The Disaster of the Second Fleet 1789

Disaster of the Second Fleet to Australia

One of the intriguing conumdrums put to us recently was to ascertain what might have happened to a convict transported in the second fleet to New South Wales.

The second fleet that took convicts from the shores of Britain in 1789/90 was a disaster. Of the 1026 convicts on board the ships, 267 of them were dead on arrival and 124 of them were so sick and emaciated that they died shortly after.
So what went wrong? Why did the second fleet deliver the convicts to their new land in such a poor state of health?

  • The ships carrying convicts of the second fleet to Australia were not naval ships as might be imagined. Imminent war with France had tied up all the serviceable ships
  • The Navy gave the contract to a commercial firm of shipping agents Camden, Calvert and King
  • Despite attaching very stringent conditions to the contract, the navy made a fundamental error in paying for each convict wholly on embarkation. There were no monies retained for the delivery of fit and healthy convicts.
  • Lieutenant Shapcote was the agent put in charge of the ships and he failed miserably in his job to keep the ships clean and to ensure provisions were meted out fairly and to ensure  that sickness was dealt with in a humane way.
  • Shapcote was unable to enforce any of the conditions laid down, it seems the Masters of the ships took control and they had no appetite to deal with the convicts in a humanitarian way.
  • A guard of 103 were divided between the ships but it seems they had little or no sway over the brutal masters.

The outcome for our lost soul would have been bleak, his transportation order drawn up at the Hampshire Assizes, he was moved to the hulks at Portsmouth but then his luck changed and he was put to work building Portsmouth’s fortifications. An escape of sorts!

More to explore about the 2nd Fleet to Australia

  1. New South Wales Guides
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