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The Convicts

"Botany Bay"






The most famous Aussies are, of course, the convicts. But who exactly were they ? What were the terrible crimes that condemned them to transportation, floggings and chain gangs ? Below are listed just some of the 1000's who found themselves "guests of His Majesty" in the land Down Under.


Irish Rebels

In 1690, Catholic Ireland was conquered by Protestant England. The English subsequently passed laws that Catholics could not vote, could not enter university, could not be members of Parliament, could not own a gun, could not travel more than 5 miles from home and could not teach in Protestant schools. Three-quarters of the Irish land was owned by the English Protestants who rented it to the Irish farmers. If rent was not paid, bailiffs would take anything moveable such as livestock or furniture and then evict the family.

To survive, many were forced to a life of crime while others struggled for political change.  Three uprisings against this oppression occurred (1798, 1848 and 1867) and people suspected of being involved were executed or transported to Australia. Over 50, 000 Irish men were transported for political offences. To join them, family members committed crimes with the intent to be transported or simply came to Australia as free settlers.



Tolpuddle Martyrs

Six men (George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, James Hammet and James Brine) from the village of Tolpuddle in England were transported in 1834 for trying to form a union.



Scottish Martyrs

The Scottish Martyrs were five men (Maurice Magarot, Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Joseph Gerrald) who promoted the ideals of the French revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. The price of their ideals ? Transportation to Australia.



Naval Mutineers

For sailors in the 18th century life was very hard. They could be flogged without reason, food was scarce and pay almost non-existent. It had been said that 'being a sailor in a ship is being in goal with the chance of being drowned.' Mutinies were usually dealt with by hangings however, occasionally, the mutineers were sent to Australia. One notable mutineer was a surgeon by the name of Dr William Redfern. 



Canadian Rebels

In 1837, a group of Canadian rebels staged an uprising to achieve reform. 29 were executed and 149 were transported to Australia. 



The Chartists

The Chartists were a group of about 60 people from Monmouthshire in England who had drawn up a list of changes they wanted made to the political system.  The list included the ideas that everyone should be given a vote, that voting should be by ballot and that Parliamentary members should be paid. (The system of the time only allowed rich men who didn't have to earn a living to enter Parliament.) For creating this list, the Chartists were transported to Tasmania. 




Often the pickpockets were well organised gangs that targeted social gatherings of the rich and famous. In a crowd, the pickpocket's victim would not feel a hand relieving them of their valuables. As soon as the item was stolen, it would be passed to an assistant (often an elegantly dressed lady) who would hurry to another part of town.  




Children as young as 10 were transported for the crime of having no parents, no homes and no schools. Under these circumstances, some took to a life of crime to survive. Many dignitaries were keen to transport orphans as they objected to paying a 'poor tax' needed to run orphanages. 




Some noblemen from England's establishment were transported. These include:




The Convict women were usually reported to have been "low-class women, foul mouthed and with loose morals", however this was not always the case. Often women would commit crimes deliberately to be able to join their husbands in the colony. Women would often intentionally offend the authorities by bearing their back side or name the priest when asked who the father was of their child. 

Punishments for women included an iron collar fastened round the neck, or having her head shaved as a mark of disgrace. Often these punishments were for moral misdemeanours, such as being 'found in the yard of an inn in an indecent posture for an immoral purpose'.




In a house of nobility, if an item went missing or was misplaced, the servant was usually blamed. Convictions were assured even when there was a lack of evidence.  Other servants formed relationships with their masters and were accused of theft when the master wanted the relationship to end.




Aborigines became Convicts for either defending their home or cultural misunderstandings. Warriors such as Yagan, Pelmulwuy and Musquito led a resistance movement to the English invasion. Yagan and Pelmulwuy were eventually beheaded whilst Musquito was transported to Tasmania where he again made trouble and was then executed.

 Other Aborigines came before the law due to cultural misunderstandings. In nomadic societies, there is no concept of individual possession rather what is owned by friends is owned by all. Consequently, the Aborigines frequently walked off with any European item that held their interest. Subsequently, many officials found it ironic that they had established a penal colony amongst the greatest thieves on earth.