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NSW offered earliest convicts the chance to lift their status

10 January 2017

News and media


Gary Sturgess, NSW Premier’s ANZSOG Chair of Public Service Delivery, reveals evidence which provides a rare insight into Australia’s middle class convict past and counters the “fatal shore” school of (European) Australian history.

According to Robert Hughes, the intellectual patrons of the penal settlement established at Sydney Cove in January 1788 were Thomas Hobbes and the Marquis de Sade. This “fatal shore” school of (European) Australian history imagines that the vast majority of convicts were exiled for nothing more serious than stealing a loaf of bread, abused by malignant contractors on the outward voyage and worked like cattle by vicious overseers on arrival.

Most Australians have embraced this version of our history: it seems we want to believe that British politicians and civil servants of the time were all bastards, and that the convicts all suffered terribly.

The passing last year of the great historian John Hirst reminds us that there has always been another version of European Australia’s foundation story.

New South Wales did not need to make the transition to a free society, he argued: its freedoms were established at the outset. Botany Bay, he wrote, was a penal settlement but not a prison.

Hirst was by no means the first to recognise this. French naturalist Francois Peron, who visited the settlement in 1802, wrote that most of the convicts, “having atoned for their crimes by a hard bondage, have rejoined the ranks of the citizens”. Having acquired property and established families, they had strong reasons to be concerned about the maintenance of law and order.

This aspect of European Australia’s foundation myth, which speaks of industrious and aspirational convicts, also deserves to be remembered.

For this extraordinary colony to succeed, governor Arthur Phillip found it necessary to grant legal privileges and commercial opportunities that these men and women could never have enjoyed at home.

The first police force in Australia (strictly speaking, a night watch) was composed of convicts, since the marines who had been sent out as their guards refused to perform that role. Some of the first thieves they caught were marines.

Convicts could, and did, submit complaints to the home secretary before sailing, organise hunger strikes throughout the voyage when they felt they were not being supplied with their lawful rations, and submit joint petitions to the governor.

The first civil court case in Australia was brought by two First Fleet convicts, Henry and Susannah Kable, who successfully sued the captain of a ship for the loss of their property on the outward voyage. But it was not just a question of civil liberties. Much earlier than has generally been recognised, convicts and ex-convicts were granted significant commercial freedoms.

On arrival, Henry Kable was immediately employed as an overseer of other convicts. Six months after their arrival, the Kables had a small garden of their own, supplying themselves with cabbages, turnips and peas. They sent their son to school, and in July 1788 they sent money home to Henry’s mother, the proceeds of their court case.

Most of the convicts brought personal property with them, chests filled with clothing and cooking utensils, and some of the women packed perfume and -jewellery, hair curlers and wigs. They also brought cash and small valuables.

Some worked on the outward voyage: sewing, mending and washing clothes, cutting hair, working the ship as one of the crew.

They were paid in tea and tobacco, clothing and rum, and sometimes in cash.

Within a few years, male and female convicts were investing in consumer goods such as tea and sugar, cloth and tobacco — purchased in England or at one of the ports where they touched during the voyage — to be sold in the settlement on arrival at a substantial profit.

A small number of ex-convicts were to become fabulously wealthy following their emancipation. Simeon Lord and Mary Reibey are the best known today, but convict enterprise was common in the early years of the colony, and convict traders and tradies emerged shortly after landfall.

Shipped to New South Wales with the First Fleet, Robert Sidaway became the public baker and, despite being a convicted felon, was paid a fee for his services. He also sold bread to Zachariah Clark, the deputy commissary who operated the settlement’s first private store on the side, and sold flour to the commissariat.

By 1792, Sidaway was said to have accumulated savings of about £500, a small fortune at the time, and some of this was invested in the first commercial venture of the infamous Rum Corps — the hire of a storeship, the Britannia, for a voyage to the Cape of Good Hope for provisions.

At that stage he was still serving his time, although he had been given a conditional pardon by the time the ship returned.

Sidaway was by no means an exception.

By 1792, several convicts were making money on the side as traders and tradesmen — bakers, fishmongers and grocers, black¬smiths, plumbers and tinmen, carpenters, joiners and sawyers, stonemasons, ropemakers and nailmakers — servicing the ships that periodically arrived in Sydney Cove and, no doubt, the officers and gentlemen of the colony.

Historians knew these convict tradies existed, but until recently we knew almost nothing about them.

An obscure document in the NSW state archives — the cashbook of the Britannia, which remained in the Pacific until 1797 and visited the settlement on four separate occasions — provides us with a rare insight into this emerging convict middle class.

It lists 20 convict tradesmen whom we can identify with confidence: of these, 11 had not completed their time and nine had been pardoned or had finished their sentences. Some of these artisans seem to have been pardoned early because their skills were so valuable.

Thomas Abbott, for example, arrived in 1791 as part of the Third Fleet. From 1792 to 1794 — while he was still a convict — Abbott provided services to the Britannia on three occasions as a carpenter and woodcarver.

In later years he would expand his commercial activities, retailing wine and spirits, and investing in small vessels engaged in the whale fishery and trade with Van Diemen’s Land.

William Chapman was a plumber who had been transported for stealing lead from a church roof. There is no evidence he had been given a pardon by 1794 when he first undertook work on the Britannia, and he was used twice more when the ship returned to the colony. He would later establish himself in business as a plumber, glazier and painter.

For those who lacked a trade, the alternatives were government service, farming or trading. Henry Kable, who had been transported for serious robbery, later became the chief constable as well as a successful farmer and merchant.

William Parr, who had been convicted of swindling a shopkeeper, worked for Clark in the commissariat and possibly in his private store.

He also cultivated a 50-acre (20ha) grant following his emancipation, and by 1793 he and his convict wife had saved enough to buy a passage to England.

This progressive regime was reversed somewhat in later years, and the vast majority of convicts did not become particularly prosperous. But many of them would make a respectable living for themselves and provide their children with opportunities never dreamed of at home.

More Adam Smith and David Hume than Hobbes or de Sade.

This piece was originally published in The Australian on January 11, 2017.