Rio de Janeiro — people from across the world have gathered to attend the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Now it is the second largest city in Brazil. But 229 years ago, in 1787, it was the country’s capital, and a major port. Why is that year significant?
On August 6, 1787, the visitors who arrived in Rio could not have been more different from today’s Olympic athletes. In fact, they were prisoners…convicts in the “First Fleet” from Britain on their way to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. Eleven 3-masted ships were the first in a program called “transportation” that continued until 1868, delivering about 165,000 convicts to Australia.
The fleet entered Rio’s harbor through a narrow entrance guarded by forts. Its commander, Governor Arthur Phillip, bought fresh provisions for his ships, and took aboard seeds that would grow in Australia: coffee, cotton, indigo (the tropical plant produced a much desired blue dye). After a month in Rio, the fleet continued on its way eventually reaching its destination on January 20, 1788.
Find out more about the voyage of the First Fleet—in particular the ship Lady Penrhyn—in my book 10 Ships That Rocked the World (Annick Press, 2015). It is part of the series, World of Tens.
A colleague, Judith Silverthorne, has also written about the transportation of convicts in a YA novel, Convictions (Coteau, 2016). The story follows 14-year-old Jennie, sentenced to 7 years in Australia for stealing a sack of oats to help feed her starving family. Loaded with tension through dramatic action scenes, this well-researched book will give you an authentic taste of life aboard an 18th-century convict ship.