Convict Transportation

Convict Connections - Chapter 1

Please note: The online exhibitions are best viewed on a desktop PC or laptop. Some images have been removed for mobile and tablet devices.


The British in the late 18th century believed that they were in the midst of an overwhelming crime wave, and over the next 70 years attempted to address this by expelling what was seen as a 'criminal class'. More than 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia and Tasmania.

A sentence of transportation meant that criminals paid a huge price for their crimes - they suffered the loss of everything and everyone they had ever known, endured a perilous sea journey in often unimaginably harsh conditions, and struggled to survive in a terrifyingly strange and forbidding landscape. Yet many found that life on the far side of the world offered possibilities not available at home.

Image: Banishment has long been a means by which the English authorities have dealt with undesirables. In his dispute with Thomas Becket in 1165, King Henry II exiled all of Thomas's kin (illustration taken from a C13th French-verse history of the life of Thomas Becket, licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

A long history of banishment

The English have a long history of banishing people whom the authorities deemed undesirable. In 1290, England's entire Jewish population were expelled. During the late 16th century, vagrants (including gypsies) were sent over the Atlantic to the new American colonies in Virginia and the West Indies; by the 17th century criminals were also sent overseas. Transportation was useful for dealing with political rebels and those with troublesome religious views such as Quakers and Catholics.

Under what became known as the 'bloody code' of the 18th century, the range of crimes punishable by death proliferated, and although judges and juries often had no appetite to hang those guilty of trivial crimes, they did not want to return offenders to the streets. As a result, felons were increasingly given a sentence of transportation.

In the 60 years from 1717, about forty thousand men and women from Great Britain were transported to work in plantations, foundries and homes in the American colonies.

The end of transportation to the Americas

The need for transported British criminals to work on American plantations became less pressing as the transatlantic slave trade took slave labour over the oceans in the millions. American independence in 1783 also effectively ended the shipment of British convicts to North America. The shutting off of this avenue for disposing of criminals lead to a real problem for the British Authorities. Rising population and crime levels in Britain across the 18th century meant that such prisons as there were became full.

Image: With the beginning of the American War of Independence in 1775, the British could no longer send large numbers of convicts to the Americas. 'Battle of Bunker Hill' by Percy Moran, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, (licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

Image: 'Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770', by Emanuel Phillips Fox (licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The search for new destinations for transported criminals

The search for an alternative destination to send criminals 'over the seas' was on. An area in West Africa was briefly considered, but was found to be sterile for the purposes of farming. The idea of sending British convicts over 15,000 miles to New South Wales (on the east coast of Australia) was based on the fact that Britain had already mapped much of the Australian coast, and Captain Cook, the only European to explore the Eastern coast, had given favourable reports about the area around Botany Bay.

A strategic base?

It is probable that the pressing need to solve the problem of Britain's overcrowded gaols was the main consideration in the decision to send convicts to Australia. However, it is often argued that imperial considerations provided a further motivation for establishing a colony in New South Wales.

Image: For many historians, transportation was simply the solution to the terrible overcrowding of prison hulks. 'Portsmouth Harbour with Prison Hulks' by Ambroise-Louis Garneray. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was a time when European powers were competing for global influence and trade; British power in the Americas had recently been minimised by American independence, and so Britain turned its imperial gaze eastward. Some thought that a colony in New South Wales might be a useful strategic base in the Pacific, a place from which British trading routes to the East Indies might be protected.

Image: Pines on Norfolk Island, by bertknot, (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

On his voyage to Australia in the early 1770s, Captain Cook had discovered large pines and flax plants growing on Norfolk Island that might be useful for replenishing the masts and sails of British ships. Although there was some strategic advantage to establishing a British colony on the southern continent, it is probable that the overwhelming motive for sending convicts to Australia was the lack of any other solution to the problem of overflowing English gaols.

Image: Chart of Norfolk Island penal colony, 1791. The penal colony here developed at the same time and was an offshoot, of the colony in Sydney. Map from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales. Copyright in material contained within or comprising this website (including images, text, sound and video files, computer programs, databases and scripts) is administered by the State Library of New South Wales and is owned by the Library Council of New South Wales (the governing body of the State Library of New South Wales).

Image: 'Arthur Phillip' by Francis Wheatley (d. 28 Jun 1801). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The First Fleet

British colonization of Australia, then a mysterious continent on the far side of the world, began in January 1788 when the 'First Fleet' landed at Botany Bay. This was one of the greatest sea voyages in history - never had so many travelled so far. Eleven ships carried over 1400 men and women, along with the supplies they needed to set up a colony, across 1500 miles of ocean. The majority of those who travelled to Australia on the First Fleet were convicts.

Image: 'The Founding of Australia' by Algernon Talmage (1871 - 1939). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The only Europeans to have explored the eastern coast of Australia previously were Captain Cook and his crew almost two decades earlier. Cook's accounts of Botany Bay turned out to be inaccurate, and the passengers on the First Fleet, many of whom had never before journeyed beyond their own home city or county, were not prepared for the realities of their new home.

Image: The First Fleet entering Port Jackson, January 26, 1788, was drawn by E. Le Bihan, (licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The First Fleet set off from Portsmouth for Botany Bay in May 1787. The mission of the First Fleet's captain, Arthur Phillip, was to set up a convict colony and in the process establish a British claim to the new continent. The eleven ships of the First Fleet carried over 1400 people, including mariners, marines, 736 convicts, and supplies necessary to set up and provision the new colony. Among these eleven ships was the Hull-built vessel the Alexander.

Image: 'Kangaroo' by Sarah Stone, 1760-1844, from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, (licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

The Fleet took eight months to make the journey, with stops in Rio and the Cape to replenish supplies and make repairs, arriving in Botany Bay across two days from 18 January 1788. As Botany Bay was found to be unsuitable for a settlement (the harshness of the environment here was a considerable surprise to the settlers), the Fleet moved to the natural harbour Port Jackson a few miles up the coast to set up their new home. Arthur Phillip renamed this harbour Sydney Cove.

Given the danger of maritime travel in the late 19th century, the duration of the voyage and the great distances involved, it is considered a remarkable success on the part of Captain Phillip that he brought the Fleet to its destination losing only 48 people and no ships.

The Establishing Of An Australian Penal Colony

When the 'First Fleet' arrived in Botany Bay. Captain Arthur Philips soon realized that Botany Bay did not live up to Cook's reports, and decided to move his colony along the coast to the excellent shelter which is now Sydney Harbour.

Life was hard for the first settlers - those who arrived aboard the First Fleet were close to starvation before the ships of the Second Fleet brought more supplies in 1790. However, the colony took hold, and later shipments of convicts followed.

The history of early convict transportation to Australia makes grim reading - roughly one-quarter of the convicts on the infamous 'Second Fleet' did not survive the journey. However, the transportation 'system' became effectively regulated and more humane, and from 1815 the number of convicts transported to the colonies in Australia, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) rose dramatically.

Image: First Fleet arriving at Botany Bay, 21 January 1788. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, (licensed via Wikimedia Commons).

Image: 'Sketchbook of NSW views' 1817, from the collections of the State Library of New South Wales, (licensed via Wikimedia Commons).

Push and pull factors

Between 1821 and 1830, 28,700 men and 4,100 women from Britain and Ireland were transported to Australia. Both 'push' and 'pull' factors help to explain these high figures.

Image: 'Gin Lane' by William Hogarth, 1751, depicts the unruly, drunken urban poor. Cities were growing quickly, and the criminal propensities of poor city dwellers were feared by polite society. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. On the 'pull' side, the growing pastoral economy of Australia required labour, but free labourers could not be persuaded to migrate to the colony in sufficient numbers.

On the 'push' side, a rising population in Britain, along with urbanization, falling wages, rising prices and unemployment meant rising crime and therefore criminals who needed to be disposed of. From the 1820s, the creation of a police force meant that more crimes were detected.

On the 'pull' side, the growing pastoral economy of Australia required labour, but free labourers could not be persuaded to migrate to the colony in sufficient numbers.

The end of penal transportation to Australia

From 1831 - 1840 transportation peaked and began to decline. Changing ideas about crime and punishment, and the building of large penitentiaries in Britain, meant that the 'push' factors behind transportation became less pressing, and the growing self-confidence of the free Australian colonists (many of whom were freed convicts and descendants of convicts) led them to react against the use of their colony for the disposal of Britain's 'criminal class'.

Transportation to the Australian mainland was suspended in 1840, though between 1841-1850, 26,000 convicts were sent to Van Diemen's Land. Transportation to Van Diemen's Land was abolished until 1853. Between 1860 and 1868, 9700 felons were transported to Western Australia to try to promote colonisation there.

Image: By the mid-19th century, Australia had become a developed and self-confident colony. This drawing from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales shows George Street Sydney in 1855, (licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).