“Great Convict Stories”: Graham Seal on Australia’s Ignominious Beginnings

I grew up watching cricket and have family in Australia so I have often discussed the history and founding of that country with the people around me—particularly, the issue of its being a penal colony. During conversations with friends and relatives, I have almost always heard Australia being compared with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, which the British acquired around 1858 and where they set up the infamous Cellular Jail (Port Blair), for criminals from the Indian subcontinent.

Much is made of the Australian convict past in popular media. History is frequently used to illuminate current problems. For instance, see these two Guardian articles: “Cruelty? It’s part of the Australian experience” (2013), where the writer Adam Brereton observes:

A re-creation of typical 1855 cell accommodation, Fremantle Prison, Western Australia

How can it be that Australia, a nation whose self-image is of fairness, frankness, and anti-authoritarianism, is so cruel to asylum seekers? It would be better to ask whether the current regime of imprisonment and torture is anything new. It is, after all, the latest in a long history of Australian cruelty, a constant presence in our culture since white settlement.

Then there’s this one from September 2017: “Australia’s homophobia is deeply rooted in its colonial past” wherein LGBT rights activist and academic Rodney Croome notes:

In Australia the specific historical circumstances that shape prejudice towards LGBTI people is summed up in one word, convictism. In colonial Australia same-sex relationships among convicts were considered the most serious threat to lawful authority. In our early 19th century single-sex prisons the only bond strong enough to withstand the inducements to inform on your fellows, and the punishments meted out to surly inmates, was romantic love. This is why prison officials went to such extreme lengths to separate same-sex convict couples by relocating them to prisons hundreds of kilometres apart.


Great Convict Stories by Graham Seal (2017, Allen & Unwin)

The legacy of convictism seems complicated and messy. Those interested in learning more about this aspect of Australia would find a good resource in Great Convict Stories published by Allen & Unwin (@AllenAndUnwin). It is authored by Graham Seal, a leading expert on Australian cultural history and Professor of folklore at Curtin University in Perth. Other books by Seal include: Great Anzac Stories, Great Australian Journeys, The Savage Shore and Larrikins, Bush Tales and Other Great Australian Stories.

In 10 chapters, Seal describes the brutality of the transportation system, the dangerous voyages, the horrible punishments (flogging, solitary confinement), the practices—common and rare and legendary—among the convicts (magic, wife-selling, the search for gold, orgies, cannibalism). From time to time, he goes deep into individual cases, bringing to us a whole cast of colourfully wretched characters.

Seal tells us that between 1788 and 1868, some 162,000 or more convicts were transported to Australia, men and women from all walks of life and many different parts of the world. Their crimes were various (serious murder and rape to trivial theft of a handkerchief and pilfering of food) and “while some were harshly or even unjustly treated, by the standards of their time their punishments were mostly expected.”

Convict flogging in Tasmania, National Library of Australia, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Resources were scarce on the new continent and conflicts were many (between convict and convict, between the convicts and the indigenous population). It was truly a survival of the fittest situation. Everyone was too busy with their own misfortunes to be able to alleviate the distresses of anybody else. The slightest offence was punishable by death. It was only in 1828 that a certain amount of stability was reached, when Sir James Mackintosh argued in the House in Commons for the establishment of trial by jury and a limited form of elected assembly in New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land (old name for Tasmania). The ‘convict stain’ was declared, which could be purged only if Mother Britannia planted the institutions of English law in the penal colony.

Reading the accounts of the convicts in the book, I found two pretty unforgettable: one by a woman convict writing home less than a year after the First Fleet deposited its cargo of felons at Port Jackson and the other a poem called “The Convict’s Lament” most probably by a man named Francis MacNamara (c. 1810–1861). Both powerfully “humanise” the wrongdoer before the reader.

The woman—

I take the first opportunity that has been given us to acquaint you with our disconsolate situation in this solitary waste of creation. Our passage, you may have heard by the first ships, was tolerably favourable; but the inconveniences since suffered for want of shelter, bedding, &c., are not to be imagined by any stranger.




Notwithstanding all our presents, the savages still continue to do us all the injury they can, which makes the soldiers’ duty very hard, and much dissatisfaction among the officers. I know not how many of our people have been killed.




As for the distresses of the women, they are past description, as they are deprived of tea and other things they were indulged in in the voyage by the seamen, and as they are all totally unprovided with clothes, those who have young children are quite wretched. Besides this, though a number of marriages have taken place, several women, who became pregnant on the voyage, and are since left by their partners, who have returned to England, are not likely even here to form any fresh connections.

“…this solitary waste of creation…” [Bush landscape with Waterfall and an Aborigine stalking native animals, New South Wales by John Skinner Prout (1805-1876), Wikimedia Commons]

Now Frank the poet—

One Sunday morning as I went walking, by the Brisbane‘s waters I chanced to stray,
I heard a prisoner his fate bewailing, as on the sunny river bank he lay;
“I am a native of Erin’s island but banished now to the fatal shore,
They tore me from my aged parents and from the maiden I do adore.


“I’ve been a prisoner at Port MacquarieNorfolk Island and Emu Plains,
At Castle Hill and cursed Toongabbie, at all those settlements I’ve worked in chains;
But of all those places of condemnation, in each penal station of New South Wales,
To Moreton Bay I’ve found no equal: excessive tyranny there each day prevails.


“For three long years I was beastly treated, heavy irons on my legs I wore,
My back from flogging it was lacerated, and often painted with crimson gore,
And many a lad from downright starvation lies mouldering humbly beneath the clay,
Where Captain Logan he had us mangled on his triangles at Moreton Bay.


“Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews, we were oppressed under Logan’s yoke,
Till a native black who lay in ambush did give our tyrant his mortal stroke.
Fellow prisoners, be exhilarated, that all such monsters such a death may find!
And when from bondage we are liberated, our former sufferings shall fade from mind.”



Image Credit:

Featured: Colour lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson on January 26 1788, drawn in 1888. Creator: E. Le Bihan, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain



One thought on ““Great Convict Stories”: Graham Seal on Australia’s Ignominious Beginnings

Comments are closed.