Penal transportation was employed as a labour mobilisation device across the Western Empires from 1415 to the dismantling of the French Bagne in Guiana in 1953. It is the British, however, who remain the colonial power most associated with the practice, and the role that penal labour played in the colonisation of Australia is particularly well known (Anderson and Maxwell-Stewart, 2014). Between 1787 and 1868, a total of 164,000 convicts were landed in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia — 43% of the 380,000 estimated to have been transported within the British Empire in the period 1615-1939 (Anderson, 2016).
The decision to despatch the First Fleet to Australia in 1787 was made in the wake of the 1783 British defeat in America. As it became clear that the newly-formed United States would block any further imports of convict labour, a series of alternative schemes were explored for deploying prisoners sentenced to transportation elsewhere in the wider Atlantic. In the early 1780s, a small number were sent to West Africa to man slave forts, although this experiment was abandoned following news of high death rates and lobbying from slaving interests. The alternative to transportation was to house convicts in a system of purpose built penitentiaries along the lines advocated by Jeremy Bentham. Despite its distance from the metropole, the British government decided instead to send convicts half way round the world and establish the remote colony of New South Wales (Christopher and Maxwell-Stewart, 2014).
Penal transportation meant more than just exile. For the duration of their sentence, convicts were under government control. How convict labour was organised became a defining feature of different colonial regimes. Transportation to Australia can be split into three phases: the first spanning the years from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1787 until the publication of the Bigge Report in 1822; the second lasting until the abolition of transportation to New South Wales in 1840; and the last culminating with the arrival of the last convict vessel in Fremantle Western Australia in January 1868.
In many ways convicts in early colonial Australia were surprisingly free. Contrary to British law, convicts could hold property, use the courts, and generally function as citizens (Kercher, 1995). Colonial custom quickly placed limits on the rights that the Crown had in convict labour. After government hours the prisoners' time was restored to them and they were free to work for wages until the official start of the next day and did not commence again until sunrise on the Monday morning (Dyster, 1988). Convicts were encouraged to work after government hours in the private sector to pay for their lodgings.
Before the completion of Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney in 1819 there was little government accommodation for prisoners, most of whom rented rooms in the private sector. In the first three decades of settlement it was also common to provide former convicts freedom dues meaning land grants and their own access to convict labour, mirroring seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic practice. In some North American colonies time-expired indentured servants were provided with blocks of land of between twenty and eighty acres (Ekirch, 1990). Archaeological evidence suggests that the communities of serving and former convicts living in Sydney’s Rocks district enjoyed a higher standard of living than working-class Britons. They ate a diet that was richer in protein and some possessed Chinese imported porcelain and other luxury items (Karskens, 1999).
The early governors understood that property rights in convict labour had been assigned to them and that they had the authority to both pardon prisoners and to transfer those property rights to others. Accordingly, they provided the colony’s early farmers with convict labour in the hope that this would enable them to become more productive. By 1815, the private deployment of convict labour had become established practice.
Following the discovery of the Bass Strait, a second British colony was founded in Van Diemen’s Land in 1803. The customs and practices established in New South Wales were quickly extended to the new settlement although the numbers of transported convicts remained low. Conviction rates in Britain soared, however, in the wake of the post-Napoleonic War demobilisation of the army and navy, and the number of convicts arriving in Australia increased. Worried about the financial implications, the British government set up an enquiry to investigate ways of cutting costs. The resulting Bigge Report recommended a number of changes designed to ensure that transportation was both feared by the British working class and cheap enough to keep the taxpayer happy. These developments set the scene for the peak era of transportation. Armed with a financially viable and dreaded alternative, law reform in the 1820s and 1830s retrenched the death penalty in favour of transportation and the numbers exiled skyrocketed.
Most of the recommended colonial reforms hinged on expanding the use of the private sector, rather than investing in public infrastructure (Maxwell-Stewart, 2010). After 1822, the policy of granting small blocks of land to time-expired convicts was discontinued and instead, to encourage free settlers, grants of crown land were only provided to migrants who could demonstrate that they possessed at least £500. Each settler was entitled to the services of one convict for every hundred acres received. Rather than swelling the ranks of the government gangs in Sydney and Hobart, the bulk of the colony’s convict workforce were now "assigned" to landholders and business owners who were charged with clothing, housing and feeding their unfree charges. The policy was designed to promote the production of fine wool, lessening the dependency of the British textile industry on imports from the European continent, while simultaneously saving money (Atkinson, 2004: 16).
Most assigned convicts worked without restraint and were for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from other members of the colonial lower orders. Those that escaped further encounters with the courts could expect to be rewarded after a number of years’ service with a ticket-of-leave. This indulgence operated as a form of probation, enabling the recipient to work for wages. It was also common practice to reward good service with early release in the form of a conditional pardon.
While convict Australia remained remarkably unencumbered by prison walls and other physical means of restraint, a system of government-run sites of punishment was developed in the wake of the Bigge Report. These included gangs where convicts worked under the supervision of overseers who were often prisoners themselves. Convicts in some gangs were placed in leg-irons — a common punishment for those charged with attempting to abscond. A bench of two or more magistrates was also empowered to send a convict to a penal station. Those sentenced to transportation in the Supreme Court or Court of Quarter Session were also routinely removed to these sites of ultra-punishment. A series of penal stations were opened up across New South Wales and Van Diemen’s land in the years 1821-1830. Located in remote areas, convicts detailed or sentenced to these sites were invariably shipped by sea. In effect, the practice constituted a transportation system within a transportation system.
This system was underpinned by elaborate record keeping. Each convict was described in detail on disembarkation in Australia. Thereafter, a summary of every encounter with a colonial court was entered under the convict’s name in a centralised system of punishment registers. Information about the awarding of indulgences and certificates of freedom were advertised in the colonial press, together with descriptions of runaways. Convicts were subjected to levels of surveillance that were unusual in early nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland. Australian record systems were amongst the first in the Anglophone world, for example, to adopt unique identifiers in an attempt to track individuals over their life course (Maxwell-Stewart, 2016).
Analysis of data for convicts in Van Diemen’s Land reveals that the rate at which convicts were prosecuted varied according to local labour market conditions. When the cost of feeding and clothing a convict rose, the number of prisoners sentenced to hard labour on the public works also increased. This had the effect of shifting the cost of maintenance onto the government. Convicts with skills that were in colonial demand were also less likely to be punished than unskilled shipmates (Maxwell-Stewart, 2015).
While the use of convict labour in Australia was exploitative, it also exhibited features more commonly associated with the rise of the penitentiary. The rate of flogging for example declined sharply in the 1820s, predating the reductions in the use of physical punishment in the army and British factories by a decade. The decline in the use of the lash was accompanied by an increase in sentences to solitary confinement and the treadwheel. (Edmonds and Maxwell-Stewart, 2016).
Rather than being deployed in gangs and penal stations, female convicts sentenced by courts to further punishment were sent to houses of correction, colloquially known as "female factories". Women in these institutions were divided into a number of classes separating those regarded as suitable for reassignment to settlers from those undergoing various grades of punishment labour.
Whilst relatively few male Juveniles under the age of eighteen arrived in Van Diemen’s Land, as compared to their adult counterparts, there were still difficulties in assigning them to free settlers. Largely as a result of this, a juvenile penal settlement was established in 1834, named Point Puer, next to the Port Arthur penal station. Point Puer, unlike Port Arthur, was not a place of secondary punishment. While there was a crime class, it was also hoped that the juveniles would be reformed there. Not only were they educated with both secular and religious training, but also the settlement consisted of workshops for trade training. By 1849, when Point Puer was closed, around 3,500 juveniles had passed through it. The ages of these young convicts varied from ten to twenty years, but the majority were aged between fifteen and seventeen.
Both secular and religious training were considered the very basis of the reforming process. In the earlier period (1834-1837), instruction consisted of plain reading, writing and basic arithmetic. The Lancastrian System (a monitorial system whereby pupils taught other pupils) was only implemented in the late 1830s and inevitably education was limited by exposure to it. As well as often inadequate space, supplies were also limited. Nevertheless, there was an effort made to educate these juvenile convicts to ready them for colonial life – even if sometimes practice fell short of expectations.
One major difference in the treatment at Point Puer, from that of Port Arthur, was the early emphasis on trade training. Training included carpentry, shoemaking, tailoring, blacksmithing and work as a sawyer. This training scheme expanded over the years to include, for example, boat building and stone masonry. Other boys were employed in general positions which included washermen and labourers to help run the establishment. Not all juveniles at the establishment benefitted from the opportunity of learning a trade. Their behaviour and educational progress were directly related to entering the trade class. There were also various practical limitations – including lacking the necessary materials.
For many contemporary observers, Point Puer was a remarkable experiment, as David Burn questioned: “how many of England’s poor but virtuous children would be overjoyed with the full provisions, excellent lodging, and comfortable clothing…beneficial instruction – of Point Puer!”. Yet, these juveniles were still convicts and were punished as such. The seven step hierarchy of punishment implemented to regulate the juvenile convict behaviour, as described by Horne in 1843, began with varying degrees of separate confinement to corporal punishment (to the extent of thirty-six lashes) to lastly, for the very worst, being transferred to the adult penal station of Port Arthur.
Point Puer was a pioneer of the juvenile justice system, but it soon fell behind reformers' expectations in terms of education and treatment. Nonetheless, as pointed out by Lempriere in 1839, the aims of Point Puer were to give juvenile convicts the opportunity of “learning a trade, of enabling them at a future period to earn a respectable livelihood”. Therefore, while not the initial instigator, and while its successes are questionable, successful rehabilitation became a long-term goal. With fewer juvenile convicts arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, Point Puer closed in 1849.
As the Australian economy grew, reports of high colonial living standards led some metropolitan critics of transportation to question its deterrent value. Others criticised the manner in which the experience of convicts under sentence in Australia reflected the caprice of individual masters, rather than the severity of the offence for which they had been transported. There was also continued criticism of the physical nature of colonial punishment regimes: sentences to hard labour on the roads in and out of chains remained common despite the decline in the use of the lash.
An influential inquiry into penal transportation to the Australian colonies chaired by William Molesworth issued its report in 1838. This recommended the abolition of transportation. A feature of the report was the manner in which it highlighted the similarities between the suffering of convicts and slaves. The report also argued that transportation corrupted colonial life through its reliance on violence and a failure to check the alleged homosexual proclivities of criminals (Meyering, 2010).
A parsimonious government once more baulked at the financial implications of constructing an alternative home-based penitentiary programme and instead compromised. Transportation to New South Wales was abandoned and, while convicts continued to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land, the way in which their labour was deployed was reorganised in order to bring it more into line with the principles of prison management advocated by British and Irish penal reformers. In future, all newly-arrived convicts would have to serve a probationary term of labour within the public sector, the duration of which was determined by the length of the sentence imposed upon them by a British or Irish court. Service in the private sector was conditional on the successful completion of this first stage. Even then settlers had to purchase the labour of convicts, albeit at minimal rates (see Convict Labour Contracts).
The probation system proved unpopular from the start. Its introduction served little to address the concerns of metropolitan critics of transportation while considerably increasing colonial opposition. The probation stations were expensive to build and maintain. As well as constructing roads and other public sector infrastructure, the labour of convicts was used to cultivate grain in direct competition to the private sector. At the same time, the reduction in assigned servants drove up labour costs. Shocked by the manner in which the 1838 Parliamentary inquiry had depicted colonial society, colonial opposition mounted. The proliferation in the number of same-sex institutions was particularly criticised as providing fertile ground for the spread of homosexual vice (Gilchrist, 2004).
In an attempt to address these concerns, the British government moved to integrate metropolitan and colonial penal systems. After 1842, it became increasingly common for convicts sentenced to transportation to serve part of their sentence in Millbank, Parkhurst or Pentonville penitentiaries. There they were subjected to separate treatment, a form of sensory deprivation which strictly limited contact between inmates. Separate prisons were also constructed in Australian penal stations with the intension of curbing refractory behaviour amongst the "worst" of the colonial convicts. Other convicts were transported first to Bermuda and Gibraltar before being forwarded to the Australian colonies to complete the final stages of their sentence. From the mid-1840s, they were joined by others who served the bulk of their sentence in Britain before being landed in the colonies, sometimes already equipped with conditional pardons.
Dubbed "Pentonvillains", nearly 2,000 such former penitentiary inmates were despatched to Port Phillip in the years 1844-1849. There were also attempts to use this form of penal migration to land convicts in the Cape Colony and reintroduce transportation to New South Wales. The shift in policy was accompanied by a decline in the use of hulks as holding depots for convicts awaiting transportation in Britain. In 1839, over two thirds of all male convicts sentenced to transportation in English and Scottish courts were accommodated in hulks. By 1847, this had declined to under a third as the new penitentiaries at Parkhurst and Pentonville came on line. By the mid-1840s, a sizeable proportion of the remaining hulk population consisted of convicts considered too unfit to be transported or to undergo the rigours associated with confinement in the new penitentiaries (McConville, 1981: 198-201).
The changes did little to appease colonial opposition to transportation. The attempt to land convicts in the Cape failed in the face of determined settler resistance (McKenzie, 2004). Similar anti-transportation demonstrations were held in Sydney, Launceston and Hobart. An embryonic Australian trade union movement increased its opposition to transportation. Even under the probation system, the difference in wages paid to passholder convicts employed in the private sector and free labour was sufficient to impact on working-class standards of living, and the emancipist population of ex-convicts were prominent among those seeking to protect their interests as freed workers (Maxwell-Stewart et al, 2015). Transportation to the Port Phillip District ceased in 1849 and to Van Diemen’s Land in 1853.
A shortage of labour in Western Australia meant that colonial opposition to continued transportation was not universal. Between 1850 and 1868, a further 9,000 convicts were landed in that colony. Around a quarter of these held tickets-of-leave on landing, having spent the bulk of their sentence in a British or Irish penitentiary or the hulk establishments in Bermuda or Gibraltar. These were sent to work direct for private settlers (Godfrey and Cox, 2008). All others were processed through the prison barracks in Fremantle before being distributed out to a system of work gangs before graduating to a hiring depot. Transportation to Western Australia ended with the cessation of imperial funding, a move which coincided with the closure of the British offshore hulk establishments in Bermuda and Gibraltar (Gibbs, 2001). The last convict vessel , The Hougoumont, arrived in Fremantle in January 1868, exactly 80 years after the First Fleet landed.
This page was written by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (on Australian penal colonies) and Emma Watkins (on Point Puer), with additional contributions by the Digital Panopticon project team.