01 October 2007

Crime & Punishment:
Convicts To Australia

By Anne Whitfield

Due to overcrowding in their own jails, the British used North America as a Penal Colony through the system of indentured servants. Most notably, the Province of Georgia was originally designed as a penal colony. It is estimated that some 50,000 British convicts were banished to colonial America, representing perhaps one-quarter of all British emigrants during the eighteenth century.

After the American Revolution (1780s), Britain had to look elsewhere to rid itself of the criminal overcrowding.

Captain Cook's discovery of 'a new southern land' created much interest in England and once they had lost America, the New Holland (Australian) continent looked a likely place to build another penal colony.

In 13 May 1787, the first fleet of 11 ships sailed from England under the command of Capt. Arthur Phillip. They reached Botany Bay on 18 January 1788 with 1530 people, 736 of them convicts.

The most recorded convict sentence was seven or fourteen years' penal servitude, or "for the term of their natural lives". Not all the criminals were murders and pickpockets. Sadly, most of the crimes committed were small and trivial 'mistakes' - Out of work fathers stealing bread to feed their starving children, women selling their bodies to survive, Irish political protesters, abandoned children stealing to eat, etc.

Once landed at penal colony, convicts would be assigned to various kinds of work, road building, carpentry, etc. Female convicts could be assigned as domestic servants to the free settlers.

These free settlers would be responsible for feeding and disciplining them; in return for this, the settlers were granted land. This system reduced the workload on the central administration. Those convicts not assigned to settlers were housed at barracks such as the Hyde Park Barracks or the Parramatta Female Factory.

Punishment for bad behaviour included flogging, leg-irons, hard labour in working gangs, limited rations and isolation. Some convicts refused to obey the law and escaped, often becoming outlaws (bushrangers) in the wild untamed countryside (bush) that covered the eastern side of the Australia.

Most convicts went on to be model citizens, who made great achievements and contributions to the fledgling new society that later became the nation of Australia.

A convict song, sung aboard the ships that took them half way around the world.

'Botany Bay'
Farewell to Old England forever

Farewell to my old pals as well
Farewell to the well known Old Bailey
Where I once used to be such a swell
Where I once used to be such a swell.

Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ad-di-ty,
Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ay,
Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ad-di-ty
Oh we are bound for Botany Bay
Oh we are bound for Botany Bay.

There's the captain as is our commandeer,
There's bo'sun and all the ship's crew
There's first and the second class passengers,
Knows what we poor convicts goes through
Knows what we poor convicts goes through.


'Taint leaving Old England we cares about,
'Taint 'cos we misspells wot we knows
But becos all we light finger'd gentry
Hop's around with a log on our toes.
Hop's around with a log on our toes.


Oh had I the wings of a turtle-dove,
I'd soar on my pinions so high,
Slap bang to the arms of my Polly love,
And in her sweet presence I'd die
And in her sweet presence I'd die.


Now all my young Dookies and Duchesses,
Take warning from what I've to say,
Mind all is your own as you touch-es-es,
Or you'll find us in Botany Bay,
Or you'll find us in Botany Bay.

The British government might have been thinking at the time that they were getting rid of their worst citizens, little did they know that their small penal colony would grow to be a great nation!

Some books on Australian history:
A Concise History of Australia by Stuart Macintyre
The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia's founding by Robert Hughes

So, what questions do you have for me about Australia or its history?