In a nutshell: Transportation to Australia

More than 160,000 convicts were exiled to jails and harsh colonies on the far side of the world – some for crimes as trivial as stealing beans

In a nutshell: Transportation to Australia © National Gallery of Australia

What was transportation?

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It was a system practised from the 18th century to the mid-19th century whereby convicts were shipped overseas from Britain to serve their sentences.

Why were these convicts transported?

Britain was struggling to accommodate its prisoners at home. From the mid-18th century, a soaring population – combined with social disruptions brought about by the Industrial Revolution – led to an increase in crime.

An alternative punishment was needed – transportation to colonies seemed to fit the bill.

Why was Australia chosen as a destination?

At first, British convicts were sent to the colonies in North America but that option was halted by the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783).

The government turned to the vast southern continent that had been claimed for Britain by the explorer Captain James Cook in 1770. Creating a prison colony there would not only solve the problem of where to imprison convicts, but would  help to establish another outpost in the growing empire.

The First Fleet departed Britain in May 1787, its 11 ships carrying more than 700 convicts. They arrived in New South Wales (as Cook had named the territory) the following year after a voyage of 252 days, and established a settlement at the site of the modern city of Sydney.

What kind of people were transported to Australia?

Even those who had committed relatively minor crimes (by today’s standards) could face transportation to the new colony. Over 80 per cent of those shipped out were male, and they tended to be fairly young, though it wasn’t unheard of for elderly convicts to be transported.

What were conditions like on the journey?

They varied substantially between voyages. On the First Fleet, the prisoners were treated relatively well and the vast majority survived the long journey. However, conditions were far worse in later fleets – prisoners suffered bad treatment, poor rations and outbreaks of disease.

What kind of lives did convicts lead in the colony?

Those who disembarked in New South Wales were set to work for the local authorities or for the free settlers who lived alongside the penal colony. Working long hours and enduring physical punishments, life was often very tough for the convicts.

On the other hand, there were opportunities to be granted ‘tickets for leave’ for good behaviour. Such a ticket enabled a prisoner to serve the remainder of his or her sentence as a ‘free’ man or woman, provided they did not seek to leave.

When and why did the practice of transportation end?

As the 19th century progressed, Britain established a number of other penal settlements around Australia. However, at the same time, opposition to the system was growing with some feeling it was unnecessarily cruel.

At the same time, the British prison system was being developed, meaning that the need to export the country’s convicts was diminishing.

In Australia, on the other hand, the growing number of free settlers became unhappy with their new country’s status as a giant prison.

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Faced with these pressures, the system of transportation was finally ended in 1868.

First published in the February 2015 issue of History Revealed.