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.

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