The essential characteristics of a country's population and national identity are normally shaped over a long period of time. In the world's central landmass of Europe, Asia and North Africa, successive waves of migration spanning millennia have created a varied mix of ethnic types and national traits which blur and mingle at geographic or political borders. North and Central American populations have been shaped by more recent migrations from all over the planet during five centuries, whilst geographically isolated peoples in southern Africa, Polynesia and parts of South America were essentially left alone to develop within their own borders. There remains one part of the world which is unique in having an isolated native population until a particular breed of Europeans were forcibly implanted on their soil just over two hundred years ago. Thus it was that the future of Australia was forcefully shaped by the arrival of large numbers of convicts from Britain and Ireland.
First fleet of convict arrivals
The success of the revolutionaries in the American War of Independence in the 1780’s left Britain with nowhere to send the growing numbers of convicts who had previously been shipped to penal colonies in North America. The British government therefore resolved to establish a penal colony in the great southern continent which had been claimed for Britain by the explorer Captain James Cook in 1770. The first fleet of settlers arrived in 1788, comprising British naval officers and seamen, vastly outnumbered by the 780 convicts they brought with them as prisoners.
The majority of the convicts were derived from the poverty-stricken and uneducated underclass of London and the rural population of Ireland. Both groups were often sentenced to transportation to the penal colony on trivial charges, never to return to their homeland. Although some convicts were able to obtain their ‘ticket of leave’, which amounted to conditional freedom, after years of hard labour and good behaviour, many were doomed to end their lives in imprisonment.
The builders of the colony
When convict transportation finally ended in 1868 the population of Australia stood at around one million, and approximately 162,000 convicts had been transported in the previous eighty years. These men and women had been the backbone of the new colony, doing the majority of physical labor even after free settlers began to arrive in 1816. Convict transportation only ended when the free population was considered large enough to support the growth and continuing prosperity of the new nation. Without the convicts Australia could not have developed at the rate it did.
Many of the convicts had skills which were useful in the colony. Builders and carpenters, agricultural labourers, and tradesmen such as tailors and bakers were the first to be granted tickets of leave and had no problems finding employment. Women were in demand as domestics, wives and mothers. In the early years these people far outnumbered their masters, the free men and women considered the founders of the colony, and even in more recent years there is insufficient recognition of the contribution made by convicts to the progress of Australia in the 19th century. Individual convicts, like the famous architect Francis Greenway, the boatman John Cadman, the founder of Sydney Grammar School Laurence Halloran and the successful farmer James Ruse, as well as many who became prosperous merchants, made a lasting contribution to Australian society.
As well as the more obvious influences by way of labour and success in business and trade, convicts also had an impact on the language of Australia. Convicts from the East End of London brought with them their Cockney rhyming slang, some of which still survives in modern Australian English, along with certain words derived from Irish such as the peculiarly Australian uses of the words ‘tucker’ and ‘paddock’. A more detailed discussion of the convicts’ contribution to Australian English can be found in ‘The socio-historical context of Australian English’.
Convicts also had a lasting effect on Australian folklore and folk songs. Ned Kelly, the notorious bushranger and folk hero, was the son of an Irish convict. There are many popular folk songs bewailing the horrors of transportation and penal servitude, songs such as ‘Botany Bay’, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Black Velvet Band’.
A relaxed attitude to authority
Most Australian convicts, as previously noted, were not hardened criminals. Murderers and armed robbers were usually hanged rather than sentenced to transportation. However, one trait shared by many convicts was a cheerful disregard for authority, a feature of the Australian character which still perseveres. Although Australia is a law-abiding society, there is a tradition of poking fun at officialdom and pomposity, and of cutting down to size anyone who takes themselves too seriously. According to popular belief, this attribute was most noticeable when Australian servicemen were fighting in the two world wars of the 20th century, where they demonstrated a more relaxed attitude to their superior officers than was common in forces under British command.
In spite of the undeniable positive contribution made by convicts, the possession of convict ancestry was considered undesirable until the closing decades of the 20th century. This may have contributed to an Australian attitude commonly referred to as the ‘cultural cringe’, the belief that Australian society, products and achievements were inferior to those found in some other countries, notably Britain. This attitude has now disappeared, along with the shame of discovering convict ancestry. Those Australians whose forebears were transported convicts, particularly those who arrived with the first fleet in 1788, now announce the fact with pride. Convicts are now recognised as having had a largely positive influence on Australia and its development.