Transportation, Australia, & the Workhouse Orphans

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From ClanDonnell: A Storied History of Ireland

The word “transportation” had a different meaning to the Irish in the first half of the nineteenth century than it does to you and me today. It did not mean a way to get from point A to point B. It meant shipment to one of the several penal colonies of Australia.

The United Kingdom did not have the extensive prison system that it and other modern nations have today. Ireland had few prisons. It had many local jails for short-term confinement. Nearly every town also had gallows for the many hanging offenses.

But prisons were a different matter. They were expensive to maintain, and from the British perspective, they didn’t work. The conventional wisdom of the time was that criminals were defective in character and that this defect was somehow genetic. None of the more modern concepts relating to prison sentencing – rehabilitation, punishment, deterrence – made sense in dealing with people born with bad blood. The best way to deal with criminals, it was thought, was either to hang or exile them.

The Banishment Act of 1716 allowed the government to banish prisoners from Britain or Ireland for almost any crime. The English sent convicts to Georgia for several years, but this practice ended when Georgia and the other colonies won independence in the American Revolution.

To the Irish, one of the crimes subject to banishment was more galling than the others. This crime was poaching. There had always been plenty of wild game in Ireland, as well as fish in Irish rivers, but hunting game and fishing for salmon was reserved for landlords. No matter how hungry an Irish family was, it could not be fed by hunting or fishing. Of course some Irish ignored this, but they did so at their peril. The punishment for poaching was transportation.

Royal Navy Captain James Cook first discovered the Australian continent in 1770, but the British did not initially attempt to colonize it. After the American Revolution, the British looked for somewhere else to dump their prisoners, and Australia became it. The first convicts were transported in 1788, and shipments continued until 1868. The original convicts arrived on the “First Fleet” on January 26, 1788, and this date is still celebrated as Australia Day.

The first penal colony was Botany Bay (later Sydney). Thousands of Irish rebels were sent there after the 1798 Rebellion. The two worst colonies were islands – Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land (later renamed Tasmania). Penal life in Australia was extremely harsh and the mortality rate exceedingly high, but those who served out their sentences typically remained in Australia. Their descendants are still there.

The first Irish were transported to Australia in 1791. The practice stopped (with a few exceptions) in 1853 at the request of the Australians. They thought continued transportation of Irish convicts would deter immigration by non-convict settlers. Children as young as twelve were transported for crimes. Younger children were sent to Australia as well along with their transported mothers. This policy wasn’t so much to keep mother and child together as it was to get the children out of the country. Otherwise they might become a burden to taxpayers under the poor laws.

Go to Transportation, Australia, & the Workhouse Orphans page 2