After the declaration of Independence of the USA was proclaimed in 1776, Great Britain couldn't continue to transport convicts to the colonies of Virginia and Maryland. During the American war the jails of England became overcrowded with convicted persons awaiting transportation. In May 1787 the First Fleet left for Australia, carrying convicts on board.
In the early days of settlement, conditions aboard were horrible, because captains overcrowded the ships , convicts were kept in irons. More than 160 000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. About 80,000 convicts were sent to New South Wales . Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania ) received 69,000convicts. Western Australia only started receiving convicts in 1850 and continued to 1868 . 9,700 convicts were sent there to help its small population to build public buildings .
Nature of offences. From the beginning the most common offence for which convicts were transported was thieving. Many types of larceny were capital offences, depending on the value of the goods stolen. Of 34 sentences to transportation from the county of Bedfordshire in 1833, the crimes were : sheep-stealing, 4, highway robbery, 8, stealing,13, burglary or housebreaking,8, receiving,1.One man was transported for stealing 2 Prayer Books( value 5 shillings).
Governor Phillip had received no detailed instructions from the British Government as how the convicts should be employed, but the immediate necessities of the founding the settlement and feeding its inhabitants dictated his policy .
Most convicts were employed on public works and buildings and in cultivating the public farms; a smaller number was assigned as domestic servants to the officers .
Unpaid convict labour was economical to the Government , however, which had certain control in respect of hours of work, the rations, clothing and shelter. Moreover, no master could punish his servant except bringing him before magistrate.
During the term of office of Governer Macquarie ( 1810-21) to encourage good conduct, well-behaved convicts were rewarded, e.g. made police, government clerks. Others were granted "ticket of leave", which permitted them to work for themselves, when their sentence expired, if well behaved they were given grants of 12 hectares of land, to have an opportunity of earning and honest living. And they were called emancipists.
In England at this time crime was steadily increasing, and stories were telling about the ease with which convicts and emancipists could make fortunes in New South Wales. After the departure of Macquary the employment of convicts in government service, hospitals and domestic service was reduced. Grants of land should no longer be given automatically to emancipists.
The most common punishment was flogging. In 1833 in New South Wales 5,800 out of 23,500 convicts were sentenced to be flogged. About one out of five or six male convicts were flogged each year. Women were not allowed to be flogged.
Other more severe punishments were hard labour on the roads with or without irons, and transportation to a penal settlement. Road gangs or parties of convicts did much important work both in NSW and Van Diemen's Land . Clearing the bush and building roads was very hard work with long hours and few tools. The discipline was often brutal.
The most severe 'secondary punishment' was transportation to a penal settlement. Port Arthur, south-east Tasmania was the most famous of the settlements built for convicts who committed crimes in Australia. Begun in 1830 by governor Arthur, only the worst type of male convict was sent there and no free settlers allowed .The work was heavy with frequent use of lash and irons.
Criticism of the system. By the 1830s the system was being criticised. In August 1837 a select Committee of the House of Commons reported that transportation as a punishment was inefficient and should therefore be abolished. The Government did not accept the recommendations completely. In September 1847, a new Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, announced that he continued the policy of transportation. In 1851 an Anti-transportation League was formed in Melbourne, members of which promised never to employ convicts and resist their importation by all means.
A new ministry in London agreed to stop transportation, and the last transport came in 1 8 52 to Tasmania, in 1850s Western Australia received several transports. The problem of transportation was solved by extraordinary decrease in crime in Great Britain after the middle of 1 8 50s.
Summary. For Great Britain transportation was a great improvement on the old jails, it rid the country of the undesirable element. From Australian point of view the great value of the system was in supplying with labour. It was not a good labour, but it was better than none. From many sides transportation was beneficial to the prisoners themselves.
In 1834, Jorgen Jorgenson wrote that with transportation" the new scenes and occupations make the convict suffer for a time, until it becomes a habit', then in both body and mind he " becomes a new man" Probably Jorgenson exaggerated. Some men , of course were irreclaimable. Others were broken by brutality of conditions, or of certain officials. In many cases, however, convicts were stimulated by the life and opportunities in a new country and soon became useful settlers.
In recent years there were some articles, in which appeared an argument that many of the convicts were not real criminals at all. It was said that they were victims of brutal laws of England which put monstrous sentences for small offences , or that they were political offenders of whom their descendants should be proud of because they have rebelled against tyrannical governments. Of course, many Australians today would like their "founding fathers" to be praiseworthy men, who had been unjustly sent to a bitter exile.