Penal Colonies

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Penal Colonies
& Convict Society


Chain Gang Colonial Australia

January 26, 1788

The first 736 convicts banished from England to Australia landed in Botany Bay on January 26, 1788. Over the next 60 years, approximately 50,000 criminals were transported from Great Britain to the "land down under," in one of the strangest episodes in criminal-justice history.

The accepted wisdom of the upper and ruling classes in 18th century England was that criminals were inherently defective. Thus, they could not be rehabilitated and simply required separation from the genetically pure and law-abiding citizens. Accordingly, lawbreakers had to be either killed or exiled, since prisons were too expensive.

It was "the scum of people, and wicked and condemned men"—and women—who made up the cargo of the criminal transports found in the Southern Ocean in the New Year of 1788. It would not have consoled the condemned on those wind-tossed mornings as they stirred and complained in their 18 inches of space on the convict decks that, uniquely placed as they were, they were also part of a long European tradition of transporting the unfortunate and the fallen, beginning with Cromwell's transportation of many Irish peasants, sent as labour to the plantations of the West Indies, and progressing to the 1656 order of the Council of State that lewd and dangerous persons should be hunted down "for transporting them to the English plantations in America." With the American victory in the Revolutionary War, transgressors could no longer be shipped off across the Atlantic, and the English looked for a colony in the other direction.

The men and women surviving on flapjacks and desiccated salted beef and pease—a porridge of compacted peas—in the great Southern Ocean convict flotilla in 1788 owed their location to the pressure on British prison populations A new Transportation Act in 1780 had sought to make transportation more obligatory than it had been up to that point.

The offences for which a prisoner could be transported under the accumulated Transportation Acts of Britain made up an exotic catalogue:

  • Quakers who denied any oath to be lawful, or assembled themselves together under pretence of joining in religious worship.

  • Notorious thieves and takers of spoil in the borderlands of Northumberland and Cumberland, commonly called "moss-troopers" and "reivers."

  • Persons found guilty of stealing cloth from the rack, or embezzling His Majesty's stores to the value of twenty shillings.

  • Persons convicted of wilfully burning ricks of corn, hay, or barns in the nighttime (crimes generally associated with peasant protest against a landlord).

  • Persons convicted of larceny and other offences.

  • Persons convicted of entering into any park and killing or wounding any deer without the consent of the owner.

  • Persons convicted of perjury and forgery.

  • Persons imprisoned for exporting wool and not paying the excise on it.

  • Persons convicted of assaulting others with offensive weapons with the design to rob.

  • Vagrants or vagabonds escaping from a house of correction or from service in the army or navy.

  • Persons convicted of stealing any linen laid to be printed or bleached.

  • Ministers of the Episcopal Church of Scotland suspected of support for Bonnie Prince Charlie, exercising their functions in Scotland wiithout having registered their letters of orders, taken all oaths, and prayed for His Majesty and the Royal Family by name.

  • Persons returning from transportation without licence.

  • Persons convicted of entering mines of black-lead with intent to steal.

  • Persons convicted of assaulting any magistrate or officer engaged in the salvage of ships or goods from wrecks.

  • Persons convicted of stealing fish in any water within a park, paddock, orchard or yard.

Captain Arthur Phillip, a tough but fair career naval officer, was charged with setting up the first penal colony in Australia. The convicts were chained beneath the deck during the entire hellish six-month voyage. The first voyage claimed the lives of nearly 10 percent of the prisoners, which remarkably proved to be a rather good rate. On later trips, up to a third of the unwilling passengers died on the way. These were not hardened criminals by any measure; only a small minority were transported for violent offenses. Among the first group was a 70-year-old woman who had stolen cheese to eat.

Although not confined behind bars, most convicts in Australia had an extremely tough life. The guards who volunteered for duty in Australia seemed to be driven by exceptional sadism. Even small violations of the rules could result in a punishment of 100 lashes by the cat o'nine tails. It was said that blood was usually drawn after five lashes and convicts ended up walking home in boots filled with their own blood--that is, if they were able to walk at all.

Convicts who attempted to escape were sent to tiny Norfolk Island, 600 miles east of Australia, where the conditions were even more inhumane. The only hope of escape from the horror of Norfolk Island was a "game" in which groups of three prisoners drew straws. The short straw was killed as painlessly as possible and a judge was then shipped in to put the other two on trial, one playing the role of killer, the other as witness.


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