CONVICTISM IN AUSTRALIA & A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE IMPACTS OF TRANSPORTATION OF CONVICTS TO WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Convict transportation to Australia began with the First Fleet, under Captain Arthur PHILLIP, in 1788, when more than 1000 convicts were landed at Botany Bay, NSW.
The final Convict transport ship “ Hougoumont’ berthed at Fremantle, WA, in 1868.
Transportation effectively ceased to mainland Australia’s Eastern States in 1843, however, one final shipment arrived in NSW in 1849 and transportation continued to Tasmania until 1853.
Western Australia had been exclusively free of Convicts ( other than a small contingent of 23 men landed in Albany in 1826 ). However, the York Agricultural Society had finally succeeded with their third petition to the Legislative Council in 1847, when they requested transportation of convicts begin to Western Australia. Their reasoning was deemed to rest with the Colony’s economy being in serious trouble and the severe shortage of available labour. Only convicts who had not committed the most serious of misdemeanours were to be considered eligible for transportation to Western Australia.
The first convict transport ship to W.A was the “Scindian “, which arrived at Fremantle on 1 June, 1850, including 75 prisoners selected for their exemplary conduct during their incarceration within Portland Prison. There was much rejoicing by the colonists within the small communities, on arrival of the first batch of convicts. One of the convicts first major tasks involved building the large Fremantle Prison, where they were to be housed.
Memorials containing expressions of gratitude were promptly forwarded to Lord GREY by residents of the Swan River, Fremantle, Northam, York, Toodyay and Wellington districts, stating:- “ We consider the introduction of convicts on a large scale the only means of placing the colony in a prosperous condition “. Construction of major public works were instigated and convict depots were established to enable convict gangs to be co-ordinated to build roads, bridges and drainage to allow connection and communication between towns.
The whole colony seems to have been roused from its state of lethargy, promising rapid advancement. The behaviour of the early convicts was deemed to be very good, with newspapers of the day stating:- “ instances from which our free settlers might take example “. By the end of 1852, most convicts had been released on Tickets of Leave and were in private service, whilst the remainder were involved in road making. Then came the impetus of 1129 men, who arrived in 1853 to bolster public buildings construction and were crucial to road and bridges construction on the Perth to Albany connecting road.
During 1853, the English Government were seriously looking at cessation of convict transportation to Western Australia. Citizens of Perth, Fremantle and York strongly opposed this move . They believed great advances had been made under the transportation system, with many convicts becoming successful and respected members of society.
From 1854, many of the convicts landed at Fremantle with entitlement to immediate Tickets of Leave. They tended to seek early outside employment, impacting on allocation of numbers to public works projects.
Up until 1860, a wave of prosperity was deemed to have passed over the colony, with settlers believing that their determination to seek convicts for assistance , was amply justified. There were also large numbers of free settlers who arrived aboard the convict ships to stimulate the stagnant settlement that had existed in 1850. During the intervening 10 years, W.A had become a hive of industry, a change which the colonists believed to be wholly due to the introduction of convicts.
W.A. Governor FITZGERALD in his Report on Transportation to the Select Committee of the House of Lords stated that “ the convicts had saved the colony “. In reviewing the convict system as a whole, from a material standpoint, lasting advantages were conferred on W.A. Transportation was adjudged to be an undoubted success.
The Department of Treasury and Finance, Government of Western Australia, released a Research Paper in December 2004, which concluded:- “ The increased demand for goods and services by convicts made many previously marginal industries viable “.
During the convict transportation years from 1850-1868, the European population increased from 5886 to 18400. The influx of more than 9700 male convicts caused a serious gender imbalance of 2:1 men to women. Shortly after the arrival of the last of the convict transports “ Hougoumont “ in 1868, the colony’s male population comprised from 70%-80% convicts.