A Passage to Australia

The Australian Bicentennial celebrations, marking the arrival in Botany Bay in 1788 of the First Fleet carrying convicts, were also notable for the protests by Aborigines whose ancestors had arrived at least 40,000 years earlier. Transportation was not a new method of dealing with felons: a law of 1597 provided for banishment beyond the seas for “Rogues. Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars”. In the 17th century convicts under commuted death sentences and some prisoners of war (Scots. English and Irish who had fought against Cromwell), were sent to work on plantations in Virginia. After 1717 there was an increase in transportation, including many convicted for minor offences. In a period of 60 years over 40.000 men and women, including 10.000 from Ireland, were sent to the New World. Prisoners were sold to shipping contractors who in turn sold them to plantation owners as indentured servants. Following the American revolution convicts were no longer acceptable there: many thousands of African slaves were working in the fields.

The Hulks Act of 1776 was intended as a stop-gap measure and allowed for convicts to be kept on the old warships moored in the Thames and around the coast, until somewhere else could be found to send them. There was no penitentiary system. The hulks and gaols were overcrowded, and there was fear of the “mob” (later the “criminal class”), so some way of dealing with criminals had to be found. In 1784 a new Act authorised the revival of transportation to places other than America. Captain Cook had landed in Botany Bay in 1770 but little was known about the Continent. The advantages of setting up a colony there were considered — as a base for British ships, to replace lands lost in America — but for the government the matter was settled by the urgent need for a place to send convicts, added to the possibility of claiming a strategic foothold in the area.

The First Fleet was under the command of Captain A. Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales, and carried 548 male and 188 female convicts with an escort of marines. Due to Phillip’s care the death toll of 48, including 40 convicts, was comparatively light. In subsequent fleets the prisoners were shackled in rigid irons, grossly ill equipped, and starved; of 1.006 convicts on the Second Fleet 267 died during the voyage, “the worst in the whole history of penal transportation”, and at least 150 after landing at Sydney. (The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes). No contractors, or captains, were punished for their cruel treatment and cheating of the helpless convicts. However, conditions did improve, and after 1815 the death rate for convicts was no worse than could be expected on any long sea journey at that time.

The government intention was that the colony should become self supporting in three years but the selection of convicts was made without any regard for the labour needed to establish and run the new colony. The authorities deliberately cleared the hulks and prisons of invalids. Phillip protested that such a policy “clears the gaols and may ease the parishes from which they are sent; but. “if it continued, the colony would “remain for years a burthen to the mother-country” (Hughes, p.105). He aimed to establish something more than a penal colony but his requests for settlers with a knowledge of farming were not met. and the first five years were a desperate struggle for survival. For the government this was the cheapest way of disposing of the convicts.

During the total period of transportation more than 160,000 men. women and children were dumped in that far colony – most did not return. The shortest sentence was for seven years and the homeward passage had to be paid for. Some were brought back by subscriptions raised at home. Drawing on a wide range of material Robert Hughes describes the system of transportation through the testimony and experience of the convicts. Hundreds of letters and petitions were written by, and on behalf of, convicts. It was not unusual for victims of crime to petition for mercy on behalf of criminals – “as I freely forgive him myself — and their families who would be abandoned and in great need. Wives begged to be allowed to join their husbands and husbands implored their wives to raise the money to accompany them. Very few could find the price of a ticket and the wives mostly got the “Usual answer” from the Home Secretary’s office.

Yet the necessity for women in the settlement was recognised and the original plan had been to kidnap Tahitian women. Governor Phillip wanted female convicts to be sent out for the male convicts to marry, and offered rewards of land, or free working time, to those who married. It became the policy for women of a “marriageable age” to be selected, though without any explicit acknowledgement that they were required as breeding stock and sexual conveniences. Despite the common view that they were all whores, the women’s most common conviction was for theft (more than 80 per cent) and though about a fifth of the 24.000 women transported might have “survived” by prostitution. it was never a transportable offence. Women were “treated as a doubly colonised class throughout the life of the penal system” (Hughes, p.261). Their labour was of low value and many endured humiliation and degradation. In the Female Register drawn up by the Rev. S. Marsden in 1806. all common-law wives, even those in relationships of many years’ standing, were counted as “concubines”. Some women were given their ticket-of-leave on arrival, while others were lined up to be picked as servants, with military officers having first choice. Those old or infirm, or who became pregnant while on assignment, were sent to the female factories — a loft above a jail.

Many of the early transportations were for small, often ridiculously slight, offences. After 1815 the general tendency was for transportation to be reserved for less trivial crimes, but the effect of the reduction in the number of capital offences was to increase the transportable crimes. Those charged with felonies were for the most part poor and ill educated but (until after 1836) had to speak for themselves in court, it being claimed that the judges represented the interests of the prisoners. Those sentenced to transportation were mostly labourers and city-dwellers. Between one-half and two- thirds had previous convictions, mostly for theft and “only a minuscule fraction could be classed as political offenders” (ibid. p. 159). However, representatives of nearly every English protest movement, industrial upheaval and agrarian revolt, including 100 Chartists, were transported: Scottish Jacobins were thus effectively dealt with. The largest single English group sailed for Australia after the Swing riots of 1830, when starving labourers protested their low wages. Nineteen were hanged and 481 transported — as many were imprisoned.

Most of the convicts did not get to the dreaded penal settlements like Norfolk Island or Port Arthur but served their time assigned to free settlers, with time allowed to work on their own account. In the early years officers of the New South Wales Corps (known as the Rum Corps because of their monopoly of the rum trade) were given 100 acre land grants, plus 10 convicts maintained at government expense. Officers could raise capital against their regimental pay. Freed convicts (emancipists) were given small land grants but they lacked capital and farming knowledge and had greater difficulty contending with the extremes of climate. A few emancipists did very well but as early as 1800 “the community was virtually in the hands of a score or so of farming officers, holding the small grantees in their power, and continually in the process of buying them out” (The Story of Australia, A.G.L. Shaw. p.50). After four years of a seven-year sentence, convicts could get a ticket-of-leave and work for wages (in the early years payment was in kind, there being little money in circulation). Free labour was much sought after, especially for skills in the basic trades, where the wages and conditions were better than in England.

The fate of convicts was a lottery. They might be assigned to a benevolent master in a settled area, or to a sadistic one living in the outback. On Van Diemen’s Land the Governor would take assigned servants away from settlers found indulging them. About one-tenth of the convicts were retained by the government on public works like digging ditches, building jails and stores and making roads. Those who committed further offences in the colony could, after trial, be sent to the penal settlements (after 1830 this could be added to the transportation sentence). They could also be made to work in chain gangs — and flogged. Discipline was maintained throughout the system with the cat-o-nine-tails. Sentence by a magistrate was required before an assigned man was flogged, but in the penal settlement the convicts were at the mercy of the governor and a system of convict overseers and informers. Flogging offences included “rebelliousness”, “insolence”, “refusal to work” and “singing a song”. Women were rarely flogged, except on Norfolk Island.

Transportation was supposed to rid England of crime, along with the criminals, but poverty begets theft. It was a time of violent changes. Handworkers were impoverished and agricultural workers driven from the land to face unemployment, or starvation wages in the factory districts. Between 1830 and 1845 more than ten per cent of the working population were classed as paupers. Transportation reached its peak in the 1830s. while in the growing Australian pastoral industry there was a ravenous demand for convict labour. Contrary to the view of criminals as born rather than made, most of those transported completed their sentences with a ticket-of-leave. after a period of assignment, and were absorbed into colonial society as free citizens. Their children showed the lowest crime rate of any group. Unlike England there was always a demand for labour; stories got back of how well convicts were doing (those who sank in the system did not write home) and confirmed the opinion of those who claimed that the punishment was not a deterrent because it was too easy.

Free settlers were encouraged to go to Australia and by 1830 the free settlers and colonial free-born far outnumbered the convicts in New South Wales. By 1840 the main political division was between rich and poor rather than “bond and free”. The system of assigned convict labour had paved the way for free settlement and had enabled the continent to be colonised many years before it would otherwise have been possible. Though some employers still wanted convict labour, after fifty years of settlement the colony no longer wished to be a dumping ground for criminals. In England the political and moral climate had moved against transportation (slavery had been abolished in the Empire in 1833). When the Molesworth Committee was set up in 1837 to enquire into the System of Transportation, the decision to end it had already been made.

In the contrary manner of reformist achievement, after fifty years transportation was ended in 1840 — but only to New South Wales. The system of assignment was abolished and conditions were made more rigorous for convicts. The problem of crime had not been solved and the penitentiary system had still to be developed. More jails were built, including Dartmoor and one to replace the hulks at Portsmouth. By 1852 there was space for 16.000 prisoners and prison was cheaper than transportation, at least for shorter sentences.

In the meantime convicts were sent to the by now separate colony of Van Diemen’s Land, which was run on harsher lines than the mainland. 26.000 were added to the convict population before 1850. more than the system could absorb. Perhaps the final blow to the system was the gold rush in New South Wales in 1851, which added to the attractions for the thousands of immigrants who now arrived from England each year. In 1853 transportation was officially ended and the colony’s name became Tasmania. Western Australia had asked to become a penal settlement in 1850 and the last convict ship, carrying Irish prisoners, arrived there in 1868. More than a hundred years later the jails built to hold convicts no longer transported are still in use, holding many more prisoners than they were designed for in insanitary and degrading conditions, and still an ineffective response to crime.

For the original inhabitants of Australia and Tasmania it was particularly tragic that it was a penal colony established in their land. “A frontier society based on slave labour, run by the threat of extreme violence and laced with rigid social divisions was not likely to treat the Aborigines compassionately or even fairly” (Hughes, p.272).

Pat Deutz