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Unfurling the First Fleet: introduction

An introduction to the learning activities exploring the First Fleet, using the Library's unrivalled collection.
Key inquiry question #1: 
Why did Europeans settle in Australia?

Introduction to the kit

The State Library's First Fleet Collection includes journals, letters, drawings, maps and charts created by those who were part of the First Fleet of British ships to Australia. It is one of the Library’s most significant and valuable collections and is the inspiration for this comprehensive kit of digital learning resources.  

Students will interrogate sources to investigate the reasons for convict transportation to Australia, what the journey entailed and then explore the convict experience in the new colony. They will piece together many aspects of the daily life of a convict, examine Aboriginal people’s lives including their relationships and conflict with the colonists plus consider the consequences of the First Fleet’s settlement at Warrane/Sydney Cove.  

These learning activities have been developed in consultation with the Indigenous Engagement branch at the Library.

Perspectives and Library collections

The Library has an unrivalled collection of original journals, logbooks, letters, paintings, prints, drawings, books and artefacts that document the history of Australia from 1788.  

  Although these items record significant events in the colonial history of New South Wales, the Library is conscious of the impact these events have had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and of the need to critically examine and reinterpret these documents to bring a greater depth of understanding to the history we present to future generations.   

The Library also recognises that the history recorded by this collection material is selective — it only represents the point of view of the colonisers.   

What we now know is Australia has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Europeans saw the area as an unoccupied land ready for settlement and the expansion of British interests. The arrival of the British First Fleet and establishment of the penal colony at Warrane/Sydney Cove irrevocably changed the future of the country for Indigenous peoples.   

When examining historical sources, it is important to consider: 

  • Who created it? 
  • When was it created? 
  • Why was it created? 
  • Whose perspective is this? 
  • Are there other perspectives to consider? 

About the kit

These digital learning resources are classroom ready and the high quality of digitisation, transcription and supporting downloadable resources make this a ‘one stop shop’ for your study of the First Fleet.    

There are thirteen learning activities that cover the background of transportation, the First Fleet’s journey, the everyday life of the First Fleet convicts and the impact that colonisation had on the lives of Aboriginal people in the early days of the penal settlement. Within each learning activity you will find a number of student tasks suitable for a differentiated curriculum.  

We suggest you start your program with tasks from activities 1,2 and 3. Activities 4-10 can be utilised in any order and activities 12 and 13 are case studies of convicts  Ann Martin and Esther Abrahams that also cover topics not covered in the other learning activities.  Dip into the learning activities and mix ’n’ match the tasks for your class’s interests and abilities. Content covering Aboriginal history is integrated in eight of the 13 learning activities, numbers 2 and 4-11. 

  1. Transportation to the new colony  
  2. Journey of the First Fleet  
  3. Convict women of the First Fleet 
  4. Setting up camp
  5. Work to be done
  6. Food of the colony 
  7. Convict clothing
  8. Talkin’ like a convict
  9. Idle hours
  10. Challenges to convict survival
  11. Fighting back
  12. Ann Martin: a female flogged
  13. Esther Abrahams: a life transformed

Background Historical Information and How to Use The Kit

The Journey  

Background information

In the mid-1700s the world was changing.  It was the time of the Industrial Revolution. The invention of machines made it easier, quicker and cheaper to produce goods. With the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution continued to spread to all types of factories, farming and transport. This meant that many people were now unemployed as their jobs were being replaced by machines. Rural people migrated to larger towns and cities to find work, although this was often hard to come by. The population in the towns and cities increased dramatically, and poverty was common. Crime was one way to get by, and perhaps survive and provide for others. With the number of crimes increasing and gaols overflowing, excess male prisoners were housed on old ships on the river - the hulks.  Before the American War of Independence in 1776, many of Britain’s prisoners had been transported to American colonies, but after the war this was no longer an option. The British government was seeking a solution to their prisoner problem and possibly looking to satisfy their desire to have a presence in the Pacific. In 1770 James Cook had sailed the Pacific Ocean in the HMB Endeavour and mapped the east coast of Australia. James Cook claimed this land for Britain. The concept of terra nullius developed from this action and was fundamental to the British disregarding Aboriginal occupancy of the continent. The information gathered during James Cook’s journey was integral to the decision by the British government to establish a penal colony in Australia 18 years later. The First Fleet, under the command of Arthur Phillip, was the first group of ships to sail to our shores, arriving in 1788 to begin this slice of Australian history. Onboard the First Fleet were Royal Marines, naval and merchant seaman, government officials, a small number of wives and children and, of course, the convicts. The convicts included men, women and some children. This fleet of 11 ships left Plymouth on 13 May 1787 and despite the harsh weather and sometimes difficult conditions onboard they arrived in Port Jackson on 26 January 1788.  

Learning activities for The Journey

These three learning activities examine the reasons for transportation and the First Fleet journey across the seas. 


Daily Life  

Background information

Life for convicts on the shores of Port Jackson was challenging. After disembarkation Governor Arthur Phillip needed everyone now on shore to contribute to the establishment of the new colony. The convicts were initially settled in tents and over the next few years upgraded to huts.  At the beginning, work was allocated according to a convict’s skill (carpenter, servant, cook, farmer…) The British government’s plan was for the convicts to work on government farms, but some were unwell or not strong enough whilst some others were not interested in hard work! The male convicts were a source of free labour and needed to clear land and build shelter and food storehouses. There was a heavy reliance on the food supplies carried out on the voyage, but resources also needed to be produced locally and in sufficient quantities to feed the colony. The food brought from England consisted of salted meat and dried food but these supplies were inadequate. The sandy soils around the harbour were unsuitable for growing grain and although they managed to grow a few vegetables, catch fish, hunt local wildlife and find some native plants to eat, it was not enough to feed a large crowd. Food was rationed and for two years, food supply was an ongoing challenge. There were widely available foods and medicines that local Aboriginal people had cultivated for generations, but the British insisted on replacing vast tracts of land with unsuitable crops. The lives of Aboriginal people changed dramatically after the arrival of the First Fleet. The dispossession from their land, exploitation and violence followed and the effects of this are still felt today. The convicts brought their own language with them, flash language, a set of secret slang words created by the urban ‘criminal class’ in England and only understood by them. During their downtime their secret language was helpful when bending the rules.    

 Learning activities for Daily Life

These eight learning activities provide an insight into the daily life of the convicts in the new colony, from food, clothing, housing and work through to the unique language spoken and the mischief they got up to. These learning activities also reveal the relationships developed with Aboriginal people, the impact of colonisation and the challenge for everyone of staying alive. These activities have no set order.  



Background information

There were over 750 convicts on the First Fleet, a mix of career criminals and unfortunate people who may have committed crimes in order to survive. Many of the convicts had committed petty crimes of theft. In NSW, without a physical prison to place the convicts, they worked instead for the government. It was like an open-air prison. The average age of convicts was 27 and there was an approximate ratio of 3:1, male to female convicts. Those who were career criminals knew of no other life, so agricultural work was not only foreign to them, but they were not interested in or physically fit enough for manual labour. Different forms of punishment were implemented for convicts who broke the rules in this new settlement. There were floggings, reduced food rations, isolation and even hangings! If a convict chose to follow the rules there were rewards and in some cases their lives were altered in positive ways. 

Learning activities for Convicts

The following learning activities are convict case studies and explore the lives of  two very different First Fleet convict women. In these learning activities students come face to face with the personal stories of Ann Martin and Esther Abrahams plus examine topics not covered in the other learning activities such as money, flogging, family and faith.