Australia's Convict Origins - Myth and History
Ball-and-chain nationhood: Brian Fletcher chronicles the ambiguities Australians have felt over the years towards the nation's 'Founding Fathers'.
The claims made in February 1992 by the Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, that his country was, deserted by the Churchill Government during the Second World War provoked suggestions in Britain that 'such comments were only to be expected from a country once inhabited by convicts'. These remarks were confined to a small minority and were made in the heat of the moment. They could not be considered reasoned statements and were not taken seriously. Nevertheless in referring to convicts they pointed to an element in Australia's past that has been of abiding interest. Historians and others in Australia and to a lesser extent in Britain have, since the late nineteenth century, devoted considerable attention to the convicts, reaching conclusions about them that have varied with time and circumstance.
The present seems an appropriate point at which to review this debate. Given the emergence of republicanism and a more assertive government in Australia, it is conceivable that relations with Britain will become more troubled. If this occasions further reference to convicts it may be of value to appreciate how they have been viewed in the past and where current research stands.
By the end of the nineteenth century the convict era was still sufficiently close to arouse concern in Australia. This was particularly true in New South Wales, which had continued to receive felons until 1840. Attempts were later made to revive transportation and a cargo of convicts was actually sent to Sydney aboard the Hashemy in 1848 only to be rejected. Memories of the demonstrations directed against this vessel lasted for long and a number of leading politicians began their careers in the anti-transportation movement. A handful of former convicts were still living in the 1880s, as were numerous descendants, some occupying positions of power and respectability. Neither they, nor other sections of the community, were anxious for attention to be drawn to the colony's origins. This became evident on a number of occasions, beginning with the 1888 centennial celebrations at which the convict influence was consciously downplayed. When, during the 1890s documents relating to the foundation years were published under government auspices, prisoners' names were omitted to avoid possible embarrassment.
Further evidence of these sensitivities appeared in 1899 when the newly-appointed Governor of New South Wales, Lord Beauchamp, referred to the colony's 'birthstain' in a message forwarded from Western Australia. An outcry ensued in which the unfortunate Beauchamp was pilloried in print and cartoon for having referred to, 'the One Forbidden Subject, to the fact that the New South Wales community is a pumpkin, a. large and succulent pumpkin, grown on a particularly nasty dung-heap'. The feelings that underlay this reaction continued to exert an influence until the Second World War. Attempts were regularly made to ensure that little reference was made to convicts. One journalist who published a popular weekly historical column for over forty years, advised contributors not to mention the Newgate Calendar and to refer to convicts as 'early settlers' or 'pioneers'. As late as 1938, when the sesqui-centenarv of white settlement was commemorated, the organising committee refused to allow convicts to be included in the Pageant of Nationhood.
Curiously enough, the references made to these people before the Second World War were generally favourable. 'Many convicts ... were sent out for trivial offences', observed one politician during a parliamentary debate in 1887. 'I think the style of convictism in those days', he went on, 'was one upon which we can afford to look very lightly now. It was not of such a deep dye as the convictism of the present day". Similar comments were made on other occasions in the press as well as in the legislature. They rested not on research but on national pride and a desire to erase a stain from the past. Considerations of this kind also influenced George Arnold Wood, the foundation Professor of History at the University of Sydney, who published an important article entitled 'Convicts' in 1922. He divided the convicts into political and social reformers, on the one hand, and offenders against the law on the other. The first were advocates of democratic change and opponents of injustice – 'convicts on account of conduct which according to modern opinion, was not bad, but good'. Their crime was to have "championed against the rule of a selfish aristocracy those democratic and national principles which have now become generally accepted'.
Law-breakers comprised a different category, for they had committed offences, principally by stealing from others. Yet, in Wood's view these offences by modern standards were minor and those who committed them were sentenced under an excessively harsh law, designed by the governing oligarchy to protect property. The real criminals were not the men and women who were transported to New South Wales, but the aristocrats who sent them.
As was to be expected of a student who had read History at Oxford under the celebrated Bishop William Stubbs, Wood had engaged in substantial original research. Yet he also believed that the historian when writing about the past should make use of his personal and political attitudes. A nonconformist by upbringing, Wood possessed a humane outlook and a commitment to liberalism that was strengthened by his admiration for Gladstone. Concern for individual rights and for the common man allied to a growing affection for Australia, influenced his attitude towards the convicts. His conclusions, far from being objective, were highly coloured. Despite this, they were supported by fellow writers including Frederick Watson, editor of the Historical Records of Australia and Eris 0'Brien, author of the first scholarly treatment of the convict system. All agreed that there was in general 'a low degree of criminality among the prisoners'.
This appraisal derived in part from the writings of the English social historians, J.L. and Barbara Hammond. Both saw crime in Britain primarily as a consequence of the poverty, suffering and social dislocation brought about by the industrial and agrarian revolutions. Convicts were basically decent men and women forced by adversity to break the law. Not everyone agreed. Outside New South Wales, in parts of Australia that had not experienced the penal system, convicts had long attracted unfavourable comment. The same was true in England, where a growing interest in imperial history resulted in the publication of a number of books on Australia. Among the best was that by the journalist A. Wyatt Tilby who, between 1908 and 1914, produced The English People Overseas in six volumes, one of which was devoted to Australasia. In it he concluded that 'the average convict transported to Australia a century ago was no more respectable a person than the average convict today'. Others were more outspoken and referred to these people as 'criminals with the appetites of beasts', or as 'debased, degenerate and diseased'.
In 1930 Tilby's conclusions received the imprimatur of Keith Hancock, then Professor of History at Adelaide University and later the doyen of Australia's historians. In his celebrated book, Australia, published in London as part of a series edited by H.A.L. Fisher, he claimed that, contrary to popular legend, 'spirited poachers and political prisoners' formed only a 'small leaven in the lump' of convicts, 'which was wretched and listless and forlorn'. Interestingly, similar views were expressed by S.H. Roberts in a Sydney Morning Herald article on January 24th, 1938. Roberts had succeeded Wood as Challis Professor of History at Sydney University in 1929 and differed sharply from his predecessor on most matters to do with history. So far as convicts were concerned he wrote:
It has been assumed that most... were cherry-stealers or poachers and that they were sent out because of an infamous penal code which acted as a trap to the poorer class of Englishman.
In fact, he observed, the majority 'were sentenced for offences that we would have severely punished'. The average transport ship bearing convicts, contained 'as pretty a collection of criminal rascality as you would get anywhere'.
These comments were made on the eve of a war that gave Australia greater assuredness and maturity, together with a more independent outlook. After 1945, the convict period appeared insignificant when measured against the fact that Australians had suffered hardship and survived a threat of invasion. The post-war influx of British migrants had no links with the convict days, which meant even less to the increasing proportion of arrivals from Continental Europe. Moreover, psychologists had long ago disproved the theory that criminal traits were hereditary, thus removing a fear underlying earlier attitudes. Even before 1945 there had been signs that concern about the convicts was waning. Despite warnings to the contrary Frederick Watson had, during the 1920s, published convicts' names in the Historical Records of Australia with no embarrassing consequences. Significantly, the decision in 1938 to exclude convicts from the sesqui-centenary celebrations had by no means been unanimous. Rather,strong opposition had developed among leading historians, literary figures and others including the celebrated artist, Norman Lindsay, who published a cartoon in the Bulletin on January 5th, 1938, ridiculing such moves. Clearly there was already a body of educated opinion which saw no reason to fear Australia's convict beginnings. After 1945, as, this era grew more remote so it came to be seen in softer hues. The descendants of convicts had once sought to conceal their origins. From at least the 1960s, concern at having a convict ancestor began to change to pride.
This shift of attitude was made more remarkable by the fact that it occurred at a time when the convicts themselves were attracting adverse comment from historians. 'Only incurable romanticism, or historical myopia', observed Professor R.M. Hartwell in 1955, 'can elevate the convict character'. This remark found support in the writings of Dr. L.L. Robson and Professors Manning Clark and A.G.L. Shaw. By researching overseas as well as in Australia and uncovering hitherto untapped sources they exposed numerous misconceptions about the convicts. Working independently of one another they reached broadly similar conclusions. Crime, they argued, in most cases was less a result of necessity than of choice. It was an occupation undertaken in preference to other forms of livelihood. This was true not only in urban England but also in agrarian Ireland. Despite the presence of political and minor offenders and the existence of a harsh penal code, the convicts in the main were hardened criminals.
Interestingly, this interpretation did not penetrate the popular mind to the extent that might have been anticipated. Journalists and film makers clung to a romantic, idealised view of the convicts, as did some sections of the community. Public perceptions of the past often lag well behind the frontiers opened by research, but in the case of convicts there was perhaps also a reluctance to face unpalatable facts. Some attempts were, indeed, made to refute the findings of academics. The Irish ambassador, T.J. Kiernan, espoused the cause of his countrymen and, after examining convicts transported from Ireland before 1816, concluded that they were the victims of oppression. Others, while agreeing that rule by an alien power created hatreds and undermined respect for the law, nevertheless considered Kiernan to have been unduly partisan. Later research has suggested that little difference existed between Irish and English convicts so far as the nature and extent of their criminality was concerned.
The Irish were not the only convicts to be singled out for special attention. Tasmanians have devoted much attention to the penal system in what was formerly Van Diemen's Land. Professor George Rude, noted for his pioneering work on revolutionary crowds, extended its scope by investigating the political offenders who were sent to eastern Australia. They had always been accepted as a distinct group of higher quality than the remaining convicts. Rude confirmed this view and gave it real substance. More controversial was a second category of convict, namely the females. Contemporaries condemned them as being no better than prostitutes, and later historians while accepting this label did so for the most part without testing its validity. The emergence of a feminist movement during the 1970s for the first time focused detailed attention on women convicts, but from an ideological standpoint. They were used as evidence of how women were exploited and degraded by a male-dominated society from the outset. This appraisal has recently been challenged, resulting in a new view of the females as a respectable, and by no means servile, downtrodden element. They are now seen as having contributed in positive ways to the shaping of society and the formation of family life.
The books that appeared on Irish and female prisoners showed that there was still disagreement about the convicts. This was further illustrated by two major pieces of writing which coincided with the bicentennial celebrations of 1988. First was the best-selling book, The Fatal Shore by the Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes. It presented a highly readable, if somewhat sensational account of convict life, and a human but generally condemnatory picture of those who were exposed to it. Second was Convict Workers to which a number of Australian historians contributed. It presented the convicts as belonging less to a criminal subculture than to an itinerant work force that spread throughout the new world during the nineteenth century. Convicts possessed personal qualities, skills and opportunities greater than those of many free labourers and contributed in significant ways to the development of eastern Australia. These conclusions, while possessing pre-war overtones, went well beyondanything previously attempted both in terms of argument and research. Yet the book omitted convicts who had arrived before 1817, made sweeping claims that appeared to warrant fuller testing and over-reacted against views that were current during the 1960s. If the debate had been swung back in an earlier direction it was clearly still not fully resolved.
Indeed, despite all that has been written on the convicts there are avenues of enquiry that have scarcely been explored. One criticism levelled against most historians is that they have presented too static a picture. Their conclusions have not adequately recognised the possibility that changes in British society and the penal law may have produced variations in the characteristics of the convicts. Some attempt has been made to examine this problem, particularly in connection with the relatively small batch of convicts who were sent as labourers to Western Australia at the request of the government between 1850 and 1868. It has been shown that their quality did change over a period of time with the result that generalisation about the whole group becomes difficult. They were very different to the mainstream of convicts, however, and conclusions about them could not be applied to those sent to the eastern colonies.
A second problem arises from undue concentration on the British background to the convicts. Recent specialist studies, which have concentrated on a single shipload of prisoners, have underlined the need to look not simply at what they were like before arriving, but also at how they behaved while under sentence and after receiving their pardons. When this is done a more rounded picture emerges that enables firmer judgements to be made. Research into penal society in New South Wales, has revealed that the incidence of crime, drunkenness, violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour was no greater than in many English towns and cities. This in turn raises new questions about the quality of the convicts. If they were as depraved as was once suggested, why was this not reflected in the community that existed in New South Wales? Had the convicts been reformed, did the opportunity to make a decent living change their ways, or were they in fact of higher quality than was once supposed?
Questions still abound and given that much material awaits close examination it seems certain that debates will continue. Despite disagreement as to the degree of criminality among Australia's convict pioneers, however, the overall picture has gained greatly in depth and substance. The caricatures produced by political idealism and national sensitivity have acquired human dimensions that allow them to be seen in rounded terms as products of their age. Much more research is needed before their lives can be fully documented, but the indications are that most settled permanently and contributed to practically every field of endeavour ranging from the mundane to the creative. Certainly it would be unwise to be dismissive of them or to assume that they adversely affected the development of Australia. This was recognised long ago by English historians who, while critical of convicts and the penal era, conceded that its long-term consequences were not harmful. Wyatt Tilby cogently expressed awidespread view in Britain when he observed that 'The transportation period is no more the history of Australia than the Newgate Calendar is the history of England'.
Brian H. Fletcher is Bicentennial Professor of Australian History at the University of Sydney.
- M. Gillen, The Founders of Australia (Sydney, 1989)
- T.J. Kiernan, Transportation from Ireland to Sydney 1791-1816 (Canberra, 1954)
- S. Nicholas, (ed), Convict Workers, Reinterpreting Australia's Past (Cambridge, 1988)
- P. O'Farrell, The Irish in Australia (Sydney, 1987)
- P. Robinson, The Women of Botany Bay (Sydney, 1987)
- L.L. Robson, The Convict Settlers of Australia (Melbourne, 1966)
- G. Rude, Protest and Punishment (Oxford, 1978)
- A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies (London, 1966)
- B. Smith, A Cargo of Women (Sydney, 1988)
- M. Sturma, Vice in a Vicious Society (St. Lucia, 1983)
- M. Tipping, Convicts Unbound (Melbourne, 1988)
- I.A. Wood, 'Convicts', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 8, pt. 4, 1922
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology