A Short History - In The Beginning


Away with these whimsical bubbles of air
Which only excite a momentary stare;
Attention to plans of utility pay,
Weigh anchor, and steer for Botany Bay.
Let no one think much of a trifling expense,
Who knows what may happen a hundred years hence?
The loss of America what can repay?
New Colonies seek for at Botany Bay.
So wrote a London wit in December, 1786. the world in general and Australians in particular have in the past been conscious of the bar sinister of convict ancestry that figures on this country's escutcheon. It was only in 1938 that the last of the convicts transported to Australia died on these shores; in that year, Samuel Speed, the sole survivor, died at the Old Men's Home at Perth. He arrived in Western Australia in 1864 under sentence of seven years for arson, but was released as a good-conduct man after three years.
It was not until 1960 that the first published history of the convict period in Western Australia - 1850-1868 - made its appearance under the title of Unwilling Emigrants (Alexandra Hasluck). In 1931, a small kangaroo-skin poach containing a bundle of letters was found during the demolition of old police buildings at Today, Western Australian Historical Society. Examination showed that they had been written between 1867 and 1879 to a convict named William Sykes by members of his family in Yorkshire. Incredibly, the majority of the members of this historical society wanted to destroy the letters. They dismissed them as being 'purely personal and of no historical interest', but when a few members thought otherwise the letter-burners came right out into the open and declared vehemently that the convict history of the State was one best forgotten. Perhaps this astonishing outlook was not altogether surprising since the first official centenary volume, published in 1929 under the editorship of Sir Hal Colebatch, gave the history of Western Australia without any reference to convicts whatsoever! Fortunately the letters were saved partly by the efforts of Mrs. Alexandra Hasluck, the author of Unwilling Emigrants, and the only published history of the convict period in Western Australia.
There was a time - fifty years ago and less - when, as a people, Australian were ashamed of their beginnings, but today a more sensible attitude has been adopted; so much so that to have a convict forbear is almost a sign of distinction. Australia itself now honours many ex-convicts with place-naming and in other ways. If Americans study their own history they will see that for many years prior to the establishment of a British settlement in Australia, Britain was sending her convicts to America at the rate of more than 1000 a year. After the American War of Independence, Botany Bay was substituted for Chesapeake Bay and New South Wales received the stream of settlers who formerly went to the plantations of Virginia and Maryland. The British Government had hoped that the Americans, though now independent, would be willing to accept convicts as they had done before, but the hostile reception given to the first post-war shipload sent out clearly proved that they were over-optimistic.
The Australian nation owes its foundation to the convict system. That the British Government's only interest in this country during its first years was as a dumping ground for prisoners is shown by the fact that no definite legal provisions were made for civil government. On August 18, 1786, Lord Sydney, Secretary for Home Affairs and the Colonies in the Government of George III, signed a dispatch to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury which began. The several gaols and places for the confinement of felons in this kingdom being in so crowded a state that the greatest danger is to be apprehended ... his Majesty ... has been pleased to signify to me his Royal commands that measures should immediately be pursued for sending out of this kingdom such of the convicts as are under sentence or order of transportation ...
His Majesty has thought it advisable to fix upon botany Bay, situated on the coast of New South Wales ... which, according to the accounts given by the late Captain cook, as well as the representations of persons who accompanied him during his last voyage and who have been consulted upon the subject, is looked upon as a place likely to answer the above purposes.
'I am, therefore, commanded to signify to your Lordships his Majesty's pleasure that you do forthwith take such measures as may be necessary for providing a proper number of vessels for the conveyance of 750 convicts to Botany Bay together with such provisions, necessaries and implements for agriculture as may be necessary for their use after their arrival.'
Many Australians seem to be under the impression that the convicts were not criminals in the true sense of the word but merely guilty of trifling misdemeanours and harshly punished by the severe penal laws of their day. Stealing a loaf of bread, poaching a rabbit, or advocating political reform are often quoted as common offences for which great numbers of the prisoners were exiled. Certainly very many were convicted for what would be described today as minor offences, but there are no instances of prisoners transported here for stealing a loaf of bread or poaching a rabbit. Not that details are known of the full nature of the offence of most of the convicts. 'Larcency' was applied to a wide range of thefts which could cover anything from shoplifting to highway robbery. (Details of the offences would be filed in English court records at the town or city where prisoners were tried.) Those guilty of stealing goods to the value of one shilling or more were liable to be hanged, hence values were often 'controlled' to bring them below that dangerous level. For example, Simeon Lord was transported for stealing 100 yards of muslin and 100 yards of calico to a total value of ten pence - obviously an under-valuation. William Walker, alias William Swallow, a convict who figured in the piracy of the brig Cyprus, was sentenced for stealing clothes and food in 1820 'worth eight pence' - surely another instance of 'uncontrolled' valuation. 
As regards political prisoners, the Irish rebels, Scottish Martyrs, Tolpuddle trade-union pioneers and the French-Canadian Patriots combined would form a very small minority among the thousands of transportees. But without any 'white-washing' or bias one can get a fair estimate of the crimes in general of prisoners sent here by examining the criminal laws of those times. And those laws and penalties were severe. Crimes that brought the penalty of transportation included the advocacy of universal suffrage, trade-unionism even in its mildest form, and parliamentary reform. Such things were claimed as the diabolical thinking of anarchists. At the time of Australia's first settlement there were 200 offences in England which carried the death penalty (a boy of eleven years was hanged for stealing a handkerchief), and the English gaols, like their administration, were physically and morally rotten. Many of Australia's 'criminals' were boys and girls not yet in their teens; one of those who had been sentenced to transportation for the term of his natural life was a child of seven, governor Hunter, in giving evidence before the English House of Commons in 1812, stated that during his regime in New South Wales transportees included boys and girls no older than twelve and men and women of over eighty years.
there were, of course, some desperate characters among the convicts. but very many of the prisoners were offenders whose convictions had their roots in poverty and despair or who could not adjust themselves to society because of ignorance, indolence or lack of self-restraint. Many of the women were obviously 'born to be bad', but the inhumanity of social conditions of those times which allowed women asked to the waist to work in the stifling heat of the mines alongside completely naked miners gave them no encouragement to remould their lives. Rather it speeded their downfall. Beginning as a forlorn, despised, half-forgotten penal settlement whose people had to establish themselves under a violent despotism, neglect and starvation, Australia as a nation was cradled in the Colony of New South Wales when Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Botany Bay with eleven ships and a personnel of 1000 odd. this was eighteen years after Captain James Cook explored and took possession of the eastern coast in 1770. 
Six months before the First Fleet sailed from England the Sussex Weekly Advertiser of November 134, 1786, wrote that 'The plan of transporting convicts to Botany Bay is considered as a lunatic scheme'. An eloquent example of the pitfalls of prophecy. The same newspaper, a few weeks beforehand - October 2, 1786 - gives an indication of one of the supposed reasons for the First Fleet: 'Whatever expense (and the highest calculation is not immoderate) the plan of sending the convicts may cost government, something must be done in the present alarming state of criminality in this country. A man ignorant of the fact is shocked to hear that in London prisons only there are always above a thousand prisoners for different crimes, and no sooner are fifty or an hundred disposed of than there are as many ready to be committed in their room. the frequency of commitments is astonishing.' (Regarding the reference to the expense of dispatching the First fleet, the cost to Britain has been estimated at 84,000 pounds.) 
In the same issue of that newspaper is an ominous paragraph. 'Each of the transport ships going to Botany Bay have two guns loaded with grapeshot pointed down the hatchway where the convicts are to be; and which will be fired on them should any riot or mutiny happen'. Not that much publicity was given to the Fleet's departure. Newspapers were not numerous, and at the time most of their news space was given over to the trial of Warren Hastings and the morganatic marriage of the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Fitzherbert. A bare two or three lines stating that the fleet destined for Botany Bay had departed is the only press mention. but two private references to the sailing are still extant. The minister of a church in the Isle of Wight recorded in his diary that, as the convoy left Spithead, he prayed for its safety and for the souls of the prisoners. And an anonymous officer, writing in the United Services Journal for December, 1846, described the embarkation of convicts at Portsmouth. 'I recollect perfectly all the shop-windows and doors at Portsmouth being closed on this occasion, and the streets line with troops while the wagons - I think 30 in number - passed to Point Beach where the boats were ready to receive them. As soon as they were embarked they gave three tremendous cheers, and were rowed off to the transport ready for their reception at Spithead.'
Historians have closely examined the early naval life of Arthur Phillip, and the opinion has often been expressed that he was in many respects an obscure officer. Certainly his appointment to the position of commander-in-chief of the expedition received criticism from Lord Howe of the Admiralty, and it also surprised others. A naval contemporary, Edward Spain, wrote in his memoranda (in the possession of the Mitchell Library, Sydney): 'Fortune smiles when we think of it. Who would have thought it that Captain P-p a man of no great family without any connections should be appointed commodore and governor of the new colony to be established in New Holland.'
Apparently, however, there must have been some people in high authority who knew his worth, even though they were not sure of the spelling of his name. Often it appeared as Phillips, and other variations, even in official documents. the Sussex Weekly Advertiser, which spoke of the 'lunatic scheme', printed the following paragraph in its issue of October 16, 1786. 'Mr. Phillips is the officer appointed to superintend the proposed settlement at botany Bay. this gentleman is a captain in the navy, possessing a spirit of enterprise and an understanding which qualify him for any adventurous undertaking. He is to be stationed at the settlement for three years at an annual salary of 308 pounds.'
Arthur Phillip was wisely chosen to the Australia's first Governor. A man more suitable for the task of controlling the motley crowd of soldiers, civilians and convicts which he had to rule could hardly have been found. He possessed the courage and patience to overcome the many obstacles, human and material, that confronted him, and right up to the time of his retirement from ill-health in 1792 he constantly urged the British Government to send out civilian setters. 'We shall want some good characters', said he, 'so which these people might look up.' Let us face facts. There was never any glorious empire-building idea of colonizing this country. England merely ridded herself of many occupants of her embarrassingly overcrowded prisons. there was a pressing need to 'effectually dispose of convicts' to this far away land' the remoteness of its situation from whence it is hardly possible for persons to return without permission' to quote Lord Sydney. the vicious repressions of the poor by the English upper class - perhaps born of the fear of an English equivalent to the French revolution - resulted in an increase of thefts. An example of how the wrong doers were punished is shown in a copy of the Kent Gaol Register for the Lenten Assizes held at Maidstone on Monday, March 15, 1830. It states that the Court was held before the Right Honorable Sir Nicholas Conyngham, Chief Justice of His Majesty's Court of Common Pleas, and the Honorable Sir John Bayley, Justice of His Majesty's Court of King's Bench. Here are a few of the sentences:
James Price, aged 22, chimney-sweep. Charged on suspicion of stealing 10 feet of lead pipe, value 6/-
SENTENCE; Transportation to Botany Bay for 145 years
Roger Cutler, labourer. Stealing 15 lbs. of beef
John Prentice, aged 15 years. Stealing three boxes of caps for guns.
SENTENCE; Transportation to Botany Bay for 7 years.
Thomas Royston, aged 22. Stealing horse and cart.
John Broughton, aged 20. Stealing 4 bushels of meal and 4 bushels of flour.
James Carey, aged 15. Stealing from a house one sovereign and other articles.
Terence Selby, fisherman, aged 23. Charged on suspicion of stealing one pair of boots, value 5/-
SENTENCE: Transportation to Botany Bay for life.
And so the grim list goes on, covering 91 sentences.    
There is ample evidence to show that if Britain had not decided to establish a convict settlement at Botany Bay, Australia would have been colonised by France or some other nation. But whatever the offence that may have led to some unfortunate being sentenced to transportation, the fact remains that the first shiploads to come to this country suffered sufficiently on the voyage itself to expiate anything but the most horrible of crimes. Many of the convicts of the Second fleet for instance, were guilty of no more serious an offence than would today be dismissed under the First Offender's Act. They were shipped to Australia in crazy hulks, spent eight months at sea chained in the holds often waist deep in water, and when disease attacked them were allowed to die like flies. Miserable wretches denied even the common necessities of sufficient food and water, searched their dead and dying comrades for the paltry possession they might have managed to retain, even stealing the tobacco quids from the mouths of the dead. As convicts died, the deaths were not reported until nature could no longer endure the presence of the corpses in the stinking holds; for undisclosed deaths meant extra rations to share between the semi-starved wretches who remained.
Thanks to Phillip, conditions on the First Fleet was fairly satisfactory, but 267 convicts died in the Second Fleet, and 199 in the third. a military officer of the day, Captain Hill, wrote: "The slave traffic is merciful compared with what I have seen in this (second) fleet; in that it is in the interests of the matters to preserve the healths and lives of their captives, they have a joint benefit with the owners; in this, the more they can withhold from the unhappy wretches, the more provisions they have to dispose of at a foreign market, and the earlier in the voyage they die, the longer they can draw the deceased's allowance to themselves'. When the Second fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, the remnants of that pitiful human cargo were mustered on deck one drizzling morning. The living were herded into rain-filled boats to be taken ashore; the dead thrown naked - their clothing being more valuable than their emaciated bodies - into Sydney Harbour, to be washed up for days afterwards on the rocks around the Cove. Of the 486 convicts who were landed sick from the three vessels of the Second Fleet - Neptune, Surprise, and Scarborough - 124 died shortly after their arrival.
So shockingly overcrowded was the Nepture that 200 members of the crew deserted before she left England, and even while she was still in the river many of the convicts died, their bodies being dumped overboard. Throughout the entire voyage the male convicts were kept in chains as a precaution against any possibility of an uprising. Death took its heaviest toll in the tropics and sometimes a living prisoner would find himself chained to a dead companion for days before the putrefying corpse was removed. the women convicts were given a fair amount of freedom and were regarded more as concubines of the ship's company who at night selected their favourites and carried them off to their quarters. On board the Scarborough were two passengers destined for fame in Australian history - John and Elizabeth Macarthur. They began the voyage on the Neptune but before their vessel's departure from Gravesend John Macarthur and the captain, John Gilbert, were are loggerheads, their violent quarrelling leading to blows. Macarthur's complaints centered around conditions aboard the vessel, 'the stench of the buckets belonging to the convict women', and the location of his cabin. Mrs. Macarthur has much to say about all this in her diary. For a while there was a truce between the two men but during the trip round the coast to Plymouth tempers flared anew. On arrival at Plymouth ?docks they fought a duel, although a bloodless one. The wrangling continued, even more violently, and the port authorities arranged for a transfer of masters with Captain Donald Traill as the new skipper of the Nepture. Traill, a Master of the Navy, who fought under Nelson, was an inhuman monster and the Macarthurs wisely changed over to the Scarborough.
When the three ships comprising the Second fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, the Reverend Richard Johnson could not steel his nerves to go aboard the Neptune, so horrifying was the scene,  so intolerable the stench from the vessel. He went on board the Scarborough and proposed to go down the hold among the convicts but was dissuaded from it by the captain. His account of what he witnessed on the Surprise, the less appalling of the three ships, is bad enough:'... a sight truly shocking to the feelings of humanity ... a great number of them lying nearby naked, without either bed or bedding, unable to turn or help themselves ... the smell was so offensive I could scarcely bear it ... the landing of these people was truly affecting and shocking, great members were not able to walk, and to move hand or foot. Such were slung over the ship's side in the same manner as they would sling a cash or box; or anything of that nature. Upon their being brought up to the open air, some fainted, some died upon deck, and others in the boat before they reached the shore. 'When com on shore, many were not able to walk, to stand, or to stir themselves in the least. Hence some were led by others while some crept upon their hands and knees, and some were carried on the backs of others.'
They were taken to tent hospitals, to quote Rev. Johnson again: 'In each of these tents there were about four sick people, where they lay in a most deplorable situation. At first, they had nothing to lie upon but the damp ground, many scarcely a rag to cover them. Grass was got for them to lie upon and a blanket given amongst four of them. the misery I saw amongst them is inexpressible. their heads, bodies, clothes all full of filth and lice. Scurvy was not the only or worst disease that prevailed amongst them. Some were exercised with violent fevers, and others a no less violent purging or flux ...'
Johnson complained to the governor about the dead being thrown from the ships into the harbour, and the naked corpses to be seen lying upon the rocks. As a result ... 'his Excellency, in consequence of which immediate orders were sent on board that these who died on board should be carried to the opposite North Shore to be buried'. With regard to this Second Fleet, Governor Phillip, in a letter to the Right Honourable W. W. Grenville, dated Sydney, New South Wales, July 15th, 1790, said: 'I will not dwell on the scene of misery which the hospitals and sick  tents exhibited when those people were landed, but it would be a want of duty not to say that it was occasioned by the contractors having crowded too many on board those ships and from their being too much confined during the passage'. This unmitigated brutality, however, did not continue for the rest of the whole period to which the Australian colonies were considered in England to be penal outposts for the Old Company's erring children. A revolutionary change was made when Lachlan Macquarie was appointed Governor of New South Wales. Macquarie and his Surgeon, William Redfern - himself a former convict - evolved a policy in 1914 which robbed the voyage from England to Australia of those extreme hardships and terrors which had made men beg to be sent to the gallows rather than be transported. there had been a gradual improvement in conditions aboard the transport ships since1802 and a greatly decreased death-toll. Even so, sickness on the General Hewitt, Surry, and Three Bees, which arrived in 1814, was so widespread as to cause Governor Macquarie to demand a full equity, and the report of William Redfern brought about many improvements.
Under this enlightened policy the convicts shipped to New south Wales were watched over and attended to during the entire voyage by surgeons who not only were under bond and given a bonus for the successful carrying out of their duties, but who were better able to stand up to the ship's master if necessary. These surgeons, acting as government agents, were empowered to see that the masters fulfilled the terms of the charter-party with regard to sufficient rations and fresh water, exercise of prisoners on deck, and properly cleaned and ventilated quarters. Moreover, separate ships were provided for female convicts, and later for juveniles. the transported felons on arrival in Sydney were line up aboard the transports while the governor himself inspected them and passed judgment on their physical condition. The surgeon who had neglected his charges regretted it when Macquarie had got through with him.
The result of this change in policy and conditions was extraordinary. Judged by the standards of the age, the convict ships lying to Australia became almost pleasant ships, instead of the threat of transportation to Botany Bay being a deterrent to crime, men and women began to commit petty offences in order to have a free ocean voyage with, at the end of it, a chance for making good in a new land. Superintendent Cotton of Newgate Prison has left it on record that his gaol birds used to sing as they left for exile. In 1818, Cotton informed a Police Committee that 'the generality of those who formed are transported consider it as a party of pleasure - as going out to see the world; they evince no penitence, no contrition, but seem to rejoice in the thing, many of them to court it'. He had, he said, heard prisoners return thanks to the Recorder for their sentences, and seem overjoyed. They shouted and cheered as they were being taken away. some of them called out to the warders that 'the first fine Sunday we will have a glorious kangaroo hunt at the Bay'.
They knew they would be provided with good clothes and given ample food. They were assured of employment when they were freed. to be a convict in this new strange land was infinitely preferable, from a material viewpoint, to being free in late Georgian England. They were aware, too, that in the new colony taint of conviction brought no shame, for nine-tenths of all the population had been convicted. If fortune were with them they might perhaps rise to be great merchants like Simeon Lord, with a town house and a country home, fat farms, a seat on the Bench, cards for Government House levees. At worst they would have the food, clothing, warmth, and freedom from care which their homeland denied them.
These then were Australia's early citizens. The men and women of the first transports, brutalised by their journey, even if they had not already sunk beyond redemption before leaving England. Others, in many cases, people to whom the status of ex-convict was no cause for shame, but who had deliberately courted the penalty imposed on them. It must be borne in mind that the horrors revealed by eyewitnesses, or substantiated by documentary evidence, were by no means typical of convict conditions. Less than 10 per cent, of the prisoners transported to Australia ever saw the inside of a penal settlement in this country, and many who did do so were there only for brief periods.
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