Coal Mines Historic Site. Photo Dragi Markovic, 2007. Australian Heritage Photo Library © Department of the Environment

Australian Convict Sites: World Heritage

In 2010 a group of eleven historic places scattered across Australia were inscribed on the World Heritage List. This is the first time sites connected to penal transportation have been included.

These sites place Australia’s convict history within the broader story of European expansion, along with the forced migration of labour in the late 18th century.

Talk of Australia’s convict beginnings was once taboo; a source of embarrassment. It is now treated with pride. Along with the social and cultural legacy, Australians have come to value the objects and architectural remains that record and recall their convict past. The once neglected ruins and relics have become must-see attractions.

Stone guard room with fireplace and open air ceiling
Military Guard Room, Cockatoo Island. Photo Dragi Markovic © Department of the Environment

The World Heritage List

The UNESCO World Heritage List includes places with international importance and works to protect and promote the ‘outstanding universal values’ identified in each case.

The Australian Convict Sites now on the list highlight Australia’s convict beginnings and illustrate changing attitudes towards crime,  punishment and the treatment of prisoners throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As a group they reveal the broad range of institutions, structures and systems experienced by convicts in Australia between 1788 and 1868.

On Norfolk Island

Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Convict Stations

In New South Wales

Old Government House and Domain, Parramatta

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

The Old Great North Road, Wisemans Ferry

Cockatoo Island Convict Site, Sydney Harbour

In Western Australia

Fremantle Prison, Perth

In Tasmania

Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasman Peninsula

Cascades Female Factory, Hobart

The Coal Mines Historic Site, Tasman Peninsula

Brickendon and Woolmers Estates, near Longford

Darlington Probation Station, Maria Island

A New Society

Each of the 11 Australian Convict Sites on the World Heritage List has a fascinating and complex history. Tales of transported criminals, swept into servitude in cruel and distant places, are told against a backdrop of stirring architecture, brutal institutions and landscapes. Linked together, they tell an epic human story about the mass movement of unwilling labour across the globe and the underpinning role of convict society and culture in colonial expansion.

The transportation of convicts around the world in the late 18th century was part of a common push by European nations to set up colonial outposts and military strongholds in far flung regions. Britain, however, had different plans for its Australian territories. This was the only attempt to grow a new society from a penal colony. It was also the longest and most diverse scheme in operation, involving the largest amount of transported convicts, scattered across the widest expanse of land. Australia’s eight decades of convict transportation occurred during a time of heated public debate on crime and punishment.

Convict systems in Australia were not only influenced by changing ideas but also in many cases helped crystallise radical approaches to prison design, prisoner reform and enlightened theories on criminal behaviour.

Watercolour depiction of Norfolk Island settlement with convict buildings and agricultural land
[Settlement at Norfolk Island], Thomas Seller, c1835, watercolour. National Library of Australia: an6570405

166,000 convicts

Transportation, or a sentence of banishment across the seas, had been used to punish British criminals for centuries. Its victims were petty thieves, military prisoners, vagabonds, anarchists and political rebels. Before 1775 Britain sent convicts to its American and West Indian colonies; however loss in the Revolutionary Wars meant another destination was urgently needed.

As a short term measure, retired warships turned into floating prisons called hulks, moored close to shore, helped reduce crowding in local lockups and county gaols. And hulk inmates could perform useful public works. But what the government really wanted was a fearsome and faraway place, strategically sited with commercial promise. In January 1787, a plan was announced in British parliament to send convicts to the newly claimed territory of New South Wales.

Exactly a year later, a fleet of 11 ships carrying convicts, crew, soldiers and marines sailed into Port Jackson, dropping anchor at Sydney Cove. Over the next eight decades, more than 840 ships brought around 166,000 transported convicts to Australia. They came mostly from England and Ireland although also from India, Canada, China, New Zealand and the Caribbean. Most were unmarried working class men. Around 12 per cent were women, whose presence, while minor, was crucial to the success of the colony.

Hope in Hell

Convict transportation, slavery and indentured labour were three equally brutal and oppressive systems used for sweeping large numbers of captive workers away from home, usually across the seas. In each case a combination of discipline, terror, punishment and rewards made sure that unwilling workers were obedient and productive. All three systems brought unspeakable misery and suffering to millions of lives.

Unlike slavery or indentured labour, penal transportation was intended to rid a population of criminals and develop colonial outposts. While uncertain and unfair, the combined aims of crime control and colony building gave transported convicts a future. For convicts sent to Australia there was a glimmer of hope in hell.

Having endured their sentence and served their time, convicts in Australia were given the unusual opportunity of re-entering the society they helped establish, hopefully free of stigma. In the process, cultures, attitudes and traditions transported along with convicts filtered into Australian life.

Yet it is only in recent years that Australia has come to terms with its convict origins. The once carefully hidden history that bred a peculiar need for international approval is now openly explored. The World Heritage Listing of Australian Convict Sites aims to further unchain the country’s convict past.

NEW SOUTH WALES

Following the charts of Captain Cook, a fleet of 11 British ships carrying convicts, settlers and soldiers started a penal colony at Sydney Cove in 1788. The ill-prepared outpost struggled for several years until farms succeeded at Parramatta and Norfolk Island and supply ships arrived more often.

From the beginning, the fate of convicts rested on their skills, rather than their crime. Until the late 1810s, convict carpenters, brickmakers, nurses, servants, stockmen, shepherds and farmers worked mostly under government direction on public works and agriculture. Ex-convicts were socially accepted.

As the colonial population increased throughout the 1820s and 30s, discipline was toughened and convicts were isolated from view. Private assignment on distant country estates was the common experience of convicts as settlements spread across the mountains and along the coast. Fewer convicts remained in the towns.

Troublesome convicts had their sentences extended or built outback roads in chain gangs. The most feared ‘secondary’ punishment was banishment to stations like Port Arthur, Moreton Bay [Brisbane] or the reoccupied Norfolk Island. By 1840, when transportation to New South Wales ended, around 80,000 convicts had served time in the colony. Many were still under sentence, with places like Cockatoo Island operating as convict institutions for decades to come.

Copper coloured coin with the inscription on the reverse reading: "THIS IS A / TOKEN FROM / MY HAND FOR I AM / GOING TO / VAN DIEMENS [sic] / 18 LAND 25".
Convict love token made from a defaced 1797 Cartwheel Penny, inscribed 1825, maker unknown. Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photo © Penny Clay for Sydney Living Museums

VAN DIEMEN'S LAND

British settlement on Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania] began in 1803 at Risdon Cove on the Derwent River. During the first decade, a small population of convicts, soldiers and settlers farmed, cut timber, dug coal and hunted for sealskins and oil. By 1820, convicts made up 70 per cent of the population, with transportees arriving directly from England.

As in NSW, convicts worked initially under minimal restraint, constructing buildings, roads and bridges under government direction. Female convicts mostly worked as domestic servants. ‘Factories’ were established for un-hirable or pregnant women.

By the mid 1820s, the favoured system of employing convicts was under private assignment, mostly on larger estates. A network of notorious outstations and settlements like Sarah Island, Maria Island and Port Arthur operated to terrorise secondary offenders. A few convicts were retained in town for government works and useful trades.

After 1840, changing ideas on the treatment of prisoners saw new penal systems and institutions evolve. Instead of private assignment, new arrivals were placed in highly regimented probation stations scattered across the island. Strict routines of work, religious learning and segregation were based on progressive ideas trialled in British penitentiaries. The limited success of probation stations across Van Diemen’s Land led to the abolition of transportation in 1853.

Engraving of Port Arthur settlement depicting convict buildings and working convicts
Etablissement penitentiaire de Port Arthur, Terre de Van-Diemen. Plate from Campagne de circumnavigation de la fregate l'Artemise, Cyrille Pierre Theodore Laplace, 1854, engraving. Rex Nan Kivell collection, National Library of Australia: an8864286

Western Australia

In 1826, convicts accompanied a small military mission from New South Wales to King Georges Sound [Albany] in Western Australia to create a colonial outpost. The Swan River settlement, or present day Fremantle, was declared in 1829.

For 20 years, the poverty-stricken colony faced dismal development with chronic labour shortages and struggled to attract enterprising settlers. Requests throughout the late 1840s for a supply of convict labour coincided with the ending of transportation to the eastern colonies. The first shipload of convicts to Fremantle was happily received in 1850.

Within the next two decades, 10,000 transportees arrived in the colony. Among these were a small number of convicts and keepers diverted in 1862 from the recently closed establishment on Bermuda. Fremantle Prison housed gangs of convict workers who laboured on public infrastructure projects like jetties, roads, bridges and buildings. Convicts were also assigned to free settlers involved in agricultural and mining works.

The final shipment of convicts to Western Australia in 1868 marked the end of transportation to Australia. The convict system continued to operate until 1886 when Britain formally handed control of prisons to the colonial government. Transported convicts continued to serve out sentences at Fremantle Prison until 1906.

NORFOLK ISLAND

A detachment of about 20 convicts and settlers pitched camp on deserted Norfolk Island in early 1788. Britain was worried about French naval interests and hoped that the island could supply food for the starving mainland colony along with raw materials for ship rigging, spars and masts.

Plagues of caterpillars, the failures of flax and timber and the difficulty of landing supplies spelt disaster for the agricultural settlement from the start. The convict population fell after 1804 when Van Diemen’s Land became a more convenient destination. Some stayed on as settlers until the colony was abandoned in 1813.

Norfolk Island reopened in 1825 as a dreaded island prison for incorrigible convicts. According to Governor Ralph Darling in 1826, to deter others from the commission of crime, prisoners on Norfolk Island were to face the extremest punishment short of death. Poor food, scarce rations, incessant floggings, back breaking labour and ruthless overseers made prison life unbearable.

A brief experiment in penal reform in 1840 under the enlightened commandant Alexander Maconochie drew widespread criticism and after 1844 the settlement was returned to its previous harsh regime. The prison complex was closed in 1855, following the end of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land a few years earlier.

Exhibition slideshow featured in Australian Convict Sites at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum.

Photos sourced mainly from the flickr group flickr.com/groups/australianconvictsites/

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Gary Crockett
Curator
Exhibitions and Interpretation
It was the dog‐eared world of Rouse Hill House, back in 1991, that inspired Gary Crockett to become a curator.
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