Charlotte, one of the ‘two ladies’ of the fleet, was built on the River Thames in 1784 as a three masted, two-decker, barque built ship, weighing 345 tons. Charlotte was chartered by the Admiralty from its owner Mr Matthews late in 1786.  She was fixed out at Deptford, one of the royal dockyards established to build, repair and victual ships of the Royal Navy.  Her master for the voyage to Botany Bay was Captain Thomas Gilbert.

Charlotte carried 88 male convicts and 20 female, among them were Thomas Akers, James Squire, James Bloodworth, James Underwood, Samuel Lightfoot and the later-to-be-famous Mary Bryant.   Described as a light or slow sailor Charlotte had her fair share of accidents through rough winds and collisions of others ships.

First Fleet in Sydney Cove after arrival on the morning of 27 January 1788 (Marine artist Frank Allen)

On 26 January 1788 while leaving Botany Bay, Arthur Bowe’s wrote: We were obliged to work out of the Bay: and with the utmost difficulty and danger with many hair-bredth escapes got out of the harbour’s mouth about 3 o’clock pm.  The Charlotte was once in the most imminent danger of being on the rocks.






Sydney Cove
After discharging the convicts and marines in Sydney Cove and having made such repairs as the ship required Captain Gilbert made ready to sail.  Before leaving England, the Charlotte had been chartered by the East India Company to proceed to Canton, in order to bring home a cargo of tea, on their account.  Captains Gilbert and Marshall in command of Scarborough, agreed before they left Port Jackson, to keep company on the return passage to Canton.  Charlotte left with a crew not exceeding 30, several of whom were boys; they were displaying symptoms of scurvy so much needed supplies were required from Lord Howe Island.

Charlotte departed Sydney Cove on Thursday 8 May 1788 as recorded by Captain Gilbert:  At six in the morning hoisted in the boats, in consequence of a heavy swell & secured them, together with the anchors etc etc, for sea.  About half an hour weighed & stood out of the harbour with a moderate breeze for the westward.  At half past seven with some difficulty cleared the N. & S. Heads of the harbour. 

Phillip later wrote: Gilbert the master of the Charlotte, when he sailed in May 1788, carried away a seaman belonging to the Supply and a young man who was an apprentice to the boatswain of the Sirius.  The day prior Scarborough under Captain John Marshall also departed for China.

Outward Voyage
Leaving Sydney Cove, Charlotte headed north-east in search of Lord Howe Island, discovered by Lieutenant Ball, commander of the brig Supply on his passage to Norfolk Island. On Sunday 11 May, Captain Gilbert saw the sails of Supply standing off Lord Howe Island. By the 16th they were in company of the Lady Penrhyn whom had left Port Jackson some days before the Charlotte. She was also bound for China, but sailed on by a different track. Informed by Captain Ball that the island afforded plenty of turtles, fowls, cocoa nuts and cabbages, Captain Gilbert launched the long boat and secured supplies for the recovery

Captain Marshall commanding Scarborough was delayed in clearing Sydney Cove so it was not until the 18th that the ship was standing off the island. Sending a boat of supplies secured from the Island to Scarborough, the two captains then took their leave of Captain Ball and headed out towards Norfolk Island.

Norfolk Island Pine Tree – the tree was found unsuitable for ship’s spars (C Timbury)

Thursday 22 May, the ships were in distance of Norfolk Island. Captain Gilbert had intended to land on the island if the weather permitted in order to cut spars for masts and yards.

After speaking with Captain Marshall, Captain Gilbert did not think it was advisable to get the long boat out, as the sea was running very high.

Sailing on passed Norfolk Island they came upon a large rock that had no place on any charts. Captain Gilbert named it Matthews Rock after the owner of the Charlotte.

The Captains kept in constant contact during their outward voyage either through signalling or being rowed from one ship to another in their yawls (jolly or long boats). By 5 June they saw large flocks of birds that indicated a bank of land. Captain Gilbert named it Charlotte’s Bank.

Taking their bearing readings per an azimuth and by lunar observations the ships proceeded well into the Pacific. On the morning of 18 June Scarborough made the signal for the discovery of three low islands that appeared to be woody. The coca nut and palm trees were conspicuous and when being abreast of the middle island, they could perceive a pretty large village. The natives sent out their canoes, and came along the sides of the ships, but did not come on board. Captain Gilbert gave them the name of Marlar’s Islands.

Gilbert and Marshall Islands
A chain of islands were seen on June 21. The southern island of the chain was named by Captain Marshall, Gilbert Island; the middle Captain Gilbert named Marshall Island, and the northernmost, Knox Island. To the large island with the cluster, Captain Gilbert gave the name Matthews’s Island, in the honour of the owner of the Charlotte; the bay he called Charlotte’s Bay; the fourth point, which terminates the cluster of islands, he named Charlotte’s Point; and the north point of the island, which forms the bay, Point William. The islands became known as the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. The Gilbert Islands group of 16 islands now form the Republic of Kiribati.

Although the Captains did not land on the islands, there was an exchange of items between them and island people who paddled out to the ships in their canoes. As a token of their friendship, they presented Captain Gilbert with a piece of matting, very neatly made, together with other items like shells, fruit etc. In return the natives were given some fish-hooks, nails etc. Up to 30 natives were aboard Charlotte before Captain Gilbert hastened their departure when it started to grow dark. The ships then took their leave of the islands.

On the 26 June, low land was seen. This land consisted of islands, Captain Gilbert named Daniel’s, Pedder’s, and Arrowsmith’s Islands; between the latter two which they drifted by the current in the night, was named Fordyce’s Passage. Other islands were discovered and named during their passage to China as recorded in Captain Gilbert’s log book.

Charlotte and Scarborough came through this passage as drawn by Captain Gilbert when discovering the Chathams Islands in 1788

June passed into July; Captain Gilbert proposed to Captain Marshall that they secure a passage to China by sailing round the Bashee Islands, as he was convinced that the west monsoon was upon them. At the end of July Captain Marshall was informed that the Island of Tinian, according to Commodore Wallis’s chart (who had visited the Island previously aboard Dolphin) was in sailing distance of 20 leagues.

Death of Mr Marshall
On 18 July, Captain Marshall sent his boat to inform Captain Gilbert that his brother was taken dangerously ill, and requested that he come aboard. Captain Gilbert went immediately, carrying with him such medicines and other things as needed, as neither ship had a doctor aboard. Unfortunately Mr Marshall had languished for some time with scurvy, and as they were unable to land for fresh fruit, died before Captain Gilbert could reach the ship.

Saipan and Tinian Islands

Saipan and Tinian Islands (Wikipedia)

The Island of Saipan was sighted on 1 August; Captain Gilbert wrote, the sight of the land most grateful to our eyes, for able to procure refreshments we so much stood in need of. The scurvy had now arrived to such a height among the crew that 11 were unable to move and the remaining part were so exceedingly feeble from the effects of it as scarcely able to navigate the ship. It took them a further two days sailing before they were able to send a jolly boat ashore for refreshments. Later that day the south most part of the Island of Tinian was sighted.

Charlotte and Scarborough were at the Island of Tinian from 3 to 7 August which was not long enough for the recovery of the sick and for obtaining sufficient supplies of oranges, coca-nuts, cabbages etc. Captain Gilbert sent twelve of the sick on shore, but they returned the next day when heavy sea swells and squalls set in. Charlotte was fortunate to clear the bay, and not come to grief on the reef, as she lost two deep sea leads, cut by the coral rocks and had to cut the anchor line.  (They were later found by the crew of Lady Penrhyn when she called in to replenish supplies in September.) The ships sailed into hard squalls, carrying away Charlotte’s fore-tack and sheet, splitting the new fore-sail and main-sail, and blowing away the fore-top-mast stay-sail.

On 9 August Scarborough’s Chief Mate informed Charlotte that Captain Marshall was seriously ill. Thirteen of their crew members were unable to do any duty and the remaining part was exceedingly weak and feeble from the fatigue suffered during the gale. Captain Gilbert came to the resolution of making their way to Macao without delay.

At 2 pm on Tuesday 9 September Captain Gilbert shortened the sails of Charlotte in Grand Ladrone an Island lying off Macao. He agreed to give forty dollars to a pilot to conduct the ship to Macao; a city that is situated on an Island at the entrance of the river Canton. In the afternoon of the 10th finding that the super-cargoes belonging to the Honourable the East-India Company were at Macao, Captain Gilbert went on shore, and delivered the packet he had bought for them, containing the Company’s directions relative to the cargo of tea he had to take on board. Friday 12th the pilot came on board to take the ship to the Chinese town of Whampoa; a trading port for the different nations to take on their cargoes.  They weighed anchor and made sail.  It took five days to work their way up the river of Canton to Whampoa under sail with their yawl and another boat ahead towing.

During their time in China the men recovered from scurvy and were employed in over-hauling the rigging and making such repairs as the ship required. On the 29th the boatswain died, and the body was carried ashore the same day, to be interred on Dean’s Island. He was the only person, belonging to the company, that Charlotte lost by death, from the time the ship left England until it returned. Captain Gilbert said it was more to be attributed to ‘intemperance’ while on shore, than to any disorder incident to so long a voyage.

Although the ship was under contract to the East India Company, the ships’ officers were also allowed to engage in their own private trade. While in Canton China in December 1788, the Ships’ Manifest, signed off by Captain Gilbert, records the officers purchases of boxes and chests of Rhubarb, Cassia, Fans, Quicksilver and Chinaware.

Charlotte and Scarborough sailed for England on 17 December, with their valuable cargos of teas and china-wares. They arrived within four days of one another.

Fate of the Charlotte
Following the voyage of 13 months to London from Sydney Cove, Charlotte was sold to Bond and Co., Walbrook merchants, for the London to Jamaica run.  She was later resold to a Quebec merchant and was lost off Newfoundland in November 1818.

Captain Thomas Gilbert
After Charlotte arrived back in England in June 1789 Captain Gilbert was appointed Captain of Neptune to bring another group of convicts in the Second Fleet, guarded by the newly raised NSW Corps who were replacing the Marines.  He was preparing a book on his journal titled Voyage from New South Wales to Canton in the year 1788 with Views of the Islands Discovered.  It was published just before the Second Fleet sailed.  When the Neptune was embarking convicts at Plymouth, Gilbert became involved in a dispute with the NSW Corps over who had ultimate authority over the convicts.  As the dispute worsened, with threatened violence, Gilbert was removed from the ship to be replaced by Donald Trail in December 1789, shortly before the ships sailed to New South Wales.

Voyage from New South Wales to Canton, in the year 1788 by Captain Gilbert is a descriptive record of the journey by Charlotte and Scarborough into the Central Pacific and of the Captains charting and naming unknown islands.  Gilbert’s daily recordings of weather, longitudes and latitudes, depth readings and his illustrations of the islands discovered is more remarkable as they were sailing ‘blind’ with no charts to guide them on their outward voyage from Sydney Cove.  Captains Gilbert and Marshall’s navigational and seamen skills was a great achievement to developing knowledge of the unknown Pacific region.


Charlotte monument First Fleet Memorial Gardens Wallabadah NSW (Timbury)


Charlotte Medal
Thomas Barrett was convicted at the Old Bailey in September 1782 for the theft of some clothing, a silver watch, with chain, seal and key, from a dwelling house up for rent.  Sentenced to be hung, he was reprieved to transportation for life.  During the voyage to Botany Bay, aboard Charlotte, Barrett was involved in passing some forged quarter dollars at Rio de Janeiro, made from some pewter spoons and old buttons and buckles belonging to the marines.

The day after the flag was hoisted in Sydney Cove being the 27 January 1788, Barrett was tried for theft of beef and pease from the stores.  His co-accused Lovell and Hall, were reprieved, but Barrett was hanged on the evening of the same day.

It is thought that Thomas Barrett engraved a silver disc medallion when the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788.  It would have been commissioned by someone on board the Charlotte, presumably for an officer or the Surgeon General of convicts, John White.

Charlotte Medal (courtesy NMM)

The Charlotte Medal is believed to have been cut from a surgeon’s kidney dish.  On one side its engraving shows the Charlotte secured to a buoy at Botany Bay, with the sun, crescent moon and stars in the sky.  On the other side is a description of her voyage from England to Australia including latitude, longitude and length of a voyage.

On Tuesday 22 July 2008, the Charlotte Medal was purchased at auction in Melbourne, for $750,000, by the National Maritime Museum.  It appeared to have been sold only four times during its 220 year existence and some time prior to 1919 it came into the collection of Princess Victoria (daughter of Queen Victoria) and her husband Prince Louis Mountbatten.  Today visitors to the Museum in Darling Harbour Sydney can view the Charlotte Medal in its own special display case.




Cobley, Dr John (1963) Sydney Cove 1788 The first year of the Settlement in Australia Hodder and Stoughton
Flynn, Michael (1993) The Second Fleet – Britain’s Grim Convict Armada of 1790 Library of Australian History, Sydney
Gilbert Thomas, Voyage from New South Wales to Canton, in the Year 1788. With views of the Islands Discovered, N,Israel/Amsterdam, Da Capo Press/New York

Gillen, Mollie (1989) The Founders of Australia – A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet Library of Australian History, Sydney
King, Jonathan (1982) The First Fleet The Convict Voyage that founded Australia 1787-88 The Macmillan Co of Aust Pty Ltd
Wikipedia on-line
Magazine: Signals September-November 2008, Australian National Maritime Museum (Charlotte Medal) 


© First Fleet Fellowship Victoria Inc 2011