Fleet that took first footsteps into new land

The Fishburn off Botany Bay
The Fishburn off Botany Bay

Just 18 years after Captain Cook charted the country’s east coast, 11 vessels made the perilous journey to establish Australia’s first colony.

A fleet of ships carrying almost 800 convicts and 200 crewmen arrived in Australia in January 1788, the first Western settlers to do so.

Among them were two vessels, the Fishburn and the Golden Grove, which would continue Whitby’s close relationship with the sub-continent.

Under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, the 15,000 mile journey took eight months with stops at Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town.

Of the 11 vessels, two were Naval ships, six carried convicts, and three others carried supplies - including the Fishburn and Golden Grove.

Built in Whitby and owned by the town’s Leighton Company - as was a third vessel, the Borrowdale - the boats had been fitted out to carry supplies to last the colonists two years following their arrival in Australia.

The Golden Grove would even become known as ‘Australia’s Noah’s Ark’ due to the livestock it carried on board.

Captain James Cook had charted the east coast of New Holland in 1770, renaming it New South Wales and declaring it prime for settlement.

An agrarian revolution in Britain had led to a population explosion in the cities and a huge increase in crime. The American Revolution had meant convicts could no longer be sent there and Australia was chosen as its replacement.

With this in mind, the British Government hired ships and set about provisioning them with enough supplies to keep the convicts, their Marine guards - some with families - and a few civil officers, until they became self-sufficient.

The travellers embarked on the ships for Portsmouth, arriving on March 16 1787. They then waited until the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip. By the time they departed, some convicts had been aboard these ships for seven months.

The First Fleet left England on May 13 1787, arriving at Botany Bay eight months later, between January 18 and 20 1788.

However, due to its lack of fresh water, this area was deemed unsuitable for settlement. They instead moved north, arriving at Port Jackson on the Australian east coast on January 26 1788.

At 378 tonnes, Fishburn was the largest store-ship to complete the first voyage. Food supplies had been replenished at Cape Town, where livestock was taken on board the vessels, including cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry.

Captain James Cook (1728-1779) '*oil on canvas '*127 x 101.6 cm '*1775-1776

Captain James Cook (1728-1779) '*oil on canvas '*127 x 101.6 cm '*1775-1776

Oddly, the chicken’s suffered an unusually high death rate and the ship’s crew feared they had been sold a diseased stock by unscrupulous Dutch traders. One crewman, David Collins wrote in his journal on December 16: “By computation we were abreast of the Island of St Paul passing it at the distance of about sixty leagues. The following day, on the return of a boat from the Fishbourn storeship which had been sent to inquire into the state of the stock, we heard that several of the sheep were dead, as well as eight of the hogs belonging to the public store.”

The Golden Grove had an even wider variety of animal species on board, including a cat named Gundagai. Eighty-eight years later, The Mercury newspaper wrote: “There is in existence a cat which is said to have attained the extraordinary age of 100 years, brought from England in the Golden Grove. This vessel may be characterised as the Noah’s Ark of Australia. She conveyed thither – one bull, four cows, and one calf; one stallion, three mares, and three colts; one ram, eleven sheep, and eight lambs; one billy-goat, four nanny goats, and three kids; one boar, five sows, and a litter of 14 pigs; nine different sorts of dogs; and seven cats, including the Gundagai, which is supposed to be the sole survivor of the magic number 77 quadrupeds brought by the Golden Grove. The cat passed into the possession of a pensioner who was drowned in the local deluge of June 1852. Since then – 24 years – this wonderful cat has subsisted on pork sausages, and will not touch any other diet.”

From the moment they touched land, the settlers were beset with problems. Few convicts knew how to farm and the soil was poor.

Instead of Cook’s lush pastures, they found a hot, dry, infertile country unsuitable for the small farming necessary to make the settlement self-sufficient. Everyone, from the convicts to Captain Phillip, was on rationed food.

The natives were wary and of the settlers and when some African-American convicts escaped in the hope of being accepted by the Aborigines, they were rejected by them.

While the natives subsisted on local plants and fish, the settlers found the plants unappetising and they were poor hunters and fishermen. They ate what they could catch and rats, dogs, crows and an occasional kangaroo or emu were to be used to supplement the food.

Shelter was also a problem as the tools they were provided with soon blunted against the hard local wood. Extra clothing had been forgotten and, by the time the Second Fleet arrived, convicts and marines alike were dressed in patched and threadbare clothing.

By July 1788, all the ships except the Naval vessels Syrius and Supply had left and the settlement was isolated.