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Convicts and the European Settlement of Australia

Sketch of Port Arthur
The penal settlement of Port Arthur, Van Dieman's [sic] Land from a sketch by Captn. Hext, 4th, The King's Own Regiment; C. Hutchins, lithographer.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

The european settlement of Australia and the enforced exile of convicts to these shores are inextricably linked. The transportation of convicts was required for the european settlement of Australia because their labour enabled the authorities – and the free settlers – to create the infrastructure for nation building. 

While the penal aspect of transportation cannot be ignored, it should not be viewed as the only driving force behind Britain’s transportation policies. Convict labour was used to help found a number of British colonies including Barbados, Jamaica, Maryland, Virginia and Singapore. Between 1607 and 1939 Britain transported approximately 400,000 people to all parts of the globe, 162,000 of which came to Australia.

The transportation of convicts to Australia ended at a time when the nation’s population stood at around one million. By the middle of the nineteenth century there were enough people here to take on the work, and enough people who needed the work. The nation could therefore sustain itself and continue to grow. The convicts had served their purpose.

The first european settlers

Arthur Phillip
Arthur Phillip Esq., Captain General and Commander in Chief in and over the territory of New South Wales
William Sherwin, ca. 1650-ca. 1714
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

European settlement began in Australia in 1788 when the eleven ships of the First Fleet , under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, landed their ‘cargo’ of around 780 British convicts at Botany Bay in New South Wales. Twenty per cent of these first convicts were women.

After two more convict fleets arrived in 1790 and 1791, the first free settlers arrived in 1793. For the next 75 years Britain’s transportation polices supported a growing Australian population, many of whom were free settlers.

An expanding nation

The early convicts were all sent to Botany Bay, but by the early 1800s they were also being sent directly to destinations such as Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay. New areas continued to be settled all around the country during the first half of the nineteenth century (see below).

It must be said that a common misconception about the convict population is the belief that they spent their time behind bars – or walls. Places like Port Arthur or Norfolk Island are well-publicised and sensationalised exceptions. In the mid-1830s only around six per cent of the convict population were ‘locked up’, the majority working for free settlers and the authorities around the nation.

When the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia in 1868 (see below), the total number of transported convicts stood at around 162,000 men and women. They were transported here on 806 ships.

By that time the population had grown to over a million and the foundations of a new nation were in place.

Early multiculturalism

While the vast majority of the convicts to Australia were English (70%), Irish (24%), or Scottish (5%), the convict population, mirroring the nation it was to help build, had a distinct multicultural flavour.

There were also Maoris, Chinese from Hong Kong and slaves from the Caribbean. Australia’s first bushranger – John Caesar – sentenced at Maidstone, Kent in 1785 was born in the West Indies.

So detailed are many of the convict records, especially in Tasmania, we know now the smallest details about these prisoners, including the colour of their eyes!

The majority of these convicts were repeat offenders who had been found guilty of minor crimes in their homeland. Many had been sent from various British outposts, such as India and Canada. A large number were soldiers who had been transported for crimes such as mutiny, desertion and insubordination.

Convicts building road
Convicts building road over the Blue Mountains, N.S.W., 1833
Charles Rodius 1802-1860
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

European settlement of Australia

Van Diemen's Land

The colony of Van Diemen's Land was established in its own right in 1825 and officially became known as Tasmania in 1856.

The first european settlement on the island was made at Risdon in 1803 when Lieutenant John Bowen landed with about 50 settlers, crew, soldiers and convicts. The site was abandoned and in 1804 Lieutenant David Collins established a settlement at Hobart in February 1804.

In the 50 years from 1803-1853 around 75,000 convicts were transported to Tasmania and by 1835 there were over 800 convicts working in chain-gangs at the infamous Port Arthur penal station, which operated between 1830 and 1877.

Western Australia

Western Australia was established in 1827. Major Edmund Lockyer established a small British settlement at King Georges Sound (Albany) and in 1829 the new Swan River Colony was officially proclaimed. Captain James Stirling was its first Governor.

The colony was proclaimed a British penal settlement in 1849 and the first convicts arrived in 1850. Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, became the colony's convict settlement in 1838 and was used for local colonial offenders.

Just under 10,000 British convicts were sent directly to the colony in the 18 years to 1868. They were used by local settlers as labour to develop the region. On January 9, 1868, Australia's last convict ship, the Hougoumont unloaded the final 269 convicts.

South Australia

The British province of South Australia was established in 1836, and in 1842 it became a crown colony.

South Australia was never a British convict colony, although a number of ex-convicts settled there from other colonies. Around 38,000 immigrants had arrived and settled in the area by 1850.


In 1851 Victoria (Port Phillip District) separated from New South Wales. The first attempt at settlement was made in 1803 by Lieutenant David Collins but the harsh conditions forced him to move on to Tasmania where he eventually settled Hobart in February 1804.

It was not until the Henty brothers landed in Portland Bay in 1834, and John Batman settled on the site of Melbourne, that the Port Phillip District was officially sanctioned (1837). The first immigrant ships arrived at Port Phillip in 1839.

Apart from the early attempts at settlement, the only convicts sent directly to Victoria from Britain were about 1,750 convicts known as the 'Exiles'. They arrived between 1844 and 1849. They were also referred to as the 'Pentonvillians' because most of them came from Pentonville Probationary Prison in England.


In 1859 Queensland separated from New South Wales. In 1824, the penal colony at Redcliffe was established by Lieutenant John Oxley. Known as the Moreton Bay Settlement, it later moved to the site now called Brisbane.

The main inhabitants of ‘Brisbane Town’, as it was known, were the convicts of the Moreton Bay Penal Station until it was closed in 1839. Around 2,280 convicts were sent to the settlement in those fifteen years.

The first free european settlers moved to the district in 1838 and others followed in 1840.

Northern Territory

In 1825 the area occupied today by the Northern Territory was part of the colony of New South Wales. It was first settled by Europeans in 1824 at Fort Dundas, Port Essington. In 1863 control of the area was given to South Australia. Its capital city, Darwin, was established in 1869, and was originally known as Palmerston.

On January 1 1912, the Northern Territory was separated from South Australia and became part of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Ticket of leave

Convicts were normally sentenced to 7 or 14 year terms but others had sentences ranging from 10 years to life. Good behaviour meant that convicts rarely served their full term and could qualify for a Ticket of Leave, Certificate of Freedom, Conditional Pardon or even an Absolute Pardon.

With good conduct, a convict serving a 7 year term usually qualified for a Ticket of Leave after 4 or 5 years, while those serving 14 years could expect to serve between 6 to 8 years. 'Lifers' could qualify for their 'Ticket' after about 10 or 12 years.

Those who failed to qualify for a pardon were entitled to a Certificate of Freedom on the completion of their term.

The abolition of transportation

Transportation to the colony of New South Wales was officially abolished on October 1 1850 and three years later, in 1853, the order to abolish transportation to Van Dieman's Land was formally announced.

South Australia never accepted convicts directly from England, but still had many ex-convicts from the other States. After they had been given limited freedom, many convicts were allowed to travel as far as New Zealand to make a fresh start, even if they were not allowed to return home to England.

At the time, there was also a great deal of pressure to abolish transportation. Given that only a small percentage of the convict population was locked up, many believed that transportation to Australia was an inappropriate punishment – that it did not deliver 'a just measure of pain'. This, combined with the employment needs of Australia’s thriving population, ensured the abolition of convict transportation.

Useful Links

First Fleet

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