Black Convicts

When James Brown arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1833 he told the muster master: 'I was taken when a child as a Slave from the Congo River and sold to a Spanish Slaver. Captured by a British King's Ship & liberated at Sierra Leone. Brought away from thence as servant'. Brown was one of several hundred black convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land.

After 1830, the West Indies slave colonies sought transportation as a means to control a dangerously restive slave population excited by rumours of impending emancipation. The same year as Brown, Alexander Simpson arrived in Van Diemen's Land and told the Muster Master his offence was: 'Mutiny & exciting the Slaves to rebellion. I was a slave myself'. Indeed, Simpson was a participant in the largest slave rebellion in the British Empire at Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1831.

A few black women transported included Maria, a slave from the Bay of Honduras who stabbed a man who may have been trying to rape her, and Priscilla from Jamaica who was convicted of trying to poison her mistress. Other African convicts were the indigenous Khoi (called Hottentots by the British) of the Cape Colony who were mostly convicted of banditry and cattle stealing, though their real crime was resistance to colonial rule.

One of Tasmania's last convict bushrangers was Peter Haley, a Khoi man from the Cape Colony, executed in 1857. William Cuffay, son of a West Indian slave in London, was transported as one of the leaders of a republican Chartist conspiracy in London in 1848.

Further reading: C Pybus, 'A touch of the tar', London Papers in Australian Studies 3, 2001.

Cassandra Pybus