Sometimes laws are created to exert a moral code, sometimes to solve a problem and sometimes to help the powerful consolidate their power. These motivations can all be found in the laws that resulted in Convicts being sent to Australia. By today's standards, the Convicts had only committed trivial offences and in the case of political crimes, had in fact showed a social conscience. The serious crimes, such as rape, murder, or impersonating an Egyptian, were punished in Britain with the death penalty.
In Australia, laws were even more strict, or more specifically, authorities were given free rein to make anything they wanted to be a criminal offence. Consequently, Convicts soon discovered that, in Australia, it was against the law to be pregnant, rude, disrespectful, swear, drink, and even have their hands in their pockets.
Because there was a sense of illegitimacy about whether the punishment fitted the crime, many Convicts decided that there was a difference between being a law abiding citizen and being a decent human being. Such sentiments could be seen in verses of Convict poetry such as:
"The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose "
And song verses like
"He bade the judge good morning
And he told him to beware,
That he'd never rob a needy man
Or one who acted square,
But a judge who'd rob a mother
Of her one and only joy
Sure, he must be a worse outlaw than
The wild colonial boy. "
Until 1850s Britain, homosexuality carried the death sentence and people who turned a blind eye or were an accessory to homosexuality risked being transported to Australia. One such man was William Bonill, who was accused of letting two men, James Pratt and John Smith, have sex in his room. Pratt and Smith were executed while Bonill was sentenced to 14 years.
Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney were constructed to house Convict men and boys. Holes were constructed in walls so that guards could watch to ensure Convicts weren't having sex with each other. Homosexuality remained a crime in NSW until 1984.
In 1827, a small ship manned by nine Greek sailors robbed a British ship bound for Malta. The Greeks were later caught and brought to trial. In their defence, the Greeks argued that, under international law, they had been entitled to intercept and rob a vessel destined for a port occupied by Turkey (their enemy.) Initially, the men were sentenced to death, but concern about the validity of the English laws led to seven of the men being sent to Australia instead.
Machine breakers and swing rioters
While technology increases production, it also brings with it a human cost. In the 1830s, the introduction of threshing machines coincided with a series of difficult growing conditions and poor harvests. These machines took away the winter employment for ploughmen who were already doing it tough.
Threshing machines were soon attacked and a mythical “Captain Swing” started sending threatening letters to farmers and manufacturers if the machinery wasn’t removed and wages increased. Rioting eventually broke out, with the troublemakers being tried as “machine breakers” or “swing rioters”.
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 five miles from home and could not teach in Protestant schools.
Before long, 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 Irish were forced to a life to crime. Other Irish struggled to realise political change. In March 1798, Ireland was declared to be in a state of insurrection. Under the Insurrection Act, Magistrates and Military Officers were empowered to arrest and punish, by death or otherwise, according to their discretion, people committing treasonable acts or even suspected of treason. An Indemnity Act protected them from suits for illegal acts committed by them in suppressing a rebellion, so that many thousands were, without any judicial trial or investigation, flogged, tortured, transported or executed.
||Rio de Janeiro
||Mullingar Westmeath Co
||Stealing pocket book moneys
||James or John
||Mullingar Westmeath Co
||Died at sea
||Rio de Janeiro
Sample of Irish Convicts that were transported on the Britannia in 1897. Although records of their sentence exist, for many there is little-to-no records of crimes they were alleged to have commited.
In 1804, about 330 of the Irish Convicts launched a full scale insurrection. Although their catch cry was "liberty or death", most of the Convicts got neither. The ring leaders foolishly tried to negotiate a deal and were caught. The stunned mob was then fired upon and after 15 minutes of confusion, it fled to the bush.
The principle ring leader was hanged almost immediately, eight others shortly followed, four received 500 lashes, thirty were sent to goal gangs and another thirty were sent to Newcastle. The Convicts who ran away surrendered in twos and threes over the next few days.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were six men from the Village of Tolpuddle in England who were transported in 1834 for trying to form a union. They were: George Loveless; James Loveless; Thomas Standfield; John Standfield; James Hammet; James Brine.
1834 print showing demonstration in 1834 against the sentences of transportation imposed on the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Between 35,000 to 100,000 people attended the demonstration, and over 200,000 signed for the remission of the Martyrs' sentences. Lord Melbourne at the Home Office refused to accept the petition.
The Scottish Martyrs were five men who promoted the ideals of the French revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. As punishment for promoting these views, they were transported to Australia. They were: Maurice Magarot; Thomas Muir; Thomas Fyshe Palmer; William Skirving; Joseph Gerrald.
2009 Bust of Thomas Muir by Alexader Stoddart. Muir's charges proposed that 1) he said the government was oppressive 2) that he encouraged three people to to buy and read Paine's Rights of Man 3)that he circulated the work of Thomas Paine, A Declaration of Rights, to the friends of reform in Paisley.
Life was difficult for sailors in the 18th century. 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. Occasionally; however, the mutineers were sent to Australia. One notable mutineer was a surgeon by the name of Dr William Redfern.
In 1797, Dr William Redfern took part in a naval mutiny aimed at improving workplace conditions. He was sentenced to death as a result. After spending four years in an English jail, he was transported to New South Wales in 1802. Redfern became an advocate for the emancipist cause and in 1814 reported to Governor Macquarie on the sanitary problems of the Convict transport ships, which led to dramatic improvements in conditions.
In 1837, a group of Canadian rebels staged an uprising to achieve reform. 29 were executed and 149 were transported to Australia.
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 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 the list, the Chartists were transported to Tasmania.
William Cuffay was one of the most well known chartists. He was the son of a West Indian slave and started agitating for political change in 1834. In 1848, he was charged with “sedition” and “levying war” after organising a Chartist rally. He was subsequently sentenced to 21 years transportation. He arrived in Hobart in 1849, but was immediately granted a ticket-of-leave, which allowed him to work. He was pardoned three years later. Upon receiving his pardon, he started campaigning against the Master and Servant Act, which aimed to restrict trade unions. He died in 1870 and was honoured with obituaries in numerous Australian newspapers.
Black South Africans
From 1828 to 1834 South Africa deported many blacks that were not political prisoners, but had transgressed the white South African laws.
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.
Convicts as young as 10 were transported to Australia. Such children had no parents, no homes and no schools thus took to a life of crime to survive.
Not even children were too young to transport. Mary Wade was just 11 when sentenced to death for the theft of a frock. This was communted to transportation to Australia. She later had 21 children.
Some eccentric noblemen from England 's establishment were transported. These included:
- James Hardy Vaux - An eccentric who despite acknowledging the folly of his ways, found it impossible to resist the temptation to break the law;
- Francise Greenway - Short fused architect who rubbed people the wrong way;
- James Grant- Discharged a weapon in a gentleman's 'duel' after his honour had been tainted;
- Sir Henry Brown Hayes - A knight and sheriff of Cork who kidnapped a lady and forced her to marry him.
To create a sense of permanency about the colony, Governor Macquarie enlisted Convict architect Francise Greenway to design solid brick constructions. Robert Russel’s Hyde Park Barracks  shows the barracks with the original domed guardhouses, now demolished.
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 join their husbands in the colony. Punishments for women included an iron collar fastened round the neck or having their heads 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'.
Sometimes women would intentional offend the authorities by bearing their back sides or name the priest when asked who the father was of their child.
Convict women were often punished for having poor morality. In 1838, Convict women at the Cascades Female Factory reacted by mooning the visiting governor and the reverend.
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.
Ye London maids attend to me
While I relate my misery
Through London streets I oft have strayed
But now I am a Convict Maid
In innocence I once did live
In all the joy that peace could give
But sin my youthful heart betrayed
And now I am a Convict Maid
To wed my lover I did try
To take my master's property
So all my guilt was soon displayed
And I became a Convict Maid
Then I was soon to prison sent
To wait in fear my punishment
When at the bar I stood dismayed
Since doomed to be a Convict Maid
At lenth the Judge did me address
Which filled with pain my aching breast
To Botany Bay you will be conveyed
For seven years a Convict Maid
For seven long years oh how I sighed
While my poor mother loudly cried
My lover wept and thus he said
May God be with my Convict Maid
To you that here my mournful tale
I cannot half my grief reveal
No sorrow yet has been portrayed
Like that of the poor Convict Maid
Far from my friends and home so dear
My punishment is most severe
My woe is great and I'm afraid
That I shall die a Convict Maid
I toil each day in greaf and pain
And sleepless through the night remain
My constant toils are unrepaid
And wretched is the Convict Maid
Oh could I but once more be free
I'd never again a captive be
But I would seek some honest trade
And never become a Convict Maid.
Nearly 25,000 women were transported to Australia as convicts, half of them from Ireland. The Convict Maid became a popular folk song.
Aborigines became Convicts for either defending their home or cultural misunderstandings. Warriors such as Yagan, Pelmulwuy and Musquito were outlawed for enforcing the laws of their culture. 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 was no concept of individual possession; rather, what was owned by friends was 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.
Aborigines ended up in chains for various reasons. One reason was offence at the presence of the English. As the Convict J.F Mortlock wrote in 1864, "I sympathized with a few unfortunate aborigines, transported hither from New South Wales, for resenting the intrusion and aggression of the English."
Official crimes list
The following is the list of crimes that was punishable by transportation to Australia 1.) All theft above the value of one shilling.2.) Thefts under the value one shilling. 3.) Receiving stolen goods, jewels and plate. 4.) Stealing lead, iron or copper. 5.) Stealing ore from black lead mines. 6.) Stealing from furnished lodgings. 7.) Setting fire to underwood. 8.) Stealing letters.9.) Assault with intent to rob. 10.) Stealing fish from a pond or river. 11.) Stealing roots, trees or plants. 12.) Bigamy. 13.) Assaulting, cutting or burning clothes. 14.) Counterfeiting the copper coin. 15.) Clandestine marriage. 16.) Stealing a shroud from a grave. 17.) Watermen carrying too many passengers on the Thames , if any drowned. 18.) Incorrigible rogues who broke out of prison and persons reprieved from capital punishment. 19.) Embeuling naval stores.