Our History and the Christian Connection

Captain Arthur Phillip

The animals were taken on board two by two. Sound familiar? Well would you believe, this is what happened as Captain Arthur Phillip prepared to come to Australia?

Each of the eleven vessels were like a Noah’s Ark. Preparing for a trip that would take over 1000 passengers on a 252 day voyage travelling 25,750 kilometres, to create a new settlement and eventually a new country.

This was the beginning of one of the most successful voyages in modern maritime history.

Charles Middleton under the instructions of the English Prime Minister William Pitt was given the task of finding eleven suitable ships, fitting them out and equipping them. Pitt considered Middleton “the best man for the job” as he was a trusted professional within the Public Service. Middleton was opposed to all forms of corruption and his motto was ‘Without religion there can be no public principle.’

The letter announcing that New South Wales was to be settled by convicts was signed by Lord Sydney, Home Secretary, on 21 August 1786. Sydney decreed that the new colony was not to be a military prison, but a civil administration, recognising the property rights of convicts. This is contrary to what I believe to be the modern perception.

His chosen leader of the enterprise, Arthur Phillip, also laid a humane foundation to the colony with his declaration that ‘there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves’. This decree came while slavery was still legal in England and actively being pursued. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was not signed for another nineteen years.

Phillip’s humanity and concern for good relations with the Aboriginal people was amply demonstrated during a difficult and violent encounter. While visiting Manly an Indigenous warrior speared Phillip in the leg. Philip responded by commanding his men that there was to be no pay-back.

The Reverend James Ramsey (who had been a surgeon) was responsible for selecting the team of surgeons, medical personnel and establishing the medical facilities.

The contractor for the First Fleet was William Richards Jnr, a friend of Middleton and an evangelical Christian. He had a reputation for honouring his contracts with the government in both word and spirit.

During the long journey only 48 lives were lost. By contrast the 2nd and 3rd fleets were contracted to a firm engaged in the slave trade. They were both disasters. Five times more deaths occurred (267 of the 1006 convicts) on the second fleet and the death rate on the third fleet was twice that of the first fleet.

“The Rev Richard Johnson, appointed Chaplain to the convicts going to Botany Bay, was introduced to the Board of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. A gift from the Society was the first library to arrive at Port Jackson aboard the HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet. The Board expressed its most fervent wish that the Divine Blessing might go with him in his undertakings and requested Mr Johnson to favour the Society from time to time with his correspondence.” This organisation is still operating in Australia and around the world today. (

This gift consisted of 500 Bibles, 100 Common Prayer Books, 400 Testaments and over 3,600 additional pieces of Christian literature. The Society supported Richard Johnson’s vision of establishing a strong Christian influence in the early settlement of this new colony. This initiative was as audacious as it was optimistic.

As one reads through these accounts of the people involved in the preparation of this great humane venture one cannot but notice the Christian connections at so many levels.

No doubt, the achievement of the First Fleet, could be arguably one of the greatest nautical achievements of the modern world. Another incredible feature was that ALL the ships arrived safely within two days of each other.

Compiled by Graham McDonald from an article and with permission;

The First Fleet: Maritime Triumph and a Triumph of Humanity

Dr Stuart Piggin: Associate Professor & Director

Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience

Macquarie University  NSW Australia

Acknowledgement of for information supplied from original documents.