Do you remember the story of the young boy who broke into Buckingham Palace several times to stalk Queen Victoria? His name was Edward Jones, or “Boy Jones,” as he’s been remembered. His strange admiration for the Queen was such that it's said he spent about a year hidden in the chimney pipes and only got out at night to steal her belongings, including her underwear. Long story short, he was caught multiple times, but due to his age, he was never imprisoned nor punished severely, which only pushed him to do it several times more. The last time he was caught, he was imprisoned on a ship for weeks until it was settled that the best punishment was to send him to a prison colony in Australia. Just as Jones, thousands of people were sent to this country to serve his sentence. The British colony set in Australia was originally established as a labor land for convicts from the United Kingdom, and so, many the first settlers were labeled as criminals. But what is really their story? Were they really dangerous and ruthless delinquents?
If you think about it, when the colonies started to settle, who were exactly the people who arrived? In the case of North America, we know that the first settlers were actually exiles fleeing from the religious repression of Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary), who had restored Catholicism and executed those who followed the Protestant faith (which was a vast majority at the time). In that way, that feeling of distancing to the monarchy prevailed and increased until the independence of the colonies. But that's another story.
Now, in the case of Australia, the story was different. In 1770, James Cook made his first exploration to the Eastern part of the territory and declared it a British land, but the Dutch had already settled in the West. When he returned to England, many asked what would they do with their new land. At the time North America had already been used as a prison camp (mainly Maryland). However, when the colonies got their independence in 1776, their business ended, so they needed an alternative plan. But, to begin with, why did this become part of their penal system?
By that time, there was a huge overpopulation in the main cities of Britain, especially London. Let's remember that these were the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Cities were growing exponentially, but most of the people were living in utmost misery. For that reason crimes such as robbery and larceny increased. People were even arrested for stealing fruit or a loaf of bread from the market. Prisons were filled with people who had committed minor crimes, and although they implemented the death penalty for severe crimes, the gallows were still loaded. Like in young Boy Jones’ case, they also used the army ships as cells, so they saw in their new lands the opportunity to get rid of all those “criminals.”
In that way, it was in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Australia. And it remained an entirely convict land (except for those in charge of running it) until 1793, when the first free settlers arrived. For years there was a huge stigma about the origins of the colony, but in recent times there's been a communal pride on their history. It's estimated that about 20% of the current population descends from these convicts that came mainly from England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland (although there's evidence that there were also prisoners from other British colonies like India, China, Canada, New Zealand, and slaves from the Caribbean).
During the first half of the nineteenth century Australia received a long number of convicts. However, most of them had been punished for really minor crimes, to the point that among the aproximately 160 000 people transported, many were children caught for stealing an apple. Another percentage of them were political prisoners who rebelled against the monarchy, and many others had actually been falsely accused.
Officially, convict transportation was abolished in 1868, when the Australian population increased to one million. These convicts were put to labor work to sustain the colony and gave many profits to the monarchy. By the nineteenth century, the system was optimized, and people who, for instance, had to serve for eight years were released after four if they proved to be hardworking. Still, many decided to stay, since they had already made their lives and even formed families, but they were given the free people status and even got access to buy properties. By the time transportation ended, the colony already sustained itself, so new convicts weren’t really needed. They had already modernized and made the land function correctly. So, basically, more than just a judiciary system, it became Britain’s way of exploiting a land for free. Not so shocking, don’t you think?
For more historical facts take a look at these:
Images from the TV series Banished (2015) and the documentary Convict Women and Orphan Girls (2014)