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Convicts and their Legacy

For almost 80 years, or the founding third of Australia’s urban existence, British Convicts were transported to Australia, a fact that still embarrasses many Australians. As Bill Bryson, an American author, wrote:

"I can personally affirm that to stand before an audience of beaming Australians and make even the mildest quip about a convict past is to feel the air conditioning immediately elevated.”

Because they have been a taboo topic, not much is agreed about any Convict legacy in Australia today. Nevertheless, the legacy could be defined as 1) biological 2) cultural 3) reactionary and 4) symbolic.

Biological legacy of Convicts in Australia

English sports writer Ted Corbett once proposed that Australian athletic success could be traced to Convicts much like the success of African Americans could be traced to slavery:

"We also have to consider the laws of the survival of the fittest and make a comparison with the West Indies, another team who dominated world cricket as the Australians are at this moment.

Australia was born as a prison cell, a dumping ground for criminals and political upstarts left a harsh environment when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay in 1788. It was a rubbish heap for tough, rebellious men and their warders; and women who were prepared to defy the conventions and fight for their equality.

What better start could there be for a country that was eventually to hold sporting prowess as its greatest achievement.

There is a similarity with the West Indies, manned for hundreds of years by slave men and women who had been force-marched across the African continent before being shipped across the Atlantic. The strongest lasted the distance and, when their descendants were freed, grew into tall, handsome and fearsome competitors with a little hate in their hearts for the men who had made them suffer such indignities. So it was in Australia. "

The problem with the biological argument is that only around 25 per cent of Australians can claim a Convict ancestor. Admittedly, without immigration, that 25 per cent would eventually reach 100 per cent but it would be diluted with each generation. To put things into perspective, someone whose grandfather had a Convict grandfather would only be 1/16th Convict. Their children would only be 1/32 Convict if their partner lacked Convict ancestry. In short, genetic ancestry tends to be stronger in mind than in body.

Cultural legacy of Convicts

Although the biological legacy of Convicts is weak, a stronger legacy can be found in culture. In regards to language, it has been suggested that the inventive nature of Australian English is a Convict legacy. As argued by Sidney Baker in The Australian Language:

" No other class of society would use slang more readily or adapt it more expertly to their new environment; no other class would have a better flair for concocting new terms to fit in with their new conditions in life "

It could also be argued that the bias towards informality in Australian English, such as the use of first names for bosses, may also be a Convict initiative. Both American and Brtish English tends to use more formality in greetings and respect for titles like Mr, Mrs and Lord.

In regards to values, Australian egalitarianism and the tall poppy syndrome may be defined as Convict legacies. An early example of the egalitarian values can be found in the writings of Convict JF Mortlock:

"Men betraying their companions or accepting authority over them, are often called "dogs", and sometimes have their noses bitten off- the morsel being termed "a mouthful of a dog's nose."

Although it is not possible to find nose biters today, nor authority figures lacking a nose, throughout World War 1 and 2, Australian soldiers were renowned for trying to irritate British officers by turning up uninvited at their drinking establishments. Finally, some traditions, such as Australia Day and the gambling game of Two-up, were Convict initiatives.

Legacy in reaction to Convicts in Australia

People can have influence, not only by what they do, but also how others react to them irrespective of what they do. In Australia, the reactions to Convicts by non-Convicts significantly shaped the 19th century. Firstly, the dehumanisation of Convicts created a corrupt police force that was devoid of humanity. When the police force treated free migrants on the goldfields the way they had treated Convicts, support grew for symbols of rebellion, such as the plight of bushranger Ned Kelly and the Eureka Stockade. Secondly, fear that Convicts would pollute Australia’s gene pool resulted in community leaders organising meetings to ban ex-Convicts entering a region and later, proposing that a Federated Australia was the answer to keep out Convicts and other un-desirables classes, such as non-whites.

convicts and Asians


Melbourne Punch, 3rd May1888 - A Federation poster appearing in Punch magazine contained an old man advising a youngster:"Right, my boy, your worthy of your sire. In the old days I stopped the convicts in the bay. And now you must bar out the yellow plague with your arm."

Symbolic legacy of Convicts

Symbols, events, and stories from the past shape contemporary identities. In Australia; however, the Convict chapter has always been problematic for government initiatives aimed at inspiring pride in Australia’s history and culture. For example, in 1938, a re-enactment of the arrival of the first fleet had Arthur Phillip setting flight to a party of Aborigines. Convicts had not been included in the re-enactment. Media reports questioned the omission of Convicts, not necessarily because the journalists were proud of their Convict heritage but because the omission seemed somewhat fake. (Aborigines later protested about how the celebration of an invasion.) Likewise, advertisements for the 1988 Bicentenary had lots of celebrities in front of Uluru singing about celebrating a nation but no reference to the penal colony in Sydney that marked its first year. Today, no Australian government gives its approval to renactments. With a major part of Australian history being a taboo topic, it has been difficult for governments to encourage any kind of identification with the past.

The 1988 Bicentenary advertisement is large on recommendations to celebrate without any reference to people or landscape that the Bicentenry started from.

Noting the sensitivities that some Australians feel about their nation's past, some people from other countries have turned the knife when they have wanted to offend. The English have taken a particularly strong lead here. For example, at cricket contests involving Australia, the Barmy Army often chant:

"We came here with backpacks, you with ball and chain!".

"The Aussies love the English, you might find it quite strange. 'Cos we sent them all down under, with only balls and chains. And when they see the English, they always shout and scream. But when they had the chance to vote they voted for the Queen."

"You all live in a convict colony," *to the tune of Yellow Submarine.

In the 1999 World Cup, Ajuna Rantaunga, the Sri Lankan Cricket Captain, had an indirect dig at Australia’s heritage when he said of Australians:

"We come from 2,500 years of culture and we all know where they come from".

In the Simpsons episode Bart versus Australia (1995), writers offended many Australians by portraying the first prime minister of Australia as an unnamed Convict. The episode received 100 letters of complaint from Australians, and writer Mike Reiss even stated he had been condemned by the Australian parliament.

First Prime Minister of Australia

The Simpsons portrayed the first prime minister of Australia as an unnamed Convict. In truth, the first prime minister was a drunk but not a Convict. Most Australians don't know his name.

Although most Australians have approached the Convict past as a skeleton in the cupboard that everyone knows is there but they don't want mentioned anyway, at times there has been an attempt to build patriotism around them. For example, in the later 19th century, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life built a kind of patriotism around criminality in Australia much like Victor Hugo’s  Les Misérables built in France. At the beginning of the 20th story, highly successful movies like the Eureka Stockade, The Assigned Servant, The Squatters Daughter, Attack on the Gold Escort, Sentenced for Life and The Mark of the Lash picked up themes of rebellion and injustice and positioned them at the heart of a fledging national identity. In response, the NSW government banned the movies. Communists continued to promote the Convict story in the hope it would encourage a left-wing approach to social life. Perhaps the Communists weren't good at persuasion or the government was too strong with counter propaganda. Either way, present day Australian Communists have largely rejected patriotism as a positive virtue and therefore they are not inclined to find anything positive in Australian history, Convicts included.

 

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