Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Penal colony

Six years after James Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770 and gave the territory its English name of ‘New South Wales’, the American colonies declared their independence and the revolutionary war with Britain began. Access to America for transported convicts ceased and overcrowding in British gaols soon raised official concerns. In 1779, Joseph Banks, the botanist who had travelled with Cook to NSW, suggested Australia as an alternative place for transportation. The proposal was repeated later in 1783 by James Matra, who had also sailed on the Endeavour. [1] The advantages of trade with Asia and the Pacific were also raised, alongside the opportunity NSW offered as a new home for the American Loyalists who had supported Britain in the War of Independence and who found themselves dispossessed. Eventually the Government settled (although not without criticism) on Botany Bay as the site for a colony.[2] Secretary of State, Lord Sydney, chose Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy to lead the fleet there and to be its first governor. He was responsible for keeping law and order, entitled to grant land, raise armed forces for defence, discipline convicts and military personnel and issue regulations and orders. As the colony grew, he could raise taxes through customs duties.

The critical question facing those who arrived in Australia in 1788 was how do you establish a society from scratch and how far was it possible to transport political and social structures as well as convicts? What they found shocked them. The colony represented an inversion of the accepted order of things. It was to be built by Britain’s discards. Members of the First Fleet seem to have been unprepared for the changed seasons, but creatures like the black swan, both the same as, and yet opposite to, the northern white swan, neatly conformed to some of the early theories about what a world upside down might contain. Similarly, being dark-skinned unlike the pale Europeans, it was assumed that the indigenous peoples also had the opposite of ‘civilised’ European values. Creatures like the kangaroo and platypus, however, were much more disturbing, hinting at perverted rather than inverted forms of nature. Interestingly, John Hunter attributed these supposed freaks of nature to a ‘promiscuous intercourse’ between species that served to infect the country and compared it with the moral contagion represented by the cargo of convicts. [3] From a social perspective the ‘proper’ order of society was overthrown, as convicted felons became founding members of a new society. While few became as wealthy as the emancipist merchant Simeon Lord, many came to hold positions of authority and to enjoy greater prosperity than they could have known back home. Most importantly, for the indigenous inhabitants of the country the arrival of an entirely alien culture represented disaster. Transformed from custodians of their ancestral lands, enjoying a rich material and spiritual culture, to dispossessed ‘savages’, their world was indeed turned upside down.

Many convicts began their servitude during transportation. Convicts entered upon what some call a ‘repressive penal system’ through their incarceration in the hulks while waiting for transportation to occur.[4] The problem with this journey was that ‘no vessel was specially designed and built as a convict ship’.[5] Usually the voyage, during which many convicts died, ‘took eight months, six of them at sea and two in ports for supplies and repairs’.[6] During the voyage of the Second Fleet, ‘26% had died, and 488 were landed sick from scurvy, dysentery, and infectious fever’ and after landing, ‘the total of deaths increased by fifty’.[7] Though this was an extreme example, typically conditions during voyages were poor. Many of the weak died before they reached the penal settlements. John White saw ‘a great number of them lying, some half and others nearly naked, without either a bed or bedding, unable to turn or help themselves’. Often if convicts survived the voyage, ‘coming into contact with fresh air, men fainted and died when being taken on shore to the inadequate hospital’.[8]

The 1828 census claimed that ‘emigrants were so far a small minority...that New South Wales had fewer than 5,000 people who had come voluntarily in a population of 36,598’.[9] However, within twenty years, this situation dramatically changed and the 1851 census showed that there were ‘about 80,000 convicts and former convicts still alive and living in Australia but that they were only about one in five of the white population.’[10] Despite the shift from convict to free settlers, around 400 convicts were sent to Australia each year between 1793 and 1810 and more than a thousand a year by 1815. This increased to some 2,600 a year from 1816 to 1825 and nearly 5,000 a year from 1826 to 1835. [11] During the eighty year operation of this policy between 150,000 and 160,000 convicts were transported; about sixty per cent were English, thirty-four per cent Irish and five per cent Scots. 60,000 were transported to NSW from 1788 to 1840 and briefly in 1847, 75,000 to VDL (1803-1853), 1,750 to Victoria (1844-1849) and 10,000 to Western Australia (1850-1868).[12]

Once the convicts entered Australia, they were assigned one of two types of services depending on the severity of the crime committed and the skills the convicted maintained. If the convict survived the journey, he was retained in either ‘government service’ or ‘assigned as labour to a private land owner’. If convicts were retained in government service, they either entered a ‘labour gang in which a variety of tasks on public works’ were completed or in an ‘iron gang which is forced labour while wearing chains fastened to the ankles and waist’. [13] Government convicts were provided with accommodation by their employers and had to be housed by the government. Accommodations in these camps sometime consisted of ‘small shells on wheels in which twenty men slept’ that could be ‘moved elsewhere when the immediate job was finished’. Both the labour gang and the iron gang were employed in areas known as ‘stockades’, which were ‘surrounded by a high stacked fence’ and usually ‘deep in the bush and guarded’. [14] The public work achieved by these ‘convict gangs’ was substantial. These gangs did more than build roads in the 1840s they ‘carried away the whole of the top of Pinchgut Island in Sydney Harbour and prepared the site on which Fort Denison was subsequently constructed’.[15] Convicts assigned to private land holders held different jobs from those in government service. Many convicts were sent to farms to help landowner cultivate and increase the value of his land. They worked as ‘agricultural labourers, they cleaved land, constructed bridges, made salt, produced bricks and mined coal’. [16] These convicts often learned a trade that could be useful once they were freed. Convicts of farm labour were not necessarily treated better and worked just as hard as the convicts in governmental servitude.

Much of the operational administration of the penal system was in the hands of the guards.[17] Unfortunately, ‘the almost total absence of a properly qualified class of persons to fill the situation of superintendents and overseers of probation gangs’ left the colony with many unqualified guards.[18] They came from a ‘lower class of society, from the slums of the cities’ and often used their position as a way of making money and emigrating to a new society. In many respects, the guards were ‘no better and no worse then the men they guarded’ and were ‘victims among victims’ since their lives were also ones of servitude as guards of the convicted. [19] The convicts lived under almost constant ‘scrutiny’ and often the ‘convicts worked and sweated inside as the guards remained outside’ while watching over the convicts.[20] Exploited, abused and subject to arbitrary injustice, it is hardly surprising that some convicts fought back while others ‘bolted’ swelling the ranks of the bushrangers.

Freedom was usually granted to those who had either good behaviour or completed their sentence. There were two kinds of pardons that a convict could receive. The first pardon was ‘absolute’ meaning the sentence was finished and the convict was free to go. The second was ‘conditional pardon’ meaning ‘conditional on never returning to British Isles’.[21] In Great Expectations, Magwitch was granted conditional freedom and knew that his return to London to see Pip would eventually lead to his death.

I was sentenced for life. It’s death to come back. There’s been over much coming back of late years, and I should certainly be hanged if took.[22]

This created a distinction within the convict community between those still under sentence and those who had been pardoned who could leave the colony and return to Britain and those who had been pardoned and could not. This created a chasm between the freed felon or emancipist and the free settler in the nineteenth century. Then, ‘respectable people worried about the future of a community composed so largely of men and women who belonged in it because they had been caught stealing.’ The idea behind this belief was the morals or lack of morals of the free convict. This is definitely a legitimate concern. Macquarie, the governor of NSW declared in 1821, ‘New South Wales should be made the home and a happy home to every emancipated convict who deserves it’ and that ‘once a man is free, his former state should no longer be remembered’. [23] In fact, the word convict was to be ‘forbidden from general discourse’ as freed convicts did not want to be reminded of their former servitude.[24] According to the 1828 census, freed convicts accounted for nearly half of the free population and Australia was in serious need of free immigrants to settle in Australia. The ‘imperial government decided in 1831 to stop giving land away to settlers, and to sell it at not less the five shillings an acre, and to use the money from land sales for the fares of immigrants’.[25]


[1] Frost, Alan, The Precarious Life of James Mario Matra: Voyager with Cook, American Loyalist: Servant of Empire, (Miegunyah Press/Melbourne University Press), 1995.

[2] For discussion of the contested reasons behind settlement at Botany Bay, see below pp. 62-69.

[3] Bach, John, (ed.), An Historical Journal, 1787-1792, by John Hunter: An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, (Angus and Robertson), 1968, pp. 47-48.

[4] Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, (Cambridge University Press), 1988, p. 50.

[5] Bateson, Charles, The Convict Ships 1787-1868, (Brown), 1959, p. 68.

[6] Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists: An Exploration of Social History 1788–1870, (Melbourne University Press), 1974, p. 6.

[7] O’Brien, Eris, The Foundation of Australia: A Study in English Criminal Practice and Penal Colonisation in the Eighteenth Century, (Sheed and Ward), 1937, rep., (Greenwood Press), 1970, p. 168.

[8] Ibid, O’Brien, Eris, The Foundation of Australia, pp. 168-169.

[9] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 14.

[10] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 15.

[11] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 8.

[12] On convict society, see below, pp. 220-228.

[13] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 51.

[14] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 55.

[15] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 57.

[16] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 51.

[17] See, Robbins, W.M., ‘The Supervision of Convict Gangs in New South Wales 1788-1830’, Australian Economic History Review, Vol. 44, (1), (2004), pp. 79-100.

[18] Brand, Ian, The Convict Probation System: Van Diemen’s Land 1839-1854, (Blubber Head), 1990, p. 14.

[19] Lagrange, Francis, Flag on Devil’s Island, (Doubleday), 1961, pp. 174-175.

[20] Ibid, Lagrange, Francis, Flag on Devil’s Island, p. 191.

[21] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 51.

[22] Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations, (T.B. Peterson), 1861, p. 118

[23] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 13.

[24] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 14.

[25] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 16.

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