On the 26th January 1788, just over 750 convicts and their children landed in Sydney, Australia and started a trend which would span almost 100 years. In these 100 years around 162,000 criminals would be shipped to Australia.
January 1788 marked the first European settlement in Sydney however this was no normal occupation; instead of free settlers these were convicts who were sent to populate Australia and endure gruelling labour. Some would work 14 – 18 hours a day all in the name of building the modern Australia. After this initial ship two more would arrive in 1790 and 1791. Eventually in 1793 free settlers would arrive, nevertheless New South Wales still remained a colony dominated by a large population of criminals. In the 1800s convicts were sent further afield to places like Norfolk Island, Tasmania and Moreton Bay to create further penal colonies.
One fifth of the first convicts who landed in Australia were female. They were sent along with the free-settlers to specialist female factories which produced textiles. Some of these factories would go above and beyond their normal functions, for example the Parramatta Factory became a welcoming place for pregnant women and even served as an orphanage. Female prisoners in the 1800s could potentially escape their sentences by marrying. Marriage and motherhood were seen as the utmost of importance for a woman and so they were more useful to society in these positions as opposed to being imprisoned. In actual fact only six percent of convicts were technically ‘locked up’ as most were seen as more valuable as part of a labour force. The system of using prisoners for labour was founded in by Governor Phillip who was Commander in Chief of the penal colony of New South Wales. Instead of leaving convicts behind bars and therefore being pretty useless to society he decided that all criminals – whatever the crime – should be put to work as carpenters, nurses, servants and shepherds.
From 1810 the convicts were used more specifically to help build and develop Australia as a British colony. The abundance of criminals in Australia was certainly an advantage to this dominion and without their hard work and labour Australia might not have been such a strong British colony. Convict labour helped to lay the foundations of modern Australia by building roads, causeways, bridges, hospitals and other important amenities. The convicts were also employed by free settlers to work for them as well as land owners. Criminals were indeed very useful in the fabrication of Australia.
The convicts that were sent to Australia were however not rapists or murderers which is part of the reason they weren’t actually imprisoned. They instead were tried for petty crimes such as theft and others were political prisoners. Whilst those criminals who had committed very serious crimes were locked up in order to keep the public safe, there wasn’t necessarily the need or the space to lock up those who had committed lesser crimes.
With overcrowding and an ever-expanding population in Britain the transportation to Australia was seen as a suitable solution. Despite their less serious crimes, the convicts were still victims of cruelty such as lashes and leg irons. The long days and the hard labour were clearly not punishment enough for these criminals.
The end of transportation came in the latter part of the 19th century. Australia’s population had boomed and there were now enough people to take on the work needed to construct and develop the country. All in all, just over 800 ships had taken 162,000 convicts to Australia. This certainly changed the dynamics of Australian society and helped to cement Australia as a strong dominion. The era of transportation is still seen as a very important part of Australian history with eleven convict settlements making it onto the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 2010.