Convict slavery in Australia
most petty of crimes, were treated as slave labour, and received the
harshest of treatment. Norfolk Island, in particular, dished out harsh
and inhumane punishment.
Even the transportation to Australia constituted a major punishment
in itself. Whilst conditions on the First Fleet have been described as
fairly satisfactory, 267 convicts died during the voyage of the Second
Fleet, and 199 in the Third Fleet. Captain Hill, a British military
officer at that time, wrote of the awful conditions in the convict
"The slave traffic is merciful compared with what I have seen in this
[second] fleet; in that it is in the interests of the masters to
preserve the healths and lives of their captives, they have a joint
benefit with the owners; in this, the more they can withhold from the
unhappy wretches, the more provisions they have to dispose of at a
foreign market, and the earlier in the voyage they die, the longer they
can draw the deceased's allowance to themselves."
Convicts were housed below decks on the prison
deck and further confined behind bars. In many cases they were
restrained in chains and were only allowed on deck for fresh air and
exercise. Conditions were cramped and they slept on hammocks.
...Although the six convict ships, three supply ships and two naval
ships of the first fleet arrived with their cargo of 780-odd convicts in
relatively good condition, the same cannot be said for those that
followed during the rest of the century.
Of the 1000-odd convicts sent on the second fleet, 260 or more died
during the voyage. As mentioned in the section on hulks, many were
diseased when they embarked and those who managed to survive the voyage
were severely weakened by scurvy, dysentry and fever.
On subsequent voyages the story was not much different and the
treatment of the convicts was a disgrace. Private merchant ships were
contracted to transport the convicts and their masters looked for ways
to improve their profit margins by withholding the convicts' rations,
keeping them chained below decks without fresh air and inflicting harsh
and cruel punishment in an attempt to maintain discipline. Although
official complaints were made after the fact, justice was never seen to
be done. In one particular case, Thomas Dennott, the master of the
'Britannia', was described as a sadist. He brought a cargo of Irish
convicts in 1797 and subjected them to brutal discipline of 300, 400 and
800 lashes. The worst death rate, however, was recorded on the
Hillsborough which arrived in 1799. Typhoid killed 95 of her 300
On board the ship Chapman, coming from Ireland in 1817, the
reactions of naval personnel to an alleged planned mutiny were so severe
and extreme that Governor Macquarie, after an inquiry, sent home a
number of its personnel under arrest; however, those charged were later
acquitted. Whilst the extremity of the brutality meted out on the Chapman
was so severe as to be reported, the ordinary everyday brutality would
usually go unreported, due to it being "acceptable" and so commonplace.
Convicts sent to Australia included some boys as young as eight
years old, and there were many sent out who were aged between twelve and
There were also political prisoners amongst the transportees,
including the Scottish martyrs of 1794; the naval mutineers of 1797; the
Irish rebels of 1798, 1803, and 1848; the agricultural rioters of 1830;
the Tolpuddle martyrs of 1834; the Canadian rebels of 1839; and the
Chartists of 1842.
The London Quarterly Review published an article in June 1841 discussing the convict situation in Australia:
the colonies, and says that the bad state of society may be traced
directly to their pervading and demoralising influence; he complains
that physical coersion [flogging, etc.] is resorted to upon every little
breach of regulation, &c. &c.; in short, he says, in so many
words, that the settlers who have convicts assigned to them are
slave-holders, and the assignees slaves."
In the early days of New South Wales, convicts were employed on public
works, construction, and public farms. However, as the numbers of free
settlers (including governments officials) and emancipists (ex-convicts)
increased, a large proportion of convicts were released to them, in
order to assist them in the cultivation of their lands. Under this
system of assigned service, convicts were assigned to masters and were
entirely under their control.
Governor Arthur of Van Diemen's Land declared that the assigned servant
"deprived of his liberty, exposed to all the caprices of the family
to whose service he may happen to be assigned, subject to the most
summary laws... [was in a condition] in no way different from that of a
The only differences were that convicts were not to be flogged by their
masters and, except in the case of a "lifer", they were in bondage for a
limited period of years.
In one notorious case the convict servants of Major James Mudie
assaulted their overseers, and when tried for attempted murder they
stated that they were willing to die provided they had been able to
expose the conditions in which they were employed. The convicts were
convicted, but Governor Bourke ordered an inquiry to be held; however,
Mudie was officially exonerated.
Magistrates regularly visited the government convict establishments to
hear the overseers' complaints and to inflict sentences. The most common
punishment was flogging, as this interfered less with the ability of
the convict to work. Later, there was a tendency to order solitary
confinement or the tread-wheel instead of the lash, but both of these
forms of punishment depended on facilities being available, whereas a
whip or a cat-of-nine-tails were more easily obtained. More severe was a
sentence to hard labour for a prescribed time on a road gang, with or
without irons. Worse still was banishment to a penal settlement. Even
when granted a "ticket of leave", convicts remained subject to severe
discipline and the ticket could be revoked for any offence, no matter
In New South Wales in 1833, in one month 2000 out of 28,000 convicts
were convicted summarily and 9000 lashes were ordered by the
magistrates. In Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) during the same period
there were 1250 summary convictions and 4250 lashes ordered among 15,000
Road gangs of convicts suffered under extremely brutal discipline. As
extra punishment, the men could be worked in irons. James Backhouse, a
Quaker who visited New South Wales in 1836, wrote of one road gang, "the
punishment to which they are subjected for misconduct in the gang is
flagellation [flogging]; and in some instances they have received from
600 to 800 lashes, within the space of eighteen months, at the rate of
not more than fifty lashes for one offence". A soldier named Joseph
Sudds, who died shortly after being condemned to work in a road gang,
carried irons weighing 13 lb. 12 oz., which were described as "light".
Backhouse noted that at one time the men were ordered to work in chains
for as long as seven years, but this severity had later been relaxed.
A recollection of chained convicts is given in Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland.
Father also saw the unfortunate chained men on the treadmill working
out their punishment. You would hear the "click, click" of their irons
as they kept step with the wheel, and those with the heavier irons
seemed to have "a great job" to keep up. Some poor wretches only just
managed to pull through till they got off at the far end, then they sat
down till their turn came to go on again. They all had to do so many
hours, according to their sentence; an overseer kept the time, and a
couple of soldiers guarded them. When they had put in their time they
were marched back to barracks.
The leg irons for the chain gang were made in the lumber yard by a
blacksmith prisoner there. A supply was kept always on hand, some light
and some heavy, and when a prisoner was sentenced to wear them for a
certain time he was taken to this blacksmith's shop to be fitted up;
then when his sentence had expired he was sent there to have them taken
...The lighter irons had links about the size of a plough chain, the
others being much heavier. The chains were some two feet long between
the legs, and in the middle of each was a small ring with a string
through it, which, being connected to the prisoner's belt, kept the
irons from dragging on the ground during motion. Prisoners wearing
chains had a peculiar way of walking, and you would see the poor fellows
just released after six months or so, going along as though they still
wore them. Heavily-chained men always dragged their feet along in a
weary fashion - life to them could not have been much joy. Ordinary
trousers would not go over a man's irons, so the chain gang all wore
these garments opened right down the outside seams, and buttoned there
with big black buttons.
...Father says, "I have often heard my father say that some of the
poor fellows got fifteen or sixteen years for stealing turnips, others
were sentenced for life because they had stolen sheep, or for forgery.
Nowadays, for the same offence or worse, they pay a fine or earn a few
months in Jail
Punishment for convicts in Australia went well beyond being flogged, put
in chains, or sentenced to the treadmill. A "secondary" punishment was
established by setting up penal settlements where discipline was so
severe that being sent to some of the settlements was said to be "worse
than death". In his encyclopaedic article "Convicts and Transportation",
A.G.L. Shaw notes that Chief Justice Forbes was scathing about the
conditions at such places:
settlements has proved that transportation is capable of being carried
to an extent of suffering such as to render death desirable, and to
induce many prisoners to seek it under its most appalling aspects."Shaw's researches also showed that the brutalities of life in the penal
settlements at Norfolk Island and Port Arthur were so horrifying that "convicts were known to commit murder in order to be sent away for trial"
David Bentley, writing for Brisbane's Courier Mail, says that the
period when the Moreton Bay penal settlement was under the command of
Captain Patrick Logan was "an era when convicts were literally whipped
to death and desperate prisoners cast lots to slit one another's throats
as a merciful escape from torment."
Life for many convicts in Australia was extraordinarily severe, wherein they suffered from the conditions of horrendous slavery.
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