Anti-Transportation (of convicts)

A 'fettered felon', John Funt (AOT, PH30/1/3207)

Why was the fettered felon sent
Thy balmy breath to taste?
Thou shouldst receive the good, the free…

So around 1832 wrote Mary Leman Grimstone in her 'Van Diemen's Land'; resident in Hobart 1826–29, Grimstone was the first intellectual to probe the nature of Tasmanian society. Even earlier, in 1826, George Arthur had envisaged that 'when transportation shall cease and all its Chains and Trammels disappear, a flourishing Colony will be at once exhibited'. In such ways formed the notion that transportation was but a phase in the place's history, to precede a happier future.

Arthur's words notwithstanding, the development of this idea belonged to his political critics. He upheld the prevailing imperial policy that free institutions could have little place in a penal society. In mirror image, those colonists – at first usually men with urban and business interests – who wanted some part in government, looked askance at transportation. A Hobart meeting of February 1835 called for the system's end. Especially the landowning interest, conscious of convict labour's value, took an opposite view. Many settlers opposed a British parliamentary committee that in 1837–38 advised radical changes to transportation.

Such did soon occur, ending 'assignment' of convicts to private employers, and instead sending transportees to what government hoped would be a reformatory stint in probation gangs. This was dubious theory, and its practice disastrous. Labour became costlier for employers, at a time of economic stagnation; convicts arrived in larger numbers than ever before, and critics saw the camps as breeding criminality and (especially homosexual) vice. Simultaneously the imperial government wanted colonial revenues to contribute more to convicts' upkeep. Whereas in 1842–43 New South Wales, whither transportation had stopped, received a largely elective Legislative Council, the counterpart in penal Van Diemen's Land remained wholly government-nominated. All this strengthened animus against imperial policies, especially transportation.

Systematic criticism developed from 1844. Anti-transportation became a socio-political movement of vehement strength, in its scale comparable to the anti-corn law agitation in contemporary Britain, or even the American abolitionist movement. True to that pattern, its rhetoric invoked moral idealism. Various organisations arose, culminating with the 'Australasian League'; constituted at Melbourne in early 1851, the League expressed federal-style spirit. Meetings, demonstrations, pamphleteering, petitions: all sustained the movement. Anti-transportationists stressed use of 'Tasmania' as the colony's better name. The crusade asserted itself against Denison locally, and through effective lobbying of the imperial government in London. An outstanding voice was Launceston's Examiner newspaper; its guiding genius John West, whose stupendous History of Tasmania had as its central theme the infamy of convictism.

The movement received increasingly general support, including that of working-class groups. When the colony did receive an elected Legislative Council, anti-transportationists were overwhelmingly successful at the first polls, late 1851. This outcome rebuffed Lt-Governor WT Denison, who always insisted upon transportation's economic benefit. Some colonists agreed in such reservations. An ex-convict interest supported Denison, presenting the anti-transportationists as engaging in hypocritical hyperbole, seeking to impose odium and subjection on erstwhile prisoners.

In late 1852 the imperial government decided to end transportation. An obvious impetus was that discovery of gold had transformed the nature and role of the Australian colonies. Yet with some logic Denison claimed that the discoveries made it still more desirable that Van Diemen's Land receive convict labour. Probably the British authorities spoke true in saying that not only gold discovery but colonial opposition determined its ending of the system. Certainly the anti-transportationists saw that move as a mighty victory, celebrations peaking in August 1853. Fulfilling their hopes, 'Van Diemen's Land' became 'Tasmania' coincident with responsible government in 1855–56.

The newly-named polity was never to enjoy that virtue and wealth which anti-transportationists upheld as its destiny. As Arthur and Denison insisted, convictism had been crucial to the colony's vigour. Further disparagement of the anti-transportation cause has come from historians who agree that it embraced hyperbole and hypocrisy. Especially sharp is the critique that in exaggerating convictism's evil, the anti-transportationists subverted their own hopes by imposing upon the island an image of indelible blackness.

These points have some force, but surely comprise lesser parts of truth. The notion of establishing penal colonies was one of European imperialism's stranger passages. Nothing could be more inevitable than that free elements in such colonies would reject the bond. The anti-transportation movement upheld this role in Van Diemen's Land, overall with vigour, style and distinction.

Further reading: P Ratcliff, The usefulness of John West, Launceston, 2003; A McLaughlin, 'Against the League', THS 5/1, [1995–96]; D Huon, 'By Moral Means Only', THRAPP 44/2, 1997.

Michael Roe