Why are many Australians descendants of criminals?
The British Empire: Coast of the Damned
The "Hashemy" arrived in Sydney six days ago. A captain surveyed the 212 male passengers, asked them about their crossing, and inspected their quarters. Then he released the ship. And so, on June 14, 1849, those men who had been waiting weeks for his arrival were finally allowed to board the sailor: sheep farmers and landowners. They are looking for servants and cheap labor. On the quarterdeck they make their offers to the newcomers: free board and lodging, plus twelve to 16 pounds a year, that's about half as much as freelance farm workers in England. Some artisans even get 28 pounds. There are also some minors among the passengers. They have all been convicted of criminals in the UK. Some stole silver spoons, others silk handkerchiefs, still others woolen cloth or hats. But, in essence, most of their offenses were minor. Like that of the 16-year-old baker's apprentice William Henry Groom, who was sentenced by a court to seven years in prison for stealing bread.
Convicts are no longer welcome
The "Hashemy" is a convict transport. Shortly after the barque arrives, thousands of Sydney citizens demonstrate that it will be the last. Convicts are no longer welcome in the city that was founded as a prisoner colony 61 years earlier. New South Wales, the oldest of the four British colonies in Australia at the time, is changing from a penal camp to a destination for honest and ambitious settlers. White children born on the continent take part in the protest against the newcomers. And nobody can imagine that William Henry Groom, the thief, of all people, will make a political career here.
Early on, the Empire shipped prisoners overseas to relieve its few prisons, which are dramatically overcrowded. Often it is children or young adults who cannot find work in the fast-growing cities of England, who steal from hunger and cheat and are sentenced to years of imprisonment or even to death. Because London regards them as incorrigible, but increasingly pardons doomed people, thousands of crooks, debtors, prostitutes and stealing orphan boys were sent to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. But after the US declaration of independence in 1776, the crown had to accommodate many prisoners on ships anchored in the Thames and in southern English ports. The authorities remember a stretch of coastline that is suitable for a prisoner colony: New Holland, an as yet unexplored land mass, taken in 1770 on its east coast by the discoverer James Cook for the crown.
Many of the first settlers soon die
In 1787, Great Britain sent eleven ships with over 700 convicts on their way to the fifth continent. In total, more than 800 British ships will bring around 160,000 prisoners to the southern hemisphere over the next 80 years. Those who survive the trip are supposed to make the land arable under military supervision and receive freedom and a piece of land after their sentence has expired. Many of the first settlers soon die. They perish when trying to escape into the bush, succumb to diseases, and end up on the gallows because of theft or mutiny. And some simply starve to death.
The first governor of New South Wales - the newly founded colony on the east coast of the largely unknown continent - soon realizes that he needs farmers above all. At his insistence, the first volunteers were recruited in England as early as 1792, promising them land and convicts to work for them. But initially only a few emigrants were interested in the offer - by 1800 only 20 accepted it. As a result, the colonial government is now paying some British citizens ship passage and helping to set up farms or businesses. In overpopulated London in particular, she recruits emigrants - including women, so that the predominantly male former convicts can start families in their new home. And now more and more immigrants are coming to Australia, as the continent has been officially called since 1824 - named after terra australis incognita (lat., unknown south country). Soon the new settlers discovered pastures for sheep in the hinterland and made enormous profits with the wool within a short period of time. The remote prison island is becoming wealthy - and in Sydney, the capital of the first colony of New South Wales, which is expanding ever further inland, the governor there begins to copy the architecture of the British Empire in building projects: Georgian-style houses are being built, a bank, Roads, bridges and a lighthouse. Sydney grows from 2,000 inhabitants in 1800 to 50,000 half a century later. And as more larger cities emerge on the Australian coasts, the British establish five additional independent colonies.
The indigenous people are least considered
By 1850 more than 400,000 people from Europe were already living on the continent, all of them in British possessions. A new society emerges: The indigenous people, the Aborigines, are the least important. They hardly have any rights and are often hunted down and killed with impunity. Above them stand the convicts from Europe, above those who have served their sentences. The upper class consists of government officials and Her Majesty's soldiers, as well as voluntary immigrants. In response to their pressure, the British government decided in 1840 not to send any more delinquents to New South Wales. Because although some settlers profit economically from the prisoners, many colonists want to finally get rid of the stigma of the criminal. More convicts are sent to the even more remote island of Tasmania. Eight years later, however, it is overcrowded - and Great Britain is again equipping convict ships to sail to Sydney, including the "Hashemy". It is one of the last transports of prisoners: after the demonstration in Sydney Harbor against his landing, only three ships with convicts will call at the city, the last a few months later.
William Henry Groom, the 16-year-old boy from the "Hashemy", rises quickly after his arrival: He is given a conditional pardon after just four months and pays back the cost of his passage from his first salaries. Apparently the boy can handle numbers well and soon works as an accountant, among other things. Eventually he went to the town of Toowoomba, married into an established family and, within a few years, became the owner of a hotel and later co-owner of one of the local newspapers. He also succeeded in an unusual political career: in 1861 William Groom became mayor of Toowoomba, in 1862 a member of the first parliament of Queensland, the newly founded, sixth and last British colony in Australia. He debates laws and controls the colony's governments. He fights for land distribution and protective tariffs on imports. However, he does not achieve his greatest goal, the ministerial post for land issues, presumably because of his criminal past.
Australia is changing radically
In 1870, Great Britain withdrew its troops from the continent, so that from then on volunteer organizations protected Australia before an army of its own was founded in 1901. From 1890 on, the six colonies discussed the establishment of a common state, and in May 1901 the new Australian Parliament met for the first time - with Groom as one of the first MPs. A few months later he dies of pneumonia. Just as he has changed during his lifetime, Australia has also changed radically. The colony has left its disreputable beginnings behind and has risen to become the "Dominion" - a self-confident, autonomous part of the British Empire ruled by free white settlers.
The continent will soon prove to be a reliable ally: when the First World War broke out in 1914, the descendants of those convicts whom Great Britain once banished to the other end of the earth went into battle for the motherland.
The article is from the new one
GEOEPOCH No. 74 "The British Empire".
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