The First Fleet: The Convict Ships in need of Telehealth

The medical story behind the First Fleet is a triumph of public health and a reminder to us all that a healthy, clean environment and good diet can go long way.

As we prepare to commemorate another Australia Day, it’s a timely reminder of how far medicine has come since the epic voyage of the First Fleet.


The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century displaced large numbers of former workers who flooded into cities in search of work. Cities became overcrowded and people often turned to crime to survive. In Britain, the prisons filled and the authorities began housing prisoners (convicts) in rotten prison ships called hulks. But as the prison population continued to climb, Britain looked beyond its shores.


Britain first used colonial North America as a penal colony. Merchants would transport the convicts and then auction them off to plantation owners. Up to 50,000 British convicts were sent to America by this route, but after the American War of Independence ended in 1783, the newly formed USA refused to accept any more of Britain’s convicts. In December 1785, Orders in Council were issued in London for the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales (Australia).


On 13 May 1787, the First Fleet left English shores on one of the world’s greatest sea voyages. The Fleet comprised 11 ships carrying up to 1500 people and their required stores. They travelled for more than 15,000 miles over 252 days without losing a ship. Their route went southwest to Rio de Janeiro, east to Cape Town, then via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay with its mission to set up Australia’s first penal colony. 16 convicts were lost to fever before the ships set sail but only forty-eight people were recorded to have died on this epic journey, a death rate of just over three per cent.


It is from the diaries of surgeons such as Arthur Bowes Smyth that we have learned of the harsh conditions and medical illnesses endured on this journey. Bowes Smyth had primary responsibility for the 100 female convicts on board the Lady Penrhyn, and to his credit all except one survived the eight-month voyage. This is particularly remarkable when one recalls that his stock of medical equipment was very limited, and that there were no medical provisions at all for children, or for the babies born on the voyage.


While Bowes Smyth made no secret of his dislike for the convict women, the new penal colony in New South Wales would need a healthy workforce. Therefore he was greatly concerned for their health and well-being, and one can detect, in some entries of his journal, a certain sense of pride in a job well done. Captain Philip himself was enlightened about hygiene and diet on the ship’s fleet, and was probably correct in his claim that the convicts were in better health by the time they left Rio de Janeiro than when they had left Portsmouth five months before.


Conditions had not been kind for the convicts on the journey to Rio. Tropical rainstorms stopped convicts from exercising or drying their wet clothing., and the heat and moisture below decks provided a perfect medium for vermin, ticks and other parasites to flourish. Dysentery, typhoid, smallpox and cholera plagued convicts and sailors alike. The ship’s bilges became foul-smelling and Captain Phillip gave orders that the bilge-water was to be pumped and cleaned out daily. On these ships where these orders were ignored, a number of convicts fell sick and died.


The fleet reached Rio on 5 August and stayed for a month to prepare for the next onerous stage of the trip.  In Rio they cleaned and repaired the ships and took on board large quantities of food and water for the Pacific Ocean crossing ahead. Bowes Smyth records that the female convicts’ clothing had become infested with lice and were promptly burnt. With no clothes immediately available they were then issued with clothes made from rice sacks. The convicts largely remained below the deck during this month while the officers explored Rio and were entertained by its inhabitants.


The first fleet finally left Rio de Janeiro on 4 September to run before the westerlies to the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa, where the boats again replenished their stores and stocked up on plants, seeds and livestock for their arrival in Australia.


Assisted by the gales in the “Roaring Forties” the heavily-laden ships surged through the violent seas. In the last two months of the voyage, the Fleet faced challenging conditions, spending some days becalmed and on others covering significant distances. As they reached Van Diemen’s land a freak storm damaged some of the sails and masts of the ships.


What is most impressive about the voyage of the First Fleet is that its death rate was relatively low compared to late 18th century standards. It was recorded at7/month per 1000 convicts. By comparison, the death rate on the Second Fleet was seven times higher, and its convicts were in a much weaker condition on arrival in New South Wales, with a further 16% dying shortly afterwards. The Reverend Johnson documented that the Second Fleet survivors who landed were “ wretched, naked, filthy, lousy and many of them utterly unable to stand, to creep or even to stir hand at foot”.  It was decided that inadequate provisions and crowded conditions on board were the causes. Government regulations subsequently stipulated that a naval surgeon should superintend every transport vessel. When this rule was relaxed, a further rise in the death rate ensued. From 1800 onwards, surgeons were reinstated and, after 1805, placed on the same ranking as army medical officers, with authority over all disciplinary and medical matters.  By 1815 this included also the ventilation and cleaning of the vessel. Such measures meant the death rates fell significantly to 2.4/1000/month. To demonstrate the effectiveness of these measures the equivalent death rate on emigrant ships crossing the Atlantic to America was nearly double – for a journey that was half as long.


The medical story behind the First Fleet and its journey across stormy oceans is a triumph of public health and a reminder to us all that healthy, clean environment and good diet can go long way.