Skip to content

1788: The First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove after 8 months at sea

Recently I had some free time and I decided to play tourist in Sydney, the city that I had lived in for twenty-five years. As two of my 4x great-grandfathers, the then 19 year old Matthew James EVERINGHAM [1769-1817] and 30 year old William ROBERTS [1757-1820] arrived in Australia on the 26 January 1788, I was determined to find the area on the shores of Sydney Cove where the two men landed and lived in the very first years of the new settlement.

The two men were convicts on the Scarborough, one of the 11 British tall ships that sailed into the tranquil waters of Port Jackson – the six convict transports, three store ships and two naval escorts of the first Fleet.

Following their eight-month voyage the convoy dropped anchor at Warrane, a sunny north-facing crescent of sand and shady trees deep inside a large harbour. They named it Sydney Cove.

It was one of the smaller inlets, chosen because it had fresh water and good anchorage for ships close into the land. The Governor’s working party had cleared a camping ground beside the creek, which stole silently along through a very thick wood, the stillness of which had then for the first time since the Creation, been interrupted by the rude sound of the labourer’s axe.

Eldershaw, Flora; Barnard, Marjorie, Phillip of Australia: an account of the settlement at Sydney Cove, 1788–9, 1938.

Slightly more than 1000 travellers came ashore at the western side of Sydney Cove and milled around at the head of a freshwater stream. Here they planted a flag, toasted the king George 111, and looked warily into the surrounding bush.

The Founding Of Australia by Algernon Talmage (1871-1939), State Library of Victoria.

The first impressions the exhausted convicts must have had of this new land, their open prison, was that it was a terrifying place; one that was overwhelming in its strangeness.

Matthew Everingham, William Roberts and their fellow First Fleeters would have found the Sydney Cove I visited equally terrifying and just as overwhelming in its foreignness.

Today the freshwater stream prized by Captain Phillip, and later known as the Tank Stream, is encased in a concrete drain beneath the streets of the central business district. All native bushland has been cleared. The head of the cove is occupied by the Circular Quay ferry terminal. On Bennelong Point at the northern end of the eastern shore of the cove stands the Sydney Opera House. On the western shore is the historic district known as The Rocks.

Sydney Cove

Captain Phillip described the harbour as being …the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security… Could Phillip ever envisage that people would regularly cross that same harbour by bridge, or more amazingly, by tunnels sitting on its floor?

The Sydney Cove I visited when trying to trace Matthew and William’s footsteps is now features parks, world class cultural institutions, multi-million dollar apartments, transportation hubs and ultra modern skyscrapers It is a vital part of a modern, prosperous C21 city.

Banners, along with giant, inflatable animals – a tiger, a dragon. a dog and a rat – lined the harbour as part of Chinese New Year. This really reinforced the fact that Sydney is a truly international city.

I am extremely proud of the part my two 4x great-grandfathers, as well as my other convict ancestors played in Sydney’s early development.

%d bloggers like this: