The First Fleet

A 1938 image depicting the First Fleet arriving in Australia on the 26th of January, 1788. This was the beginning of European colonisation of the continent, and the 26th is now called Australia Day.

From the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Reproduction of John Allcot (1888–1973), The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788, from The Sydney Mail, January 26, 1938. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

On this day: On this day: the First Fleet arrives in Australia in 1788

The 26th of January is now celebrated as Australia Day (or sometimes scorned as Invasion Day by Aborigines). It is the date the First Fleet of settlers arrived in Sydney Cove, beginning the establishment of today’s Australia as part of the British Empire.

Many of the people aboard this fleet were convicts, and most were transported for crimes that would be considered ridiculous now.


The First Fleet entering Port Jackson on January 26, 1788 by E. Le Bihan

Amongst the people aboard were:

Elizabeth Thackery

Said to be the first white woman to set foot on Australia. She was sentenced to seven years transportation for the theft of two black silk handkerchiefs and three white handkerchiefs to a total value of one shilling.

John Baughan

Convicted of stealing five blankets, he was to be transported for seven years. Though he left behind a wife and three daughters, he remarried in New South Wales, having three more children (though one died in infancy), and choosing to stay on in Sydney. He died only nine years after arriving in the Southern Hemisphere.

Margaret Dawson

Considered one of the founding ‘mothers’ of Australia (many Australians can now claim Dawson ancestry). Convicted of “feloniously stealing” goods to the value of £12 4s 1d, she was sentenced to the mandatory sentence of death. However, being only fifteen at the time, her sentence was changed to transportation for seven years.

Nathaniel Lucas

Convicted for feloniously stealing clothing with a value of 40 shillings and sentenced to seven years transportation. He stayed on in New South Wales until his death in 1818.

 Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788, a 1937 oil sketch by Algernon Talmage.

Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788, a 1937 oil sketch by Algernon Talmage.

I read a guidebook to Australia (written by an Englishman, so I think he had an ulterior motive!) that claimed almost all convicts were murderers and rapists. This is simply not true (and may I also point out that as the convicts were British, it wasn’t really painting England in a good light!).

What the author of the book didn’t seem to understand was that Australia isn’t trying to cover anything up. Australians with convict ancestry are proud of it. I don’t have any – my first family members to move here arrived long after they stopped transporting convicts – but I know some who do, and they brag about it the same way Americans with Mayflower ancestry do.

Perhaps there wouldn’t have been an overcrowding problem in British prisons if the court system had been a little more humane…