Australia: Built by Convicted Offenders

Australia, a society where soldiers, convicts and free settlers lived closely with one another.
British women taking leave of their loved ones who are about to be transported to Australia.
The Neptune, a ship carrying British convicts to Australia.
Freemantle Prison in Western Australia, a prison which convict laborers helped build.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw major changes in British society. The industrial revolution was in full swing, and farm workers and craftsmen made redundant by new machines now moved en masse to urban areas to look for factory jobs. There were not jobs for everybody, though, so many people were condemned to live in slums on the brink of starvation. Desperate for food, or just opportunistic in the crowded streets, Brits in this situation began to steal on a large scale.

Forced to leave Britain

If caught and convicted, both male and female thieves could be sentenced to hard labor in Australia. The same sentence was also imposed on many British mutineers, deserters and others who acted insubordinately to government authority. Transportation, as this type of forced removal to Australia was called — though disproportionately harsh a punishment — was an opportune way for the British government to rid their country of trouble makers, as well as to populate and develop their new faraway colony.

Once in Australia, the fate of the convicts varied. Skilled professionals were allowed to set up shop as butchers, bakers or whatever other profession they mastered, while convicted offenders without any particular skills were assigned to menial labor jobs or roles as servants. All convicts, regardless of what job they had been assigned, lived in houses or shacks in a non-prison environment, which meant that they lived just like the rest of the British-descended population. They showed up for work in the morning and did the equivalent of clocking out when their assigned work was done. Sometimes their work was relatively easy and other times it was gruesome.

Women in high demand

Women convicts were treated as laborers to use just like men, doing anything from nursing care to hard physical labor. However, women had one thing in particular that could change things for them: they were in high demand. With significantly more men than women living in the colony, a woman in a domestic servant role could be both abused and lovingly cherished, depending on the circumstances.

Compared to slavery

Though convict women occasionally found loving companions, and though working conditions overall could be relatively satisfactory, condemnation to hard labor in Australia for mere petty crimes in Britain was not seldom seen as a covert form of slavery. Even so, transportation — or covert slavery — which had begun in 1788, continued well into the 1860s. The duration of the practice of transportation, in other words, was about eighty years, a period in which more than 150 000 convicted offenders were taken to Australia in order to work. Convicted offenders, thereby, lay a great deal of the foundation on which modern Australia stands today.