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Transportation to Australia

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Transportation to Australia

In a modern context, the idea of exiling criminals to the other side of the world may seem rather extreme and unnecessary, but throughout the nineteenth century, the transportation of criminals from Britain to Australia was a common practice. Between 1787 and 1868, hundreds of thousands of convicts would be transported to Australia, for crimes significantly varying in severity. Why were convicts sent to Australia, how did they get there, and how did this practice eventually end? Let's find out.

Transportation to Australia: crime and punishment summary

Throughout the 18th century, the harsh “bloody code” was still enforced across the UK. This gave provision for strict punishments for even the most minor of crimes, such as theft. With so many crimes carrying the death penalty, the British justice system faced moral and logistical dilemmas.

With the colonisation of North America, a new alternative punishment emerged: transportation. Compared to the death penalty, this had several significant advantages.

  • Firstly, it was unsustainable to execute so many criminals, but much easier to transport them to far colonies.
  • Morally, it gave criminals a second chance at life, which bizarrely was in line with the justice reforms of the era.

Although exile to the colonies seems harsh in a modern context, it was somewhat progressive in comparison to the alternative the Bloody Code insisted on: execution.

It also helped the British Empire populate new colonies, and more importantly, allowed British society to get rid of undesirable criminals.

Although merciful in comparison to certain execution, it must be remembered that the punishment was still harsh, with many of the condemned prisoners dying of illness on the harsh voyage.

Why were British prisoners sent to Australia?

As previously discussed, transportation was attractive for several reasons, but why use transportation instead of imprisonment?

  • When transportation to Australia began in the 1780s, prisons were still uncommon.
  • Prisons in the 18th century largely consisted of localised holding cells, that were not meant to hold prisoners for prolonged periods. Their purpose was to hold apprehended criminals until they could be punished.
  • This was an era before punishment focused on the rehabilitation of criminals, and harsh punishments were used instead, intended to deter potential criminals.
  • Much like execution, transportation would remove undesirable criminals from society, and hopefully deter others.

Rehabilitation: The process of transforming a criminal into a law-abiding citizen usually through treatment and education

Deterrence: Method to discourage crime through fear of punishment or incarceration

By the mid-nineteenth century, modern victorian prisons such as Pentonville began to become a common part of the justice system. Consequently, transportation became less common before ending altogether by the 1860s.

Transportation to Australia Gang of convicts in Sydney 1830 StudySmarterGang of convicts in Sydney 1830, Wikimedia Commons

Who was transported to Australia?

  • Between 1787 and 1868, 162,000 convicts would be sent to Australia.
  • 80% of those convicts transported were guilty of theft, with many being repeat offenders.
  • Another significant bulk of the convicts would be those involved in protest movements, such as the Luddites, the Scottish Radicals or the Chartist movement. Although depriving these movements of their leadership in Britain, it would fuel several uprisings in the Australian colonies.
  • Only 15% of those transported were women, causing issues in the new colonies.

Transportation of convicts to America and Australia: beginnings

Transportation is usually associated with Australia but was originally practised in the North American colonies. Transportation first began in 1654, but upon the formal end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 and American independence, North America was no longer a viable option for convict transport.

Conveniently, Captain James Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain in 1770. To compensate for the loss of the American colonies, the British Government sent a fleet of ships, the first fleet, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip to set up a new penal colony in Botany Bay, New South Wales on Australia’s east coast. The first fleet arrived in Australia in 1788.

Penal Colonies: Penal refers to punishment given by law, with prisons considered penal institutions. Therefore a penal colony is a settlement used to exile prisoners by placing them in a remote location far from the general population, often an island or distant colonial territory. In a British context colonies in America and Australia were used as penal colonies.

Transportation to Australia Portrait of Captain James Cook StudySmarterPortrait of Captain James Cook, Picryl

The First Fleet

The First Fleet consisted of about 1000 people, 72% of whom were convicts. 40% of these criminals would die over the eight-month journey.

Upon arrival, the free colonists had a multitude of free labour at their disposal, but the group lacked skilled tradespeople.

Transportation to Australia First fleet 1788 StudySmarterFirst Fleet 1788, Wikimedia Commons

Convict transportation to Australia: conditions

Although prisons in a modern sense were non-existent, holding facilities known as hulks were used to detain prisoners awaiting transportation. These hulks usually consisted of old prison or navy ships moored on the Thames and were just as cramped and uncomfortable as the prison ships themselves.

To make matters worse, criminals' sentences only began once they arrived in Australia, so time spent in the hulk and the journey was not counted. The ship would only set sail once the hulk was full, potentially adding up to a year to a convict's sentence.

Conditions after arriving in Australia for well-behaved prisoners could be rather favourable. They could be assigned to build roads, break rocks or carry out work for a free settler. Some convicts even secured early release for good behaviour. Sentences varied from seven to fourteen years and life sentences, but early release was usually after four years.

For those not so well behaved, the punishment was ruthless and harsh. This consisted of work in isolated chain gangs or whippings.

Due to the distance and opportunities, most former convicts stayed in their new homes, not being able to afford to return to Britain.

Transportation to Australia Convict being flogged in Tasmania StudySmarterConvict being flogged in Tasmania, Wikimedia Commons

The end of transportation to Australia: changing attitudes

By the 1860s, changing attitudes led to the end of transportation to Australia altogether, with the practice becoming significantly outdated and inefficient - why was this?

From the government's point of view, running a penal colony was expensive, particularly in comparison to the new prisons that were being built. Why transport a convict to the other side of the world when they could be imprisoned at home and rehabilitated?

In line with prison reforms of the era, transportation was also seen as harsh, considering the dangers of the journey and that many convicts could not return. Reports of violence and mistreatment also emerged.

Regarding its original purpose as a deterrent, conditions in impoverished areas were often so dire that Australia came to be seen as a more desirable place to live.

  • Convicts could receive free transport to Australia and the prospect of starting a new life, and this could be achieved by committing the pettiest of crimes.
  • The journey became shorter and safer and could be considered a reasonable risk worth taking.
  • These factors were only inflated by the fact that gold was discovered in Australia in 1851, causing many new settlers to travel on their own accord, in search of adventure and riches.

Transportation to Australia Gold mining in Queensland 1869 StudySmarterGold mining in Queensland 1869, Wikimedia Commons

From the free settlers' point of view, transportation became a major issue.

  • When transportation first commenced in the 1780s, Australia was largely uninhabited by European settlers.
  • Almost one hundred years later, after the arrival of hundreds of thousands of convicts and settlers, the free settlers were not too impressed with the constant influx of new convicts, blaming them for crime and unrest in the settlements.
  • It was also difficult for free settlers to obtain employment, competing with convicts who were paid nothing.

Additionally, Australia had become a nation in its own right and therefore did not want to remain the destination of British convicts.

A combination of all these factors led to the complete abolition of transportation as a punishment in 1868.

Transportation to Australia - Key takeaways

  • Transportation emerged as a more humane and practical alternative to execution.
  • Transportation originally utilised American colonies - switched to Australia after American Revolution.
  • Transportation to Australia lasted from 1787 to 1868.
  • Convicts were held in prison “Hulks”(ships) before transportation.
  • Convicts often remained in Australia upon completing their sentence - couldn’t afford return fare.
  • Sentences ranged from 7 years to 14 years to life.
  • Transportation ended for practical and popularity reasons; it was considered more expensive and more inhumane than modern prisons.

Frequently Asked Questions about Transportation to Australia

Transportation to Australia ended in 1868.

Approximately 15% of those transported to Australia were women, just over 24,000 people.

It is estimated that 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1787 and 1868.

Transportation to Australia would remove undesirable criminals from society, help provide free labour in the newly emerging colonies and was also more practical than using execution to punish criminals.

Transportation to Australia was a punishment used in the late 18th and 19th centuries which sent convicted criminals to Australia. Depending on their sentence convicts often worked in chain gangs, on construction projects or on farms, with many settling in Australia upon completion of their sentence.

Final Transportation to Australia Quiz


When did Transportation to Australia end?

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When did transportation to Australia begin?

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Why did transportation to the American Colonies stop?

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The American colonies gained independence

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Why did transportation to Australia become outdated?

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New prisons were more humane and efficient

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Transportation was largely a less harsh alternative punishment to what?

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The death penalty

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Who claimed Australia for Britain in 1770?

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Captain James Cook

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The first fleet set up Australia's first penal colony in Botany Bay where?

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New South Wales

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80% of convicts transported were guilty of what crime?

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What percentage of those transported were Women?

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How many convicts would be sent to Australia?

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What was a hulk?

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A ship used to hold convicts awaiting transportation

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