HMS Sirius was the flagship of the First Fleet, which set out from Portsmouth, England, in 1787 to establish the first European colony in New South Wales, Australia. In 1790, the ship was wrecked on the reef, south east of Kingston Pier, in Slaughter Bay, Norfolk Island.
Sirius had been converted from the merchantman Berwick. There has been confusion over the early history of Berwick. A note about her by future New South Wales governor Philip Gidley King, describing her as a former 'East country man', was interpreted for many years as relating to the East Indies trade; however, analysis of the maritime nomenclature of the time suggests that this description referred instead to ships participating in the Baltic trade.
Berwick was likely built in 1780 by Christopher Watson and Co. of Rotherhithe, who also built another ship of the First Fleet, Prince of Wales. Berwick had a burthen of 511 83⁄94 tons (bm) and, after being burnt in a fire, was bought and rebuilt by the Royal Navy in November 1781, retaining her original name.
The newly purchased vessel was fitted out and coppered at Deptford Dockyard between December 1781 and April 1782, for a total sum of £6,152.11s.4d. When completed she carried 10 guns, four 6-pounder long guns, and six 18-pounder carronades. She was commissioned for service under her first commander, Lieutenant Bayntun Prideaux in January 1782, and went out to North America later that year. She spent the last part of the American War of Independence there, transferring to the West Indies in June 1784. Paid off in February 1785 she was initially laid up before being fitted for sea between September and December 1786 for service with the First Fleet. She was nominally rated as a sixth-rate, allowing her to be commanded by a post-captain, though she retained her armament of only 10 guns, and on 12 October 1786 Berwick was renamed Sirius, after the southern star Sirius.
Sirius sailed under the command of Captain John Hunter and carried Captain Arthur Phillip, who would be the first governor of the new colony. She also carried Major Robert Ross, commander of the Royal Marines who would be responsible for providing security for the colony. The surgeons on this ship were George Bouchier Worgan and Thomas Jamison. According to Sirius midshipman Daniel Southwell, she also carried Larcum Kendall K1 timekeeper used by Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages around the world.
Sirius, with the other ten vessels of the First Fleet, left Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 and arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788, two days after the Armed Tender HMS Supply. The 252-day voyage, which had gone via Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope, had covered more than 15,000 miles (24,000 km). It soon became clear that Botany Bay was unsuitable for a penal settlement so Sirius helped move the colony farther north to Sydney Cove, Port Jackson on 26 January. While waiting to move, a large gale arose preventing any sailing, during this period the French expeditionary fleet of Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse arrived.
The British cordially received the French. Sirius's captains, through their officers, offered assistance and asked if Lapérouse needed supplies. However the French leader and the British commanders never met personally.
Lapérouse also took the opportunity to send his journals, some charts and some letters back to Europe with Sirius. After obtaining wood and fresh water, the French left on 10 March for New Caledonia, Santa Cruz, the Solomons, the Louisiades, and the western and southern coasts of Australia. The French fleet and all on board were never seen again. The documents carried by Sirius would be its only testament.
Sirius left the colony at Port Jackson on 2 October 1788 when she was sent back to the Cape of Good Hope to get flour and other supplies. The complete voyage, which took more than seven months to complete, returned just in time to save the near-starving colony.
Two years later, on 19 March 1790, Sirius was wrecked on a reef at Norfolk Island while landing stores. Among those who witnessed the ship's demise from shore was Thomas Jamison, the surgeon for the penal settlement. Jamison would eventually become Surgeon-General of New South Wales. Sirius's crew was stranded on Norfolk Island until 21 February 1791, when they were rescued and eventually taken back to England. Hunter returned to New South Wales, serving as the colony's Governor from 1795 to 1799. One of the sailors on Sirius, Jacob Nagle, wrote a first-hand account of the ship's last voyage, wreck, and the crew's stranding. With the settlement in New South Wales still on the brink of starvation, the loss of Sirius left the colonists with only one supply ship.
Many artefacts have been retrieved from the Sirius wreck. They include three anchors and two carronades. Objects are displayed in the Norfolk Island Museum. Another anchor, as well as a cannon, are on display in Macquarie Place, Sydney. Other Sirius artefacts including an anchor can be viewed at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. A detailed 1:24 scale model of Sirius is displayed in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Small models of all the First Fleet ships are displayed in the Museum of Sydney.
The Sirius wrecksite is protected by the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and is listed on the Australian National Heritage List.
An Urban Transit Authority First Fleet ferry was named after Sirius in 1984. Bas-relief memorials to the ship were erected in the Sydney suburb of Mosman, Norfolk Island and the Isle of Wight during 1989, 1990 and 1991 respectively.