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Penal Settlements, Early Australian Society

Gregory Blaxland, William Charles Wentworth, William Hovell, Hamilton Hume, George Howe

The convicts, and those who ruled them, were the makers of early Australian history. More than 150,000 convicts were sent to Australia before the British government officially abolished transportation to all of the eastern colonies in 1852. Approximately 20 percent of the convicts were women, and about one-third were Irish; the majority came from the poorer classes of British towns, especially London. Many had been repeatedly convicted of petty crimes and many of the women had been prostitutes, but in other respects they were typical of the class from which they came. Probably no more than half could read or write, but this proportion was typical of the British working class. A minority, who came from well-to-do backgrounds and were serving sentences for crimes such as forgery, were able to use their training in business or government offices. Although convicts appeared to be unpromising material, economic historians argue that they formed a reasonably efficient labor force.

The majority of convicts worked as assigned laborers and could earn wages for work done on their own time. Some accumulated substantial wealth and a few founded prominent colonial families. Corporal punishment was rare when there were powerful monetary incentives to work. But colonial officials prescribed harsh punishments for those who committed crimes after their arrival in the colony. Flogging was common, with a penalty of up to 200 lashes for crimes of theft. The worst offenders were sent to places of secondary punishment such as Norfolk Island and Port Arthur.

Convict transportation reinforced a masculine and plebeian strand in Australian society. A code of solidarity known as mateship and a distrust of authority were common characteristics. The distinctive Australian nasal accent and slang also developed during this period.

Settlement of the continent proceeded gradually from the eastern coast toward the center. The first industries, such as sealing and whaling, were based on the rich waters of the Pacific and Bass Strait. Wool soon became the main export product, generating a rapid movement of men and flocks into the interior. In 1813 Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson, and William Charles Wentworth crossed the Blue Mountains west of Sydney into the rich grasslands of western New South Wales, probably following routes already known to Aboriginal people. Later, southward journeys by Hamilton Hume and William Hovell in 1824 and Thomas Mitchell in 1836 opened the way for the settlement of the Port Phillip District, later the colony of Victoria. Already the government had become concerned about squatters, settlers who illegally occupied government lands in order to graze sheep. The government had begun to phase out free land grants in the 1820s, just when the wool industry was rapidly expanding. Many sheep farmers, or graziers, simply ignored new land-purchasing regulations. Unable to check the movement, the government sought to regularize squatting by issuing licenses in return for the payment of annual license fees.

The drive to explore the interior of Australia was fueled by the hope that it, like the great inland plains of the United States, would be well watered and fertile. In 1828 Charles Sturt followed the course of Australia’s largest river system, the Murray-Darling, testing the hypothesis that it originated in a great inland sea. But that hope proved barren, a conclusion confirmed by Sturt’s 1844-1846 expedition into central Australia. The colonists often visualized the land as strange, hard, and unyielding—a graveyard of lost hopes. The fate of Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills, who died of malnutrition and exhaustion at Cooper Creek on their return from the first south-to-north crossing of the continent in 1861, tragically reinforced that conviction.

The temperament of Australian society was more secular than its American counterpart, and church attendance was probably less prevalent than in Britain. The Church of England (later renamed the Anglican Church of Australia) initially enjoyed a privileged position. However, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches were also well represented in the colonies. The early colonial governments gave financial support to all these churches for church building and denominational schools. The Anglican and Catholic churches were the main providers of education during the early colonial period.

Although the majority of Australians were illiterate, the press played an influential role in early colonial society. Freedom of the press was among the first liberties claimed by an increasingly vociferous body of free colonists. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser was published from 1803. Its editor, George Howe, also published the first books in Sydney, including a volume of poetry by Judge Barron Field in 1819. Earlier, David Collins, who had been with Arthur Phillip on the First Fleet, had published in London the first history of Australia, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (2 volumes, 1798-1802). In 1824 William C. Wentworth began publication of the Australian, a strongly opinionated newspaper that campaigned for the emancipists.

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