, back at Botany Bay…. ‘HMS Sirilus’ had managed to clear the bay – but the other ships were having a few problems…. ‘Charlotte’ had nearly been blown on to rocks – ‘Friendship’ and ‘Prince of Wales’ had become entangled together, losing sails and booms…. ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Friendship’ then collided…. ‘Lady Penrhyn’ almost ran aground….

But eventually all eleven ships made it to Sydney Cove….the last one limping in around 3pm on the 26th of January….

The First Fleet entering Port Jackson January 26, 1788 – State Library of New South Wales

Formal establishment of the new settlement did not actually happen until the 7th of February 1788 – when the formal proclamation of the colony and Arthur Phillip’s governorship was read out….not the 26th of January as many believe…. However, the 26th is the day that every year Australians celebrate ‘Australia Day’….

The founding of Australia – Algernon Talmage (1937)

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