Australia’s Infamous Era of Convicts


JOHN HILL: Convicted of stealing one linen handkerchief valued at six pence and banished to Australia for seven years.

ELIZABETH BASON: Convicted of stealing seven yards [6.4 m] of calico. Although sentenced to be hanged, her sentence was changed to banishment for seven years.

JAMES BARTLETT: Declared guilty of stealing a thousand pounds [450 kilos] of rope yarn. He was banished to Australia for seven years.

GEORGE BARSBY: Found guilty of assaulting William Williams and of stealing from him one silk purse, one gold watch, and six guineas (about six British pounds). He was sentenced to be hanged, but the sentence was changed to banishment for the rest of his natural life.

THESE are but four examples of individuals convicted in England and then banished to Australia in the late 18th century. Some 160,000 people shared a similar fate during the infamous convict era. Women, in many cases even with their children, were routinely sentenced for from 7 to 14 years.

“Many of Australia’s ‘criminals’ were boys and girls not yet in their teens,” says Bill Beatty in Early Australia​—With Shame Remembered. One convict, he reports, was a child of only seven. The boy was banished to Australia “for the term of his natural life.”

Yet, the situation for some convicts was not a hopeless one. In fact, banishment for some eventually meant a better life. Indeed, the whole convict era was a bag of contradictions; it was a mixture of brutality and compassion, of death and hope. And it all began in Britain.

The Convict Era Begins

Eighteenth-century Britain went through social changes that led to an increase in crime, which was often a result of abject poverty. To curb this trend, authorities introduced harsh laws and penalties. Early in the 19th century, some 200 offenses carried the death penalty. “The smallest theft,” observed one traveler, “is punished with death.” Indeed, one 11-year-old boy was hanged for stealing a handkerchief!

Early in the 18th century, however, an act was passed that allowed for the death sentence to be commuted in many cases to transportation to Britain’s colonies in North America. Thus, in time, some 1,000 convicts a year were being shipped away, at first mainly to Virginia and Maryland. But when the colonies won their independence from Britain in 1776, this practice ceased. Thereafter, convicts were thrown into the infamous prison hulks that dotted London’s river Thames. These floating jails obviously had limited capacity. So, what was to be done?

Explorer Captain James Cook furnished the answer when he claimed New Holland​—now  Australia—​for Britain. Shortly thereafter, in 1786, Australia’s east coast was earmarked for penal colonies. The following year the “First Fleet” left England to found the colony of New South Wales. * Other fleets followed, and soon a number of convict settlements sprang up in Australia, along with one on Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles [1,500 km] northeast of Sydney.

Trials at Sea

The early voyages to the penal settlements were a nightmare for the convicts, who were crammed into wet, stinking hulls. Hundreds died en route; others perished soon after arrival. Scurvy took a heavy toll. Eventually, however, doctors were assigned to the convict ships, especially those carrying women convicts. This led to a dramatic improvement in survival rates. Eventually, faster ships cut sailing time from about seven months to four months, and then even more passengers survived.

Shipwreck too was a threat. Five days out of England and still within sight of the French coast, the British convict ship Amphitrite encountered a horrific gale. Battered mercilessly for two days, she ran aground at five o’clock on the evening of August 31, 1833, three quarters of a mile offshore.

Help was rejected, and the lifeboats were not launched. Why not? Because it was believed that the convicts​—120 women and children—​might escape! So after three terrifying hours, the disintegrating ship spilled its human cargo into the sea. Most of the crew and all of the 120 women and children perished. During the next few days, 82 bodies washed up onto the shore​—one was that of a woman clutching her child in an embrace that death failed to break.

When Death Was Preferred

The governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane, declared that the worst convicts of New South Wales and Tasmania must be sent to Norfolk Island. “The felon who is sent there,” he said, “is forever excluded from all hope of return.” Sir Ralph Darling, a later governor, vowed to make the island “a place of [the most extreme] punishment short of death.” Norfolk Island became just that, especially when aristocrat-born John Price became governor.

Price, it was said, “seemed to know, with terrifying accuracy, the way a criminal’s mind worked, and this, coupled with his merciless administering of the Law, gave him an almost hypnotic power over [the convicts].” Price’s minimum of 50 lashes or of ten days in a cell with up to 13 other prisoners, with standing room only, was for such offenses as singing, not walking fast enough, or not pushing hard enough on cartloads of stone.

Many prisoners sought peace in death. Reporting on a rebellion by 31 convicts, of whom 13 were executed and 18 reprieved, a clergyman wrote: “It is a literal fact that each man who heard his reprieve wept bitterly, and that each man who heard his condemnation to death went down on his knees, with dry eyes, and thanked God.” This clergyman added: “When the irons were struck off and the death warrant read, they knelt down to receive it as the will of God. Next, by a spontaneous act, [the condemned] humbly kissed the feet of him who brought them peace.”

 Only the clergy, with their ecclesiastical immunity, dared speak out against such cruelty. “No language of mine can ever convey an adequate notion of [Price’s] barbarous inhumanity . . . towards the prisoners,” one cleric wrote. “It is sickening to think of, and it can be practised with impunity.”

A Sliver of Hope Appears

With the arrival of Captain Alexander Maconochie, some relief came to Norfolk Island in 1840. He devised a mark system that combined reform with reward and enabled convicts to earn their freedom after accruing a certain number of marks, or credits. “I believe,” Maconochie wrote, “recovery is always possible, if properly sought. There is indefinite elasticity in the human mind if its faculties are placed in healthful action, and not either diseased by mal-treatment, or locked up in the torpor of a living grave.”

So successful were Maconochie’s reforms that they were later adopted in England, Ireland, and the United States. At the time, however, Maconochie cut more than just new ground; he also cut the egos of some influential people whose methods he repudiated. As a result, he was eventually removed from office. With his departure, brutality revisited Norfolk Island. But not for long. In 1854, after strong complaints by the clergy, the island was abandoned as a penal settlement, and its convicts were shipped to Port Arthur in Tasmania.

Port Arthur also inspired fear, especially in the early years. However, the brutality exercised there was not in the same league as that meted out on Norfolk Island. The practice of flogging, for example, was all but abandoned at Port Arthur by 1840.

Tasmania’s strict governor, George Arthur, wanted to give the colony “a reputation for machine-like discipline,” writes Ian Brand in Port Arthur​—1830-1877. At the same time, Arthur wanted every convict to know “the rewards for good behaviour and the punishments for bad.” To that end he placed the convicts into seven classes, ranging from those who were granted ticket-of-leave for good behavior to those who were sentenced to hard labor in chains.

Banishment​—A Blessing for Many

“Except those who were confined to the penal settlements at Port Arthur, Norfolk Island, . . . and such places during their grimmest periods,” writes Beatty, “the convicts often had better prospects than they would have had in the  country of their birth. . . . They had opportunities for making good.”

Indeed, convicts who gained an early pardon (emancipists) as well as those who served out their time (expirees) found that many opportunities opened up to them and their families. Therefore, few returned to England when freed.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie, a champion of freed convicts, said: “When once a man is free his former state should no longer be remembered or allowed to act against him; let him feel himself eligible for any situation which he has by a long term of upright conduct proved himself worthy of filling.”

Macquarie backed up his words by giving freed convicts land. Then he assigned convicts to help those who had been freed from prison to work their land and to perform various duties in their homes.

In time, many hardworking and enterprising ex-convicts gained wealth, respect and, in some cases, even fame. Samuel Lightfoot, for example, played a key role in establishing the first hospitals in Sydney and Hobart. William Redfern became a respected physician, and Francis Greenway left his mark in and around Sydney in the form of distinctive architecture.

Finally, after 80 years, banishment to Australia ceased in 1868. Today Australia’s modern, multicultural society gives little evidence of those early years. The ruins of penal settlements are now merely tourist attractions. Yet, a closer look reveals many less painful reminders of the convict era: bridges, old buildings, and even churches​—all erected by convicts. Some are in excellent repair and in use to this very day.


^ par. 13 For a discussion of the penal colony at Botany Bay, please see Awake! of February 8, 2001, page 20.

[Box/Picture on page 14]


A fifth-generation descendant of two convicts tells how one of his forefathers came to Australia. He explains:

“At the age of 19, one of my ancestors was sentenced . . . for stealing a pocketbook. He left England aboard the ship George III on December 12, 1834, with 308 passengers​—220 of whom were convicts. By the time the ship sighted the coast of Tasmania on April 12, 1835, 50 prisoners were down with scurvy. A soldier’s wife, 3 children, and 12 others had died. Two children were born during the long voyage.

“Six weeks out to sea, fire broke out on board. But disaster was averted, thanks to the courage of two prisoners who prevented two casks of gunpowder from igniting. As it was, many provisions were destroyed, leaving supplies short for the remainder of the voyage. In his endeavor to make port speedily, the captain chose a shorter passage through the D’Entrecasteaux Channel at the southern tip of Tasmania. At 9:30 p.m., the ship struck an uncharted rock, today known as King George Rock, three miles [5 km] offshore and sank. Of the 133 who drowned, almost all were prisoners locked below deck. Only 81 of the original 220 convicts survived. One was my ancestor. In 1843 he married a freed convict, and two years later he was pardoned. He died in 1895.”

[Pictures on page 12, 13]



The British convict ship “Amphitrite”

[Credit Lines]

Convicts: By Courtesy of National Library of Australia; F. Schenck’s Portrait of Sir Thomas Brisbane: Rex Nan Kivell Collection, NK 1154. By permission of the National Library of Australia; Macquarie: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales; ship: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

[Pictures on page 14, 15]

Cell block of the Port Arthur convict prison

[Credit Line]

Chains and cell block: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

[Picture on page 15]

This lighthouse at Sydney Harbor is a replica of one designed by ex-convict Francis Greenway

[Picture on page 15]

Norfolk Island’s inaccessible coastline

[Picture on page 15]

The old military barracks on Norfolk Island