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Convicts and the British colonies in Australia

Augustus Earle (1793-1838), A government jail gang, Sydney, N S Wales, 1830.

Augustus Earle (1793-1838), A government jail gang, Sydney, N S Wales, 1830, print: lithograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia:nla.pic-an6065451.

A penal colony

On 18 January 1788 the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay, which Joseph Banks had declared suitable for a penal colony after he returned from a journey there in 1770.

Captain Arthur Phillip, the fleet's commander, brought a small party of marines and seamen ashore, but found the location unsuitable because the harbour was unsafe and the area lacked fresh water. (The Oxford Companion to Australian History).

The fleet then relocated to Port Jackson. On 21 January 1788 Phillip, with a party of officers and marines, landed at an unnamed place, believed to be the beachfront at Camp Cove (known as 'cadi' to the local Cadigal people). This occasion marks the first landing of members of the First Fleet within Port Jackson, and the first known European landing in Sydney Harbour.

After moving further into the harbour, on 26 January 1788 Phillip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove. 751 convicts and their children disembarked, along with 252 marines and their families.

Two more convict fleets arrived in 1790 and 1791, and the first free settlers arrived in 1793. From 1788 to 1823, the Colony of New South Wales was officially a penal colony comprised mainly of convicts, soldiers and the wives of soldiers.

The early convicts were all sent to the colony, but by the mid-1800s they were also being sent directly to destinations such as Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.

Twenty per cent of these first convicts were women. The majority of women convicts, and many free women seeking employment, were sent to the 'female factories' as unassigned women. The female factories were originally profit-making textile factories. The Parramatta Factory grew as an enclave for pregnant women and also served as an orphanage from the 1830s.

Convict labour

William Sherwin (c. 1650-1714) Arthur Phillip Esq., Captain General and Commander in Chief in and over the territory of New South Wales, published 1789.

William Sherwin (c. 1650-1714) Arthur Phillip Esq., Captain General and Commander in Chief in and over the territory of New South Wales, published 1789, print: engraving. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an9846227.

Governor Philip (1788-1792) founded a system of labour in which people, whatever their crime, were employed according to their skills - as brick makers, carpenters, nurses, servants, cattlemen, shepherds and farmers.

Educated convicts were set to the relatively easy work of record-keeping for the convict administration. Women convicts were assumed to be most useful as wives and mothers, and marriage effectively freed a woman convict from her servitude.

From 1810, convicts were seen as a source of labour to advance and develop the British colony. Convict labour was used to develop the public facilities of the colonies - roads, >causeways, bridges, courthouses and hospitals. Convicts also worked for free settlers and small land holders.

The discipline of rural labour was seen to be the best chance of reform. This view was adopted by Commissioner Bigge in a series of reports for the British Government published in 1822-23. The assignment of convicts to private employers was expanded in the 1820s and 1830s, the period when most convicts were sent to the colonies, and this became the major form of employment.

Convicts formed the majority of the colony's population for the first few decades, and by 1821 there was a growing number of freed convicts who were appointed to positions of trust and responsibility as well as being granted land.

The convict experience

In the mid-1830s only around six per cent of the convict population were 'locked up', the majority working for free settlers and the authorities around the nation. Even so, convicts were often subject to cruelties such as leg-irons and the lash. Places like Port Arthur or Norfolk Island were well known for this. Convicts sometimes shared deplorable conditions. One convict described the working thus:

'We have to work from 14-18 hours a day, sometimes up to our knees in cold water, 'til we are ready to sink with fatigue... The inhuman driver struck one, John Smith, with a heavy thong.'

The experience of these convicts is recorded through the first Australian folk songs written by convicts. Convict songs like Jim Jones, Van Diemen's Land, and Moreton Bay were often sad or critical. Convicts such as Francis Macnamara (known as 'Frankie the Poet') were flogged for composing original ballads with lines critical of their captors.

In addition to the physical demands of convict life, some convicts arrived without sufficient English to communicate easily with others:

By 1852, about 1,800 of the convicts had been sentenced in Wales. Many who were sent there could only speak Welsh, so as well as being exiled to a strange country they were unable to speak with most of their fellow convicts.
Martin Shipton, Western Mail, 2006

Also telling of convicts' experiences were convict love tokens, mainly produced in the 1820s and 1830s by transported convicts as a farewell to their loved ones. Made from coins such as pennies, most of the engraved inscriptions refer to loss of liberty. One token, made from a penny for convict James Godfrey, is dedicated to his love Hannah Jones. The inscription reads: 'When in/Captivity/Time/Goeth/Very slow/But/Free as air/To roam now/Quick the/Time/Doth/Go'.

End of transportation

When the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia in 1868, the total number of transported convicts stood at around 162,000 men and women. They were transported here on 806 ships.

The transportation of convicts to Australia ended at a time when the colonies' population stood at around one million, compared to 30,000 in 1821. By the mid-1800s there were enough people here to take on the work, and enough people who needed the work. The colonies could therefore sustain themselves and continue to grow. The convicts had served their purpose.

Who were the convicts?

Charles Rodius (1802-1860), Convicts building a road over the Blue Mountains, NSW, 1833.

Charles Rodius (1802-1860), Convicts building a road over the Blue Mountains, NSW, 1833, watercolour. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an6332110.

While the vast majority of the convicts to Australia were English and Welsh (70%), Irish (24%) or Scottish (5%), the convict population had a multicultural flavour. Some convicts had been sent from various British outposts such as India and Canada. There were also Maoris from New Zealand, Chinese from Hong Kong and slaves from the Caribbean.

A large number of soldiers were transported for crimes such as mutiny, desertion and insubordination. Australia's first bushranger - John Caesar - sentenced at Maidstone, Kent in 1785 was born in the West Indies.

Most of the convicts were thieves who had been convicted in the great cities of England. Only those sentenced in Ireland were likely to have been convicted of rural crimes. Transportation was an integral part of the English and Irish systems of punishment. It was a way to deal with increased poverty and the severity of the sentences for larceny. Simple larceny, or robbery, could mean transportation for seven years. Compound larceny - stealing goods worth more than a shilling (about $50 in today's money) - meant death by hanging.

Men had usually been before the courts a few times before being transported, whereas women were more likely to be transported for a first offence. The great majority of convicts were working men and women with a range of skills.

Good behaviour and 'Ticket of leave' licences

Good behaviour meant that convicts rarely served their full term and could qualify for a Ticket of Leave, Certificate of Freedom, Conditional Pardon or even an Absolute Pardon. This allowed convicts to earn their own living and live independently. However, for the period of their sentence they were still subject to surveillance and the ticket could be withdrawn for misbehaviour. This sanction was found to work better in securing good behaviour then the threat of flogging.

The ticket of leave licences were developed first to save money, but they then became a central part of the convict system which provided the model for later systems of probation for prisoners.

Governor King (1800-1804) first issued tickets of leave to any convicts who seemed able to support themselves, in order to save on providing them with food from the government store. The tickets were then used as a reward for good behaviour and special service, such as informing on bushrangers. Gentlemen convicts were issued with tickets on their arrival in the colony although Governor Macquarie (1810-1821) later ordered that a convict had to serve at least three years before being eligible.

Governor Brisbane (1821-1825) finally set down regulations for eligibility. Convicts normally sentenced to seven year terms could qualify for a Ticket of Leave after four years, while those serving 14 years could expect to serve between six to eight years. 'Lifers' could qualify for their 'Ticket' after about 10 or 12 years. Those who failed to qualify for a pardon were entitled to a Certificate of Freedom on the completion of their term.

Transportation to the other British colonies

Van Diemen's Land

Charles Hutchkins, The penal settlement of Port Arthur, Van Dieman, 1845.,

Charles Hutchkins, The penal settlement of Port Arthur, Van Dieman, 1845. lithograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an6820618.

The colony of Van Diemen's Land was established in its own right in 1825 and officially became known as Tasmania in 1856. In the 50 years from 1803-1853 around 75,000 convicts were transported to Tasmania. By 1835 there were over 800 convicts working in chain-gangs at the infamous Port Arthur penal station, which operated between 1830 and 1877.

Western Australia

Western Australia was established in 1827 and proclaimed a British penal settlement in 1849 with the first convicts arriving in 1850. Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, became the colony's convict settlement in 1838 and was used for local colonial offenders.

Just under 10,000 British convicts were sent directly to the colony in the 18 years to 1868. They were used by local settlers as labour to develop the region. On January 9, 1868, Australia's last convict ship, the Hougoumont unloaded the final 269 convicts.

Victoria

In 1851 Victoria (Port Phillip District) separated from New South Wales. Apart from the early attempts at settlement, the only convicts sent directly to Victoria from Britain were about 1,750 convicts known as the 'Exiles'. They arrived between 1844 and 1849. They were also referred to as the 'Pentonvillians' because most of them came from Pentonville Probationary Prison in England.

Queensland

In 1859 Queensland separated from New South Wales. In 1824, the penal colony at Redcliffe was established by Lieutenant John Oxley. Known as the Moreton Bay Settlement, it later moved to the site now called Brisbane.

The main inhabitants of 'Brisbane Town', as it was known, were the convicts of the Moreton Bay Penal Station until it was closed in 1839. Around 2,280 convicts were sent to the settlement in those fifteen years.

The abolition of transportation

Transportation to the colony of New South Wales was officially abolished on 1 October 1850, and in 1853 the order to abolish transportation to Van Diemen's Land was formally announced.

South Australia, and the Northern Territory of South Australia, never accepted convicts directly from England, but still had many ex-convicts from the other States. After they had been given limited freedom, many convicts were allowed to travel as far as New Zealand to make a fresh start, even if they were not allowed to return home to England.

At the time, there was also a great deal of pressure to abolish transportation. Given that only a small percentage of the convict population was locked up, many believed that transportation to Australia was an inappropriate punishment - that it did not deliver 'a just measure of pain'. This, combined with the employment needs of Australia's thriving population, ensured the abolition of convict transportation.

Convicts in film and television

The novel For the Term of his Natural Life by Marcus Clarke (1846-1881) is a story about a young man who is wrongly accused of murder and transported to Australia as a convict. A film based on the novel was directed and produced in 1927 by Norman Dawn. The novel was also adapted as a television serial in 1983.

The last confessions of Alexander Pearce (2008) is a one-hour television drama telling the 180-year-old story of the escaped cannibal convict Alexander Pearce. The story is centred on the colony's Catholic priest, who heard Pearce's confession after he was recaptured. The story was co-written by producer Nial Fulton and director Michael James Rowland.

Useful links

First Fleet and early history

Heritage listed convict sites

Convicts

Convict women

Genealogy

Listen, look and play

Other resources

Convict ditties with sample tunes from the Australian Folk Songs website [archived]

Print references

  • Graeme Davison, John Hirst, Stuart MacIntyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History (Revised Edition), Oxford University Press, 2001.

Last updated: 4 November 2014

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