What were they thinking? The crazy cargo carried on Australia’s First Fleet

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If you and about 1420 of your closest convict, marines and sailor friends were about to set off an expedition to Mars, what do you think you would take?

Cpt Arthur Phillip RN           Source: wikimedia commons

Cpt Arthur Phillip RN Source: wikimedia commons

That was the question faced by the British bureaucracy when provisioning the eleven vessels of the First Fleet in the late 1700s, before they set sail for Botany Bay and New South Wales.  A destination, by the way, where Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, et al had previously spent all of three weeks – apparently that is plenty of time to proclaim a continent perfectly suitable for a new colony!  Environmental impact study, anyone?  Anyone?  Hello?

The eminently sensible (and long-suffering) Captain Arthur Phillip managed to mitigate some of the bureaucracy’s wilder gaffes but the cargo list still contains some doozies – what on earth were they thinking?

  • A piano.*  Well, obviously you would take a piano, wouldn’t you?  On a crowded ship.  To the other side of the world.  It’s not like you’d take something smaller like a flute, or a tuba.  That would be silly.
  • 200 canvas beds.  Yes, but even if the convicts had to sleep on the ground the officials, marines and their families still numbered more than 300.  Doh.
  • 3 snuffers.  For snuffing out candles.  Yep, indispensable.  Couldn’t possibly leave without a snuffer or three.
  • 3 dozen flat irons.  I really, really hope these were the sort of irons you use to do the ironing.  Because there is nothing worse than creased clothes when one is establishing a penal colony in rugged bushland.
  • 48 spinning brasses.  Nope, no idea.
  • 305 pairs of women’s shoes.  And exactly zero pairs of men’s shoes…

gimlet 1700 gimlets.  A gimlet is a small T-shaped tool with a screw tip for boring holes.  It is also a cocktail of gin (or sometimes vodka) and lime juice.  I’m guessing they packed the former even if they might have preferred the latter.  Shame.gimlet 2

  • 135 Tierces of Beef, 50 Puncheons of Bread, 110 Firkins of Butter, 8 Bram of Rice, 5 Puncheons of Rum.  Nothing at all remarkable here but I just wanted to enjoy the words.  Tierces.  Puncheons.  Firkins.  Brams.  How is it that a puncheon can measure bread and rum?
  • 5,440 Drawers.  I do hope this refers to under-drawers.  Let us pause for a moment, shall we, to wonder how they decided 5440 was the correct number.
  • And, to finish, I wonder how Governor Phillip’s greyhounds got along with Reverend Johnson’s cats?

* The owner of the piano, a ship’s surgeon, generously gave it to Elizabeth Macarthur when he departed the colony.  She had been using it to learn how to play, and bragged to her friend in England of managing to master Foote’s Minuet and God Save the King.

A complete inventory list is provided below, and is sourced from the website of the First Fleet Fellowship Victoria, an organisation for descendants of those who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 with Captain Arthur Phillip.  I make no claims as to its accuracy as the First Fleet Fellowship have not themselves provided a source for this list.

  • 10 Forges
  • 175 Steel Hand Saws
  • 700 Iron Shovels
  • 700 Garden Hoes
  • 700 West Indian Hoes
  • 700 Grubbing Hoes
  • 700 Felling Axes
  • 700 Hatchets
  • 700 Helves for Felling Axes
  • 747,000 Nails
  • 100 Pairs of Hinges and Hooks
  • 10 Sets of Cooper’s Tools
  • 40 Corn Mills
  • 40 Wheel Barrows
  • 12 Ploughs
  • 12 Smith’s Bellows
  • 30 Grindstones
  • 330 Iron Pots
  • 6 Carts
  • 4 Timber Carriages
  • 14 Fishing Nets
  • 14 Chains for Timber Carriages
  • 5,448 Squares of Crown Grass
  • 200 Canvas Beds
  • 62 Cauldrons of Coal
  • 80 Carpenter’s Axes
  • 20 Shipwright’s Axes
  • 600 lbs of Coarse Sugar
  • 1001 lbs of Indian Sago
  • 1 Small Cask of Raisins
  • 61 lbs of Spices
  • 3 Hogsheads of Vinegar
  • 2 Barrels of Tar
  • 1 Dozen Tin Saucepans
  • 1 Printing Press
  • Type Fonts for DO
  • 3 Dozen Flat Irons
  • Candlesticks
  • 3 Snuffers
  • 48 Spinning Brasses
  • 7 Dozen Razors
  • Bible Prayer Book etc.
  • 6 Bullet Moulds
  • 9 Hackies for Flax
  • 9 Hackies Pins
  • 3 Flax Dresser Brushes
  • 127 Dozen Combs
  • 18 Coils of Whale line
  • 6 Harpoons
  • 12 Lances
  • Shoe Leather
  • 305 Pairs of Women’s Shoes
  • 40 Tents for Women Convicts
  • 6 Bundles of Ridge Poles
  • 11 Bundles of Stand Poles
  • 2 Chests of Pins and Mallets
  • 1 Portable Canvas House (Gov. Phillip)
  • 18 Turkeys
  • 29 Geese
  • 35 Ducks
  • 122 Fowls
  • 87 Chickens
  • Kittens
  • Puppies
  • 4 Mares
  • 2 Stallions
  • 4 Cows
  • 1 Bull
  • 1 Bull Calf
  • 44 Sheep
  • 19 Goats
  • 32 Hogs
  • 5 Rabbits
  • Gov. Phillip’s Greyhounds
  • Rev. John’s Cats
  • Mill Spindles with 4 Crosses
  • 2 Cases of Mill Bills and Picks
  • 1 Case of Mill Brashes
  • 589 Women’s Petticoats
  • 606 Women’s Jackets
  • 121 Women’s Caps
  • 327 Pairs of Women’s Stockings
  • 250 Women’s Handkerchiefs
  • 700 Steel Spades
  • 175 Claw Hammers
  • 140 Augurs
  • 700 Gimlets
  • 504 Saw Files
  • 300 Chisels
  • 6 Butchers Knives
  • 100 Pairs of Scissors
  • 30 Box Rules
  • 100 Plain Measures
  • 50 Pickaxes
  • 50 Helves for DO
  • 700 Wooden Bowls
  • 700 DO Platters
  • 5 Sets of Smith’s Tools
  • 20 Pit Saws
  • 700 Clasp Knives
  • 500 Tin Plates
  • 60 Padlocks
  • 50 Hay Forks
  • 42 Splitting Wedges
  • 8,000 Fish Hooks
  • 48 Dozen Lines
  • 8 Dozen lbs of Sewing Twine
  • 12 Brick Moulds
  • 36 Masons Chisels
  • 6 Harness for Horses
  • 12 Ox-Bows
  • 3 Sets of Ox Furniture
  • 20 Bushels of Seed Barley
  • 1 Piano
  • 10 Bushels of India Seed Corn
  • 12 Baskets of Garden Seed
  • Coarse Thread (Blue/White)
  • Transport Jack
  • Ventilators for Water and Wine
  • Hoses
  • Windsails
  • 24 Spinning Whorls
  • 1 Set of Candlestick Makers
  • Carbines
  • Bulkheads
  • Beds
  • Hammocks
  • Marines Clothes
  • Fig Trees
  • Bamboos
  • Sugar Cane
  • Quinces
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Strawberries
  • Oak and Myrtle Trees
  • 135 Tierces of Beef
  • 165 Tierces of Pork
  • 50 Puncheons of Bread
  • 116 Casks of Pease
  • 110 Firkins of Butter
  • 8 Bram of Rice
  • 10 Pairs of Handcuffs and Tools
  • 1 Chest of Books
  • 5 Puncheons of Rum
  • 300 Gallons of Brandy
  • 15 Tons of Drinking Water
  • 5 Casks of Oatmeal
  • 12 Bags of Rice
  • 140 Women’s Hats
  • 1 Machine for Dress Flax
  • 252 Dozen lbs of Cotton Candles
  • 168 Dozen lbs of Mould Candles
  • 44 Tons of Tallow
  • 2 Millstones Spindles etc.
  • 800 Sets of Bedding
  • 1 Loom for Weaving Canvas
  • 2,780 Woollen Jackets
  • 5,440 Drawers
  • 26 Marquees for Married Officers
  • 200 Wood Canteens
  • 40 Camp Kettles
  • 448 Barrels of Flour
  • 60 Bushels of Seed Wheat
  • 381 Women’s Shifts
Plants and Seeds
  • Banana
  • Cocoa
  • Coffee
  • Cotton
  • Eugenia
  • Guava
  • Ipecacuanha
  • Lemon
  • Orange
  • Prickly Pear
  • Spanish Reed
  • Tamarind
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6 responses »

  1. This is splendid, when did we stop measuring butter in firkins and why? I’m going to try this at Coles tomorrow. “I’d like a firkin of butter and a cask of pease, please. Why yes I do have FlyBuys.”

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  2. Ha, ha. Nice blog Michelle. My favorite story is that the first fleet was delayed from departing the UK because of a strike about the amount of grog to be carried for the crew on the journey (ref: Manning Clark’s History of Australia Vol 1). Seems somehow appropriate for the beginnings of colonial Australia.

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