The stories of the Dreaming tell of beginnings that are both specific and general. They narrate particular events that occurred in particular places, but those events are not fixed chronologically since they span the past and the present to carry an enduring meaning. By contrast, the story of the second settlement is known in minute particularity. It began with a voyage of eleven vessels that embarked with 582 male prisoners, 193 females and fourteen children, the first of 681 ships that made 1024 journeys and transported 163,000 convicts over the following eighty years.
The First Fleet left the English naval town of Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 and sailed, via Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, on a marathon voyage that brought the exiles to the north shore of Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. They landed 12 kilometres to the north in a cove of Port Jackson eight days later. On a space cleared in the wooded slope that is now central Sydney, the British flag was hoisted as the commander, Captain Arthur Phillip, took formal possession of the new colony.
We have his account of the voyage and settlement, as well as other published accounts, and the official instructions, dispatches, logs, journals, diaries and letters of those who accompanied him. We know the names of every person, their status and duties, the stores they brought with them and the livestock, plants and seeds – even the books – that they brought ashore to establish the colony. We can plot the actions of the colonists with an amplitude of detail beyond almost all other similar ventures, for this was a late episode in European expansion and the most powerful of all the European states brought an accumulated organisational capacity to it. Furthermore, the settlement at New South Wales was the bridgehead for British occupation of the whole of Australia, the landing at Sydney Cove the formative moment of a new nation that would afterwards re-enact its origins in the celebration of 26 January as Australia Day.
Yet in the marking of the anniversary, as well as the unending stream of writing on the foundation of European Australia, there is constant disputation. On the centenary of British settlement in 1888, radical nationalists attacked the official celebrations for sanitising the past of the convicts who made up the majority of Phillip's party.