1790 HMS Sirius Anchor and Cannon

Era: Cultural background: Collection: Theme:Archaeology Boats Convicts Exploration First Fleet Government Settlement

Anchor and cannon from HMS Sirius in 2011. Photograph Stephen Thompson

Sydney City Council, Sydney, Australia.

Object Name
HMS SiriusAnchor and cannon.

Object/Collection Description
A cast iron bow anchor and cannon from HMS Sirius, 1780 – 1790 which escorted the first fleet. Cannon was landed shortly after foundation of the colony in 1788. Anchor received from Norfolk Island after Sirius wrecked in 1790, erected 1907. Anchor is embedded on a rock faced quartzite capping sitting on massive sandstone pedestal. An engraved bronze band interprets its history. The cannon is mounted on timber carriage with wheels. The anchor is in good condition with conservation work undertaken in 1992. Dimensions: 2500mm long x 500mm wide x 100mm deep.

When England lost its American colonies in 1778 in the American War of Independence, it began to look to the Pacific to replace these markets and resources. Joseph Banks, an influential naturalist and merchant, convinced the British government that breadfruit from Tahiti was an ideal crop to grow in the West Indies and use to feed slaves. Banks also argued that Botany Bay in New South Wales would make an ideal British port in the Pacific and that a settlement should be established with indentured convict labour. A penal settlement was also seen as a possible solution to the increasing problem of petty crime and a growing prison population in English cities.

These problems were compounded by massive unemployment due to the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Food and materials once supplied from farms across the British Isles were now replaced by imports that were processed in mills and factories. British farm owners turned their land over to sheep grazing. They evicted farm labourers and their families, who, with no jobs and nowhere to live, flocked to the cities looking for work in the mills. Many resorted to petty crime to feed their families and indeed petty crime became a ways of life for many. Criminality was widespread because it was hard to catch criminals in the warren like streets of the industrial cities and there was not a dedicated professional police force. Despite this the few gaols there were started to fill up and a solution to the crime problem was sought.

Despite it being a huge and very expensive experiment to set up a colony in an unknown land on the other side of the world, Britain decided to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay under the leadership of Captain Arthur Phillip. This was hoped to replace convict dumping ground lost in North America, clear out the British gaols, provide a deterrent to crime in Britain and establish a deep water port in the South Pacific for Britain to expand its territories.

The First Fleet of 11 ships led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in 1787 with more than 1480 men, women and children on board. Although most were British, there were also Jewish, African, American and French convicts. After a voyage of three months the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 24 January 1788. Here the Aboriginal people, who had lived in relative isolation for 40,000 years, met the British in an uneasy stand off at what is now known as Frenchman’s Beach at La Perouse. On 26 January two French frigates of the Lapérouse expedition sailed into Botany Bay as the British were relocating to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson. The isolation of the Aboriginal people in Australia had finished. European Australia was established in a simple ceremony at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.

Between 1789 and 1791, the settlers at Sydney Cove were critically short of food. To make matters worse, the supply ship Guardian was wrecked off South Africa before it reached the Colony, and HMS Sirius, one of two of the Colony’s Navy vessels, was wrecked on Norfolk Island en route to China seeking food. In desperation, the HMS Supply, the Colony’s second Navy ship, was sent to Indonesia for food. Hopes were raised when a vessel arrived in Port Jackson in 1790, but it was not the Supply, but the Second Fleet of five ships carrying over 730 people. This Second Fleet was a disaster, with its human cargo severely abused and exploited by the private ship owners. Of 1000 convicts on board, 267 died and 480 were sick from scurvy, dysentery and fever. The supplies on board the Second Fleet were supposed to feed the convicts, but the ship owners withheld the supplies for sale until after the convicts disembarked. Phillip, enraged by this behaviour as he had to further ration existing supplies, became desperate to establish farms and a local economy.

HMS Sirius was Built in 1780-81 for the East India trade and given the name Berwick, this 510 ton (some records suggest she was a heavier 540 tons) ship was purchased by the Admiralty in 1781 for use as a store ship, but was later laid up. It was not until 1786 that she was renamed HMS Sirius and recommissioned under Captain Arthur Phillip. John Hunter was appointed second captain to ensure that when Phillip was ashore, she would still be commanded by a post-captain. HMS Sirius was 30 metres in length, her breadth 10 metres, her depth 4 metres and the height of her mainmast above the deck, 32 metres. With 10 guns mounted on board (a further 10 guns with iron work for carriages were stowed in the hold for when she sailed with the First Fleet) and carrying 160 men, in a favourable wind, her best speed was 10 knots.

Sydney Cove 1789 SLNSW Sydney Cove, 1789. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales

The HMS Sirius sailed from Spithead with the First Fleet on 13 May 1787, arriving at Botany Bay in NSW on 20 January, 1788 and Port Jackson six days later. She remained there until 2 October when she sailed for provisions to Cape Town by way of Cape Horn, thus pioneering this route. Leaving Table Bay on 26 January 1789 she continued eastward to Port Jackson where she arrived on 8 May, having sailed completely round the world in the belt of westerly winds known as the “roaring forties.”

HMS Sirius remained in the new settlement for 10 months leaving on 7 March 1790 to convey marines, convicts and stores to Norfolk Island. Arriving on 13 March she landed her passengers, but was compelled by heavy weather to remain at sea for four days before returning on 18 March to discharge her stores. She hove to off Sydney Bay and began to load her boats, but drifted too far into the bay and was unable to beat out again. Unfortunately from there she was driven onto the shore reef lying off the settlement and became a total wreck. However, by means of a hawser to the shore, Hunter and all the crew landed safely through heavy surf, and most of the provisions were saved. It was 11 months before a vessel was available to return Hunter and his crew to Sydney, where they arrived on 26 February 1791. They reached England in April the following year, and a court martial acquitted Hunter and his officers of any blame for the loss of the ship.

Sirius wreck on the reef at Norfolk Island 1790 NLAHMS Sirius wreck on the reef at Norfolk Island 1790. Courtesy National Library of Australia

For 100 years the HMS Sirius wreck was shown on the Admiralty plan of Norfolk Island near which could be seen an anchor, which was probably that of the HMS Sirius. Sir Francis Suttor raised the anchor and in 1907 it was unveiled on a pedestal in Macquarie Place, Sydney. Great Sirius Cove (now usually called Mosman Bay), Little Sirius Cove and Little Sirius Point, all in Port Jackson, commemorate the vessel’s name. The cannon was landed shortly after foundation of the colony in 1788.

A salvage program began in 1983 after two archaeologists surveyed the wreck site. A second group recovered a carronade, an anchor and other material in 1985. In February 1987 a team of 11, led by the Curator of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, recovered more than 600 artefacts from the wreck site, ownership of which is contested by the inhabitants of Norfolk Island. Today these artefacts are displayed in the Maritime Museum at Kingston, Norfolk Island.

The anchor was conserved by Sydney City Council in 1992 and remains on display at the place in Macquarie Place, Sydney where the British flag was hoisted in 1788.

Conservation work on the Sirius anchor 1992. City of Sydney Archives
Conservation work on the HMS Sirius anchor 1992. City of Sydney Archives

The anchor and cannon have historical significance as evidence of the arrival of the first fleet and establishment of a penal colony at Port Jackson in 1788.

The anchor is well provenanced and documented. It was recovered from the reef at Norfolk Island in 1909, transported to Sydney and has been displayed at Macquarie Place ever since. The cannon was landed shortly after foundation of the colony in 1788

The anchor and cannon are extremely rare as it is one of approximately 12 anchors carried by the HMS Sirius.

The anchor and cannon have intangible significance for Australians for the association with the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove 1788, the tenuous beginning, survival and expansion of the early colony at New South Wales.

The anchor and cannon represents a time early in Australia’s history when the foundations of modern Australia were being laid at the expense of the Aboriginal nation, the beginning of the migration of people, concepts and ideas that would shape the social and political fabric of the Nation.

The anchor and cannon interprets the landing of the British First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788 and the beginning of Modern Australia.


Broese, F 1998, Island Nation: Australia’s Maritime Heritage, Sydney.

Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Hughes, R 1987, Fatal Shore, London.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.

Steven, M 1988, First Impressions: The British Discovery of Australia, London, UK.

Thompson, S 2002, Lapérouse Museum booklet, Department of Environment & Conservation, Sydney.

Thompson, S 2005, Any News of La Pérouse?, Exhibition catalogue essay, State Library of New South Wales.

Thompson, S 2004, Atlas du Voyage de Lapérouse 1785 – 1788, Exhibition catalogue essay, Department of Environment & Conservation, Sydney.

Thompson, S 2007 At the Beach: Contact, Migration & Settlement in South East Sydney, Migration Heritage Centre, Sydney.


Migration Heritage Centre logo
The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

Powerhouse Museum logo
Regional Services at the Powerhouse Museum is supported by Movable Heritage, NSW funding from the NSW Ministry for the Arts.