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Convicts - the Voyage to Australia

John was born and raised in Australia. Subsequently, he is interested in all things Australian: language, sport and culture.

Lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson, 26 January 1788, by Edmund Le Bihan

Lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson, 26 January 1788, by Edmund Le Bihan


During the 1700s Great Britain was experiencing significant change and unrest. This was the start of the Agricultural Revolution. New types of farming equipment, better crop-growing methods, and improved methods of breeding livestock were being developed. This in turn led to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of new types of factories and industries and changed the basis of employment in the country.

In rural areas, second and third-generation farmers regrettably abandoned their lands to work in the cities. Some found employment in the newly created factories but most were not so lucky. Poverty and drunkenness, therefore, became widespread, and inevitably, this led to crime, especially property theft.

There was no police force as we know it today (this was not developed until the 1800s) and the few policemen there were had trouble enforcing the law. Punishments for those caught committing crimes were extremely harsh, often involving the death penalty or transportation to one of Britain's colonies.

Crowded London Street

Crowded London Street


In 1718, Great Britain introduced a punishment known as Transportation. Apart from being a punishment for convicted criminals, this also provided cheap labour for Britain's American colonies. This proved to be so effective, that by the 1760s more than 1,000 convicts were transported each year, and the type of crime punishable by transportation increased. Shoplifting [of items valued at more than five shillings (50cents), picking pockets, highway robbery, arson, forgery, and poaching were some of the crimes charged.

With the outbreak of America's Revolutionary War, the transportation of convicts to American colonies ceased. Britain's jails became quickly overcrowded with a buildup of criminals who could no longer be sent overseas. As a temporary measure, the government put the convicts on ships called hulks, which had the masts removed and were no longer seaworthy. These hulks were used first on the Thames River in London, and then more established as temporary prisons at Portsmouth and Plymouth. Conditions in these were poor, and they were infested with rats and disease.

Hulk Prison Ship

Hulk Prison Ship

After the American colonies gained independence and became the United States, they refused to take any more British convicts. The British government, however, refused to abolish transportation and searched for new places to send the convicts. Several parts of Africa were considered but these regions were unhealthy, and Botany Bay in Australia was eventually chosen, on the recommendation of Joseph Banks who visited Australia with Captain Cook in 1770.

The First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in Botany Bay in 1788.

An engraving of the First Fleet in Botany Bay at voyage's end in 1788, from The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay. Sirius is in the foreground; convict transports such as Prince of Wales are depicted to the left.

An engraving of the First Fleet in Botany Bay at voyage's end in 1788, from The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay. Sirius is in the foreground; convict transports such as Prince of Wales are depicted to the left.

Convict Ships

The First Fleet to Botany Bay consisted of 11 ships containing 1,487 people: 715 free adults, 759 criminals, and 13 children. Six births occurred during the voyage, but by the time it ended, 23 convicts and two newborns had died.

The captain and crew kept convicts imprisoned below deck but allowed them to exercise on board under watchful armed guards when the weather permitted. Although a convict received only a third of the dietary fare of a seaman, it sufficed with biscuits, salt beef or pork, peas, cheese, butter, vinegar and a daily allowance of 3.4 litres of water. Occasionally, the convicts received fresh fish when caught and fresh vegetables when the fleet anchored at port. In other words, the convicts on this first fleet were treated humanely—not so for those that followed

The Second Fleet became notorious for its cruelty and the number of deaths that occurred during the voyage. Transport of convicts to Australia on this fleet of six vessels was contracted out to London businessmen who were more interested in the profits to be made in Sydney than the welfare of the convicts. These ships were severely overcrowded to allow more room for cargo which could be sold on arrival. Sufficient food had been allowed, however, it wasn't provided to the convicts, who were placed on a starvation diet, and rarely allowed on deck for exercise.

On docking in Sydney Harbour in 1790, of the 1,000 convicts who left England, 267 had died, and another 488 suffered dysentery and scurvy. Fifty more convicts died shortly after landing. Governor Phillip subsequently protested to the British government, which brought charges against those involved. However, they fled England before being brought to trial.

The Third Fleet consisted of ten ships, also contained over 1,000 convicts, and reached Sydney in 1791. Although the death toll of 200 was slightly less than during the Second Fleet's voyage, 576 of the survivors were desperately ill, and 300 died in the coming months.

Conditions on convict ships improved gradually over the years. By 1802, ship surgeons were paid ten shillings and 6 pence for every convict landed in good health, and captains received 50 pounds if the voyage was properly conducted. New regulations banned overcrowding and ensured that convicts received enough food and fresh air. Exercise on deck was made compulsory, and convicts were allocated increased sleeping space of 45 centimetres. With these new regulations, the death rate on board convict ships declined steadily. Between 1787 and 1868, however, an estimated 3,000 convicts died sailing between Britain and Australia.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 John Hansen


John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 10, 2018:

Thank you for reading this Li-Jen. Yes, it was sad how they were treated. I know they were convicts but many were deported simply for crimes like.stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family.

Li-Jen Hew on April 10, 2018:

Hi Jodah, thanks for sharing the history about convicts. It was sad how poor regulations led to sicknesses. But I don't know how to feel because they were convicts...This article teaches us to appreciate what we have today.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on June 22, 2015:

Hi Sherry, people were getting sent to Australia as convicts for things as minor as stealing a loaf of bread or piece of clothing. Many had to do this just to survive as poverty was so rife. It may have stopped crime to a certain extent.

Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on June 22, 2015:

Reading about these old forms of punishment, it amazes me that such harsh treatment still did not stop people from committing crimes.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 09, 2014:

Thank you for reading this Cynthia, Australia's history, although interesting, is very sad in many ways. I don't think a lot of our history is taught overseas. I am glad you enjoyed reading this and hope you enjoy the remainder of the series.

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on December 09, 2014:

This was a good read, Jodah, and my husband and I also enjoyed the videos that you included as part of the hub. As a Canadian school girl back in the late 50s/60s we learned quite a lot about the United States, a little less about Canada, some about European wars, mostly British, and a snatch about the rest of the world. What I did know about Australia I learned through literature. This was very interesting, and sad. I'm going to read Part 2 tomorrow! All the best, Cynthia

Mary Craig from New York on December 09, 2014:

Man's inhumanity to man. Imagine being sent on one of those "transportation" ships for stealing 50 cents? Especially if you're only 13 years old? Isn't it amazing that the almighty dollar was worshipped way back then? Thanks for this interesting history lesson.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 09, 2014:

Hi Audrey, glad you enjoyed this history lesson. Now you just have to read parts 2 and 3. :) Thanks for the vote up and sharing.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on December 08, 2014:


Thank you for this detailed description of this fascinating, historical presentation. I knew so little about this. Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and will share with others.


John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on August 16, 2014:

Yes Ologsinquito, it is amazing how there is always something new to learn. I am glad you found this interesting and hope you enjoyed it enough to read the following two parts.

ologsinquito from USA on August 16, 2014:

These are fascinating historical facts. I didn't know that convicts were once shipped to the American colonies.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 26, 2013:

Thanks Randy, for reading and commenting. Always glad to refresh memories, or add to the knowledge of others.

Randy Godwin from Southern Georgia on November 26, 2013:

A fascinating subject I was already familiar with, but your account refreshed my memory of some details I'd forgotten. :)


John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Thank you Nell for your comments. I wasn't writing this to put the British in a bad light. History just happens, and we have to move on. But as has been suggested, these origins probably shaped Australia and the people. So, I don't think it was all bad.

Nell Rose from England on November 20, 2013:

Great read Jodah, I knew a lot of it, but not as much as you have written here, we were so barbaric back then, off the read the rest!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Thanks for the kind words Pamela , glad it helped fill in some gaps. Hope you enjoy part 2 and 3.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 20, 2013:

I had read some of this history before, but you really filled in many details I didn't know. What an awful life these first people had who were sent to Australia. Very interesting hub that I enjoyed very much.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Thanks for taking the time to read this Phyllis, always great to see my audience growing. This series was the most challenging thing I have attempted but I'm pleased with how popular it is proving. Hope you enjoy the remainder.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on November 20, 2013:

Jodah, this is an awesome, well-written hub full of information not generally known. Your research an writing was very well done. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and am looking forward to the next installment. Thanks for this very educational hub.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 20, 2013:

Thank you for visiting Eric, thanks for the kind comments and hope you enjoy the other instalments.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 20, 2013:

Jackie sent me over. I look forward to reading the following hubs on this. Great write, thank you.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 17, 2013:

Thank you Christie for reading and your kind comments. While I was researching this I found out that some local aboriginal communities suffered from an outbreak of smallpox.

It was a disease foreign to this land, so there is conjecture whether it was brought by infected convicts or members of the Fleets crews, or alternately by the natives contact with other Polynesian visitors to the shores. I'd say the odds are with the Europeans, but I haven't found anything about a smallpox outbreak at the colonies themselves, yet.

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on November 17, 2013:

What an interesting look into history here and it is well written too, Jodah. How sad that so many people died of illnesses as there were not yet cures.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 16, 2013:

Thank you for your comment and vote Mary.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on November 16, 2013:

This historical hub is worthy of attention. Voted Interesting. --Blessings!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 12, 2013:

Thank you drbj, ' glad this article is helping to spread a little more understanding of the history of Australia and how it came to be.

Yes FlourishAnyway, I think you are correct. Being sent to a new country as convicts certainly would have instilled a fighting spirit into the population in general, and to pass down the generations. Thanks for your comments.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 12, 2013:

This is a great hub full of historical detail. You can almost paint yourself there! While touring Yorktown I had read that convicts were often shipped to the American colonies and knew about Australia. (And sometimes those crimes were for nearly nothing!) Makes you wonder whether the practice added to the independent spirit that some countries cultures have.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on November 12, 2013:

Fascinating information, Jodah, thank you for your research and compilation. I had heard of these prison ships but, probably like most Americans, knew little of the details.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on November 12, 2013:

Jodah, A very interesting read, I knew about the hardship and cruelty of transportation, but not about the hulks, it's hard to imagine such inhumanity, however those were the bad old days. I'll be reading the next installment soon. Voting up all the way.

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 12, 2013:

Thank you Eddy, your kind comments are always appreciated. Second instalment is there too when you have the time. Cheers for voting up.

Eiddwen from Wales on November 12, 2013:

Truly wonderful Jodah and I look forward to second instalment. Voted up and shared.


John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 11, 2013:

Thank you Alicia, Part two shouldn't be too far away.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2013:

This a great beginning to the series, Jodah. It was very interesting to read. I'm looking forward to the next installment!

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 11, 2013:

Thanks Eric, Next part is in progress.....

Eric Wayne Flynn from Providence, Rhode Island on November 11, 2013:

That was a good read... Next installment at your leisure sir.


John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 11, 2013:

Thank you Faith Reaper and Mary, I'm glad this subject has found a new audience and is appreciated. I'll get on with the next instalment and hopefully have it up and published within the next two days.

Thanks for voting up.

Mary McShane from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on November 11, 2013:

Very interesting history and I'm looking forward to reading your future hubs on this subject. I was drawn in when I read your hub because I just love all kinds of history. Great photo complement the hub. Voted useful and interesting :)

Faith Reaper from southern USA on November 11, 2013:

Well, my goodness, Jodah, what a fascinating read here, very insightful. I did not know of all of such, very sad indeed. Excellent write. I am looking forward to reading more.

Up and more

Blessings, Faith Reaper

John Hansen (author) from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 11, 2013:

You are welcome Jackie. I sometimes forget that Australian history is not given priority in teaching in other countries. Although we are brought up learning about our own country's history it is probably all new to you, so it's actually good to put it out there for others to read.

Thanks for voting up and sharing.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 11, 2013:

Wow, I cannot wait to read more! You may not be the first to write about this but it is the first I have read. This is of course very sad, but just knowing how it ends and getting to read the in between is so very exciting! All up votes and sharing!! Thank you for doing this. I so look forward to it.

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