The Stain of Criminal Blood

A handprint in blood.

Over 150,000 convicted British criminals were transported to Australia as penal laborers in the 18th and 19th centuries. When these people, after years of work, had served out their sentences, they usually did not go back to Britain. This was because Europe was a long boat ride away, and because the new continent offered large areas of idle land, where ex-convicts hoped to get a fresh new start.

Convicts considered unworthy

In theory, ex-convicts in Australia were citizens like everybody else, but in reality, they, and even their descendants, had a social stigma attached to them. Their criminal background or family ties, it was often argued, made them unreliable and unworthy to occupy prominent positions in society, a contention that despite its base in sweeping, unjust assumptions won strong support. Moreover, for people from the privileged classes, marrying a person of convict family origin was considered marrying significantly down, and therefore typically avoided.

Disagreeing with the stigma

Former convicts and their descendants did not believe the stigma was justified. Instead, they contended that convicts who had toiled as penal laborers and served out their sentences had paid their dues. They also argued that insubordination and theft, which were what most people had been transported to Australia for, often stemmed from political dissidence and poverty, and were nothing to be rancorous about. Nevertheless, the idea of a convict “stainpersisted.

Inspiring pride

After nearly a century of stigmatized living for ex-convicts and their descendants, forced removals to Australia ended in 1868. In subsequent years, with Australia modernizing and with the convict era fading into distant memory, having “the stain”, finally, became less of a social and professional hurdle. Nevertheless, having convict ancestors was generally considered shameful and something Australians kept quiet about well into the 1900s. It was not until about the 1970s, in fact, that convict ancestry became fully socially accepted and even began to inspire pride.