Every year on the 26th we all sit back with a few beers and try to remember why we have a public holiday. The arrival of the First Fleet is the answer. In January 1788 11 ships arrived off the coast of Sydney after 252 days at sea, having travelled 15,000 miles (26,000 km give or take) stopping at Teneriffe, Rio and Cape Town on the way. 1080 people on board, 736 of whom were convicts, the youngest a boy of 9 the oldest a woman of 82.
At first they followed Captain Cooks instructions from 18 years earlier and sailed into Botany Bay. However the bay was wide and exposed, with little fresh water, poor soil and no depth for shipping. A second bay further north offered better sites, so the fleet weighed anchor and headed to what we now know as Sydney Harbour, ‘the finest harbour in the world’, as Governor Phillip declared on seeing it for the first time. It actually took the fleet approximately 2 weeks to get everyone on shore, they had to build their settlement, clearing the trees, erecting tents, getting stores on shore, exploring the bays.
On the 6 February then, the last convicts, the women, were ferried to shore on the ships boats. As the evening approached a Sydney summer storm was brewing in the west, the air heavy with humidity. As night fell the storm broke overhead, and a storm of drunkeness and lust broke on shore as the convict men ran wild among the women, with the rain bedraggled masses disintergrating into an orgy fuelled by alcohol and relief of survival of the long journey at sea. Arthur Bowes Smyth, surgeon of the ship Lady Penrhyn, described the goings on thus ‘it is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night Some of the convicts were swearing, other quarrelling, others singing, not in the least regarding the tempest tho’ so violent that the thunder shook the ship exceeding anything I ever before had a conception of’
It’s a long time since 1788 and there are few reminders of that first fleet, but some are visible. If you visit the Museum of Sydney look below the floors to the archaeological remains of Phillips first Government House, while down the road in Macquarie Place the anchor and cannon of HMS Sirius are on display, retrieved from the wreck off Norfolk Island. The little ferries on the harbour are also named after the First Fleet ships. And if you really try, you can almost see the wild, thick forest that once crowded down to the shore line and imagine the people who were here before the arrival, the Gadigal, looking out through the trees at the ships and wondering what this all meant.