Exile instead of Prison

*Every one knows the story of Australia being populated by prisoners. What role did these people play when they were brought to Australia? Were they slaves, employees? or just released to do as they may? Was the overall effect on the men seen as positive? Did they quickly form laws and communities? What was it like?

Reported for forum change.

Great questions. I look forward to the responses.

I’ve always pondered about it. I deplore the fact that with today’s overpopulation and border laws exile is no longer a feasible alternative.

Moved from IMHO to GQ. This should have factual answers.

I think the usual arrangement was that a convict first served time in an Australian prison, and if he or she survived that (and many did not, it was brutal) then you had to continue living in Australia. Slavery wasn’t permitted in the British empire, so a convict would have had to seek wage employment, on a farm or in the cities. They would work beside people who were ordinary immigrants, and I would guess looked were down on by them.

An Australian friend told me that until recently Australians were ashamed of having convict ancestry, but nowadays there is a certain reverse snobism and people are proud of descent from people forced to move there.

They weren’t sent to Australia as exile in lieu of prison. They were sent to prison in Australia in lieu of execution. Many, many petty(by today’s standards) crimes were punishable by execution, and sending the ‘undesirable’ criminals to the far side of the globe seemed a good idea instead of killing them all. They transported criminals to America for many years, but after the Revolution that option was no longer available.

The wiki article gives a good overview. That article also references The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, which I can heartily recommend for a thorough history of the subject. I have re-read my own copy a number of times.

Georgia was the American equivalent of Australia (though intended for rehabilitation of debtors rather than as an alternative to execution, like Australia was)

Interesting related fact about Georgia: It’s generally believed that exile from a state is not constitutional in the US - there’s no Supreme Court Ruling saying so, but appeals courts have generally ruled that exile from a state is something that only Congress can do. And Georgia’s constitution specifically forbids banishment from the state as a punishment. However, it is a common punishment for a court in Georgia to banish someone from every county but the single least populous county in Georgia, which is almost-but-not-technically banishment from the state.

One of the things that happens in the recent Victoria TV series is that a relative of one of Vicky’s servants was going to be hung, drawn, and quartered for Treason, and one of the few powers of the Monarch that could be exercised without controversy was to commute that sentence to exile to Australia (which she did).

I think it was being sentenced to “transportation”, meaning that you were shipped off to Australia.

AFAIK, the convicts were then set to laboring to build infrastructure and stuff- they earned “Tickets of Leave” through good behavior, which were a sort of parole, and they could be hired for jobs, and were essentially free within Australia.

The sentence was called “transportation”. It played a part in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories. When Watson narrates that a criminal was “sentenced to transportation”, I didn’t know what that meant at the time I read that story.

Robert Heinlein wrote a novel, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress inspired by the Australian exile model. Criminals were exiled to a penal colony on the moon. By the time their sentences were up, they had irreversibly lost their “earth legs” and could never return to Earth.

Here’s a story, although I’m not sure if I have the timelines and chronology right.

Some freed Australians formed a criminal gang, some of whom found their way to San Francisco and set up shop there during the Gold Rush era or shortly after. They came to be known as the “Sydney Ducks”. They became sufficiently troublesome that the good people of S. F. formed a vigilance committee who abducted and secretly tried a bunch of them, and strung up a few – enough to scare the rest of them into fleeing from S. F., whereupon they went to Sacramento. That led to a second vigilance committee there.

The worst and most unruly of the convicts might be confined to prison or some special penal area in Australia, but many were assigned as servants to free settlers or to other work. Often the term of transportation was for a particular term, frequently seven years, at which time you were free to leave. However, many former prisoners lacked the means or opted to stay. Some even became rich. Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations was transported for a life term, and although he became rich he was forbidden to return. When he did so and was discovered he was sentenced to death.

Australia was a bunch of separate colonies, of which not all took convicts. The main ones that did - New South Wales, Van Diemens Land [later Tasmania], Western Australia - had slightly different systems that also changed, so any answer is pretty general.

Transportation was for usually 7, 14, 21 years or life. Once landed you were a ‘government servant’, so would be put to some good, hopefully bringing a useful skill with you. This could range from being a nanny or shepherd to building trade to engineer or doctor. You were given some freedoms which could be taken away for bad behaviour. Punishments included flogging or a sentence, which was commonly served as hard labour in chains on a road gang.

Feeding and clothing all these people cost a lot so many were indentured as labourers to farmers and pastoralists at cost. You could stop being a convict by serving your time, and getting a limited parole - the ticket of leave mentioned above - or get a pardon that effectively cleared the charges. Once free you were an emancipist, but could well carry that as a stain for generations to come.

In New South Wales and Tasmania convict labour built a huge amount of infrastructure, especially roads, harbour breakwaters and water pipelines, land clearing, and was the muscle and grunt behind much of the private wealth created in the first half of the 19th century.

Your status was that you were under sentence and had to abide by specific terms. Earning money in your own time was allowed, but you could not own land, marry or change your assignment without permission.

Interesting song on the topic.

One famous ex-convict was Francis Greenway. He was an architect back in the UK, fell on hard times, forged some documents and was transported to Australia.

In Australia, he was employed as an architect and many of his buildings still remain. He designed some important Government buildings like the Barracks opposite Hyde Park, the Sydney music Conservatory and the original Government House.

He eventually found his way onto out $10 in the 1970s, thus probably becoming the only forger to have his face on (legal) currency.

Hey, we’ve got the leader of a rebellion on our $1.

And a bastard on our $10.

Don’t even want to talk about our $20.

I read the linked Wikipedia article on women convicts and it was pretty bleak. Basically women had to put out for food and shelter and then they were scorned as prostitutes and shunned from society. Many had to line up for the male convicts to inspect them and choose whichever girl he liked. They didn’t really have a choice if they wanted a roof over their head.