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Convict settlement

PRONI event at the John Hewitt Bar, Belfast PRONI exhibtion of documents relating to China Talk in the PRONI lecture room
Following the American War of Independence the now independent states of North America were closed to further shipments of convicts from the British Isles. Crimes were still being committed, however, and criminals still being apprehended. The jails of Britain could not cope with the massive strain imposed upon them, and community service and non-custodial sentences were not viable alternatives. The death penalty was the reward for a host of offences, many of which were relatively minor. Yet many witnesses showed a reluctance to give evidence that would result in sending men and women to the scaffold.  Juries, and even judges, returned not guilty verdicts on known petty criminals or convicted them of lesser crimes rather than see them swing. Yet this common humanity resulted in the overcrowding of the jails and prison hulks making conditions even more intolerable.   Transportation seemed the only solution, and Australia the only venue.
Early photograph of Botany Bay (c.1869) PRONI Ref.  D24/12/D/1
Although taken years later, this early photograph of Botany Bay (c.1869) gives a flavour of what the first fleeters first set eyes on. (PRONI Ref: D24/12/D/1)
In May, 1787, the first convict fleet, under the command of Commander Arthur Phillips, RN, set sail from Portsmouth for eastern Australia via Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope - a total of 15,900 miles carrying a total of 1,350 souls. The fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788, but found this anchorage of Cook's unsuitable and by 26 January had settled upon Port Jackson (named, but not visited, by Cook) as the site of the first convict settlement. Phillips named the cove in which his ships anchored Port Sydney, to honour the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney, the minister responsible for the Australian transportation scheme. 717 convicts arrived more or less safely, only 40 convicts, and 5 others in the fleet, had died en route - a surprisingly low figure for such an unprecedented migration, given the conditions on the convict transports. The second fleet did not fare so well, 278 of the 1,270 passengers dying on the 13-month journey out with a further 500 so ill they did not to survive long after landing. Of those that survived, sickness, hunger, and back-breaking hard work was the reality of life for the early colonial settlers.
Once the settlements survived the 'starvation years', as this early period has been named, a wider colonial society developed. Although initially based around the convicts and their guards, family groups soon emerged. Some convicts were permitted to send for their wives (or husbands) and children.
Letter from Alexander Boyce to his family. PRONI Ref. T3650/2.
This particularly poignant postscript shows that it was not always easy to find loved ones left behind.
The addition of wives and children softened the harshness of early colonial life, and the potential rewards for good behaviour encouraged those with skills - particularly skills essential in a new colony - to work hard for their 'ticket of leave'. Many ex-convicts thus became model citizens, some even commenting that transportation had been the making of them!
Letter from Mr Montgomery to his family, 1840. PRONI Ref. T3650/8.
'... and tell Cormack McCaffery that this is a fine country and that I would recomend to him to come to this country as he would do well in it. ...'

Transcript of letter from Mr Montgomery to his family, 1840. PRONI Ref. T3650/8 (16KB) Adobe PDF formatted document Opens a new browser window.
The convict labour system built the original basic infrastructure of the new society but, by 1835, the Australian colonies were overwhelmingly peopled by free settlers who came to regard the convict system as a stigma on their adopted homeland. Hopes were high for the new Australia and the importation of more criminals did not feature in the development plans. The convict settlement that had been such a feature of Australian society for over eighty years was gradually withdrawn on a state by state basis, New South Wales being the first state to abolish the system in 1840, with Western Australia receiving the final consignment in 1867.
In all, approximately fifty to sixty thousand Irishmen and women were transported to Australia, according to Professor O'Farrell (The Irish in Australia). He has also estimated that of these, about 1.5% were unambiguously sent out as political offenders or participants in rebellion or conspiracy, with the great bulk of these coming in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion. If crimes of agrarian discontent and social disaffection are included under the heading of 'political crimes', then the proportion of Irish political transportees rises to about 20%. The great majority of Irish convicts were, therefore, sent to Australia after criminal conviction, and predominately for petty crime. Certainly United Irishmen, Young Ireland and Fenian leaders were transported, but both in Ireland and Australia the myth that many - if not most - convicts were sentenced for political offences does not bear scrutiny as hard fact.
Letter from Whitehall, 1805. PRONI Ref. T1956/5.
Whitehall, 10th March 1805
Sir
'I have laid before Lord Hawkesbury your letter of the 13th of this month signifying the Lord Lieutenant's request that William Orr, a convict who was transported to new South Wales in the year 1799 may be permitted to return to Ireland by the first opportunity, as there is reason to believe that Orr was unjustly charged with the offence for which he was transported.
In reply I am directed to acquaint you for the information of the Lord lieutenant that no time has been lost in making a communication upon the subject to the Colonial Department, with a view to His Excellency's desire being complied with.'
I am &c., J. King


Other myths and legends have grown up around Irish convicts and settlers. Some have achieved notoriety, such as George Barrington, 'the pickpocket of gentlemen and the gentleman of pickpockets'; Dennis O'Dogherty, the most lashed man in Australia, of whom Trollope wrote; 'I should have liked to take him out into the world and given him a month of comfort. He would probably, however, have knocked my brains out at the first opportunity.'; and the escaped convicts, Cash and Power, who became famous bushrangers. These two gave a romantic veneer to that form of banditry that was not deserved by its later practitioners, George Andrew Scott, alias 'Captain Moonlite' and, of course, Ned Kelly.
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