Cultural Artefact: Exile
Exile to Van Diemen's Land was voluntary as well as forced, though the latter has gained most attention up to the end of transportation in 1853. Tasmanian records are rich in recording the initial adjustment of convicts to a new society. Both voluntary and forced exile, however, were equally subject to the forces of push and pull. A voluntary exile may seek escape from problems at home or be lured by opportunities elsewhere, while penal authorities balance the effective elimination of criminals against colonial interest in their receipt. Van Diemen's Land was established as a penal colony in 1803 and convict requirements outweighed the interests of migrating free settlers. But, as the colony grew, free settler interests helped to force a reversal of Colonial Office policy.
Forced exile impacted on voluntary exile when convict labour helped free settlers with a little capital to achieve success unattainable at home. Sometimes such progress enabled settlers and some fortunate convicts to return from exile but, more often, the perception of exile evaporated as the settler forgot the homeland. Meanwhile, the economic progress of the colony and opportunities to rise from convict servitude reduced the punitive quality of transportation. For some it became free emigration to a better life rather than the most feared deterrent short of execution.
Transportation had long been used by Britain and other countries as a substitute for the death penalty. The revolt of the American colonies in the late eighteenth century encouraged the establishment of a penal colony at Botany Bay in 1788 and Van Diemen's Land in 1803. In the eighteenth century, opinion, perhaps influenced by the Enlightenment, revolted at the spectacle of mass executions of men, women, and sometimes children, for relatively minor crimes.
Death, appearing a strong deterrent, remained an apparently effective punishment. It was cheap and avoided the return of the recidivist criminal to old haunts and associates. Nevertheless, transportation, snatching criminals from friends, associates and familiar scenes and launching them for good into an unknown and often brutal environment, was almost as dreaded as the gallows. If colonial resources contributed and convict labour tamed a wilderness exploitable by the Mother Country, transportation might prove a financial bargain.
Such was the almost compelling logic of the system of compulsory exile to Australia in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. It solved basic problems of penology, while providing colonial infrastructure and a workforce for voluntary exiles. The assignment system in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, coupled with generous land grants, enabled a number of small capitalists, and sometimes convicts themselves, to acquire gentry status.
While twenty-first century governments reject economic but endorse political refugees, in the nineteenth century a distinction between those leaving their homeland through crippling economic hardship and those seeking to better themselves in exile was difficult to make. Was exile motivated by selfish self-improvement when grievances lingered against home governments which had frustrated opportunity? So-called free emigrants from Ireland are a case in point. Girls expatriated en bloc from orphanages or workhouses differed little from those transported by court sentence. Some technically free immigrants, moreover, travelled as the children of convict mothers and, occasionally, convict fathers. Frequently during the Irish famine of the 1840s, and sometimes in England at an earlier period, crimes were specifically committed to obtain removal to a land where hunger would be appeased. Here penal and voluntary exile are conflated.
Van Diemen's Land gradually transformed itself from penal station into a land of opportunity for free settlers. Earlier accounts of brutalities gave the island a fearsome reputation in Britain, endorsing transportation as a deterrent little short of death. But to James Mill in 1824, transportation 'has not even the appearance of a punishment'. Many convicts with Van Diemen's Land experience could have refuted such arguments. After the Molesworth Select Committee Report of 1838, however, the critics had their way. Assignment was replaced by probation, theoretically emphasising punishment and training, while Van Diemen's Land, after the ending of transportation to New South Wales in 1840, became the main repository of convictism in the Southern Hemisphere.
The system, now under extreme pressure, brought the whole concept of forced exile into contention. Too many convicts to be easily absorbed into the workforce were landed in Van Diemen's Land. The probation system broke down economically, and according to nineteenth century ideas, morally, with homosexuality believed rife in the working gangs. Free settlers, deprived of the convenience of assigned labour, demanded the abolition of transportation and the establishment of self-government. At the same time, the 'hungry 'forties' in England and the Irish famine greatly increased the pressure on gaols in the home countries.
In Ireland, famine and related disease killed almost one million from a population of four million, while another million emigrated, mainly to North America, a cheaper journey than that to Australia. The concept of penal exile was in tatters. A gaping discrepancy opened up between the theory, still stated regularly by circuit judges and county assistant barristers, that transportion was reserved for particularly serious offences or repeated crimes, and the reality that the majority of Irish convicts appearing in Van Diemen's Land were first offenders. Theoretically, medical inspection on the point of departure monitored removal only of convicts young and fit enough to be of value in Van Diemen's Land. Pressure of numbers ensured that such guidelines were often ignored, sometimes deliberately. Convicts aged up to seventy, or harbouring serious disease, appeared in Tasmania. Such cases buttressed the propaganda of free settlers against the continuance of the system.
Many offenders were themselves confused at a time when food and conditions were often better in the overcrowded prisons than the workhouses, a number of which had already closed their doors against the famished multitudes. To some convicts a sentence of transportation was still a terrifying experience, provoking physical collapse in court, while others insolently thanked their judge for the career opportunity provided. Occasionally, convict plans went awry. Committing offences intended to secure a brief respite from hunger pangs in a local gaol, offenders might discover to their horror that they were committed to an indefinite exile from home and associates. On the other hand, derelicts sentenced to local incarceration, fearing starvation on release, might beg their judges for permanent exile to a land of apparent plenty. Certain offences, such as arson, easily committed by women, were particularly useful in ensuring sentences of transportation at this bleak period. Judges varied in that some accepted pleas for exile, while others refused to consider convict wishes.
With both home authorities and potential convicts exhibiting uncertainty as to the objects and results of enforced exile, Vandemonian settlers appeared to have no doubts. The mid-1840s saw a passionate outcry against transportation itself. There was no disposition to assist the poor and suffering, sometimes driven to crime to preserve their lives. On the contrary, the Anti-Transportation Leagues which sprang up insisted on the total replacement of convicts with the labour of free exiles. Great efforts were made to persuade their adherents to boycott all newly arrived transportees. Lord Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, appeared to prevaricate. Apparently accepting the end of transportation in 1846 and checking the flow of male convicts for two years, he attempted to revive the system in a new guise.
'Exiles' were to replace convicts. These 'exiles' represented a new penal nostrum of the time, reform through separate treatment, followed by disciplined labour. After a period of separation in Pentonville, or one of the other gaols established for the purpose, the convict would receive industrial training at an institution such as Millbank. He would then be adjudged fit for an immediate conditional pardon or ticket-of-leave in Van Diemen's Land. Female prisoners could not be put through the same system, but some efforts were made to educate them before sending them overseas. In Ireland the pressure on gaols was too great for the system to work effectively, but in 1850, following an attempt in Belfast, Mountjoy Prison was opened for separate training and Spike Island in Cork Harbour was used to provide labouring experience on defence works.
Settler opinion in Van Diemen's Land was incensed rather than appeased by Grey's innovation. Even Lt-Governor Sir William Denison, who manfully supported convictism in the teeth of free public opinion, was sceptical of the possibility of genuine reform through isolation for the convict to reflect on his soul. Denison argued with some cogency that the period of separation was likely to make a convict more vicious and unmanageable when association was finally restored. The appearance of redemption was usually nothing but clever hypocrisy masking irredeemable evil. On the other hand, especially when gold was discovered on the Australian mainland after 1851, Denison fully believed that the continuance of transportation, which tied convicts to Van Diemen's Land when opportunity beckoned elsewhere, was vital for the local economy. Supported by a group of local grandees, Denison maintained that, despite the rhetoric of the anti-transportationists, demand for convict labour in the colony remained intense. Modern research bears out his contention.
Denison was no more willing than his opponents to offer Van Diemen's Land as a hermitage for the suffering Irish. Refusing to treat boatloads of Irish exiles as prescribed, he maintained that they were too enfeebled by the famine to make good workers and at the same time too rebellious to be easily assimilated. Much has been written on the general character of convicts transported to Australia. The 'Convict Worker' statistical school maintains that far from emerging from a criminal sub-class, the average convict was an ordinary worker, bringing valuable skills to the country. Michael Sturma showed the fallacies of the contemporary view that most convict women were whores, pointing out that nineteenth century commentators failed to distinguish between de facto marriages and prostitution. An Irish study by Rena Lohan has, however, challenged, on the basis of a survey of women confined at Dublin's Grangegorman Prison before departing for Van Diemen's Land, the current conventional views on convicts transported to Australia. These unmarried, recidivist, work-shy harridans depicted by Lohan appeared close to the old 'Damned Whore' stereotype. Correlation with Tasmanian records, however, reveals startling discrepancies, most notably that women listed with no work experience at Grangegorman asserted a range of occupations to Van Diemen's Land authorities.
The technical end of transportation to Van Diemen's Land after the arrival of the St Vincent on 26 May 1853 and the meeting of the two chambers of the Tasmanian parliament on 2 December 1856 did not mean the end of convictism or the problems of exile. Port Arthur continued as a place of secondary transportation until 1877. The most notable buildings of the modern tourist site operated mainly in the post-transportation period. Many years elapsed before the last convicts died out, leaving the eradication of 'the hated stain' as a problem for generations well into the twentieth century. Continuance of a sense of exile depended partly on the perceptions of the immigrants, free or coerced, and partly on the reception they received from the dominant forces of colonial society. Even the successful upper and middle classes retained for many years the exile's penchant for viewing local scenery through European spectacles.
The American historian, Oscar Handlin, classified United States' attitudes to migrants as Anglo-Saxon exclusivism, cultural pluralism (or modern multiculturalism), and total fusion, represented by the now less popular idea of the melting-pot. Mid-nineteenth century Tasmania still strongly asserted an Anglo-Saxon identity. Sir Edward Braddon voiced a common concern at the retention of old world differences and antagonisms. English free migrants were least likely to experience a sense of exile, and those less fortunate in their mode of arrival could settle into a society whose ethos was not markedly different from the one they had left. The Scots, generally Protestant and without any strong political conflict with England, had few problems of assimilation in the colony. Probably because of the scanty gold resources of Tasmania, no significant community of Chinese exiles appeared in Tasmania. Their ingress nevertheless was restricted. Several prominent Jews established themselves and their synagogues in Tasmania; their community had slightly more difficulty than the Scots in comfortable assimilation. Ironically, it was the indigenous Aborigines who, depleted in numbers, were removed to Flinders Island in the cruellest exile of all, before a culturally deprived remnant was returned to Tasmania by Denison in the teeth of white settler hostility.
The nineteenth-century Irish represented the major discordant element in what was a strongly Anglicised colony. Vying with the Jewish people as the exiles par excellence, the Irish since the conquests of their island in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have produced a culture of nostalgic separation exemplified in Gaelic poetry and popular song. Religious difference and reactions to it kept alive the sense of alienation. The Roman Catholic Church appeared in Van Diemen's Land with the arrival of Irish convicts, generally excluded from the colony until the 1840s. A struggle ensued with the authorities to gain pastoral rights for the Catholic Church as opposed to an Anglican unofficial establishment. The Irish Ribbonman, Richard Jones, led a successful strike against attendance at Protestant services at Port Arthur. Catholic chaplains were appointed and a bishopric (later archbishopric) of Hobart established. Religion helped to retain a sense of exile beyond the first generation of migration.
Meanwhile, a minority of Irish Protestants in Tasmania indicated the positive advantages of exile for the fortunate. Captain Michael Fenton, one of four brothers to emigrate to Tasmania, brought in his own batch of free retainers and led the way in establishing free institutions. He worked alongside Richard Dry in opposing transportation and initiating self-government. Dry, later premier and knighted, was the son of a transported Irish rebel, but such grandees rarely emphasised their Irish backgrounds. They responded positively, however, to the transported William Smith O'Brien. A passionate Irish nationalist and a Protestant aristocrat with no trace of an Irish accent, O'Brien had every characteristic of an English gentleman educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. The Rev HP Fry, incumbent of St George's Anglican church, Battery Point, and a strong opponent of the alleged ritualism of the Anglican Bishop Henry Nixon, was another Irishman with few negative characteristics of an exile in the country of his adoption. Even a Catholic Young Irelander, like WP Dowling, who opted to settle in Tasmania and pursue a successful career as a photographer, portrait painter and pillar of his church, similarly played down any hint of exile. Dowling was sufficiently successful to take a trip to his native land, and his laudatory obituary in Launceston newspapers tactfully omitted any reference to his early career as a rebel or transported convict. Even the honourable idealism associated with political exile appeared a convict stain to be expunged from local memory.
The vast majority of the Irish, bond or free, arriving in Tasmania in the nineteenth century found it less easy to ignore their past. During the convict period efforts had been made to import free, subsidised labour. These experiments were often unhappy, and when they involved the poorer Irish, sometimes fuelled the prejudice against them. In 1834, for example, the Strathfieldsay's complement of Irish labourers and female servants was not only roundly abused, but in the case of the women, harassed on disembarkation. The middle-class complaint, heard so frequently in other Australian colonies and New Zealand, that Irish workhouse girls made useless domestics, resounded in Tasmania.
Such immigrants, striving to make their way in a hostile environment, could rely in their exile on the Catholic Church's continued association with Ireland. While the first Catholic bishop, Englishman Robert Willson, had genuine empathy with the downtrodden members of his flock, at the end of his episcopate he was constrained to recommend an Irish successor. Serviced by an Irish clergy, and later by Irish nuns and teaching brothers, the Catholic Church in Tasmania helped keep alive a feeling of Irish identity. The Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society combined the social assistance so vital before the creation of the welfare state with an Irish flavour, albeit steadily diminishing.
The sense of exile and partial alienation was reinforced by a battle for state aid for Catholic schools, lasting a hundred years (1860-1960). The bitterness engendered by constant argument and the cultural as well as religious separation kept the Irish-Catholic community aware of its origins. From time to time there was antagonistic action by Protestant extremists, as in the Chiniquy riots, involving the visit of a rebarbative ex-priest. From 1882 to 1894 Orangemen, despite the concern of local authorities and the Examiner, in a mirror image reaction of Irish Protestant exile, annually paraded in Launceston. The contention over Irish Home Rule, stimulated in Tasmania by visiting Irish Nationalist MPs, followed by the Irish Revolution of 1916-21, maintained a feeling of alienation in exile, though Tasmanian Catholics were relatively slow to respond to Archbishop Daniel Mannix's leadership in Melbourne. After the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, Tasmanian interest gradually declined. Some British emigration schemes in the 1920s replicated the conditions of convictism, some exiles from Britain achieving angry repatriation. By the 1960s, with the final concession of state aid by a Labor government containing many Irish descendants, the Tasmanian Irish, like their counterparts elsewhere, were integrated into an Anglo-Saxon-Celtic establishment, that often looked askance at the demands of new arrivals for multiculturalism. By contrast, in the early twenty-first century, exiles from countries such as Kosovo and El Salvador, desperate to remain and adjust, were sometimes backed by Tasmanian opinion against the stern rulings of the Australian federal government. The position of the 1850s, when the British government attempted to force exiles on outraged free settlers, was thus reversed. Generally, the passing of the quaint habit of calling Britain and Ireland 'Home' removed a far-fetched but indicative symbolic exile.