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First Fleet departs from England

On this day, 13th May 1787, the 11 ships which became known as the First Fleet departed from Portsmouth, England, on a voyage which founded the penal colony in New South Wales.

By the late1780s, The British prison system was overflowing, and a new place had to be found to ship the prison inmates. The American colonies were no longer viable, following the American war of Independence. Following Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific, the previously uncharted continent of New Holland proved to be suitable.

On 18 August 1786 the decision was made to send a colonisation party of convicts, military and civilian personnel to Botany Bay, New South Wales, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, who was appointed Governor-designate. The First Fleet consisted of 775 convicts on board six transport ships, accompanied by officials, crew, marines and their families who together totalled 645. As well as the convict transports, there were two naval escorts and three storeships.

The State Library of New South Wales holds the world’s largest collection of original First Fleet journals and correspondence.

Read more on our Discover Collections feature.

The First Fleet entering Port Jackson, January 26, 1788, drawn 1888 / E. Le Bihan