Tag Archives: convicts
One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia.
It was the largest protest in Australia thus far, an event Henry Parkes (later Premier of NSW) described as “the birthday of Australian democracy”.
Transportation ceased in New South Wales in 1840. Over the following decade, colonists worked hard to transform their penal colony into a respectable civil society.
By the late 1840s, people like Parkes believed they were on the brink of not only greater self-government but perhaps even democracy.
However, Henry George Grey – Colonial Secretary in charge of all the United Kingdom’s colonial dependencies – had been planning to resume transportation. In 1849, he decided to test the waters by sending out a boat of convicts. When the vessel sailed into Sydney Harbour, thousands rushed to Circular Quay to prevent it from docking.
The people had been triumphant and confident they had sent a firm message.
They were, therefore, deeply outraged in 1850 when they discovered Grey was so indifferent to their protests, he was planning to send another boat.
Rallies and petitions were organised throughout NSW, including two, the press snidely described as “ladies petitions” in Sydney.
Of the 36,589 signatures collected, 9,189 were from Sydney women – at least 42% of Sydney’s female population at the time.
These were delivered to the NSW Legislative Council, then the UK House of Commons and Queen Victoria.
While historians have typically focused on the male orators and agitators of this age, these “ladies petitions” challenge the narrative of colonial democracy as created by men for men. These documents also suggest women could not have been completely confined to the domestic sphere, nor entirely excluded from politics.
For me, they also promised a rare encounter with voices difficult to hear within the colonial archive.
Reading the petition
Although the right to petition the monarchy had been enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, in the 19th century petitions were regularly used to galvanise the masses and give voice to those excluded from political processes.
By the time colonial women put ink to paper in 1850, over 10,000 petitions were tabled to British parliament each year.
While most petitions of this era were destroyed once submitted, a few survived. Much to my delight, after weeks of searching the stacks, Rosemary Sempell, archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Records, found the original 207 pages from the “female inhabitants of Sydney.”
The opening address describes the “deep anxiety and alarm” these “wives and daughters of the citizens of Sydney” felt in regards to transportation and how it would prevent them fulfilling their “sacred and responsible duties [regarding the] moral instruction” of the colony and their children.
Most of all, these women were furious Grey had repeatedly ignored the colony’s “solemn and unanimous” rejection of transportation.
Ultimately, it was this disrespect for due process and local authority that compelled these women to petition the Queen directly.
The petition was signed by a broad range of Sydney women: members of the colonial elite such as Lady Eleanor Stephens, middle-class mothers who feared the corrupting influence of convicts, and those who signed their names with a simple cross that suggested they may have had firsthand experience of transportation.
A rising of ‘sister politicians’
When this petition was tabled in Legislative Council, it was described as “the first of its sort” in Australia and conservative politician William Wentworth was quick to question whether members of the council should consent to such political activity.
He warned husbands “would have their dinners far better cooked, their shirts better washed” if their wives were not “political ladies”.
He also predicted such activity would encourage other petitions “praying for the rights of women”, perhaps even cause “some Mary Wollstonecraft” to rise up and instruct her “sister politicians” to ignore “their husbands” altogether.
Although the Australian suffragist movement did not begin in earnest for another 30 years, Wentworth may have been correct in connecting this moment of female activism with all that would unfold. At the very least, these petitions proved colonial women could unite against a common enemy.
A role for women
The women who signed this petition did so because they believed the colony was ready to chart its own course, and they wanted to be part of the process.
It might be telling that in the final sentence of the address the word “particularly” has been crossed out and replaced with “patriotically”. Although this may have been an editorial error, it suggests Parkes was correct: 1850 did represent a new spirit of “local feeling”. One that mattered to these women and was also effective in finally putting an end to transportation to NSW – as was resolved in the UK House of Commons the following month.
The colonial archive has encouraged us to assume only men were involved in the push for greater political freedoms in Australia. These “ladies petitions” confirm that thousands of Sydney women were not only present at the birthday of Australian democracy, but determined to play a role in its future.
In this first foray into the political domain, Australian women also proved they could have their voices heard: not only by other colonists and the British Parliament, but even, the Queen herself.
The author would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for sharing their expertise in the search for these petitions: Edith Ho, State Library of NSW; Bonnie Wilde, State Records of NSW; and Rosemary Sempell, Parliament of NSW Archives.
However, divorce may not be the price for success, but a remnant of our convict past. Attitudes and ideas outlive generations, meaning misfortunes for successful women could be a symptom of history.
The ‘Oscar curse’: success and divorce
The “Oscar curse” refers to the fact that for a woman winning an Academy Award, it likely means getting a divorce. The same is not true for men. This curse affects other successful women, such as female politicians after they win an election.
In a recent paper, Marianne Bertrand and her co-authors showed, in a representative sample of Americans, that when women started making even just a little bit more money than their husbands, divorce was likely to follow. Women who have the potential to make more money than their husbands, due to their level of education for example, are less likely to be married. When these women do marry, they “act wife” by reducing their hours in the workplace – and their income as a result – and by doing more housework.
Similarly, in Australia, just 60% of men and women disagree with the statement “it is not good for a relationship if the woman earns more than the man”. There is no noticeable difference between men and women, and responses have hardly changed since the HILDA survey first measured these attitudes in 2005. This raises the questions of where such norms come from and why they are so persistent.
Convicts and conservative attitudes
We may have to turn to our past for answers. In a forthcoming paper, for the Review of Economic Studies, Rose Khattar and I show that Australia’s convict past still exercises a strong and pervasive influence on gender norms, marriage and work in the country today.
It is not the presence of convicts that matters, but the drastic distortion in the ratio of men to women that came with it. Convict men outnumbered convict women by roughly six to one. These numbers were even more skewed at the start of settlement. Convicts were joined by free migrants, especially in the second half of the 19th century, whose numbers also skewed heavily male. The ratio of men to women was consistently skewed in favour of males in Australia until the start of the first world war.
We show that in areas of Australia that were more male-biased in the past, people are more likely to hold conservative attitudes towards gender-respective roles at home and in the workplace. In those areas, women today are less likely to work. When they do work, they work fewer hours and are more likely to work part-time rather than full-time.
Probably as a consequence of more conservative attitudes and fewer hours worked, women are less likely to progress to high-ranking occupations. As shown in the graph below, relationships in which women earn more money than their husbands are a rare thing. This is true overall in Australia, but particularly so in areas where the ratio of convict men to convict women was above the median.
In the vast majority of marriages, the husband makes more money than his wife. As shown by Figure 2, as soon a woman’s income starts to exceed a man’s, the likelihood of a relationship – either by divorce or by not getting married in the first place – drops significantly.
This drop is much higher (more than 22%) in areas that were more male-biased in the past (left panel), compared with areas that were more balanced (less than 6% more men) (right panel).
Convicts and the marriage market
While women in areas that were more male-biased do less paid work, they also enjoy more hours of leisure time than women in other parts of the country. Women today in areas that were more male-biased in the past work fewer hours in the workplace, but do not do more at home. Instead, they enjoy more free time.
We suggest this is a holdover from an era in which the marriage market for women among Australia’s European population was imbalanced in favour of women. Given potential female marriage partners were in short supply, women in those areas may have had more negotiating power in the home and used it to enjoy more free time and work less, especially given that the labour market was not very favourable to women in 19th-century Australia.
Such behaviours and attitudes were then transmitted from parents to children, and persist until today.
It is also important to note that these behaviours and attitudes are related only to gender roles at home and in the workplace: we did not find any evidence of elevated misogyny in areas that were more male-biased in the past.
Effects of biased sex ratios, which persist well after sex ratios have returned to their natural level, matter for places with lopsided gender ratios.
There are an estimated 100 million missing women in the world today, for instance, mostly in China and India, as a result of sex-selective abortions and inferior nutrition and care for girls and women. As Australia proves, the consequences of unbalanced societies can last for decades to come, for better or worse.
The Hougoumont, the last ship to take convicts from the UK to Australia, docked in Fremantle, Western Australia, on January 9, 1868 – 150 years ago. It brought an end to a process which deposited about 168,000 convicted prisoners in Australia after it began in 1788.
Convicts had ceased to be sent to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) decades earlier, but Western Australia still wanted convict labour to help with building projects. By the time the Hougoumont landed its shipment of 281 convicts, the Swan River penal colony in Western Australia had been reliant on convict labour for 18 years, and received almost 10,000 male prisoners from Britain.
The convict system may have ended with the arrival of the final convicts on the Hougoumont and the disbandment of Australia’s penal settlements, but the people who were its legacy lived on. Some prisoners achieved a kind of celebrity status. Mary Reibey, who was transported to Sydney, became a successful businesswoman and charitable benefactor, and is commemorated on the Australian $20 note.
In Western Australia some of Britain’s “bad” men made also “good”. Alfred Chopin, transported for receiving stolen goods, became a famed and sought-after photographer. Embezzler John Rowland Jones became a reporter for the Western Australian government, and later editor of the West Australian newspaper. Their stories are extraordinary, but they have been used to present a generally favourable narrative which contrasts their heroism against the long-established stain that supposedly blighted those generations of Australians descended from convicts.
It is easy to find thousands of ex-convicts who left crime behind and forged new, ordinary, lives in Australia. Yet, while some ex-convicts became pillars of their communities, got married, and became much-loved and valued friends and neighbours, others struggled.
Our ongoing research shows that the impact of transportation could last a lifetime for those in Western Australia. Many convicts were left struggling with unemployment, personal relationships, and alcoholism, and drifted through both life and the colony. Many re-offended for decades after they were freed in Australia, but only committed low-level nuisance and public order offences – mainly drunkenness and vagrancy – rather than the more serious crimes for which they were initially transported.
The Western Australian records we’ve been using for our recent research and digitised for the Digital Panopticon project reveal the story of Samuel Speed, the last living Australian convict. He was transported to Western Australia in 1866 and died in 1938, just short of his 100th birthday.
Speed was born in Birmingham, England in 1841. He had one brother and one sister, but little else about his family or early life is known. He was in his early twenties when he was tried in Oxfordshire in 1863 for setting fire to a haystack. Homeless and begging for food, he had committed arson in order to get arrested and spend some time in a warm cell. He was sentenced to seven years of convict transportation to Australia.
Speed was conditionally released in 1869 and was allowed to live outside of the prison walls and undertake employment, provided he did not commit any further offences. He found work as a general servant in Western Australia and was finally granted his certificate of freedom two years later. He went on to help build bridges across the vast Swan River, and spent the rest of his working life at various companies around the state. He was never re-convicted of any offence and went on to live a perfectly ordinary and law-abiding life, only coming to the attention of the papers a few months before his death.
By that time, old and frail, and dependent on the care of attendants, Speed’s memories of transportation were faded. Among the few recollections of his former life he remembered that:
Among those unfortunates transported … were men of every walk of life; doctors, lawyers, shirt-soiled gentlemen, and social outcasts tipped together in the hothouse of humanity that was the Swan River Colony.
A kind of rehabilitation
Speed lived long enough to see his former penal settlement become part of the federated commonwealth of Australia. He witnessed the death of an old archaic system, and the birth of a new and confident Australian nation.
To the early 20th-century press, his life was a gratifying confirmation that they system had worked. Western Australia had taken corrupt British convicts and turned them into productive members of society. The report of his death in Perth’s Sunday Times confidently asserted that Speed’s conduct was all that a reputable citizen should aspire to.
He was not by any means the only ex-convict who stayed out of trouble, however, as our research is showing, his behaviour was far better than most of his fellow ex-convicts. It was also better than the rumoured conduct of free settlers who flooded into Western Australia after gold was discovered in the 1880s and 1890s.
Our preliminary research is showing that about 80% of men who arrived on the last convict ship (discounting 67 Irish political prisoners) committed either a regulatory infraction such as absconding, possession of contraband or violent conduct, or a criminal offence during their time under sentence. Given the number of convicts who re-roffended both during and after their sentence, it’s better to think of the transportation system as encouraging enough reform for society to progress. The convicts as a cohort may not all have rehabilitated, but few committed serious offences after they were transported.
As for Speed, he died in Perth’s Old Men’s Home in 1938. Seventy years after the last British convict ship arrived in Australia, the convict period had finally ended.
Welcome to our series on sexual histories, in which our authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
In 1787, when Arthur Phillip was preparing to lead the First Fleet to establish the British colony in New South Wales he wrote to his superiors to sort out what powers he would have over convicts and the soldiers sent to guard them. At one point, he addressed his power of life and death. Only two offences, he thought, deserved the death penalty – murder and sodomy:
For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal until an opportunity offered of delivering him to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.
It might not look like it, but Phillip was expressing a rather liberal point of view here. In Britain at this time, there were hundreds of offences that attracted the death penalty. In reducing his list to two he was flying in the face of all common sense. But it is striking that sodomy is on his little list.
While the administration took a dim view of same-sex desire, sex between men and between women flourished in Australia’s convict system – and thanks to the watchful eye of the colonial government, we know much about it.
Crime and punishment
Phillip’s views on sodomy were not an unreasonable position at the time. The Christian Bible was very clear that men who lay with men as with women were deserving of death; and the law – which had been instituted by Henry VIII, that great defender of the nation’s morals – agreed.
As it happened, Phillip, who served as governor until 1792, never got to put his policy into practice. There were no executions for sodomy; nor was anyone shipped off to New Zealand. Watkin Tench, a First Fleeter, opined that there were few “crimes of a deep dye” in the first four years of the colony and that “murder and unnatural sins rank not hitherto in the catalogue of [the convicts’] enormities”.
The first prosecution only came in 1796 when Francis Wilkinson, a labourer, was charged with “that most horrid detestable and sodomitic crime (among Christians not to be named) called Buggery”. We don’t know his fate. The first execution for sodomy that we know of was of Alexander Brown in 1828. This execution is perhaps the first sign of a coming storm. Historian Robert French estimates that about 20 men were executed as sodomites between 1828 and 1863.
By the 1830s, the free settlers in NSW were desperate to put an end to the transportation of convicts to the colony. There were many reasons for this, but one most forcefully put was that it was undermining the moral development of the colony. In the thinking of the time, criminality, including sodomy, was seen as a physical degeneracy passed from generation to generation. So convicts were seen by very nature to be poor stock with which to colonise the country.
And the disproportion of men to women was seen as leaving the convict classes prey to the temptation of sodomy. The Chaplain of Fremantle Prison wrote in 1854,
What will ensue when we have thousands of men cooped up in the colony without wives and unable to seek them elsewhere. Evil will be the result – too humiliating for the mind to dwell upon– too revolting to name. … That moral evil of far greater magnitude, which has of old brought down the signal judgment of Heaven, will result.
Love in plain sight
But if the anxieties of the authorities had unleashed a wave of debate and discussion about the dangers of debauchery, it is important to be aware that there is another way of looking at this – recognising that sodomy was also part of the lived experience of convict men and women, and that their experience was not at all the same as that of the horrified authorities.
Where respectable colonists saw filth and moral evil, there is evidence that convict women and men experienced companionship, affection and attachment, which included sexual love. Consider this letter, written by a convict in 1846 on the eve of his being hanged:
I hope you wont forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldered away I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you … The only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together. I hope you wont fall in love with no other man when I am dead and I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover.
We know quite a lot about love between convicts because they were being constantly monitored by the authorities. In 1841 there was an inquiry into a riot at the Launceston female factory (prison/workhouse) which discovered that sexual relationships between women were common – “depraved” behaviour, “unnatural connection” and the like.
One witness identified six female couples by name; others suggested there were anything from eight to 30 such couples. It was said that there were cases where a woman, sent out of the factory and into private service, would reoffend, so as to be sent back to where her lover was. When the authorities tried to break up couples, women would refuse to leave their cells, or even riot.
The medical superintendent of the Ross female factory – who habitually intercepted the women’s letters – reported on “warmth and impetuosity of the feelings excited in women towards each other, when allied in such unholy bonds”. (It is highly likely that he used the term “unholy bonds” having in mind the “holy bonds” of matrimony, suggesting that these women saw themselves as married).
An 1837 British parliamentary inquiry into the transportation system heard much evidence of the extent of debauchery among the convicts. The inquiry came to be believe there was a semi-underground subculture (a “demi-monde”) in existence.
New arrivals at the Hyde Park barracks, including younger men, put themselves selves under protection of older men – and adopted names such as Kitty, Nancy, Bett. On Norfolk Island, Robert Stuart reported as many as 150 male couples, who referred to themselves openly as “man and wife”. (Same-sex marriage is not as new as we might think).
Relationships among the convicts were of course many different things: situational – a desire for sexual outlet in the absence of the other sex – or coercive, expressing power over someone lower down the pecking order.
They may have been about the more desirable trading sex and affection for protection and advancement. All of these applied, of course, just as much to heterosexual relationships. But as with these, love between men or between women was often enough just that – love.
Soon after it became a British colony, New Zealand began shipping the worst of its offenders across the Tasman Sea. Between 1843 and 1853, an eclectic mix of more than 110 soldiers, sailors, Māori, civilians and convict absconders from the Australian penal colonies were transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land.
This little-known chapter of history happened for several reasons. The colonists wanted to cleanse their land of thieves, vagrants and murderers and deal with Māori opposition to colonisation. Transporting fighting men like Hōhepa Te Umuroa, Te Kūmete, Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiahi and Te Rāhui for life to Van Diemen’s Land was meant to subdue Māori resistance.
Transportation was also used to punish redcoats (the British soldiers sent to guard the colony and fight opposing Māori), who deserted their regiments or otherwise misbehaved. Some soldiers were so terrified of Māori warriors that they took off when faced with the enemy.
Early colonial New Zealand had no room for reprobates. Idealised as a new sort of colony for gentlefolk and free labourers, New Zealanders aspired towards creating a utopia by brutally suppressing challenges to that dream. On 4 November 1841, the colony’s first governor, William Hobson, named Van Diemen’s Land as the site to which its prisoners would be sent. The first boatload arrived in Hobart in 1843 and included William Phelps Pickering, one of the few white-collar criminals transported across the Tasman. Pickering later lived as a gentleman after returning home.
In 1840s Van Diemen’s Land, convict labourers were sent to probation stations before being hired out. Many men transported from New Zealand were sent down the Tasman Peninsula, where labourers were needed at the time.
Ironically, those eventually allocated to masters or mistresses in larger centres like Hobart or Launceston would have enjoyed more developed living conditions than New Zealand’s fledgling townships. In those days, Auckland’s main street was rather muddy. Early colonial buildings were often constructed by Māori from local materials.
At least 51 redcoats were shipped to the penal island. Some committed crimes after being discharged from the military. But many faced charges related to desertion. Four of the six soldier convicts who arrived Van Diemen’s Land in June 1847 were court-martialled in Auckland the previous winter for “deserting in the vicinity of hostile natives”.
As Irish soldier convict Michael Tobin explained, the deserters had been returned to the colonists by “friendly natives”; that is, Māori who were loyal to the Crown during the New Zealand Wars. Perhaps as a form of insurance, Tobin had also struck Captain Armstrong, his superior. Several other soldiers also used violence against a superior – it was bound to ensure a sentence of transportation, removing them from the theatre of war.
Irish Catholic soldier Richard Shea, for instance, was a private in the 99th Regiment who used his firelock to strike his lieutenant while on parade. This earned him a passage on the Castor to Van Diemen’s Land. His three military companions on the vessel, William Lane, George Morris and John Bailey, all claimed to have been taken by Maori north of Auckland and kept prisoner for four months. But surviving records reveal that their military overlords thought that the three had instead deserted to join the ranks of a rebel chief.
In 1846, NZ governor George Grey proclaimed martial law across the Wellington region. When several Māori fighters were eventually captured and handed over to colonists by the Crown’s Indigenous allies, they were tried by court martial at Porirua, north of Wellington.
After being found guilty of charges that included being in open rebellion against Queen and country, five were sentenced to transportation for life in Van Diemen’s Land. The traditionally-clothed Māori attracted a lot of attention in Hobart, where colonists loudly disapproved of their New Zealand neighbours’ treatment of Indigenous people. This is ironic given the Tasmanians’ own near-genocidal war against Aboriginal people.
Grey had wanted the Māori warriors sent to Norfolk Island or Port Arthur and hoped they would write letters to their allies at home describing how harshly they were being treated. Instead, they were initially held in Hobart, where they were visited by media and other well-wishers. Colonial artist John Skinner Prout painted translucent watercolour portraits of them. Each of the fighters used pencil to sign his name to his likeness. William Duke created a portrait of Te Umuroa in oils.
Hobartians were worried that the Māori could become contaminated through contact with other convicts. Arrangements were made to send them to Maria Island off the island’s east coast, where they could live separately from the other convicts.
John Jennings Imrie, a man who previously lived in New Zealand and knew some Māori language, became their overseer. Their lives in captivity were as gentle as possible and involved Bible study, vegetable gardening, nature walks and hunting.
Following lobbying from Tasmanian colonists and a pardon from Britain, four of the men, Te Kūmete, Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiahi, Te Rāhui, were sent home in 1848. Te Umuroa died in custody at the Maria Island probation station in July 1847. It was not until 1988 that his remains were repatriated to New Zealand.
Reducing crime through imposing exemplary sentences saw dozens of working-class men transported to Van Diemen’s Land. One such fellow was James Beckett, a sausage-seller transported for theft for seven years. The only woman sent from New Zealand, Margaret Reardon, was sentenced to seven years’ transportation for perjuring herself trying to protect her partner (and possibly herself) from murder charges. After being found guilty of murdering Lieutenant Robert Snow on Auckland’s North Shore in 1847, the following year Reardon’s former lover Joseph Burns became the first white man judicially executed in New Zealand.
At one stage, Reardon was sent to the Female Factory at Cascades on Hobart’s outskirts to be punished for a transgression. Eventually, she remarried and moved to Victoria where she died in old age.
In 1853, transportation to Van Diemen’s Land formally ended. New Zealand then had to upgrade its flimsy gaols so criminals could be punished within its own borders.
While Australia has an egalitarian mythology, where everyone has a chance, the roots of problems with access to housing lie in our history. The first land grants were given to former convicts as a way to control an unfenced prison colony. As free settlers arrived in Australia, priorities changed, land ownership gained prestige, and smaller landholders were pushed out of the market.
When Governor Phillip stepped onto Australian soil for the first time, in 1788, he carried with him a set of instructions to guide him through the early days of the newest British colony. Included was some authority to grant land, and the number of acres each male convict could receive at the end of his sentence. Eighteen months later, the colony received further instructions from Home Secretary William Grenville, permitting soldiers and free settlers to receive parcels of land if they chose to stay in the colony.
Grenville’s instructions also set out the pattern of land granting that would dominate the colony for the next two decades. Groups of grants were to be placed at the edge of a waterway, with each individual property stretching back into the land rather than along the bank. These rules had a long history; the American colony of Georgia received almost identical phrasing in 1754, but other versions had been in place since the early 18th century.
The rules had two specific purposes in Australia: to foster productivity; and to maintain surveillance over the landholding population, which consisted largely of former convicts.
Initially, all land grants were required to conform to these instructions, and status was shown by the amount of land received. Former convicts started at 30 acres, while free settlers got at least 100 acres.
Under this scheme everyone would receive a mixture of good and bad soils, access to a navigable river and the safety of a surrounding community – important in an unfamiliar land. These grants would reduce the colony’s reliance on imported provisions. Instead, it could feed excess produce into the ports that restocked passing ships.
Colonial exploration and expansion could then continue to stretch to the furthest parts of the globe. But the rules also kept the grantees contained and within a dayʼs travel of a centre of governance (Hobart or Launceston, for example).
Free settlers’ arrival changed the rules
In 1817, the Colonial Office began to encourage voluntary emigration to the Australian colonies, and ambitious free settlers arrived. People complained about the failings of the former convicts, as they practised a rough agriculture that did not fit British ideals.
At the same time the management of convicts in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) moved towards the harsh penitentiary system today associated with convicts. Using land grants to pin the former convict population to specific locations, while permitting them the freedom to live their lives, conflicted with free settlersʼ aspirations for the colony.
It is no accident that Bothwell, in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, was not directly connected to Hobart by river and was dominated by free settlers. The spread of Europeans across the land resulted from the mix of an expanding overland road network and the reduced need to keep these higher-status settlers within armʼs reach.
Land granting policies that excluded poorer settlers (most of whom were former convicts or the children of convicts) were introduced. Only those people with £500 capital and assets (roughly A$80,000) would be eligible. The minimum grant would be 320 acres.
One writer, the colonial surveyor G.W. Evans, asked at the time whether this was intended to drive those without means to the United States of America instead. Even if they scraped together the money, the sheer quantity of land would be beyond their ability to cultivate.
Locating former convicts on the rivers ensured productivity and the reliable transportation of goods, but these grants also kept them under close observation. As the penal system became more punitive convicts lost the hope of gaining a small piece of land after their sentence.
But before this, far from being intended as any kind of reward or enticement, the first land grants given in Australia represented ongoing control over the lowest class of settlers – those who had been “transported beyond the seas”. Since the beginning of our colonial history, land ownership in Australia has been intricately connected with role and status.
In Australia’s first century, from initial convict settlement in 1788 to the post gold rush decades, the economy grew rapidly. And despite all the changes going on, we found that during this time Australia gained its equality edge.
In fact, during roughly the same period (1774 to 1870) the United States experienced a steep increase in inequality. So looking at this phase of Australian economic history could teach today’s policymakers some lessons.
In the nineteenth century, Australia enjoyed the fastest rate of GDP growth per worker, between 1821 and 1871 it was about twice that of the US and three times that of Britain. We started to look at data from the 1820s onwards. This was the time when Australia quickly evolved from a colony where convicts were 55% of the labour force to a more conventional “free” economy by 1870.
While both Australia and the United States used forced labour extensively (slaves in the southern US and convicts in Australia), their share of the labour force was much higher in Australia (more than half) than in America (about a fifth). The difference in the two countries’ trajectories on inequality has to do with the timing of the emancipation of forced labour, the duration of their coerced employment and changing economies.
How Australia avoided inequality in the past
In Australia convicts were gradually emancipated following the 1820s. As existing convicts eventually got their freedom, the inflow of new convicts fell sharply after the 1830s (except for Tasmania).
By the 1850s Britain had practically ceased its convict transportation policy. In contrast, the slaves in the American south were used as forced labour for much longer, and emancipated only after the Civil War.
Another key difference between the two countries lies in the fact that while the United States underwent a process of impressive industrial growth, Australia specialised in the export of wool and gold (small scale extraction).
We used a wage to rental ratio to work out income inequality, comparing rental income and land values to workers’ wages. What we noticed is that European settlement in Australia was characterised by labour scarcity and land abundance.
In fact, the ratio of acreage to farm labour rose by a whopping 11.7% per annum between 1828 and 1860 and by 6.3% per annum across the 1860s. This was because land endowments grew very fast after the Blue Mountains were breached in 1815. This trend was also matched by a reduction in the gap between rental income accruing to those who owned land, relative to what unskilled workers were receiving.
Our analysis shows that while land values per acre rose at 2.2% per annum, land rents fell by 0.3% per annum. This difference was driven by the fall in interest rates, because of the partial integration between Australian and British financial markets.
On the other hand, the annual earnings of unskilled labourers soared, pushing the wage-rental rate up. With the end of British transportation policy, the “emancipated” convicts moved up the earnings ranks. They almost doubled their incomes if they remained unskilled, and moved up even higher if they could exploit their skills.
But there is another important reason behind the rise in unskilled workers’ incomes. As Australia did not undergo a process of industrialisation, it did not experience an increased demand for skilled workers, like the US. So the supply of workers kept pace with the demand for skills.
Lessons to learn for today’s inequality
While today’s economic conditions are different, there is something that we can learn from this episode of Australian history. Australia’s experience shows that it’s possible to achieve fast growth, and at the same time, a reduction in inequality.
Between 1910 and 1980 inequality trends have been similar across OECD countries. As these trends were driven by shared shocks, such as the Great Depression and two World Wars, Australia experienced the same inequality.
Income inequality in Australia has been rising since the mid-1990s. At the start of the 21st century, the income share of the richest 1% of Australians was higher than it had been at any point since 1951.
Greater equality obviously can’t be achieved by emancipating convicts now, but policymakers can mimic the same effect by targeting vulnerable segments of society that experience greater disadvantage. For example politicians could improve equality of access to health, education, housing and other services across the country.
Australia: New South Wales – Transportation of Convicts is Abolished
Australia: The Castle Hill Rebellion
On this day in 1804, in Castle Hill, Irish convicts revolted against British colonial rule in New South Wales. The revolt would continue for ten days, with many people killed. The rebels were led by Phillip Cunningham, a veteran of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 which resulted in the Battle of Vinegar Hill. On the 6th March, Cunningham was appointed the first sovereign of Australia by the rebels, a position which would soon be lost and his life ended with his hanging.
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