Let Me Remind You…
About Australia’s founding Penal Colony.
Captain Arthur Philips of the HMS Sirius landed the first boat at the shores of New South Wales (now, currently Sydney). It was a long time since his boots touched solid land, but now they crunched on the hot rocks of Botany Bay. Even though it was January 1788, the temperature was warm and sunny. It was a quick reminder he was now in the Southern Hemisphere, where seasons were in opposite months from his home in the UK.
It took two years to get here and if the passengers were restless and agitated before, the trip around the world didn’t help. Food was scarce, with almost 800 passengers spread out over 6 ships, it was no wonder tensions were high as everyone was crammed into a 200ft space, practically sleeping on one another and fighting over food. They wouldn’t be the first fleet to come either; there was already a plan for more ships to bring more “passengers”.
Disease was rampant. Cholera, dysentery, and typhoid ravaging bodies through the boats, killing some. The ones that survived did so on small rations of hardtack and mush.
The passengers ranged from nine years old, up to eighty-two. The men were the first to arrive to the island with a mission to establish an “agricultural work camp”. They would literally have to start from scratch; finding and building their own accommodations, and prison quarters. The “passengers” that had arrived, and would be arriving for the next century were convicts from the UK mostly, some from New Zealand and few other countries.
In the mid-eighteenth-century London, at the peak of the industrial revolution, people found themselves out of work because the new technologies that took over their jobs for them, including farmers. With the lack of work and loss of money, the already overcrowded London received hundreds, if not thousands of people from the surrounding country towns. The overpopulation, lack of jobs and food led to thousands of poor, hungry families and in-turn, skyrocketing crime rates. Eventually the jails became overcrowded, and officials grew tired of even the pettiest of crimes. No matter if a person robbed someone or murdered them; rioted or had a minor assault, they started shipping them off to America. But then the American revolution ended, they were no longer welcome there and the UK was forced to find somewhere else to ship their misbehaved. Insert Australia: the new prison. It was no matter to them that the large island was already inhabited by aboriginal peoples, they had “dealt with” that when they colonized America over 150 years earlier.
The aboriginal peoples knew the new settlers were there but left them alone for the most part; silently watching them from the bushes. Very rarely were there encounters, but Captain Philips was adamant that the aboriginal Australians were treated with kindness and respect—even when he was speared in the shoulder by one during an altercation.
It took only 2 years for the settlement to become stable and about 5 for it to become fully established. Until then, the unfamiliar land and climate proved difficult to learn how to tend for food. For years, fleets bringing more prisoners also brought food. So when a ship of women convicts came, with the thought of boosting moral for the men, they were ill received at first; looked at as “more mouths to feed”. Not to mention that some of the women had given birth along the 10-month voyage. But, after time, the men relented, and the women were welcomed.
During the 5 years, Captain Philips had tried to return to England, but communication was lacking as they seemed to have been mostly forgotten. By the time the 3rd fleet arrived with 2000 passengers, they had to send a boat to Calcutta for supplies. Despite that though, he managed to incorporate his past job experience and create a whaling industry, bringing trade to the harbor. He also started tending sheep to breed and raise them for their wool. At this point, some of the convicts’ sentences were already running out, but they remained and started farming the land and tending to the sheep. Captain Philips managed to get off the colony about 10 years after he got there.
Though some of the prisoners were well behaved and served their time, some were so rotten they were unmanageable and had to be sent away to a smaller island off Australia, called Norfolk island. At the time it had been inhabited by the East Polynesians, but when the prisoners got there they left. No one would return for almost 100 years, when the descendants of the mutineers from The Bounty were taken there from Pitcairn island.
By 1868, over 160,000 convicts had been sent to Australia but they put an end to the penal colony. They had been dealing with protests against the penal colony for many years at this point since Australia had been established as free in the 1820’s. People were living there now, separate from the jail. They didn’t like the colony being there any longer.
Even though the convicts had been emancipated, many stayed and started a life in Australia. The last convict, Samuel Speed, died in 1938.
It’s said that 20% of the people in Australia are descendants of the penal colony. Even a former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.