The Convict Settlement of Australia

05 Mar

Roderick Cameron explains how, during the 50 years that followed Governor Phillip’s landing at Botany Bay in 1788, convicts and free settlers turned New South Wales into a flourishing colony.

Women in England mourning their lovers who are soon to be transported to Botany Bay, 1792. National Library of AustraliaWomen in England mourning their lovers who are soon to be transported to Botany Bay, 1792. National Library of AustraliaWhen, in 1776, America declared her independence, England lost Virginia as a convict settlement. The Gold Coast was tried as an alternative, till transportation there was discovered to be the equivalent of a death-sentence; and, within a few years, English gaols became dangerously overcrowded. Captain Cook’s voyages suggested a solution of the problem; and Lord Sydney at the Home Office selected Botany Bay. Before Cook’s discovery of Australia’s Eastern shores, the whole vast Australian continent appears as an unfinished coast line, winding its vague way northwards towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, the uncharted spaces filled with dots. Cape York, still awaiting a name, lies doubled back, like a broken finger, against the Northern Territory; while the geography of Victoria and New South Wales is still a matter of speculation. Neither the Spanish nor the Dutch had shown any enthusiasm over their discoveries; and Dampier, describing New Holland in 1698, observes that the only pleasure he derived from his voyage was “the satisfaction of having found the most barren space on the face of this earth.”

It was, presumably, in a somewhat doubtful frame of mind that Governor Phillip set sail for the new colony, with a small fleet of eleven ships, six of which were convict-transports, the rest being a man-of-war, its tender and three supply ships. After a voyage that lasted exactly eight months, Botany Bay was sighted in February 1788; and, if one has oneself seen this forbidding country, it is not difficult to imagine the feelings of the men on board. Occasional spirals of smoke rising from native fires among the endless gum-trees were then, as now, the only signs of life in a desolate landscape that has never changed. Since Botany Bay proved too shallow an anchorage, the ships were forced to lie nearer the Heads, at the mercy of the great waves rolling in against them; and, during his search for a more suitable refuge, Governor Phillip discovered, to the north, the world’s most perfect natural harbour, calling it Sydney in honour of the Secretary of State, though Captain Cook, when he passed it by, had named the opening Port Jackson.

Many of the eight hundred male and female convicts had died on the outward voyage; more than a third of their number were ill with scurvy and other diseases; and they must have presented a sorry sight as they struggled with the hoary bush, hacking and sawing, the shouts of the two hundred soldiers who guarded them rising above the crash of trees. It is hostile, hard and cruel—this Australian bush. Everything that grows in it is tough.and spiky and will wound you if you touch it. Over low-growing plants and shrubs tower the gums, with their sun-refusing foliage, like dark, hardened flakes of rubber. The harsh sun pours down on them, and they stand up peeled and dry, incapable of tempering the glare. Indeed, their long curved leaves seem to intensify the light, reflecting it as it slides off their pointed ends, as from a thousand mirrors, to splinter on the ground below—a ground so dry that it echoes at every step with the sound of cracking twigs.

Once the bush had been conquered, and the land cleared for cultivation, the alarming discovery was made that none of the new settlers knew anything of farming—except for a single man, a servant in the Governor’s suite. Without his advice their labour would have been completely fruitless. As it was, the farming in which they engaged was of the very rudest kind. Even a highly experienced man could have done little to direct so many. The officers and soldiers might be smart enough on parade, but they were completely useless at farm work; while the convicts devoted all their ingenuity to robbing the stores or picking one another’s pockets. Only a trifling crop was raised; and to increase their difficulties, everything they used had to be imported; for no plant they found in Australia could be, or ever has been, coaxed into edibility; no animal indigenous to Australia yields milk fit for human consumption, and no native tree has ever been persuaded to bear better fruit.

Such were the inauspicious beginnings of the new Australian settlement. “Enterprise and dexterity,” writes one of the early settlers, “are, undoubtedly, valuable qualities in one who proposes to strike out for himself a new existence in a new and rough country; but the skill and nerve not to mention the frankness of the promising youngster who boasted of having picked his mother’s pocket while both were spectators at his father’s execution are not precisely those calculated to adorn or profit a rising community.” The Home Office, nevertheless, persisted in their hopes that the convict element, when reformed, would become the nucleus of its new domain. The first settlement had, perforce, a somewhat ephemeral air. The Governor occupied a canvas building. Behind him were encamped those women convicts whose innocence, according to his view, still deserved protection; and in front of him he set up the commissariat store, which he judged equally in need of his personal surveillance. While the officers lived in marquees, the convicts ran up wattle and daub huts, thatched with cabbage tree palm or rushes. Yet slowly the colony grew; and, when next we catch sight of Sydney, it is a white town set amid gardens and orchards. Pleasant villas push their way out into the scrub; so little is there to indicate a foreign clime, one might almost imagine oneself on the outskirts of Brighton or Cheltenham. The only concession to geography are the verandas that relieve the simplicity of private houses, and the brilliant caged parrots which adorn almost every window.

Lachlan Macquarie, appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1810, fresh from a successful army career in India and a short governorship in Ceylon, was exactly the type of man that growing Australia needed. A nabob, who arrived in this harsh new world with all the paraphernalia of his rank, he made astonishing progress during his twelve years of governorship. Besides constructing some two hundred buildings—from cottages to guard-barracks for a thousand men—he left New South Wales with three hundred miles of turnpikes and carriage roads. Macquarie was responsible, moreover, for the creation of eleven townships, most of them raised from the wilderness; and it is interesting to remember that he employed a convict-architect—Francis Howard Greenway, who had previously practised in Bristol. Extravagant, unable to resist the temptation of buying works of art, Greenway had run deeply into debt and been adjudged a bankrupt. Tried, and sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment for concealing his effects at bankruptcy, he had been transported to Sydney in the year 1814.

Owing to the shortage of skilled labour, it was the practice in the convict settlements to grant artisans, accountants, and farm labourers, providing that their conduct warranted it, what was called a “ticket-of-leave”. Since few of the convicts were desperate characters, it was a practice widely adopted, and meant that the convict chosen was, to a great extent, free. Although not allowed to quit a particular district without the Governor’s permission, he was at liberty to behave, to all intents and purposes, as if he had been pardoned. Emancipation was the next step up the ladder—freedom granted when his sentence had run out or he had received a direct pardon. No pardon, however, could be granted unless the wrong-doer had served at least a part of his sentence. To the colonists themselves, this supply of labour was an inestimable boon. It also relieved the treasury from the expense of maintenance, separated the convicts, and associated the better-conducted of them with reputable families.

Twenty years after the original settlement, the first object upon which the visitor’s eye alighted in an Australian town was its gaol, or “factory”—an imposing two-storied edifice built of brick. The census of 1833 gives the population of New South Wales as just over sixty thousand, twenty-five thousand of whom were convicts; and it was still a common sight to pass chain-gangs of silent, grey-clad labourers clanking along with a straddling gait, their close-cut hair covered with leather caps—each x marked with his number and the name of his station in large letters on his back. The disproportion of the sexes in the total population was remarkable—some forty-five thousand men as opposed to fifteen thousand women. This led to the habit of using the female “factories” as marriage markets; and in the Mitchell Library in Sydney there is an account of a visit paid with matrimonial intentions by a respectable farmer. At the entrance of the factory he was received by a dignified matron with a large bunch of keys, who conducted him to the central yard where fifty or sixty young women were lined up for his inspection. They were dressed in grey duffle with white mob caps, under which protruded, untidy wisps of short-cropped hair. As he passed down the ranks, the poor creatures saluted him with curtsies. Not a word was spoken. The farmer does not tell us whether or not he found a wife, but one gets the impression that he did not much enjoy his visit.

From the yard he was taken round to see the several courts, the solitary cells, the hospital and dormitories; and in one of the yards he was shown the more troublesome and notorious characters. The visiting-surgeon of the establishment had just found it necessary to prescribe half-rations, and a gende treatment of ipecacuanha, to a ferocious giantess who had let fly at him with a fine display of Billingsgate oaths. In another yard, he came across a group of women with their illegitimate children. They were sitting in an open shed sheltering from the sun, while they watched over some wooden cribs in each of which lay three or four babies, stowed away, head to tail, like sardines; others were curling about like a litter of kittens in a basket of straw. Another part of the prison was devoted to laundry work, with squads of women up to their elbows in suds, some displaying their thick ankles as they spread the linen over the drying lines.

As he was escorted along the avenues of solitary cells, there was a great unlocking of massive doors, in one of which a woman was carding, while in another a woman was combing wool. A third cell was opened and found to be in complete darkness. “It seemed empty,” writes the farmer, “so I passed within the door better to examine its contents. It looked like the den of a wolf, and I almost started back when from the extreme end of the floor I found a pair of bright, flashing eyes fixed on mine. Their owner arose and took a step or two forward. It was a small, slight and quite young girl—very beautiful in feature and complexion—but it was the fierce beauty of the wildcat.” At no period of his life, confessed the honest fellow, would he have “shared for half an hour the cell of that sleek little savage.” As the heavy door slammed in her face, and the strong bolts shot in the groove, the turnkey informed her visitor that this was one of the most refractory and unmanageable characters in the prison.

In 1840, we find that twenty-one thousand convicts were assigned to private service; and a further census taken in 1849 shows a free population of two hundred and forty-three thousand versus four thousand convicts. Meanwhile, free grants of land having been offered to encourage settlers, the population had swelled and the new colony was expanding. Tasmania was discovered, and a road wound its way over the Blue Mountains to the interior. Melbourne was founded, then Adelaide. At last, Australia has become the compact land mass familiar to us in our atlas. Once she established herself and her commercial future had been assured by the production of magnificent wool, the colony developed national pride, and began to display some sensitiveness on the subject of her humble origins. As the result of a petition to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, transportation was temporarily suspended in 1840, and finally abolished in 1850. Backed by the clergy, the Colonial Council had managed to convince the authorities at home “of the moral and social evil inherent in a penal colony and of the degradation attached to it in the opinion of mankind at large.” The “Hashemy”— “that Floating Hell,” as popular orators called her, with her “cargo of moral poison”—was the last convict-ship to drop anchor in Sydney Harbour. Exactly sixty-one years had elapsed since Governor Phillip had planted the Union Jack on precisely the spot where this last shipment of convicts now landed.

“Convict,” thenceforward, was a word seldom heard in New South Wales. The transportee was referred to as “a pensioner of the Crown,” an “old Hand,” a “Government Man,” or was merely described as having been “sent out.” These euphemisms were employed not so much for the benefit of the actual offenders as to spare the feelings of their descendants. Macquarie, with his liberal rule, had shown the way. Officers of the garrison were continually complaining of having to dine at Government House in the company with convicts, “dubious characters that one would avoid in the street”; and Macquarie was even accused of preferring their company. They may, indeed, have been more amusing, more nimble-witted than many officials and free colonists. A settler newly arrived in Sydney, say in the year 1840, must have been curious, and perhaps uneasy, regarding the degree of influence exerted on the social system by the numerous body of affluent emancipists; and here is a contemporary account by Colonel Mundy, Deputy Adjutant-General in Australia, author of Our Antipodes, of the situation as he knew it.

“It seems almost incredible (writes Colonel Mundy) that, living in the very midst of this community—in many cases in equal and even superior style to what may be called the aristocracy—possessing some of the handsomest residences in the city and suburbs— warehouses, counting houses, banking establishments, shipping, immense tracts of land, flocks and herds, enjoying all the political and material immunities in common with those possessing equal fortunes, of the more reputable classes—they are, nevertheless, a class apart from the untainted.

There is a line of demarcation by them peremptorily impassable. The impudent and pushing, and these are few, are repelled. The unobtrusive and retiring are not encouraged. Their place on the social scale is assigned and circumscribed. They have, humanly speaking, expiated their crimes, whatever these may have been, the nature of them has, probably, never passed beyond the record of the Superintendent’s office. They belong indeed to the common flock; but they are the black sheep of it. They are treated with humanity and consideration, but in a certain degree they are compelled to herd together.

The merchants and men of business generally meet them on equal terms in the negotiation of affairs in which their wealth, intelligence, and commercial weight sometimes necessarily involve them. They do not presume on this partial admission to equality, but fall back into their prescribed position when the business which has called the two orders into temporary contact has been completed. Official juxtaposition does not bring with it any plea for social intimacy… As I write this,” continues the Colonel, “there passes my window a well-known individual of this class in a smart new barouche, with a showy pair of horses caparisoned in plated harness, and a coachman and page in livery and laced hats.”

The brand was bound to wear out in the course of time; in fact, this is precisely what has happened; for it would be difficult at the present day to trace any family among Australia’s seven and a half millions whose ancestors are known quite definitely to have been convicts. Many of them, I am told, disabled by the hardships they had endured, died without issue.

Thus began the immense development of the post-convict period. Sydney grew from an outpost into a large modern city. Macquarie had rechristened her streets; Sergeant-Major’s Row became George Street after the King, and Windmill Alley Castlereagh Street. A town with Sydney’s future, he argued, could not go through life with so plebeian a nomenclature. There were, of course, frequent reminders of the Governor himself; while, beyond George Street, spread a network of streets named after royal dukes, Clarence, York, Kent, Essex, Cambridge and Cumberland. From an obelisk, erected in Macquarie Place, the mileage was measured, and new thoroughfares radiated out into the fast developing hinterland. The monotonous bush, subjected to the axe, took on a more gracious aspect. Rivers, banked with willows, meandered through rolling fields, and cattle grazed in rich pastures.

Driving today around the country, through the early grants developed by Australia’s leading families, one is astonished by the number of charming old houses, churches and inns. Since ships still took three months or more to reach Australia from Europe, building fashions were necessarily slow to change; and, well on into the Victorian era, the colony was still living fifteen or twenty-five years behind the times. Instead of the bad taste that had begun to manifest itself in English domestic architecture, we see Ionic colonnades of golden-yellow stone, six-panelled doors and twelve-panel windows. The sun filtering through circular bays falls on stone-flagged floors. Handsome cornices frame white plaster ceilings. From the shade of white porches we look out on to cloud-capped plains. As new townships extended in an ever-widening circle, explorers investigated the interior, and brought back reports of the excellent grazing in the great central deserts. Gold was discovered. Convicts became a thing of the past, a legend almost, a subject for humour. Australians today rarely speak of them. They have simply been forgotten. It is only the visitor who shows a certain curiosity.




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