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Governor Arthur Phillip


Governor Phillip

reports on the settling

of Australia

[In 1788 the first ships of British convicts, along with the officers and marines assigned to guard them, arrived on the east coast of Australia to establish a penal colony - the first European settlement in Australia. The First Fleet, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in Botany Bay, their intended destination, on 18 January 1788, but Phillip decided the site was unsuitable, so he transferred to Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour) on 26 January 1788. Phillip's commission as Governor was officially read out on 7 February 1788, and the colony proclaimed. Governor Phillip wrote a report to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Sydney (whom the capital of New South Wales was named after), describing the situation of the settlement:]



(Phillip to Sydney, 15 May 1788. H.R.A. I, 1, pp. 19-23.)


Your Lordship will permit me to observe that our situation tho' so very different from what might be expected, is nevertheless the best that offered. My instructions did not permit me to detain the transports a sufficient length of time, to examine the coast to any considerable distance, it was absolutely necessary to be certain of a sufficient quantity of fresh water, in a situation that was healthy, and which the ships might approach within a reasonable distance for the conveniency of landing the stores and provisions, and I am fully persuaded that we should never have succeeded had it been attempted to move them only one mile from where they were landed. There are some parts of this harbour where the trees stand at a considerable distance from each other, and where there are small runs of water, which shall be cultivated when our numbers permit, and when the country inland can be examined. I make no doubt but some good situations will be found that have water, which I have never yet been able to find, either in Botany Bay or in this harbour, but in very small streams.

Some land that is near, and where the trees stand at a considerable distance from each other, will, as soon as convicts can be spared, be cultivated by the officers for raising a little corn for their stock; and this I have endeavoured to promote as much as possible, for I fear the consequence if a ship be lost in her passage out with provisions.

As there are only twelve convicts who are carpenters, as many as could be procured from the ships have been hired to work on the hospital and store-houses. The people were healthy when landed, but scurvy has, for some time, appeared amongst them, and now rages in a most extraordinary manner. Only sixteen carpenters could be hired from the ships, and several of the convict carpenters were sick. It was now the middle of February; the rains began to fall very heavy, and pointed out the necessity of hutting people; convicts were therefore appointed to assist the detachment in this work....

Your Lordship will not be surprized that I have been under the necessity of assembling a Criminal Court. Six men were condemned to death. One, who was the head of the gang, was executed the same day; the others I reprieved. They are to be exiled from the settlement, and when the season permits, I intend they shall be landed near the South Cape, where, by their forming connexions with the natives, some benefit may accrue to the public. These men had frequently robbed the stores and the other convicts. The one who suffered and two others were condemned for robbing the stores of provisions the very next day they received a week's provisions, and at which time their allowance, as settled by the Navy Board, was the same as the soldiers, spirits excepted; the others for robbing a tent, and for stealing provisions from other convicts.

The great labour in clearing the ground will not permit more than eight acres to be sown this year with wheat and barley. At the same time the immense number of ants and field-mice will render our crops very uncertain.

Part of the live stock brought from the Cape, small as it was, has been lost, and our resource in fish is also uncertain. Some days great quantities are caught, but never sufficient to save any part of the provisions; and at times fish are scarce.

Your Lordship will, I presume, see the necessity of a regular supply of provisions for four or five years, and of clothing, shoes and frocks in the greatest proportion. The necessary implements for husbandry and for clearing the ground brought out will with difficulty be made to serve the time that is necessary for sending out a fresh supply.

The labour of the convicts shall be, as is directed, for the public stock, but it is necessary to permit a part of the convicts to work for the officers, who, in our present situation, would otherwise find it impossible to clear a sufficient quantity of ground to raise what is absolutely necessary to support the little stock they have; and I am to request that your Lordship will be pleased to direct me to what extent that indulgence may be granted the officers of the garrison.

The Sirius shall be sent to the northward to barter for stock, and which shall be employed solely for the purpose of increasing the breed of such cattle as she may procure. The Supply is no ways calculated for this service, as in the least sea her decks are full of water.

The very small proportion of females makes the sending out an additional number absolutely necessary, for I am certain your Lordship will think that to send for women from the Islands, in our present situation, would answer no other purpose than that of bringing them to pine away in misery.



Explanation of some terms: hutting = housing; detachment = troops; Cape = Cape of Good Hope (South Africa); husbandry = farming; stock = livestock; Islands = South Pacific Islands
This document is an extract from Select Documents in Australian History 1788-1850 (selected and edited by C.M.H. Clark, first published 1950, pages 47-48)
The Association for the Advancement of Australian Culture