In many countries, leading families proudly trace their ancestors back to some significant group of people. In the U..S.A., prominent individuals may boast that their family came over on the Mayflower in 1620. In England, ladies and gentlemen are happy to announce that their ancestors came to Britain with William the Conqueror in 1066. In Australia, however, many leading families are reluctant to talk about their origins. In fact, many years ago, one Australian city burned its early records, so that no one would know who their ancestors were. The reason for this is that Australia began its history as a British penal colony. In eighteenth century England, there was a large gap between the rich and the poor.
To make matters worse, many farmers had been forced off their land by powerful landowners. These homeless people wandered to the cities, where employment was often hard to find. Frequent wars gave temporary employment to young men as soldiers and sailors, but when the war was over, they were no better off than before. As a result, theft was extremely common. To protect themselves, the upper classes made theft punishable by hanging. The problem with this was that juries were often reluctant to hang someone for stealing something small, and might declare the person “not guilty.” For example, if a man or woman stole a loaf of bread to feed their children, the jury might just let them go.
To prevent this, the courts came up with a new category of punishment– exile or “transportation.” If the judge or jury was reluctant to sentence the accused to death, they would ship them far away from England across the seas. However, if the person was found back in England again, he or she would be hanged. At first, England sent its convicts to America’s Thirteen Colonies. However, when the United States declared its independence in 1776, this was no longer possible. England considered sending criminals to West Africa, but the land and climate were considered unsuitable. So finally Great Britain decided to use the huge, almost uninhabited, country of Australia. At this time, not a single European was living anywhere on the continent. In the fall of 1786, a fleet of English ships began to take convicts on board.
This process continued till the sailing date of May 13, 1787. Many British jails had been cleared of both male and female prisoners. Since the convicts were technically under a sentence of death, there was little concern for making them comfortable. At first, the convicts were chained below decks, but later some were released when well out to sea. One man had been sentenced for the theft of a winter coat; another for stealing cucumbers from a garden; a third for carrying off a sheep.
Among the women, one was guilty of stealing a large cheese; another of taking several yards of cloth. These ships known as “The First Fleet” carried 1,442 convicts, sailors, marines and officers. The fleet finally arrived at Botany Bay on January 10, 1788. Later that month, they moved down to Sydney Harbour. No preparations whatsoever had been made. The forests came right up to the shore. Soon, the fleet members were cutting down trees and trying to put up tents. It was June 1790 before further supplies arrived from England.
Meanwhile, many convicts suffered from sickness, aggravated by lack of good food. In conclusion, Australians need not be ashamed of their origins. In time, great things were achieved, in spite of the almost complete lack of help from the English government. Many ex- convicts became respectable settlers who began prosperous farms and businesses. The members of the First Fleet, whether convicts or not, deserve to be honoured as the founders of Australia.