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Why Great Britain Sent its Prisoners to Australia

Oil painting of two British convicts in Sydney
Oil painting of two British convicts in Sydney | © Adam Jones / Wikimedia Commons
Today, one in five Australians is the descendant of a convict. The Culture Trip sails back to the 18th century to find out why.

In 2018, Sydney is one of the most sparkling cities on the face of the Earth, but behind the glittering harbour and golden beaches hides a history that’s surprisingly sordid. The British established Australia’s oldest city in the late 18th century as a penal colony to house its surplus of petty criminals — a murky past that continues to leave its mark on the country today.

Why did Britain have so many crooks?

In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution created a generation of urban poor — people who moved from farms to overcrowded cities with no work and money. Crime soared in these squalid Dickensian conditions, as many families were forced to steal to survive. British prisons reached their capacity, so authorities shunted thousands of criminals into hulks — disused ships that shouldn’t sail but could float in harbours housing prisoners.

Illustration of a British convict chain gang © Notwist / Wikimedia Commons

When these hulks filled up, transportation became the answer. Serious crimes like murder and rape were punishable by death, but petty offences — such as stealing anything worth more than one shilling, the average day’s wage — were deemed worthy of a one-way ticket to some foreign corner of the globe.

Why did the British choose Australia?

The British first sent prisoners to America, but as the War of Independence reached its conclusion in 1782, the old colonial power was left with nowhere to discard their crooks … until they saw a solution Down Under.

The east coast of New Holland had been mapped by Captain James Cook on his voyage in 1770, so the British thought this territory — despite being inhabited by Indigenous people for 60,000 years — was the perfect dumping ground for their excess criminals. An eight-month boat trip 10,000 miles across the sea soon became the punishment for thieving a bag of sugar or a loaf of bread.

Oil sketch of the British colonising Sydney in 1788 © Algernon Talmage / Wikimedia Commons

The first Australian convicts arrived on the First Fleet in 1788, part of the 1,500-strong colonisation party that included military and civilians. Admiral Arthur Phillip founded the penal colony of New South Wales on January 26, 1788 — still the controversial date of Australia’s national day — and set convicts to work according to their skills, planting the seeds of the first European settlement to colonise the Australian continent.

Convict life

Conditions in those early years were tough — food was in short supply, and farmers who knew how to get the most out of the harsh Australian conditions were even rarer. Governor Lachlan Macquarie was the first to imagine Sydney and NSW as something more than a penal colony in the early 19th century, encouraging reformed convicts to participate in society and shape the free settlement that has flourished over the subsequent two centuries.

Emancipated convicts were burdened by a heavy social stigma, but contributed significantly to the nascent British colonies in Australia. Opposition to transportation grew with increasing numbers of free settlers in the 1830s, but it took until 1868 for the last convict ship to pull into Western Australia. By then, Australia’s population had reached one million, and could sustain itself without relying on convict labour.

More than 160,000 convicts — 80% men, 20% women — were transported to Australia from the British Isles between 1788 and 1868. The British sent criminals to NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and WA, but freed convicts soon spread their footprint across the country, and these days, one in five Australians is the descendant of a convict.

The convict legacy

At first, the fledgling Australian colonies were ashamed of their criminal roots and tried to shake off the association, but today, Australians take a perverse pride in their convict history. Throughout the 20th century, historians helped change the perception of convicts both by highlighting the injustice of transportation — an excessive punishment for trivial crimes committed by desperate, impoverished people — and by telling the stories of iconic convicts such as seminal Australian novelist Henry Savery and architect Francis Greenway.

There’s no more famous convict celebrity than Ned Kelly, an Irish bushranger whose battles with the British elite — including his final bloody shoot-out with police and eventual hanging in 1878 — have imbued him with Robin Hood status in Australian folklore. This rebellious convict past is seen as a key ingredient in Australia’s roguish, ‘larrikin’ national character.

Port Arthur convict site in Tasmania © ctudball / Flickr

These days, Australia is peppered with convict sites that preserve and celebrate the tales of the country’s convict era. Australia is home to 11 UNESCO Heritage Listed convict sites — Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, Port Arthur in Tasmania and Fremantle Prison in WA are all compelling attractions for history buffs to visit.