Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sydney -- The Great Southern Gaol

Early Sydney settlement

This post is in a way an introduction to book I read this week for The Short Book Club and it fits in quite nicely with the fact that I was recently in Sydney, my home town. There I attended a lecture called Convict Sydney and most of the information is culled from my notes, with a little checking as well. Incidentally the book is The Secret River by Kate Grenville and a book review post will follow soon.

Everyone likes to tease Australians about their "convict background" since Sydney was of course founded as a penal colony and they assume that we are all descended from those who were transported to Australia as criminals and that Australia was the only place where convicts were sent.

However transportation as a punishment was by no means a new thing for the British in 1788, since they had been transporting convicts to America since 1717 but that came to a halt in 1776 with the American Revolution. In all around 50,000 were transported to America.

When the prisons in Britain became full convicted felons were housed in overcrowded decaying old ships moored in coastal waters but conditions were appalling and transportation recommenced as the First Fleet sailed for Australia, eleven ships with (numbers vary depending on source) 573 male and 193 female convicts along with 247 marines, and with the ships' crews and some family members, making the first settlers around 1400 in number.

So who were these felons and what were the crimes they had committed? Many people had fled from the country to the cities where there was no work and crime was rife. But crimes warranting the death penalty (which could be commuted to transportation) included poaching, cutting down a tree, stealing goods worth 40 shillings or more. In fact there were hundreds of crimes for which the penalty was death, including a very strange one, namely being in the company of Gypsies for one month. Later the system of laws and punishments of the time became know as the Bloody Code, since so many crimes were punishable by execution.

Before setting sail many of the prisoners had already been on the ships for 7 to 8 months. They slept four to a berth, with the women segregated. At first they were chained but later they were freed and considering the voyage lasted for eight months and the crowded conditions it is amazing that only about four dozen people died and despite travelling 15,000 miles, not one ship was lost on the journey.

When the fleet arrived at Botany Bay Captain Arthur Phillip who became the first Governor of the new colony decided that it was not suitable as a settlement and after a preliminary exploration the fleet moved north to Port Jackson where he discovered a wonderful harbour which he described as

"the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security ...".

The fleet landed there on January 26th 1788 and Phillip named it Sydney Cove in honour of Lord Sydney, the Home Secretary.

But all did not go well in those first years as the soil was poor and sandy and, since there were few farmers there was a shortage of food which lead to rationing. The indiginenous people, the aborigines, were hostile and there was much conflict between the settlers and the aborigines. Despite the abundance of fish the settlers were not good fishermen and by the time the infamous Second Fleet straggled into port in 1790, in dribs and drabs, things were not going well. The Second Fleet had been "contracted out" to private businessman who kept the convicts in dreadful conditions, chained, beaten and starved so the survivors were hardly a help to the struggling colony.

But progress was being made despite these difficulties and the continuing conflict between settlers and aborigines who naturally resented being dispossed of their lands. In fact Governer Phillip himself was speared in the leg on Manly Beach. Phillip was a good governor on the whole, humane and sensible and he tried to utilize the convicts according to the skills they had acquired in Britain: brick makers, carpenters, shepherds, etc. Educated convicts were set to work as record keepers and the colony slowly began to be established.

But the formation and arrival in Australia of the New South Wales Corps, more colourfully described as the Rum Corps, for controlling the rum trade was ultimately their chosen profession in the new land, meant that the gaolers were not much better than the convicts, since the members tended to be troublemakers and parolees from military prisons who were looking for a new start in the fledgling colony. When Phillip returned to England in 1790 due to ill health, their commander Major Francis Grose took over and his rule was in no way as benevolent as had been Phillip's.

However the young colony slowly flourished, especially under Governor Macquarie (1821-1827), known as the great builder and by the time that the transportation of convicts to Australia came to a halt in the eighteen fifties, a mere eighty years later, the continent of Australia had been colonized in many other parts and the population stood at 1 million.

In all the total number of transported convicts was around 162,000 men and women and they were transported to Australia on 806 ships.

According to the lecturer, the fact that it began as a penal colony has given Australia or Australians the following series of characteristics which he called its convict legacy.

A belief in egalitarianism

Desire to shock

A dislike of wowsers

A hatred of whinging

Support the underdog

Gallows humour

Dislike of politicians

A strong belief in humanity


Wanting everyone to have a fair go

Taking the piss (not alone in this one as this expression comes from the Brits)

The Secret River tells the story of one man's experience as he was transported to the Great Southern Gaol, not long after it was established and I'll tell you more about next time.


Janice Thomson said...

I hadn't realized quite that many people had been sent to Austalia. A fascinating account of the early history of Sydney. Look forward to the rest of the review of 'The Secret River'.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

I learned a new word today. Wowsers! It gives me a name to cover something I really don't like that I have thought of as Puritanical before.

From your list, except maybe for the desire to shock, I figure I must really be an adopted Australian. I will have to have a word with my parents ^_^

jams o donnell said...

It's frightening to see what could have got you hanged in those days - or transported

CherryPie said...

Very interesting I am looking forward to the next post!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

A really good history lesson, jmb - thank you. That's really interesting about what the convixt history has given to Australians, too.

Voyager said...

This is fascinating. Especially that staying a month with gypsies could result in the death penalty. Presumably that did not apply to other gypsies?

Ellee Seymour said...

What a hard life it must have been for those who first journeyed to the New World.