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A direct north general view of Sydney Cove, the chief British settlement in New South Wales as it appeared in 1794, being the 7th year from its establishment. Painted immediately from nature by T. Watling

From Terra Australis to Australia

In May 1787 the British government sent the First Fleet 20,000 kilometres around the world to establish a  British colony in New South Wales.

The Library has an unrivalled collection of original journals, logbooks, letters, paintings, prints, drawings and books 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 as Australia had 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 Sydney Cove irrevocably changed the future of the country for Indigenous peoples. 

The First Fleet

On 13 May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships set sail from Portsmouth, England under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. This historic convoy, which later became known as the First Fleet, carried over 1500 men, women and children to the other side of the globe. Almost half of those on board were convicts sentenced to transportation; the rest were officers, crew and marines and their families.

'View of Sydney Cove' possibly by Thomas Watling.

The fleet consisted of two Royal Navy escort ships, HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, six convict transports, the Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Prince of Wales and the Scarborough, and three store ships, the Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove

From Portsmouth the First Fleet travelled via Tenerife and Rio de Janeiro to the Cape of Good Hope, the fleet’s last port of call before striking out for Terra Australis. 


Chart from the journal A Voyage to New South Wales, by William Bradley, c 1802.

Explore Tales from the First Fleet and read first-hand accounts of the experiences of some of those who travelled south to Botany Bay.

The fleet arrived first in Botany Bay on 18 January. Despite a glowing recommendation from Sir Joseph Banks, it proved unsuitable for a permanent settlement, especially as it lacked a supply of fresh water. 

On 26 January, the fleet made anchorage at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson. This site had everything needed for the new settlement; deep water close to the shore, shelter and fresh water. Phillip named the site Sydney Cove, after Lord Sydney the British Home Secretary. 


Botany Bay; Sirius & Convoy going in ... 21 January 1788


Made possible through a partnership with John T Reid Charitable Trusts and Thyne Reid Foundation - UNESCO Memory of the World