Caged prisoners below deck on a transport ship bound for Australia
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Britain colonised Australia as somewhere to dump criminals. The idea was twofold: it would be a way of getting rid of some of them and the thought of transportation to a remote and hard land would act as a deterrent. The latter did not work. Some minor villains committed felonies in the hope of being deported to Australia.
The Whig law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly in 1810 said it was a bold and unpromising project to establish a new colony which should consist entirely of the "outcasts of society and the refuse of mankind". It had never been tried before. Transporting criminals was hardly new, but setting up a penal colony was, certainly on the scale envisaged when New South Wales was established for that purpose in 1788 when the first 750 felons arrived.
Originally, the whole of Australia other than Western Australia was called New South Wales. At the time, there were many doubts that the British could afford to protect and maintain her colonies. Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham both said the empire was too expensive. Colonial planner Sir James MacKintosh thought Britain would collapse beneath her empire because she could not afford to defend it. An 1812 Government Finance Committee thought that the empire though desirable, was draining resources. Yet the British remained committed to empire and determined to maintain Australia as a colony for criminals.
Phillip King, who became governor of New South Wales in 1800 said that the colony consisted chiefly of those who sold rum and those who drank it. How the convict was treated depended very much on the colony's governor. Thomas Brisbane was tough, Ralph Darling was strict, William Bligh (he of the Bounty) was a disciplinarian and held hostage in prison during a rebellion against his rule. At the other extreme was the liberal Richard Bourke. Whoever the governor and whatever the choices, there was an 18th century Calvinist belief that the brawny penance of deportation to Australia was good for the criminals' souls and potentially redemptive.
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George Barrington 1755-1804
One of the earlier prisoners, George Barrington was famous throughout Europe as a gentleman thief, equally at home in the gossip columns as he was in Newgate Gaol. When he was convicted at the Old Bailey, the judged observed: "…if ever there was a man in the world that abused and prostituted great talents to the most unworthy and shameful purposes, you are that man…" Barrington said he was so famous that people pinned crimes on him that he could not have committed. It was fame that saved him. If Barrington had not been fêted by the press as the prince of pickpockets then he would have been hanged. Instead he was deported to Australia.
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Did You Know...
New South Wales received her last shipload of convicts in 1840 although they were still taken to Tasmania and Norfolk Island. It was the Australians who objected to transportation - too dangerous, too unreliable and uneconomic and most of all, they no longer needed them. The Australian gold strikes of the 1850s attracted willing labour from as far away as America.
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George Barrington describes arriving in Australia as a prisoner
An excerpt from A Voyage to Botany Bay by George Barrington
"At noon came to anchor in Port Jackson. At ten o'clock the next morning the convicts were all ordered on shore; their appearance was truly deplorable, the generality of them being emaciated by disease, foul air, etcetera, and those who laboured under no bodily disorder from the scantiness of their allowance were no better in plight. There were in all two hundred and fifty men, six women, and one convict's wife and child. We lost during the voyage thirty two men. Upon their landing they were entirely newly clothed from the king's store, and their old things were burnt to prevent infections that might have been in the ship being introduced in the colony."
A petition against the liberal treatment of ex-convicts
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Excerpt from The Felonry of New South Wales by James Mudie
"No absurdity then can be greater - nothing can be more anti-British, either as to the spirit of British law or as to the tone of British feeling and morals, than to suppose that the emancipated convicts of New South Wales are entitled to the same consideration in society or the same rights and immunities as those claimed by or granted to the free and respectable settlers. New South Wales is not merely a colony of British freemen, but a huge penitentiary or house of correction in which laws and regulations must be framed expressly for the nature and quality of the inhabitants, and also for the purpose of operating as a prevention of crime in the parent state. The convicts, as may be readily supposed, are generally profligate, treacherous, dishonest, and mutinous. It is a fearful thing for an agricultural settler to be placed in the midst of from twenty to fifty such labourers and household servants - prejudicially operating, by their atrocious example, their disgusting manners and horrid language upon his family - and continually engaged, more or less, in plundering him and his neighbours."