Convicts in Australia

May Lee '97 (English 73, 1995)

In Great Expectations, the man behind all of Pip's expectations and many of Pip's troubles is Magwitch, the convict a seven-year-old Pip aided in the marshes. Nine years later, Magwitch's money, earned through years of honest labor, sends Pip to London to realize his dream of becoming a gentleman. How Magwitch could have gone from a life sentence to become a prosperous Australian colonizer is an interesting, and apparently controversial, aspect of the British colony Australia. An article in the June 1841 The London Quarterly Review addresses some of the objections concerning transportation, and L.L. Robson's book The Convict Settlers of Australia provides a good background on the convicts that were transported between 1787 and 1852.

Although the Dutch discovered the Australian continent in 1770, the first ship of English convicts bound for Australia did not leave England until 1787, after the British lost the American colonies and decided to use Australia as a penal colony. "Transportation" as a punishment had been established in 1717, when most felons sentenced to transportation were sent to the American colonies.

When Australia became a penal colony, prisoners were sent either to New South Wales (as Magwitch was) or to Van Diemen's Land. As capital punishment became less popular in England, more and more prisoners faced sentences of transportation, in most cases for seven years, but sometimes for life. What generally happened was that a criminal, charged with anything from pickpocketing to murder and most likely a repeat offender, was convicted and sentenced to either a prison term, transportation, or death (which usually was commuted to transportation). Those sentenced to transportation were taken to a Hulk, where chances of actually being sent to Australia depended on previous record and behavior. In general, approximately one third of those on the hulks actually went to Australia. For the safety of the hulks, usually those guilty of the most violent crimes were actually transported. Typically, they were young, from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Dublin, and Liverpool, and had been punished before.

Once in Australia, the convicts were assigned to either the government or to traders as labor, under the assignment system in place until 1840. Under this system, their master could not punish the convict himself but could charge him and send him to a magistrate who would hear the case and decide the punishment. After 1840, the convicts followed a probation system instead, where they were assigned to a probation station, and depending on their behavior, advanced through the different stages of probation. Usually, those sentenced to seven years could apply for a ticket-of-leave much sooner than those with life sentences, who had to serve eight years before being eligible for the ticket-of-leave.

The London Quarterly Review published an article in its June 1841 issue discussing the convict situation in Australia.

There are two points of grievance of which we think the colonists may well complain. Just at the moment when this dispersion is spreading to an unlimited degree, Lord John Russell, as we have seen, has not only put a stop to transportation, but has stopped the beneficial system of assignment; thus cramping both the grazing and agricultural interests. The second grievance is the check that has been thrown upon emigration ... But the intention which his lordship announced in the House of Commons, of shutting up all convicted felons in penitentiaries at home, did, we confess, greatly surprise us ... Lord John Russell said something about the prison or convict mark still set upon them (59).

The article cited another penal colony critic:

Captain Maconochie condemns the whole of the penal institutions of the colonies, and says that the bad state of society may be traced directly to their pervading and demoralising influence; he complains that physical coersion (by which he means flogging) is resorted to upon every little breach of regulation, &c. &c.; in short, he says, in so many words, that the settlers who have convicts assigned to them are slave-holders, and the assignees slaves. (62).

In response to these objections, the author pointed out the savings in cost incurred by transporting convicts as opposed to keeping them in penitentiaries, costs of 787,380 for keeping 38,305 convicts in New South Wales as opposed to costs of 1,679,000 per year for the same number in penitentiaries. He also argued that

It has added to the strength and commercial interest of the mother-country; it has mainly contributed to the prosperity of the colonies; it has brought many thousands from a state of misery and degradation into that of comparative happiness and affluence, and given them at the same time a station in society which obtains respect. ... (59).

In 1821, this 'school of correction and reform,' ... had 'produced 3478 families of emancipated convicts, having 7212 children, in possession of 251,941 acres of land in pasture, 34,769 acres in cultivation, 244 horses, 5946 head of horned cattle, 168,960 sheep, 25,568 swine, 3778 houses, 15 decked vessels, 300,000 vested in trade; the estimated value of their entire property being 1,562,201 sterling,' - all this twenty years ago, and now at least trebled, the creation and fruit of the skill and industry of emancipated convicts. (62)

Basically, those who favored trying to reform convicts felt that they would be better off in England; those who saw convicts filling a much-needed labor supply in Australia as both beneficial to England and to the convicts supported transportation as a punishment. Despite debates in the journals about the advantages and drawbacks of transportation and what opportunities that afforded, daily life for the convict in Australia was harsh. Convict discipline was severe, and many convicts found solace in alcohol. Punishment by the lash, a cat-o'-nine-tails, generally served to degrade convicts' characters permanently after a flogging, as did the placing of convicts in chain-gangs.

Of the total number of convicts transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen's land, approximately fifteen percent of them were women, mostly young repeat offenders. Common offenses included absence without leave from work, drunkenness, misconduct, stealing, and prostitution. Considering the disproportionately high numbers of men in these penal colonies, marriage rates were not high, although approximately eleven percent of the women in Van Diemen's Land had illegitimate children. In general, marriage was not very common, and when marriages did occur, there was likely a large age difference or two relatively old people getting married.

The difference between the New South Wales and the Van Diemen's Land colonies' establishments led to differences in the growth of the two colonies. Van Diemen's Land appears to have become the penal colony for the worst offenders, but was initially established only as a supplementary island colony to the mother colony after New South Wales's establishment. Since the mother colony had more time for the convict population to establish money-making enterprises before free immigration, there were many more success stories among its emancipated convicts. Records show that about half of the men from New South Wales at around 1821 did establish themselves as landholders or tradesmen. In Van Diemen's Land, however, the emancipated convicts for the most part stayed small farmers. While the increase of worldly wealth may have been less common than the author of the London Quarterly Review essay believed, it was, nonetheless, quite possible for Magwitch to have accumulated the small fortune necessary to fund the making of Pip into a gentleman.

Works Quoted

Dr. Lang, "The History of South Wales" and Captain Maconochie, "Thoughts on Convict Management," "The Australian Convict," from The London Quarterly Review (68) June 1841; American Edition published by Jemima M. Mason.

Robson, L.L., The Convict Settlers of Australia. London: Cambridge University Press, 1965.


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