BRIA 11 2 a "Beyond the Seas": The Transportation of Criminals to Australia

It also brought the problems of industrial society. Workers labored long hours for wages that barely kept them and their families alive. Their children typically went to work in factories and mines shortly after reaching age 6. Many children were orphaned or abandoned and lived in the streets. To survive, many people in London’s crowded slums stole and robbed.

The Industrial Revolution, which brought tremendous wealth to Britain, had spawned a major crime wave. Beggars, pickpockets, and thieves swarmed London’s streets. Honest citizens feared this "criminal class" from the slums. They demanded action to stop the crime wave.

British authorities already punished criminals severely—often by hanging. There were over 200 death penalty offenses, most of them for stealing and other property crimes. Since no prisons existed as we know them today, hanging criminals was one of the few options available.

Another option was to banish, or deport, criminals to some faraway place. Called "transportation," this penalty had been used by the British since the time of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). In fact, about 40,000 convicts were transported to the British colonies in America where they worked off their sentences. But the transportation of lawbreakers to America ended abruptly in 1776 when the Revolutionary War began.

To Botany Bay

With crime rising and the American colonies rebelling, Britain had to find another place to send its convicted felons. As a temporary solution, prisoners were crammed aboard old rotting warships, called "hulks." The hulks stayed anchored on the Thames River, which links London to the sea. By day, the convicts labored on London’s docks and other public works.

The government considered several places to dump its glut of convicts. Finally, in 1786, Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) decided to establish a convict colony at Botany Bay, halfway around the world in Australia.

Australia, which the British called New South Wales, had been explored by the Dutch in the early 1600s. But in 1770, Captain James Cook had landed at Botany Bay, establishing British claims to the huge, uncharted continent. Prime Minister Pitt believed that a convict colony along with a military presence at Botany Bay would assure British naval and commercial supremacy in the South Pacific.

Sending prisoners to far-off Australia would also make transportation a much harsher punishment. Most slum dwellers in their life never traveled more than 30 miles from where they were born. Sending them to what was then considered the remotest place on Earth, with little likelihood of return, would be a horrific punishment. The government hoped this punishment would strike terror in the hearts of would-be criminals.

Pitt’s government decided to transport the prisoners aboard the hulks to Botany Bay without any on-site preparation and only Captain Cook’s nearly 20-year-old reports as a guide. Thus the British launched a bold experiment in penology (the treatment of criminals). If successful, the experiment would empty the hulks along the Thames, solve the riddle of what to do with criminals, and even deter people from committing crimes.

The first British fleet to transport convicts to Australia consisted of 11 ships, including two navy warships. The commander of the fleet was Captain Arthur Phillip. Captain Phillip had been appointed governor of Australia by King George III.

In May of 1787, using Captain Cook’s 20-year-old reports as their only guide, about 200 sailors and 700 convicts sailed into the unknown. The youngest criminal was a 9-year-old boy who had stolen some clothes and a pistol. The oldest was an 82-year-old woman convicted of perjury, or lying under oath.

After a 252-day voyage across 15,000 miles, the ships reached Botany Bay. But Captain Phillip soon determined that Botany Bay was a poor harbor and the surrounding land was not suited for growing crops. He ordered the fleet northward to another location, which Captain Phillip named Sydney (after Lord Sydney, William Pitt’s minister of colonial affairs).

The First Years

Governor Phillip had been given near absolute power to rule his convict colony. This included the authority to establish courts, proclaim martial law, and award grants of land in the new colony. He also had the authority to emancipate (set free) deserving convicts. Upon landing at Sydney, Governor Phillip announced to the convicts that—if they wanted to eat—they would have to work.

More than two years passed before any relief ships arrived from Britain. During this time, the colonists nearly starved. But somehow over the next few years, Governor Phillip used convict labor to plant crops, establish herds of livestock (mainly sheep), and construct buildings and roads necessary for the colony. In the meantime, the British government continued to empty out the Thames River hulks by transporting more than a thousand convicts to Sydney each year. By 1792, when Governor Phillip returned to Britain, New South Wales had survived five harsh years to become largely self-sufficient.

Who were these convicts transported to Australia? About three-quarters were young, single men and women. Most were common thieves (called "sneaksmen") from London and other British cities. Fewer than 5 percent were transported for violent crimes. Some were political offenders, mainly from rebellious Ireland and Scotland. Male convicts outnumbered females 6 to 1. Although none of the women were transported for prostitution, many were forced to become prostitutes after landing in Australia. Frequently, female convicts ended up as "prisoners of the prisoners" and were sold like slaves.

The "Assignment System"

"The sentence of the court upon you is, that you be transported beyond the seas for the term of your natural life." More commonly, criminals were sentenced to Australia for a specific term like 7 or 14 years.

After 1800, about 10 percent of the convicts arriving in Australia worked on government farms and public-works projects, such as roads and harbors. The other 90 percent were assigned to work for settlers who had received grants of land. The assigned convicts were dispersed throughout the colony to provide free labor until they had served their sentences.

How they were treated depended on who they worked for. In general, however, they lived in brutal conditions on meager rations.

Even so, the convicts were not considered slaves or "property." They possessed rights under British law. For example, neither the government nor private masters could physically punish a convict without first getting the approval of a judge at a hearing. But approval was routine.

The most common court-authorized punishment was flogging by the "cat-o’-nine-tails," a whip with nine leather cords. Convicts found guilty of minor offenses typically got 25 lashes on the back. More serious offenders drew up to 300 lashes, which would leave them gravely wounded.

While flogging kept convicts in line, a reward system also existed. "Gentlemen convicts" and those who exhibited good behavior were sometimes granted a "ticket-of-leave." This allowed the convict to work for wages and live virtually free. The only restriction was that such a person could not leave Australia until his or her sentence had expired. Deserving convicts also hoped to be emancipated by the governor.

To hold on to such a vast territory as Australia, the British government needed colonists to settle the land. Although it encouraged immigrants from Britain, few came. So the government called upon released convicts, who had served their sentences, to settle the land. It offered former convicts free land, tools, seed, livestock, and even food for one year. In addition, the government assigned newly arrived convicts to them to help work the land. As it turned out, most ex-convicts never returned to Britain but stayed in Australia to become landowners or wage workers.

More Penal Experiments

The number of convicts transported to Australia increased dramatically when more ships became available following the Napoleonic Wars (1804–1815). The peak year was 1833 when 36 ships transported nearly 7,000 convicts. By this time, areas outside Sydney had been opened up for settlement under the convict assignment system. One of these was the large island south of the mainland, now called Tasmania.

Beginning in 1834, Tasmania became the site of perhaps the world’s first juvenile prison. Convicted boys aged 9–18 were isolated from adult convicts at Point Puer (Latin for "boy"). Considered too young or ignorant for assignment, they were given a basic education, taught a trade, instructed in religion, and punished for misbehavior. Although they were subjected to flogging and solitary confinement, the training they received probably provided them with more opportunities than they would have had growing up in London’s slums.

By contrast, the place of ultimate terror was Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles east of Sydney. Set aside for the worst adult criminals, this island prison kept convicts working in chains. Guards unmercifully flogged prisoners for the slightest rule violation. Desperate to get off the island, convicts sometimes would draw lots to kill each other so that the murderer would be taken to Sydney for trial.

But even Norfolk Island had its moment of enlightenment. Scotsman Alexander Maconochie came to Australia as a government official in favor of reforming convicts rather than brutalizing them. He proposed a system of rewarding convicts with "marks" for hard work and good behavior. After earning a certain number of these marks, the convict would be set free. Thus the actual length of time a convict served depended on how fast or slowly he earned his marks.

In 1840, Maconochie got a chance to try out his mark system when he was made commandant of Norfolk Island. He immediately ended flogging and gave each convict a plot of land to grow vegetables and tobacco.

Much to the surprise of everyone but Maconochie, his system worked. During his five years as commandant, he discharged almost a thousand convicts. Only 2 percent of them were ever convicted again of a serious crime. But Maconochie had many enemies who wanted to keep the old system. They didn’t care whether Maconochie’s system worked on Norfolk. They wanted Norfolk to stand as a place of terror where any unruly convict could be sent. They finally convinced the government back in London to recall him in 1845.

By the mid-1800s, the transportation of criminals to Australia had slowed down. Reformers like Maconochie published reports critical of how the transported convicts were treated. New British prisons, patterned after American penitentiaries, made the costly transportation of convicts halfway around the world less attractive to the government. Finally, a gold rush brought thousands of new immigrants into Australia. In 1868, the last transport reached Western Australia, the only remaining convict outpost.

Between 1788 and 1868, 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia. But this did little to deter crime in Britain. The government was unable to convince the "criminal class" that transportation was a terrible punishment when most convicts chose to remain in Australia after serving their sentences. What transportation did accomplish, however, was the creation of a new people and eventually a new nation known, ironically, for its law-abiding people and low crime rate. When transportation ended, about 40 percent of Australia’s English-speaking population had come to the "land down under" as convicted criminals. Transportation to Australia worked but not as its originators intended.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What does it mean to say that "transportation to Australia worked but not as its originators intended"?
  2. Why do you think most ex-convicts preferred to stay in Australia instead of returning to Britain?
  3. Do you think that a mark system, like the one created by Alexander Maconochie, should be tried in the United States today to enable prisoners to earn their way to freedom? Why or why not?
  4. Do you think transportation was a good way for Britain to deal with its crime problem? Why or why not?



In 1994, two 17-year-old Tlingit Indians pleaded guilty to robbing an Everett, Washington, pizza delivery man and severely beating him with a baseball bat. The victim suffered a partial hearing loss. At the sentencing hearing, a state court judge was presented with two radically different options:

OPTION A: The state prosecutors argued for prison terms of from three to five years. They pointed out that this was a violent crime, which caused serious injury to the victim, and they argued that the perpetrators deserved punishment, not special treatment. A three-to-five year term, they said, is the typical punishment for this crime.

OPTION B: Tlingit tribal leaders proposed that the Native American youths be banished for a year to two small uninhabited islands in the Gulf of Alaska. The young men would be supplied with some food and tools and would be monitored by the tribe. The tribe also promised to build the victim a new house and pay his medical bills. The tribal leaders said that this kind of penalty was more in line with their cultural traditions.

In this activity, four role groups will argue for and against the two punishment options.

1. Two groups will argue for Option A:

  • a group representing the state of Washington
  • a group representing the victim and his family

2. Two other groups will argue for Option B:

  • a group representing the Tlingit tribe
  • a group representing the two convicted Tlingit teen-agers

3. Each group, in turn, will present its arguments to a class member playing the role of the Washington state judge who will make the final choice.



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