News & Stories

Unlocking insights from one of the world’s greatest archives

Professor of Social History, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart is using Tasmania's significant convict archives to study intergenerational health issues.

Tasmania is one of the few places on the planet where it is possible to study intergenerational health issues.  This is because the settler population was amongst the best documented in the British Empire. Why? They came against their will.

The life courses of nearly 75,000 convicts are meticulously recorded in leather bound volumes, written by convict clerks.  They detail the lives of the convict workforce for the colony, those who laboured in farms and road gangs in the 'prison without walls', as well as those incarcerated in places like Port Arthur and the female factories. 

'What happens to you if your ancestors have a terrible start in life? Could it impact on the likelihood that you will develop type-2 diabetes?' said Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. 

We want to build an intergenerational database in Tasmania that will allow us to study how the experiences of one generation impacts on their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. And this is one of the few places where this is possible, because of Tasmania's small population size and excellent records.

'We can't run a clinical trial that will answer intergenerational health questions in our lifetime.  But using the detailed records from our convict past, we can find answers to contemporary health and other issues. 

Because they were prisoners, they were described in extraordinary detail. We know their eye colour, their height, their parents’ names, where they were born, what was in their bank accounts. We also know what happened to them, like whether they were flogged and how many days they spent in cells.

"These records are one of the world's great archives, listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.  It is an incredible privilege to work with them."

The research has found that there is a direct link between the experiences of your ancestors and your health. 

"We have found for example, that children of convicts were taller than other colonially born children, such as those born to free labourers who migrated from England. Our research suggests that this is due to smaller family size, which meant fewer mouths to feed and therefore better overall nutrition."

Professor Maxwell-Stewart and his team are also transcribing and photographing the records. 

"We are making them available online for people to access and discover their own ancestry.  We want to see these archives used, to bring to life the stories of the people from Tasmania's past."

The work on the archives has obvious impacts for the tourism industry, but it also has unexpected outcomes. 

We discovered that subjecting someone to solitary confinement not only increased their chance of death at the time of incarceration, but it shortened their life in the long term. They had poorer health.

Professor Maxwell-Stewart said understanding why solitary confinement decreased peoples life expectancy could inform current debates about prison reform and the impact of institutionalisation.

The convict archives will provide enough research topics for Professor Maxwell-Stewart's entire career and beyond.

"I am currently looking at which convicts managed to go straight after the end of their sentence to transportation. We are particularly interested about the impact of intergenerational poverty traps on offending. 

"We are also considering studying 19th Century photographs of prisoners to identify those with facial symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome. The aim is to try and determine if those that might have been affected were shorter in height and had different offending histories.

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