Why Sydney?

No-one knows for sure why Britain chose Sydney to send convicts to, or exactly what they wanted from the colony. There is no clear answer, only competing theories.

Was it about business, to hunt whales in the southern Pacific? Or security, to create a naval foothold in a region already swarming with enemy vessels and rival colonial interests?

Or was it just a reluctant fallback, somewhere else to send felons far from home, after the American colonies won independence from Britain in 1776? Settlers there, for more than a century, had made use of regular shiploads of convict labourers to work in plantations and private businesses.

After all, the medieval penalty of banishment, now known as transportation, was as common a punishment in the 1700s as prisons are today.

Without the option of banishing so-called ‘rogues and vagabonds’ to America, British lock-ups and improvised jails were suddenly overwhelmed with prisoners. Even the new floating prisons, the convict ‘hulks’, filled up fast.

And while some were developing more modern ideas on punishing criminals – to heal rather than hurt, to make them ‘penitent’ by locking them inside ‘houses of correction’, or penitentiaries others, less enlightened, saw convicts as brute labour. These people looked back to the age-old formula of sending criminals to the mines or galleys, or to serve their sentence in chains, on public works, under the eyes of overseers.

And this is where, in the late 1780s, the debate stalled, or at least found a compromise. The punishment of convicts should lead both to their reform and to some form of public benefit. But this should take place far from the prisoners’ homes, away from the temptations and influences that first led them to crime somewhere secure and convenient, where their punishment would be productive.

Furthermore, it needed to be away from public view, in case onlookers were offended or saddened at witnessing convicts at close quarters.

the employment of criminals in works carried on under the public eye, is perhaps too repugnant to the feelings of Englishmen ever to be tolerated.

So: good for business, a handy naval foothold, overcrowded jails, good riddance to human rubbish, or redemption through hard work, far from view?

We cannot say for sure.

What we do know is that with the east coast of Australia recently hitched to Britain, a fleet of 11 ships carrying just over 700 prisoners, along with their guards and administrators, stepped ashore at Port Jackson in 1788, and proceeded to peg out the foundations of the most remote and isolated European colony on earth. Whatever the motivations, this was a jail and its banished inmates had plenty of work to do.