What Actually Happened To Prisoners Sent To Australia? – In 150 AD astronomer and mapmaker Claudius Ptolemy was troubled by the current maps of the world. While contrary to popular belief, most people already knew the world was round well before Christopher Columbus, when Ptolemy looked a this maps he had a thought- surely so that the world doesn’t topple over from the massive weight of the European, African, and Asian continents, there must lie an as-yet undiscovered land somewhere below the Indian Ocean.
This land would become known as Terra Australis Incognita, or unknown southern land. For centuries after, Europeans tried to find this hypothesized southern land, which they expected to be filled with vast quantities of gold and treasure because, sure, why not? They thought the same thing about South America after all, and well, after a whole bunch of murder we guess they weren’t really wrong about that.
Yet despite their best efforts, Europeans kept missing the Australian land mass, or in some cases, actually ran right into its shores but misidentified it. Of course this whole time there were already people living in Australia. Around 60,000 years ago humans migrated south through India, Malaysia, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, and then to Timor. There is no archaeological evidence that humans had made canoes or boats yet at this time, and it’s believed that a tsunami might have possibly swept the first human colonizers of Australia out to sea and then dumped them on the reclusive continent’s shore.
Thousands of years ago though Indonesian sailors, who were some of the most prolific in the world, made contact with their long-lost cousins and made brief, but inconsequential contact. If we’re being honest, they probably found a land full of murder beasts where every living thing is venomous or poisonous and decided, nah, we’re good, before going home- because that’s the only appropriate response to someone inviting you to live in Australia.
Because there’s something inherently suicidal about Europeans though, when they discovered Australia back in 1606, they took one look at the over 300 venomous species of animals living in Australia and thought to themselves, yep- home sweet home. Unsurprisingly, given its native population of animals that can kill you on dry land,in the ocean, in the trees, and in your own home, colonization of this distant colony was less than appealing for many people.
Luckily though, countries like England had a brilliant solution. Late in the 18th century, Britain had just lost the American war for independence, though it would be more accurate to say that they simply stopped fighting it rather than the colonists won it. If Britain had really wanted to, it could have absolutely crushed the American rebels-on the plus side, Americans would at least be able to afford health care today.
Without the American colonies though, Britain no longer had a convenient place to ship off its undesirables, or all the criminals that it had convicted of crimes and handed down the sentence of ‘Transportation’ to. Transportation was basically a seven year sentence to get out of town, and as the world grew to frown upon the death penalty, it became an increasingly appealing sentence.
Who wound up sentenced to transportation was really up to individual judges, though the British government certainly encouraged the sentencing as it was facing a very serious problem. Turns out that sailing for months on end to go live in a land full of murder beasts simply wasn’t very appealing for colonists, and all the British traders and plantation owners that had made the trip to Australia were in dire straights in term of manpower.
The potential of the land was huge, few other powers had made any sizable claims to it,and it was so distant that it simply wasn’t lucrative for most European powers to hold colonies there. For the British though and their ever-increasingly global empire, Australia was well within reach of ports in India, China, and Singapore. Back in jolly old England, the Industrial Revolution had lured millions of poor people from remote farms to the cities, in hopes of getting jobs working in one of the many factories that sprung up on a nearly daily basis.
Unfortunately even with industry rapidly growing, there simply wasn’t enough work to go around,and this resulted in giant communities of the poor who lived in truly squalid and disgusting conditions. Crime soared and pretty soon, British prisons were at capacity. Full prisons though gave British leadership a brilliant idea- sitting right there in their jail cells was a vast workforce that they could pay little to no money to and force to go to the remote ends of the earth and further expand the British empire.
While serious crimes such as murder and rape were typically punished by death, other offenses were often met with one-way transportation to faraway places, including Australia. Transportation could be handed out as a sentence for anything less than the death penalty,and some of the offenses charged with transportation were truly minor. For instance, you could be sentenced to seven years hard labor in Australia- travel time not included- for stealing a single shilling, or an average day’s wage.
Being an equal-opportunity oppressor, the British government didn’t exempt women from trips to the land down under, and could get their ticket on the next boat out for habitual tardiness at work, or public drunkenness. Sentences were mostly supposed to be for seven years, but the reality behind the rigor of being transported there, and facing the prospect of returning to England penniless meant that most convicts simply chose to stay.
That wouldn’t be so bad, as long as you don’t mind never seeing your family again, or if it weren’t for the fact that people convicted of capital crimes who were supposed to face the death sentence often had their sentences commuted down to a trip to Australia. Pretty soon thousands of prisoners were being put on a luxury eight month cruise to Australia courtesy of the British government. Just kidding, the conditions for these prisoners were only a smidge better than those of slaves in the Atlantic slave trade and many died over the course of a six to eight-month long voyage.
Also, your roommate could very well have been a rapist or a murderer. In 1788 the First Fleet landed in New South Wales on January 26th, bringing 1,500 colonists made up of military personnel, traders, and hundreds of convicts for what was basically slave labor. It had only managed to lose 10% of its colonists in the transit, and this it turns out was a rather impressive safety record.
In subsequent trips as much as a third of all colonists died. Unlike America, Australia proved to be a much more difficult place to settle and grow crops in. The land was largely arid, and thus farming efforts fared rather poorly. Food was constantly in short supply and convicts typically got the short end of the stick on that one. However, conditions for their caretakers were hardly any better, and life in Australia was very difficult.
To make matters worse for the colonists, the guards that oversaw their penal colonies had been people who volunteered for the task, and this had drawn in a large number of very sadistic individuals. Technically plantation owners and traders could not punish their convict workforce themselves,and instead a convict was supposed to be taken before a magistrate who would try and mete out punishment according to the law.
In reality, the guards that oversaw these early forced colonists often brutally took punishment into their own hands. Even small rule infractions could be met with 100 lashes by a cat o’nine tails, a particularly sadistic tool of punishment made up of a whip-like flail with nine different ‘tails’, often with a small metal bead on the end of each. Prisoners would often be beaten to the point of being crippled.
As the convict population grew thanks to the popular punishment of Transportation, the government began to struggle looking after so many convicts. Thus a new policy of ‘assignment’ was established, which allowed farm owners to petition for groups of convicts to come work their land for them. These farms would often be far from the original colonies, and life could be either better,or worse for the convict depending on what farmer became responsible for them.
Some treated their convicts well, but others, being so far from even the small government protections afforded at the colonies, would brutalize their convicts any way they desired. Overseers would look after groups of convicts, and at night, they would be locked up in small wooden homes behind palisades for the protection of the local population. In many ways, Australia’s convicts faced much of the same treatment as American slaves.
By 1836 over seventy percent of convicts were working on ‘assignment’, and this freed upa huge burden from the British government. Typically upon arrival, a convict would wait only a few hours before being assigned to a farm or outpost, though in some cases it would take up to a few weeks. Not everyone would qualify for assignment though, with the most violent convicts or those who behaved badly, kept under state custody.
These convicts were put to work in crews called iron-gangs, and would be used for extremely difficult and backbreaking work. If at all possible, a convict would want to go on assignment, rather than stay under state supervision and work digging ditches and canals all day long. Male convicts on assignment would often be tasked with doing farm labor, including everything from planting to harvesting crops and feeding and caring for animals.
More genteel convicts, as well as many female convicts though were used as domestic servants,and their duties would include washing clothes, cooking, and cleaning. Land owners in Australia often enjoyed the perks of personal servants thanks to forced labor, while back home in England they would have been far too poor for such an incredible luxury.
Convicts with special skills however were specially prized, and could expect to be treated much better than normal convicts. This would include men and women who were bakers, blacksmiths, painters, or any others killed trade. These convicts would be sent to work for settlers who ran a business of that type, though they could also act as teachers to further expand the skill sets of other convicts and increase the usefulness of the total labor force.
Each night convicts were allotted an hour of free time after evening muster. Convicts quickly developed an indigenous tattoo industry, and these became quite popular amongst convicts. Convicts however would also often sing together in groups, as well as play a variety of outdoor games. Convicts who were skilled at weaving would create cabbage-tree hats, or hats using leaves from the cabbage tree palm which helped keep the brutal sun at bay.
While technically not allowed to, many of these convicts would sell the hats for a few coins to locals or even to other convicts. As in any other prison-like situation, an underground economy quickly prospered. Naturally, gambling quickly became popular, though anyone caught gambling would be sentenced to a few days, or even a few weeks, in a solitary confinement cell.
Some of these cells were unventilated, and in the Australian summer would be confined, brutal spaces that sometimes would kill their inhabitants due to heat exhaustion. Eventually the practice of transportation was phased out of England’s penal code, though by that time tens of thousands of convicts had already been shipped off to Australia.
Facing a six to eight month trip back home, on voyages that claimed the lives of up to a third of the passengers, most convicts simply cut ties with Britain and settled Australia as their own. They beat back hordes of insects, sharks, venomous reptiles, and whatever the hell a platypus is, and carved a new nation for themselves in the southernmost corner of the world. Would you have rather faced prison time in England or taken the long, dangerous trip to Australia? Why is every animal in Australia trying to kill you all the time? Let us know in the comments.