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A small English ship more than 10,000 miles from home slipped into Botany Bay on January 18, 1788 intent on bringing the most detestable of British society to the country Captain James Cook discovered nearly two decades before. The HMS Supply, scouting the shores in the horseshoe-shaped bay, was the advance party for an 11-ship convoy looking to establish the prison colony of Australia.
By the middle of the 18th century, Britain was experiencing a population boom. Fueled by the discovery of modern practices of crop rotation and a vast increase in the production capacity of local agriculture, farmers in the countryside of England were quickly able to support a larger number of people. This growth had its downside, though: with each worker capable of producing more per man, many who could have expected a life tending the fields were left without work. Some turned to crime as a means to provide for themselves instead. (The Industrial Revolution was only beginning to take off and create a new kind of jobs.)
Upon receipt of the formal Declaration of Independence from the American colonies in 1776, British officials were no longer able to relieve the pressure in jails bursting at the seams by shipping inmates across the Atlantic Ocean as indentured servants. Legislators gathered to discuss options, arriving at a conclusion the far-off territory of New South Wales in modern Australia (then part of New Holland) to be a perfect location for a new prison colony after consulting with members of deceased Captain James Cook’s expeditions to the South Pacific during the 1770s.
In the mid-1780s, Parliament decided to act. Using a government outlay to provide funding for nine ships, full crews, Royal Marines to provide security and provisions to support those onboard, preparations were in place by the beginning of 1787. Captain Arthur Phillip, tasked with leading the long journey around the tip of Africa and through the Indian Ocean, ordered the ships to raise anchor on May 13, 1787.
Though exact records are hard to come by, it appears more than 1,400 people were leaving Britain never to return -- more than half of them convicted criminals. As the flotilla crossed over to Rio de Janeiro on the eastern coast of Brazil, travel was relatively smooth. Fair weather provided convicts with time on deck during daylight hours, a welcome reprieve from primitive conditions below marked by rats and insects infesting the bowels of the ship.
Once past the Cape of Good Hope after a stop at Cape Town, South Africa, the ships sailed under the power of easterly winds toward Australia and things slowly got worse. Poor planning added thousands of miles to the trip, forcing Phillips to declare rationing of water and food as time went on. The thick tropical air, loaded with humidity, made the heat even more unbearable. Fetid water rotting in the ships’ bilges only added to the misery.
Following 250 days at sea, Captain Henry Lidgbird Ball guided the HMS Supply into Botany Bay on January 18, 1788. As the rest of the expedition arrived over the next two days, Phillips and his advisers set out to determine if the location would make a good settlement satisfied that only a minimal number of deaths -- just 23, according to some sources -- occurred on the voyage. Though the group would move north a few days later to Port Jackson, the location of modern Sydney, the group managed to fulfill their goal of establishing a base.
The 736 who arrived north of Botany Bay at Port Jackson were just the start: historians estimate more than 162,000 criminals would be transported to Australia on the 806 ships sent during the next 62 years.
Also On This Day:
1535 - Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro founds Lima, Peru
1562 - Pope Pius IV opens the final session of the Council of Trent
1896 - H.L. Smith demonstrates the first modern X-ray machine
1944 - Leningrad is liberated by Soviet forces, ending the Nazi Siege of Leningrad
1997 - Norwegian adventurer Boerge Ousland completes the first solo crossing of Antarctica