Penal Colonies

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Moreton Bay
Penal Establishment

Windmill Hanging, Moreton Bay Penal Establishment

Windmill Hanging, Moreton Bay Penal Establishment

Beneath the urbane facade of Queensland's capital, Brisbane, the ghosts of one of Australia's most brutal convict settlements can still be seen and felt.

With much historical emphasis placed on Australia's original convict settlement in Sydney and Tasmania's notorious Port Arthur prison, many don't realise, or have forgotten, that Brisbane was founded on the backs, blood and sweat of some of the worst convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land.

By the early 1820s, just shy of four decades after the landing of the first fleet in Botany Bay, Sydney's penal colony was bursting at the seams. The settlement of New South Wales needed a new place to house its more recalcitrant convicts, and the wild tropical wilderness 900 miles to the north seemed as good a place as any to send the worst of the worst.

In 1824 the first penal settlement was established at Redcliffe Point on Moreton Bay, but this site was soon abandoned for one slightly inland on the banks of what would be named the Brisbane River, where the city's central business district (CBD) now stands.

To this site the convicts were shipped and Brisbane Town (named for the then-governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane) was established. The Moreton Bay penal colony quickly gained a reputation as one of the harshest in the country, home not only to the worst of the criminals, but the worst of the commandants, Captain Patrick Logan. Captain Logan was appointed in 1826 and quickly gained a reputation as the cruellest commandant in the colonies, hated by convicts and soldiers alike.

But for all his reputation as a harsh disciplinarian, Logan was also an explorer and an adventurer and it was his forays into the surrounding wilderness that led to the discovery of stores of lime, wood and fertile agricultural plains, which were mined and cultivated by the convicts for export to Sydney. Convicts also worked at constructing buildings throughout the burgeoning town, most from a material called Brisbane tuff, a hard and attractive volcanic rock. By 1828, 693 convicts were housed in the Brisbane colony.

Logan's adventurous nature (and perhaps his cruelty) eventually led him to pay the ultimate price when he was killed in a skirmish with local Aborigines in 1830. In 1839 the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement was closed and in 1842 the area was opened up to free settlers.

Today there is little remaining physical evidence of the dark days of Brisbane's birth. When the town was opened to free settlement, settlers no longer wanted a reminder of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement and most convict-built structures were torn down. Even the stately, giant Moreton Bay fig trees, which originally graced the city, were uprooted. They had been used as flogging trees, where it was common to receive 100 lashes for "crimes" such as looking the wrong way or having a bad attitude.

Today only two buildings remain.

The Old Windmill in Wickham Terrace originally operated as a treadmill. Today you cannot go inside the windmill, but a visit is included in most Brisbane tours.

The Commissariat Store on the banks of the Brisbane River in William Street was originally used to provide supplies to the British army. The building was also the site of Brisbane's first post office and immigration depot. The Commissariat now houses the Royal Historical Society of Queensland and features a museum of convict displays and a library open to the public from 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Sunday. Admission is free.

Brisbane's penal history also includes two other major sites.

Located in the middle of shark-infested Moreton Bay, about three miles from the mouth of the Brisbane River, St Helena Island was used as a high-security prison from 1867 until 1932. The island received its name from a local Aborigine known as Napoleon who was exiled to the island in 1928. (The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was also exiled to an island known as St Helena.) Unlike his namesake, however, Brisbane's Napoleon managed to escape custody. The island became almost self-sufficient, with prisoners growing and even exporting their own food. The island's convict-grown produce even won numerous awards at agricultural shows, both in Australia and overseas. At one stage of its operation, St Helena was considered the best prison of its kind in the world.

The Moreton Bay penal settlement closed in 1842, and its final months saw a struggle for power between surveyor Robert Dixon and Governor Gipps. Dixon was using some convicts to complete a trigonometric survey of the area but Gipps recalled the men. The resulting conflict ended Dixon's promising career and resulted in Gipps being displaced.

Below are the words to one of the best known Australian convict ballads. After the cruel Captain Patrick Logan met his death at the hands of a party of Aboriginal hunters, he was found buried face downwards in a shallow grave—"Looking at Hell, where he was surely bound". The convicts at Moreton Bay went nearly insane with joy at the news of his death.

I am a native of the land of Erin,
and lately banished from that lovely shore;
I left behind my aged parents
and the girl I did adore.
In transient storms as I set sailing,
like mariner bold my course did streer;
Sydney Harbour was my destination——

That cursed place at length drew near,
I then joined a banquet in congratulations
on my safe arrival from that briny sea;
But, alas, I was mistaken—-
Twelve years transportation to Moreton bay.
Early one morning as I carelessly wandered,
by the Brisbane waters I chanced to stray;
I saw a prisoner badly bewailing,
whilst on the sunlit banks he lay.

He said, "I've been a prisoner at Port Macquarie,
At Norfolk Island, and Emu Plains;
As Castle Hill and cursed Toongabbie—
at all those places I've worked in chains,
but of all the places of condemnation,
in each penal station of New South Wales,
Moreton Bay I found no equal,
for excessive tyranny each day prevails.

Early in the morning, as the day is dawning,
to trace from heaven the morning dew,
up we started at a moment's warning
our daily labour to renew.
Our overseers and superintendants—-
these tyrants' orders we must obey,
or else at the triangles our flesh is mangled—-
such are our wages at Moreton bay!

For three long years I've been beastly treated;
heavy irons each day I wore;
my poor back from flogging has been lacerated,
and oft-times painted with crimson gore.
Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews,
we were sorely oppressed by Logan's yoke,
till kindly providence came to our assistance,
and gave this tyrant his fatal stroke.

Yes, he was hurried from that place of bondage
where he thought he would gain renown;
but a native black, who lay in ambush,
gave this monster his fatal wound.
Fellow prisoners be exhilerated;
your former sufferings you will not mind,
for it's when from bondage you are extricated
you'll leave such tyrants far behind!

The convict poet who composed this song, Francis MacNamara aka Frank the Poet, was transported from Ireland to Australia aged 21 in 1832, he died in Mudgee, NSW in 1961. He wrote many poems and songs but only one was published in his lifetime.


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