Following the War of Independence in America the British Crown was denied a dumping ground for its convicts sentenced to transportation. On 13th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships was sent to a new dumping ground, Australia. This is known as “the first fleet”.
The fleet consisted of 1,420 when it left Portsmouth in May 1787. The number had fallen to 1,336 by the time the fleet arrived in Botany Bay in January 1788. 20 children were born along the way. So I was curious about the statistics. What was the most dangerous position to hold on the fleet?
Marines, their Wives and Children did best on the trip. Beginning with 247 Marines and 46 wives and children, they lost only 3 along the way and with 9 births they increased their number overall.
Female convicts began with 193 and lost only 4 along the way, which is a 2% death rate.
Of the 14 convict children who departed 3 were lost, a staggering 21% death rate, the highest on board of any group. Then 11 new convict babies were born on the voyage, so the overall number of convict children actually rose to 22.
Senior officials & ships officers had a 7% death rate, losing 1 of their original compliment of 15. This is the same death rate as applied to male convicts, who lost 39 out of the 582 who left Portsmouth.
The fleet set out with 323 sailors and lost 54 along the way. Being a sailor was a dangerous job in the 18th century. That was 17% death rate.
A Sailor’s Song: by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Oh for the breath of the briny deep,
And the tug of the bellying sail,
With the sea-gull’s cry across the sky
And a passing boatman’s hail.
For, be she fierce or be she gay,
The sea is a famous friend alway.
Ho! for the plains where the dolphins play,
And the bend of the mast and spars,
And a fight at night with the wild sea-sprite
When the foam has drowned the stars.
And, pray, what joy can the landsman feel
Like the rise and fall of a sliding keel?
Fair is the mead; the lawn is fair
And the birds sing sweet on the lea;
But the echo soft of a song aloft
Is the strain that pleases me;
And swish of rope and ring of chain
Are music to men who sail the main.
Then, if you love me, let me sail
While a vessel dares the deep;
For the ship ‘s my wife, and the breath of life
Are the raging gales that sweep;
And when I ‘m done with calm and blast,
A slide o’er the side, and rest at last.