The History of Australian Convict History

Diana Pittet '91 (English 34 [now 27], 1991)

"History" meant great men, stirring deeds, useful discoveries and worthy sacrifices; our history was short of these. This made us even more anxious about our worth as Australians living in Australia--the root of "cultural cringe" which would continue to plague us until long after World War II" (Hughes, p.x-ii).

On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip landed in New South Wales. 1,000 people, of whom 717 were convicts, accompanied him to establish a new colony. It was a colonial experiment; never before had a colony served as a jail for convicts. Until 1840, when convict transportation was abolished in New South Wales, convicts arrived regularly and were used as labor by the free settlers who came to New South Wales to raise sheep for wool. Australians have regarded their convict heritage as a stain on their Australian selfhood. As a result, most Australians have desired to forget this past, and schools have conveniently ignored its study. An incredible silence has pervaded the acceptance of Australian convicts because it threatened notions of British decency. The pressure to disown this history became especially strong in the late nineteenth century when debates about biological determination and notions of race and purity dominated the intellectual climate of the time. Not until the 1960s did Australian historians seriously examine the convict experience in Australia. The works which inspired these works were Manning Clarke's History of Australia, 1962) and L.L. Robson's The Convict Settlers of Australia 1965). These works and others have begun to prove that convicts have a history that can no longer be ignored.


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