'Humanity probably invented exile first and prison later.' Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, famous 20th century convict.

Convicts, the first major exhibition in Australia to investigate our criminal past, used paintings, drawings, video and digital images to recreate aspects of the lives of people transported to Australia. It also featured the most extensive collection of convict memorabilia ever exhibited.

Curator of Convicts, Michael Bogle, whose team spent two years widely researching and locating objects and images, said, ’one hundred and sixty thousand people made the journey to Australia across the world as involuntary migrants’. This exhibition told aspects of their story.

Penal servitude in isolated locations is a centuries-old tradition. Penal colonies still operate on islands off the coast of Italy and Mexico. There have been transported convict communities in the Caribbean, South America, Asia and Oceania; Spain, Holland, France, England and other nations chose to send their exiled criminals to establish colonies throughout the world.

Convicts all shared rough justice, deprivation, fear and cruelty. The photographs, paintings and drawings of the Australian convict settlements in the exhibition showed this terrible isolation and deprivation.

A large model of a government treadmill was an exhibition centrepiece for an exploration into convict food. In the colonies, a sentence to the treadmill meant grinding grain for public sale. Few opportunities to put convicts to work were wasted.

Convicts laboured to produce the simplest objects. Over 100 of these objects including shoes, clothing, leg irons, letters, love tokens and toys were exhibited. Seventy photographic images, including family photographs, famous convict sites and crowds celebrating the end of transportation were part of Convicts. People also learnt the names of the traitors who favoured William Charles Wentworth’s proposal to re-introduce transportation to NSW.

Particular attention was paid to the working lives of female convicts because their stories are very different to the better-known experiences of male convicts.Convicts opened on 16 October 1999 at the convict-built Hyde Park Barracks Museum, Sydney. The Barracks housed male convicts between 1819 and 1848. It later became an Immigration Depot for women and a Government Asylum for females.

Did you know?

  • The playwright Anton Chekov made public the terrible condition of the Russian convicts of Sakhalin Island after a visit to the Asian colony in 1897. Chekov visited the island and published a book on his experiences five years later.
  • The First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788 with a cargo of 552 convict men and 190 convict women. This distorted ratio of male to female was to become a constant concern for the British Government. Britain was anxious for the New South Wales civil society to develop along conventional lines. Despite their concerns, the population’s liaisons were unconventional. The records suggest that authorities thought that homosexuality was commonplace amongst convict men and women.
  • When large scale rebellions occurred amongst convicts, the army was used to restore order. These revolts were frequent. Groups of convict men and women attacked their keepers, stole ships, torched their gaols and ’bolted’ to the bush. Aboriginal Australians were asked to help track down escapees. In the Port Phillip Bay colony, the army organised units of Aboriginal Australians into a uniformed "Black Police".
  • The children of transported convict women under sentences of confinement at the Parramatta Female Factory were taken from them when they reached the age of three and taken to the Government Orphan Schools. Here the children remained until the boys were apprenticed at 10 years of age; or the girls found domestic work or married.
  • The institution of convict transportation had many enemies in Britain as well as in the colonies. Convict transportation was suspended in New South Wales in 1840. Attempts by the British Colonial Office to reinstate the practice in the colony in the 1840s led to widespread social unrest. The most effective Australian opposition to the practice was led by the Australasian Anti-Transportation League.
  • The weekly Government rations for male convicts in New South Wales in 1811 was 7 pounds of salt beef, 4 pounds of pork, 6 pounds of wheat, 15 pounds of corn.
  • The design of the current Australian flag is drawn from the painted banner of the Australasian Anti-Transportation League carried by the delegates from Launceston, Van Diemen’s Land to their convention in Melbourne in 1851.
  • Under the leadership of William Charles Wentworth, the Select Committee on the Renewal of Transportation in New South Wales Legislative Council in 1847 calculated the cost of a transported convict at 30 pounds. In Brazil in 1848, the price of a male African Slave was 45 to 50 pounds.
  • Following mass anti-transportation demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne, the British Government lost its political nerve for reintroducing convicts to Eastern Australia and withdrew all plans. Transportation was suspended in Van Diemen’s Land in 1852 and in Western Australia in 1868.
  • W. C. Wentworth favoured the reintroduction of convict transportation to NSW and voted for the adjournment of the question of No Transportation in the New South Wales Legislative Council, August 30, 1850. The anti-transportation activists called him a traitor.
  • Driven by the need to confine and punish the more incorrigible men under their command, the military governors sought even more desolate sites for secondary punishment. In 1804, the Coal River, at present-day Newcastle was the first secondary punishment settlement to open, followed by Port Macquarie 1821, Moreton Bay, 1824 and Port Arthur, 1830.
  • Transported convict women who resisted placement as colonial servants could find themselves confined in Female Factories in Parramatta, Hobart and Moreton Bay. The major women’s prisons in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land were the colonies’ first factories. Rebellious women were held in check by solitary confinement, food restrictions, rock breaking and most resented of all, hair cropping.
  • Investigation of British and colonial records show that the labour skills and literacy levels of transported convict men and women were often superior to their host populations in England and Ireland. Some historians have referred to convict workers as a "Labour Aristocracy".
  • Convict food and drink were subject to wholesale abuse and cooks were always suspected of reducing the rations for their own gain. Some of the most vicious convict rebellions resulted from arguments over food; convicts would literally die for food.
  • Robben Island, South Africa was initially a Dutch penal colony. Between 1846 and 1931, the island was used as a leper colony. Between 1960 and 1991, Robben Island was administered as a prison and used to punish those who opposed apartheid. The most celebrated inmate of Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, opened the island as a museum in 1997.
16 October 1999 - 2 September 2001

Become a member

Enjoy free entry to our latest exhibitions for you and up to 4 kids.

Join now