Dutch navigator Willem Jansz aboard the Duyfken was the first European to land in Australia in 1606. He charted much of the Gulf of Carpentaria, located on the northern coast of Australia. In 1616, another Dutch captain, Dirk Hartog, landed on the west coast of Australia near Shark Bay.


William Dampier, an English buccaneer sailing aboard Cygnet, landed on the northwest coast of Australia in 1688 and spent three months near King Sound in the state of Western Australia. He wrote a book about this voyage and it drew so much attention that he was sent back in 1699 to explore more of the western coastline.

Lieutenant Zachary Hicks on the HMS Endeavour sighted Australia on April 20, 1770. Later that year, Captain James Cook charted the east coast of Australia landing in Botany Bay. In August 1770, he proclaimed all of eastern Australia a British possession and named it New South Wales.

English Prisons

By the 17th century, English prisons were overflowing with prisoners as many were incarcerated for debt which proved to be senseless considering the prisoners had to pay for board, which prolonged their stay. Also due to the invention of machinery at the end of the 1700's, many labourers were being driven to the cities in search for work and in turn the crime rates went up. Most were convicted and sentenced to death, with the sentence commuted to transportation for life. Approximately 28,000 people received life sentences. Accordingly, Virginia was the first choice and it is estimated that some 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America in the early years. After the War of Independence (1775-1783), England had to look elsewhere to for a place to ship their prisoners. In 1786, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, decided to make Botany Bay a penal colony.

The Fleets

On May 13th 1787, the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth, a city located on England's south coast, under the command of Arthur Phillip. It consisted of eleven ships - six prison ships, three equipment ships, and two naval ships, Sirius and Supply. They sailed for roughly 250 days and arrived in New South Wales between January 18 and 20, 1788. Thus began the colonization of Australia by convicts. This fleet was quickly followed by the Second and Third Fleet.

Between 1787 and 1868, an estimated 160,000 convicts were sent to Australia aboard the prison ships. Over 80% of them were male and many of them worked as labourers in Britain. Prosecutions took place all over Great Britain; however, the majority of them happened in Middlesex, London, Lancaster, Surrey, and Warwick. Around 30% of the convictions were for stealing, larceny, or burglary.

Smith, Jones, William, Brown, and Johnson were the five most common surnames found among the first Europeans in Australia.[1]

New South Wales

Founded in 1788, New South Wales (NSW) was the first penal colony. British explorer, Captain James Cook, first discovered the east coast of Australia while attempting to examine the planet Venus in order to determine the distance from the Earth to the Sun in 1770, he first named it New Wales, then later New South Wales. Joseph Banks, a botanist aboard the HMS Endeavour's first voyage became general adviser to the government on all Australian matters for twenty years. He was continually contacted for help in developing the agriculture and trade of the colony and was a strong influence in the early emigration of early free settlers to New South Wales. Captain Arthur Phillip led the First Fleet landings in January 1788 and assumed the role of governor of the settlement. At one time, the New South Wales colony comprised the Australian mainland, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania since 1856), Lord Howe Island, and Norfolk Island.

Van Diemen's Land

Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, commanding the Heemskerk and Zeehan, named Van Dieman's Land after the then governor general of the Dutch East Indies in 1642. British settlement began in 1803 when it was founded as a penal colony. From its founding until the last prison ship set sail in 1868, Van Diemen's Land was the primary penal colony in Australia and over 75,000 convicts were transported there. Convicts who completed their sentences often settled in the new free colony of Victoria to the dismay of the already established free settlers. Complaints from Victorians led to the eventual abolition of transportation to Van Diemen's Land in 1853. It was officially renamed Tasmania in honour the discoverer in 1856.

Port Arthur

Port Arthur was named after George Arthur, the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830, but by 1833 it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British criminals. Virtually an island with shark-infested waters around, the peninsula is a naturally secure site with a 30 metre wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck as the only connection to the mainland which was fenced and guarded by soldiers and dogs. Essentially an inescapable prison, much like the later Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, it was abandoned as a prison in 1877 and is now Tasmania's top tourist attraction with over 250,000 visitors each year.

Welsh Immigrants

"Australia was not a place of choice but as a result of the convict expulsion in the late 1700's. 'By 1852, a total of about 1,800 of the convicts in Australia had been tried in Wales - about 1.2% of the total number of convicts transported to Australia by that time. Of these, only around 300 were women.' " [2]

Irish Immigrants

Irish emigration to Australia was for very different reasons that the two aforementioned countries. Yes, the Potato Famine had a drastic impact on the way of life in Ireland, but add the English religious persecution to the mix, and the Irish who emigrated were not convicts but rather men and women of means.

"These men were highly educated and highly ambitious individuals who travelled half way around the world to make their fortunes." [3]
Scottish Immigrants

Scots were like the Irish, they were not forced to emigrate to Australia but chose to do so on their own free will.

"Movement to the antipodes accounted for only 30 percent of the Scottish emigration between 1853 and 1880, although in five years during the Victorian gold rush and the American Civil War, the majority chose Australia or New Zealand. The Scots who peopled Australia have generally been depicted as an elite among nineteenth-century immigrants, whose superior access to capital allowed them to travel in family groups, often without government subsidies." [4]


See Also



  1. ^ British Convict Transportation Register. State Library of Queensland. 2020.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Ronayne, Jarlath The Irish in Australia, Rogues and Reformers, First Fleet to Federation. Australia: The Penguin Group (2002) ISBN 0 670 04105 X pp8
  4. ^ Davison, Graeme (ed.) et al, The Oxford Companion to Australian History. Australia: Oxford University Press (1998) ISBN 0 19 551503 X pp579
  5. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials