As today is Australia Day, I thought it apposite to blow the cobwebs from my blog and scratch a few words about the folk of the First Fleet. The cynics amongst you might well think it’s a timely plug for the book. And you would be right!
The First Fleeters is the term given to those (approximate) 1,373 men, women and children who sailed on the eleven ships of the first fleet from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 to begin Britain’s colonisation of what became Australia, reaching Sydney (as it was later called) as January turned to February in 1788. Two hundred and twenty fours years ago. Amongst them were 245 marines with 31 wives and 23 children; 543 male and 189 female convicts, with 22 children; a handful of ‘civilians’ and 306 officers and sailors on the various ships employed.
These were young people. Some 33% of the men and 6% of the women were aged between twenty-one and thirty, with 12% and 2% between thirty-one and forty. Children under ten constituted 3% of the group, and youths between eleven and twenty some 10%. These are approximate statistics as the ages of 25% of men and 3.5% of women are unknown.
Not all of them were British. There were seamen from Europe, and a few from the West Indies, Africans and North Americans. An eclectic ‘mob’, as the future citizens would say.
It would be a mistake to believe – as has often been portrayed – that the convicts were the hapless victims of a savage legal system and an uncaring society. Some had been convicted of crimes now considered minor or trivial, by far the majority had committed serious offences, for which capital punishment was the prescribed punishment. Many were habitual offenders. During the early years of transportation, it became the habit to collude to reduce the value or severity of the crime to avoid the mandatory death sentence. The consequence is that many view the crimes now as less serious than they were at the time.
It is also worthy of comment that once in New South Wales, the convicts were not imprisoned in the modern sense. Yes, they had lost their liberty and were far from home, but unless and until they reoffended (and many did) they had considerable freedoms. They were not shackled during the day, nor locked up at night. What would be the point? And once they had worked their official time for the colony, they were free to work for themselves or others. And many did and went on to prosper. In August 1789 at Sydney, at their request, Governor Phillip instituted a night watch of twelve trustworthy convicts to prevent thieving.
The story of Henry Kable is a case in point. He was from Thetford, Norfolk. He married Susannah Holmes, also from Thetford. He was allowed, by Phillips and Captain Collins, to sue the master of the transport on which he had been transported for recovery of property stolen from him during the voyage. That course would not have been available to him as a felon in England. Pause and think about that for a moment. He became an overseer, a night-watchman and a constable. In time he was a prosperous businessman.
Roughly two-thirds of the entire population decided to stay and settle. These were the founders of modern Australia. These people, the greater number of whom ‘had left their country for their country’s good’ were the first to know some of those features (ownership of land and houses) that marked the emerging nation that became so attractive to future, more willing, migrants.
That country seems to have done quite well over the last 224 years.
Happy Birthday, Australia.