Convicts and colonisers: the early history of Australia

Booker Prize-winning author Thomas Keneally speaks to Rob Attar about the early history of his home country, Australia, discussing the remarkable progress of Britain's "sunstruck dungeon" at the end of the world

Gold Mining At Mount Alexander

This article was originally published in the Christmas 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Thomas Barrett was sentenced to death three times. His first capital offence was in 1782 when, as a young boy, he was found guilty of stealing a silver watch in London. Barrett’s sentence was commuted and he was despatched instead to the North American colonies. However before his ship had left Britain there was a convict uprising that enabled Barrett to escape. His freedom was short-lived. Barrett was recaptured and the death penalty was again handed down for his actions. But for a second time royal intervention saved him from the noose. And so it was that in 1787 Thomas Barrett found himself a passenger on the Charlotte, as part of the first fleet that shipped prisoners to the distant land of Australia. There his final sentence still awaited him.

Barrett’s story illustrates a key idea to emerge from Australians, the first part of Thomas Keneally’s epic history of a continent and its people. The nature of the early immigrants meant that this was a colony like no other. “If you’ll accept that we’re a sophisticated society (which is hard for the British to do) then you’d have to say that this is the only advanced country on earth that began as a purpose-designed penal colony,” says Keneally. “It didn’t begin as a place where there were settlers who used convicts. It began as a jail.”

Having been deprived of American colonies following the emergence of the United States, Britain in the 1780s was desperate to find an alternative territory for its miscreants. Australia, recently claimed for the empire by Captain Cook, seemed to fit the bill. It had been inhabited by Aborigines for millennia but, despite a few tentative voyages, no other European power had established a lasting settlement on the continent. Britain took the lead. The first fleet of convicts arrived in January 1788 and a fledgling penal colony was established in what is now Sydney.

Who were the people who landed on what Keneally describes as “a sunstruck dungeon at the end of the world”? They were prisoners, yes, but they weren’t just a group of common criminals. “One of the reasons early Australia survives was that there were many social protestors among the convicts,” explains Keneally. “These were people who did not consider themselves criminals. They were people like poachers who acted in protest against the enclosure of estates. Then there were Luddites, Swing rioters, Irish Ribbonmen and Jacobite martyrs. You had these fairly robust, stroppy people alongside the professional thieves and prostitutes.”

Gold Mining At Mount Alexander
Gold mining operations on the Mount Alexander Goldfield near Port Phillip, during the Australian gold rush, Victoria, Australia, circa 1855. (Photo by Rischgitz/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Land of the free

Within a few years, convicts were joined by free people from Britain and Ireland (and later other parts of Europe), attracted to dreams of a better life. These emigrants went out further than the areas the colonial authorities could control and squatted on huge tracts of land. Some were inspired by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who, while languishing in Newgate prison in the 1820s, wrote an influential pamphlet encouraging yeomen to settle Australia.

Nor was it just the poorer Britons who headed for Australia, according to Keneally. “Australia has always been the place to which Britain has sent unsatisfactory members of all its classes, including the gentry and bourgeoisie. It was a great place to send young men who had gambling debts or had been cashiered. It was also the sort of place where you sent bluff English lads who weren’t particularly good academically, or who had impregnated the maid. Charles Dickens, for example, sent his two dumbest sons to Australia and Trollope had a son there as well.”

In many ways the early history of Australia is hard to detach from the story of its mother country. The kinds of people, settler and convict, who came to the continent reflected the social and political situation in Britain at the time. “It provides,” says Keneally, “an acute focus on the problems of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.”

Whether they departed in fear or hope, the Britons and other Europeans who arrived in Australia faced a forbidding landscape. In a continent with little water and variable soil, the development of agriculture was extremely difficult. The interior in particular offered little bounty and despite several expeditions, no great river like the Mississippi could be found. Instead many explorers perished in the desert heat.

“The settlers brought with them their Eurocentrism and they didn’t realise how dry this continent was,” explains Keneally. “British yeomen tried to advance into South Australia and Western Australia but it was impossible because these places are deserts. It showed a great incomprehension of the country that they were coming to. These folk should have perished on the desert shores and in many cases they came close to doing so. They also went mad and committed suicide, but ultimately they stayed. They stayed and endured.”

In the perilous early days of New South Wales (as British Australia was originally known), food stocks frequently dwindled and rations fell. It was only the arrival of supply-laden ships from Britain that enabled the colony to continue. However, although farming was tricky, the settlers discovered that the climate was suitable for livestock and especially sheep. Useful for their meat and wool, sheep farming had become a mainstay of the Australian economy by the middle decades of the 19th century.

As settlements expanded they came into greater conflict with the Aboriginal people who had lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years. This was, Keneally believes, “the countervailing tragedy” of Australian history. “The Aborigines considered that the country was theirs and any animals on it were theirs as well. So they began killing the livestock of settlers, and maybe they would also kill a convict shepherd because he was messing with their women or had stolen stuff from them. This is when the carbines came out and, when it came to a showdown, our technology and firepower was greater.”

Through frontier wars, massacres and the introduction of diseases, the Aboriginal population was devastated. The settlers took over swathes of territory, effecting a cultural as well as physical dispossession. “We can lose our house in the suburbs that we’ve had for 20 years and we’ll sort of survive,” says Keneally. “But if you separate the Aboriginals from their traditional land, which is their source of food and social cohesion, then you are depriving them of more than real estate.”

The mistreatment of the indigenous people was not always applauded. Keneally: “There is a recent supposition that concern for Aboriginal rights is a modern chardonnay-supping, latte-drinking concern. But from the very beginning there were people who stood up for the Aboriginals. Their methods, however, were advocacy whereas the methods of the people trying to rid Aboriginals from their land were weaponry.”

In 1851 gold was discovered in New South Wales, sparking a gold rush similar to that taking place in California. This precious metal brought wealth to the country and hastened an influx of migrants. The gold rush sparked the beginning of the end for transportation, which was still under way, despite growing resentment from the Australian population. “This discovery made convictism ridiculous and irrelevant,” says Keneally. “Why would you ship people to a place when immigrants can’t wait to get there?”

Revolution averted

Gold also funded the development of the interior and prompted the growth of cities. Melbourne went from “virtually a village” in 1850 to what Keneally sees as “one of the great cities of the empire” 20 years later.

Yet the gold rush bred discontent as well and in 1854 it took Australia to the brink of revolution. Those hoping to prospect for gold had to pay fees to the authorities, or face retribution from the colonial police force. In Victoria the policenwere corrupt and brutal, regularly assaulting the miners or throwing them in jail. The miners responded with teeth, feeding an escalating cycle of violence. At the same time, inspired by the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the Chartist movement, they pressed for greater representation, including the right to vote.

The flashpoint occurred at the Eureka goldfield in Ballarat where a group of miners broke out in open rebellion, creating a republican flag and erecting their own stockade. In the short term the uprising was a dismal failure. British troops and colonial police surrounded the stockade and routed the miners. Yet the long-term implications were enormous. “The Eureka episode had an extraordinary impact,” explains Keneally. “Public opinion was very much on the side of the miners, so that, for example, those that were arrested were all acquitted. They couldn’t find a jury in Victoria to condemn them.”

The shock of Eureka accelerated the pace of democratic reform in Australia. Miners’ courts were established and there was soon universal male suffrage (excluding Aborigines) in New South Wales and Victoria. Some of the miners who were being hunted in 1854 were in parliament a couple of years later. The transformation from penal colony to democracy had been rapid.

However it was not entirely unexpected, for Australia had long had a progressive streak in it. That was partly because of the large number of social protestors among the convicts and partly because many of the colony’s rulers held progressive views. Lessons had been learned from the American revolution, meaning that many of the governors were, in Keneally’s words, “quite enlightened people”.

One such person was Lachlan Macquarie, a former Scottish soldier and man of the Enlightenment. He arrived in 1810 and made a conscious effort to integrate ex-convicts into society by, among other things, appointing them to leading roles such as magistrates and chief surgeons. “There was pressure from the grandees of society to make a two-tier community with non-convict settlers having greater rights than convicts or their children. It was due to the insistence of several governors but especially Macquarie that this divided community didn’t develop,” says Keneally. “Indeed my wife’s great-grandfather was a convict who died in the 1850s. Had he lived another 18 months he would have had the vote.”

Not everyone in Australia escaped the convict stain. In February 1788 Thomas Barrett faced death for the final time. Caught stealing butter, peas and pork from a storehouse, he was sentenced to be hanged from a tree. The final rites were read out and as he mounted the ladder to his place of execution, Barrett “turned very pale and seemed very much shocked”. Aged only 17, Barrett was the first man to be executed in the new colony.

He was one of the casualties of early Australia and stories such as his fill the pages of Keneally’s book. All the same, the author believes that despite the hardships, the Australian settlement was a remarkable achievement. “It’s astonishing that we went from being a purpose-designed penal colony to a liberal democracy in only 72 years. As a settler society Australia 1788–1860 was prodigiously successful. I don’t say this with a jingoistic glow in my cheeks because I don’t think I can say the same about the past 50 years, and ultimately I’m going to have to write about that period as well.”


Timeline

c60,000 BC
The occupation of Australia begins when people from east Asia cross over via a land bridge or shallow sea. These are the Aboriginal Australians

AD 1770
Captain James Cook claims the eastern coast of Australia for Britain, naming it New South Wales

1788
A fleet of British convicts arrives at Botany Bay and a penal colony is established close to Sydney. Convicts will be shipped to Australia until 1868

1790
An Aborigine wounds colony governor Arthur Philip with a spear. As the colony expands settlers will come into greater conflict with the indigenous people

1793
The first free British emigrants arrive and establish themselves in an area they name Liberty Plains

1797
Merino sheep are imported from the Cape of Good Hope. Wool will go on to be a mainstay of the Australian economy

1831
The British government begins to fund migration to Australia. The sale of land is used to finance the scheme

1851
Small pieces of gold are discovered in New South Wales, triggering a gold rush that mirrors that of California

1854
Protesting miners erect a stockade at the Eureka goldfield. They are swiftly defeated by British troops and colonial police

1855–56
Legislative assemblies are opened in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania as Australia moves towards liberal democracy

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Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize for his novel Schindler’s Ark, the inspiration for Schindler’s List. He is also the author of Australians: Origins to Eureka by Thomas Keneally (Allen & Unwin, 2010).