The convict establishment at Premaydena (WL Crowther Library, SLT)

Between 1803 and 1853 approximately 75,000 convicts served time in Van Diemen's Land. Of these 67,000 were shipped from British and Irish ports and the remainder were either locally convicted, or transported from other British colonies. This represents about 45 percent of all convicts landed in Australia and 15–20 percent of all those transported within the British Empire in the period 1615–1920.1 In the years to the ending of the Napoleonic Wars prisoners arrived in Van Diemen's Land intermittently, as during times of warfare increased military recruitment resulted in lower rates of unemployment. The reverse was true in periods of peace where demobilisation appears to have created hardship, particularly in urban areas. The first convicts shipped to Van Diemen's Land were sent following the partial demobilisation of the army and navy during the short-lived treaty of Amiens in 1802. The next convict transport to arrive direct from Britain was not despatched until 1812, and it was only after the post-1815 general demobilisation of the British armed forces that Van Diemen's Land became a regular port of call for convict ships. As a result the number of serving convicts in Van Diemen's Land rose from just over 400 in 1816, to a peak of over 30,000 in 1847. Thereafter numbers declined rapidly, especially following the cessation of transportation in 1852. By 1862 only just over a thousand serving convicts remained.2

On arrival in the Derwent convicts were brought before a board headed by the Superintendent of the Prison Barracks, so that information about previous work experience could be elicited. The administration put a great deal of faith in the quality of this occupational data. Lt-Governor Arthur argued that, 'The man perceives at once that the officer who is examining him does know something of his history; and not being quite conscious how much of it is known, he reveals, I should think, generally a very fair statement of his past life, apprehensive of being detected in stating what is untrue'.3 As Arthur implied, the board cross-checked the statement of each convict with the information forwarded from the British Isles. This process was used to identify skilled workers and separate workers into trades. Thus shoemakers and tailors were categorised according to skill (can cut out or can't) and by area of specialisation, for example: coat; boot; children's. Special care was paid to the recording of agricultural skills – ability to plough, harrow, sow, mow, milk, thatch, shear, tend various types of livestock, break horses, cultivate hops, castrate lambs, treat scab, navigate ditches and even poach were all regularly listed. Each convict was then stripped to the waist and any distinguishing features were put on file. In an era before fingerprinting and photography, this information was required for identification purposes. The process also had a psychological impact on convicts and was clearly designed to be demeaning. As the American political prisoner William Gates recalled, 'such a minute description is obtained, that it is utterly hopeless for a prisoner to think of escaping from the infernal clutches of those petty tyrants, that hold such detestable sway in that prison land'.4

Once disembarked, male convicts were marched to the Prison Barracks and females to the Cascade Female Factory. There they were kept for a short period while it was determined where they would be deployed. Before 1840 the majority of prisoners were assigned to private individuals. Small numbers were retained to work at public sector tasks including working as clerks, flagellators, overseers, seamen, blacksmiths, masons, bricklayers and carpenters. Contrary to popular perception, convict Van Diemen's Land was anything but a vast gaol. Assigned convicts laboured under little or no restraint. Those who worked in the public sector were generally housed at night in secure accommodation, although as late as the mid-1820s it was not unusual for some skilled prisoners to rent rooms in town.5

Convicts found in breach of the rules and regulations of the convict department could be brought before a magistrates' bench. Punishments awarded varied from fines, cautions, floggings (of from 12 to 100 lashes) and sentences to the cells, treadwheel and the public stocks. Sentences to road and chain gangs could also be awarded, although only a bench consisting of more than one magistrate could sentence a prisoner to a penal station or extend an existing sentence of punishment. Despite the array of available sanctions, most masters stressed the importance of rewarding assigned servants, especially those with valuable skills, above the use of punishment. There is some evidence, however, that resort to punishment was more common at certain times of the calendar year, particularly during the harvest. This may have been due to a number of factors. Convicts, for example, may have chosen to play up at a time of the year when their skills were particularly in demand, hoping to increase the levels of incentives with which they were furnished. Alternatively, masters may have been tempted to push their charges harder in response to the dictates of the agricultural cycle. Yet, despite popular perceptions of convict transportation, punishment regimes were a minority experience. In 1836 only 18 percent of male prisoners were deployed in road parties, chain gangs and penal stations, compared to 53 percent in assignment.6

A convict being flogged in Van Diemen's Land (AOT, PH30/1/2720B)

A central idea behind the assignment system established by lieutenant-governors William Sorell and George Arthur was that the movement of each prisoner could be detailed in a series of central registers. Thus, the passage of the 'undeserving' through various road gangs and penal stations could be monitored, and the behaviour of the 'deserving' rewarded through the granting of tickets-of-leave (which allowed a prisoner to work for a wage), pardons and permission to marry. Following the publication of the highly critical Molesworth Report which condemned the assignment system as a mere lottery, a series of probation stations was constructed from the 1840s.7 Under this system prisoners had to serve a period of probationary labour on the roads, which was determined by their length of sentence to transportation. Only when they had negotiated this period of hard labour could they be hired out to the private sector. The system was expensive, difficult to operate and counterproductive in that it severely disrupted private sector access to cheap convict labour. Convict transportation quickly lost most of its erstwhile supporters and its eventual demise in 1853 was widely celebrated.8

There have been several historical reassessments of convicts and the convict system over the years. In the 1950s and 1960s works by Manning Clark, AGL Shaw and Lloyd Robson sought through an examination of surviving records to challenge the romantic nationalist vision of convicts as more sinned against than sinning.9 Robson's study in particular had a major impact on the Australian historiography. Based on an analysis of a one in twenty sample of transported convicts, Robson concluded that 'the convicts were neither “village Hampdens” nor merely “ne'er-do-wells from the city slums.” But if the Hampdens are placed on one side of a scale and the ne'er-do-wells on the other, the scale must tip toward the ne'er-do-wells'.10 While Robson was less vehement in his conclusions than others, notably Clark, his work became the cornerstone of an accepted view of convict transportation. Over the next quarter of a century historians continued to be fascinated by the origins and nature of transported convicts and the view that, since they were largely composed of work-shy unskilled urban thieves and prostitutes, they probably contributed little to the economy became firmly entrenched.11 Even left-wing historians concluded that the bulk of the convict population was so imbued with the acquisitive values of the lumpen proletariat that they were unable to effectively combine to challenge the circumstances under which they toiled.12 This tradition of historical writing reached its apogee with the publication of Robert Hughes' international bestseller, The Fatal Shore, in 1987. Hughes depicted the transportation system as one vast gulag populated by convicts who were predominantly drawn from the ranks of a professional criminal class and produced crime in the same way as hatters produced hats and miners coal.13

Although exclusively about convict transportation to New South Wales, the publication of Convict Workers in 1988 had a profound impact on the way that transportation to Van Diemen's Land was viewed. Written by a team of economic historians, and drawing on the international literature of forced labour migration, the contributors challenged much of the consensus that had been built up over the previous two and a half decades. Based on the analysis of a large cluster sample of nearly 20,000 convicts transported to New South Wales, they concluded that prisoners landed in Australia possessed skills which were broadly representative of those possessed by the British and Irish working classes. Perhaps more controversially, they went on to claim that those skills were effectively deployed by the colonial state in a system which was marked by efficiency and in which the lash was largely silent. Thus, a key argument was that, rather than being a ball and chain on the development of the colonial economy, cheap drafts of compliant, and often skilled, convict labour had catalysed colonial growth rates. In a strident conclusion the book's editor, Stephen Nicholas, rhetorically asked: 'How did Australian historians get it so wrong?' The charge made by the Convict Workers team was that a previous generation of historians had placed less weight in the quantitative data at their disposal than they had in qualitative accounts written by middle-class gaolers, chaplains and other moral entrepreneurs.14 As Michael Sturma had already pointed out in relation to female convicts, a moral ideology played an important part in controlling convict labour, and this was widely reflected in middle-class nineteenth-century writing about convicts.15 Put crudely, the 'reformed' convict was the man or woman who made a profit for a master or mistress, while those who resisted merely confirmed their wickedness.

As Robson confirmed in 1965, once in Van Diemen's Land, younger convicts from urban backgrounds were more likely to re-offend than older convicts from rural backgrounds. The data, however, is open to two interpretations. As younger urban convicts were predominantly unskilled, or had skills which did not match the requirements of the colonial labour market, they may have been more likely to have been brought before a magistrates' bench and charged. Conversely, as some colonial masters admitted, convicts whose skills were in demand may have been charged less frequently, not necessarily because they were better behaved, but for fear that their master or mistress would be deprived of their services. The crucial point is that the number of charges entered on a convict's conduct sheet may not be a good indicator of their actual conduct, but more an indicator of their utility.16 Indeed, this was one of the allegations made by the Molesworth enquiry. In summary, one the most important impacts of Convict Workers was that it dragged the spotlight of attention away from the old question of 'who were the convicts' and focused instead on the nature of the colonial experience of transportation.17

This second issue has engaged a number of historians. Ray Evans and Bill Thorpe, for example, while accepting Convict Workers' broader conclusions on the nature of transportees, argued that the book's depiction of the colonial economy was akin to a benign clockwork paradise where the values of the state ruled supreme. Although Convict Workers had claimed that: 'The convicts speak not in words, but out of the dry dust of the statistics collected in order to regulate their convict life', as Evans and Thorpe pointed out only five transportees, all male, were named in the entire book. They claimed, that along with the horrors of the lash, punishment cells and penal stations, real convict voices had been ignored by the Convict Workers team.18 Subsequent work has examined the way in which convicts attempted to articulate their lives, whether through resistance and other transgressive acts like engagement in black market activities, or by writing. Most of these attempts have raised more questions than they have answered. The probe into convict narratives, for example, uncovered a plethora of problems associated with the interpretation of these texts. Many of them turned out to have been heavily shaped by middle-class editors to prepare them for wider consumption. Others proved to be strangely at odds with archival accounts, leaving uncomfortable question marks over their veracity. In short, attempts to use the words of convicts to create accurate windows on the past have proved as problematic as earlier endeavours to use middle-class descriptions of convict lives to try and establish who the convicts were.19

Some of these issues have particular significance for the history of convict transportation to Van Diemen's Land. It has been suggested that the southern colony received the worst of the convicts and therefore its experience was notably different from that of New South Wales.20 There appear to be three reasons for this view. First, that in the early years of settlement Van Diemen's Land was used as an unofficial dumping ground by the colonial administration in New South Wales. Little evidence supports this. Indeed, in numerical terms, Van Diemen's Land benefited considerably from these additional infusions of labour which colonial shipping indents show were largely composed of convict mechanics.21 Second, that following the establishment of Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur penal stations, Van Diemen's Land received a disproportionate number of retransported secondary offenders. This charge has more merit, although the overall numbers were probably relatively small and were to some extent outweighed by convicts retransported from Van Diemen's Land to mainland settlements. Third, that as before 1840 relatively few convicts were transported direct from Ireland, Van Diemen's Land received a disproportionate number of urban ne'er do wells from the slums of industrialising mainland Britain. It should be noted, however, that the alternative way of looking at this is to argue that, as convicts from Britain were significantly more skilled and literate than those from Ireland, the lack of Irish transportees was more of an economic advantage than a disadvantage. It is probably true to say that the transportation systems in both colonies were broadly similar, although there were many regional variations.22

Overall assessments of the experience of transportation are difficult to make. While some prisoners ended up establishing themselves as successful landowners or business operators, others spent long unproductive years in penal stations, road and chain gangs. Some gross generalisations are possible. Those transported in the first few decades had a greater chance of long-term economic success than those transported later when labour markets were glutted and access to land was more difficult. While for many, enforced separation from kith and kin had a psychological impact, as evidenced by recent work on convict love tokens and tattoos, others are reputed to have greeted a sentence to transportation by cheering from the dock (although whether this was from joy or bravado is impossible to determine).23 As the presence of numerous convict descendants testifies, many managed to successfully raise colonial families, although chronic gender imbalances (over four men wre transported to Van Diemen's Land for every woman) must have occasioned much more in the way of social angst. Perhaps the enigma of convict transportation is that it has proved so difficult to identify what the typical convict experience was. As Marion Quartly has concluded, questions about convict society continue to fascinate historians as each successive generation has sought to inject new meaning into a varied and complex story.24

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

1. Estimate for Van Diemen's Land based on information from the Archives Office of Tasmania See also S Nicholas, Convict workers: reinterpreting Australia's past, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988; AR Ekirch, Bound for America, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987; M Bogle, Convicts, Glebe: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 1999; S Sen, Disciplining punishment: colonialism and convict society in the Andaman Islands, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000; HM Beckles, White servitude and Black slavery in Barbados 1627–1715, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989; C Anderson, Convicts in the Indian Ocean: transportation from South Asia to Mauritius, 1815–53, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000 and C Anderson, Legible bodies: race criminality, and colonialism in South Asia, Oxford: Berg, 2004.
2. PR Eldershaw, Guide to the public records of Tasmania, Section three, Convict Department Records Group, AOT, p 62.
3. Eldershaw, pp 6-7.
4. W Gates, Recollections of life in Van Diemen's Land, reprinted in G Mackaness (ed), Australian Historical Monographs, 40, Sydney: D S Ford, 1961, pp 39–40.
5. H Maxwell-Stewart, 'Convict workers, “penal labour” and Sarah Island : life at Macquarie Harbour, 1822–1834', in I Duffield and J Bradley (eds),Representing convicts: new perspectives on convict forced labour migration, London : Leicester University Press, 1997, pp 142–47.
6. Based on analysis of a systematic sample of 1 in 25 conduct registers for male convicts arriving in the assignment era, 1816–1839, AOT, Con 31 series.
7. N Townsend, 'A “Mere Lottery”: the convict system in New South Wales through the eyes of the Molesworth Committee', Push from the Bush, 21, 1985, pp 58-86, and C Pybus and H Maxwell-Stewart, American citizens, British slaves: Yankee political prisoners in an Australian penal colony 1839–1850, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, pp 83-94.
8. AGL Shaw, Convicts & the colonies: a study of penal transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other parts of the British Empire, London : Faber & Faber, 1966, pp 295-360.
9. GA Wood, 'Convicts', Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings 8, 1922, pp 177-208; Shaw, Convicts & the colonies ; CMH Clark, 'The origins of the convicts transported to eastern Australia, 1787–1852, Historical Studies, 7, 1956, pp 121-35 & 314-27; and LL Robson, The convict settlers of Australia, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1965.
10. Robson, The convict settlers, pp 157-8.
11. F Moore, The convicts of Van Diemen's Land (1840-1853), Hobart: Cat & Fiddle Press, 1976; and JB Hirst, Convict society and its enemies: a history of early New South Wales, Sydney : Allen and Unwin, 1983.
12. H McQueen, 'Convicts and rebels', Labour History, 15, 1968, pp 3-30; and RW Connell and TH Irving, Class structure in Australian history: documents, narrative and argument, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1982, pp 44-50.
13. R Hughes, The fatal shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787–1868, London : Collins Harvill, 1987, p 165.
14. S Nicholas (ed), Convict workers: reinterpreting Australia's past, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1988.
15. M Sturma, 'Eye of the beholder: the stereotype of women convicts 1788–1852', Labour History, 34, 1978, pp 3-10
16. H Maxwell-Stewart, 'The bushrangers and the convict system of Van Diemen's Land, 1803–1846', Ph D Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1990, pp 148-50.
17. K Reid, 'Moving on: resolving the convict origins debate', Australian Studies, 12/1, 1997, pp 139-55.
18. R Evans and W Thorpe, 'Power, punishment and penal labour: Convict workers and Moreton Bay', Australian Historical Studies, 25, 1992, pp 90-111; and S Nicholas and P Shergold, 'Convicts as migrants' in Nicholas, Convict workers, p 45.
19. I Duffield, 'Problematic passages: “Jack Bushman's” Convict narrative' in Duffield and Bradley (eds), Representing convicts, pp 20-42; H Maxwell-Stewart, 'The search for the convict voice', Tasmanian Historical Studies 6/1, 1998, pp 75-89; and L Frost and H Maxwell-Stewart (eds), Chain letters: narrating convict lives, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001.
20. See for example C White, A history of Australian bushranging, vol 1, Hawthorn: Lloyd O'Niel, 1970, p 2; RW Giblin, The early history of Tasmania, Carlton : Melbourne University Press, 1939, p 130; and Robson, Convict settlers, p 157.
21. B Dyster, 'Public employment and assignment to private masters, 1788–1821', in Nicholas, Convict workers, p 145.
22. Maxwell-Stewart, 'The bushrangers', 154-56.
23. See for example M Field and T Millett (eds), Convict love tokens, Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1988.
24. M Quartly, 'Convict history', in G Davison, J Hirst, S MacIntyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp 154-56.