When the American colonies gained independence in 1783, Britain was forced to look for a new outlet for convicts. In 1785, Order in Council were issued for the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales. The assembled voyage fleet was comprised of eleven vessels that carried more than 1,000 convicts, marines, and seamen, along with the requisite supplies for the voyage and establishment of a colony.
Led by Captain Arthur Phillip, the First Fleet departed Portsmouth on 13 May 1787. Apart from one recorded incident, the convict population of the fleet behaved well during the voyage. The fleet made resupply stops in Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. Surprisingly, the fleet survived the voyage intact, although it did have to endure some harrowing storms in the Pacific Ocean. As the First Fleet neared New South Wales, Captain Phillip began to plan a scouting party to find a suitable location for a new colony.
When the fleet reached Botany Bay the voyage was complete. It had taken just over 250 days and the fleet had sailed over 24,000 km. Only 48 of the original 1,500 voyage members had been lost during the trip. Upon reaching New South Wales, however, they realized that the original planned location for the colony was ill-suited to their needs. The First Fleet’s first glimpse of Botany Bay revealed an unprotected bay with shallow water and no good source of fresh water.
About 12 km north of Botany Bay, Captain Phillip discovered Port Jackson to be an ideal location for the colony. It was much more protected, had an ample supply of fresh water, and it had fertile soil. In a letter to his superiors in England Phillip described the harbour—which he renamed Sydney—this way: “the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security.”
It was on 26 January 1788 that the First Fleet weighed anchor in Port Jackson, which Phillip had renamed Sydney Cove in honor of the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. Phillip and several officers from the fleet went ashore where they planted the British flag in the sand and took formal possession of the land for the empire. Having found their ideal location, the First Fleet set about establishing the first penal colony in New South Wales, Australia.