Broken Bay First Encounters

In Search of Water and Good Soil


Broken Bay from Flint & Steel Beach, with Lion Island on the right. 
Source: Wikipedia Commons

In January 1788, after a journey of some eight months traversing 21,000 km of ocean, the eleven ships comprising Captain Arthur Phillip's “First Fleet” reached their intended destination; Botany Bay on Australia's east coast. Sir Joseph Banks and others of influence back in Britain had believed that Botany Bay would prove suitable for the establishment of a convict colony of some 1400 persons.

Phillip and his assisting officers quickly realised that the poor sandy soils surrounding the bay, though a stimulus to botanical diversity, provided little hope of a continuous food supply for a population of that size. After exploration to the north and finding excellent harbour for the ships, Phillip took the decision to move the place of settlement up the coast to the location now known to us as Sydney Cove, into which the fresh waters of the Tank stream flowed. This proved a brief reprieve from the prospect of starvation however; for the Fleet had arrived in a season of drought, and the rocky, shallow soils of Port Jackson were generally low in water-holding capacity and in key nutrients necessary for sustained crop and pasture yields.

There was urgent need to find arable, well-watered land, without which the colony faced a bleak future. On 2nd March, Phillip set out from Port Jackson in a convoy of three small boats to explore a bay immediately to the north of Sydney Harbour; Broken Bay - first noticed during James Cook’s voyage. Phillip hoped they would find there a more substantial supply of fresh water than had hitherto been encountered. 

This journey turned out to be the first of three such exploratory trips required to definitively locate the river now known to us as the Hawkesbury. Together with the Parramatta River, the Hawkesbury would become the first relatively secure agricultural base for a self-sustaining colony.

In the course of their search for the illusive river, Phillip and entourage surveyed and mapped Broken Bay’s South Arm (to which Phillip gave the name  Pitt water), the North Arm (later to be named Brisbane Water), the Southwest Arm (Cowan Creek) and of course the tributaries of the Hawkesbury River itself.

At least four persons involved in these first incursions into Broken Bay left permanent written accounts. The journals give us an intriguing record of their reactions to the land and its original inhabitants; for, of course, this was no Terra Nullius; but rather, an ancient realm every kilometre of which bore the footprint of a people for whom there could never be another home, any other ancestral hearth. For them, the arrival of these strange new human forms was a matter of little joy, but one of initial shock, curiosity and defensive reaction, followed by a prolonged saga of dispossession.

This then is the record of those first journeys in the letters of Phillip and in the journals of his three fellow chroniclers, as now made available to us through the services of the State Library of NSW. The images of the relevant hand-written journal pages are supplemented by typed transcripts prepared by staff of the Library for clarity of interpretation. Other than for brief introductions to each journal, the extracts are presented alone without additional interpretative lenses. Now, in the 21st century, the geographical and historical interpretation of such journal accounts requires that we engage in careful detective work based on a reading of all relevant documents from the period and on the study of evidence from the current natural and human landscape.

A good starting point for students and teachers planning a history excursion to the area is the modern day interpretation offered by Alan  Nash (1990) in Phillip's Exploration of the Hawkesbury River in Chapter 2, (pages 11-30 of  "Hawkesbury River History: Governor Phillip Exploration and Early Settlement"edited by Jocelyn Powell and Loraine Banks, Southward Press, Marrickville, NSW.

Access to the Journal Pages

To gain access to the journal pages, click on the authors’ names below. 

1. Able Seaman Nagle:   “Jacob Nagle his book A.D. 19 May 1829, Canton. Stark County Ohio” 1775-1802, compiled 1829, by Jacob Nagle, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW Manuscript Safe 1/156; together with the Transcribed version.

2. Lieutenant Bradley: “A Voyage to New South Wales”, December1786 – May 1792, by William Bradley, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW Manuscript Safe 1/14; together with the Transcribed version.


3. Captain Hunter:  “Journal kept on board the ‘Sirius’ during a voyage to New South Wales, 20 January 1788”  May1787 – Mar 1791, by John Hunter, Dickson Library, State Library of NSW Manuscript Safe DL MS 164; together with the Transcribed version.

4. Governor Phillip:  “The Official Account through Governor Phillip’s Letters to Lord Sydney” Edited by Tipping, G.R. (1988).



We thank the State Library of New South Wales for permission given to include on this website the extracts - images and transcripts - from the First Fleet journals. Several of the original journals from the Fleet are held in the Library's collection and can be viewed online at

We join in congratulating the Mitchell Library which in March 2010 celebrates 100 years of service to people and nation.