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New South Wales, a state in southeast Australia, was founded by the British as a penal colony in 1788. Over the next 80 years, more than 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in lieu of being given the death penalty.

Today, about 20% of Australians are descendants of convicts, including plenty of prominent citizens. According to genealogists, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother was sentenced to be hanged when she was just 11 years old for committing robbery. When her sentence was reduced, she was sent to Australia on the second fleet, where conditions were so bad that 25% of its convicts died on the voyage. Celebrity chef Maggie Beer discovered on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, a family ancestry programme, that her great-great-great grandmother and great-great-great grandfather (a thief and a bigamist, respectively) met after being transported to Australia. On another episode of the same show, actor Jack Thompson learned that his great-great-great grandfather was a convict from Ireland, charged with highway robbery.

For at least a century after convict transportation ended in 1868, the Australian colonies tried to hide their founding legacy. Historians were met with serious hesitation when they wanted to highlight the injustices of transportation, a harsh punishment that was often sentenced to impoverished people whose crimes were extremely minor, wrote Babette Smith in the book Australia’s Birthstain

But Australia’s shame has been transformed into pride in the last century. The truth about many working class convicts has helped remove the stigma, since some were children, some did little more than steal a bag of sugar, some were political prisoners and some were falsely accused. Plus, there were several celebrities produced by the convict era, including Australia’s most infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly; the country’s first novelist, Henry Savery; celebrated architect Francis Greenway; and,William Buckley, “the wild white man” who escaped captivity and lived out his days with the Aboriginal Watourong tribe.

Ned Kelly, a Robin-Hood-like folk hero, represented the struggle between poor rural Irish Australians and the repressive British ruling class during and after transportation. Born to a father charged with being an Irish pig thief, in Victoria, Kelly was eventually charged with petty crimes himself; yet, he and his family said they were being persecuted by the police. After authorities accused him of shooting a policeman, Kelly escaped into the Australian bush and formed the Kelly Gang with his brother and two friends in April 1878. They ran from the law for two years, robbing banks and killing cops in shoot-outs along the way. Their time as bushrangers ended in a nine-hour battle with the police; the other gang members were shot to death and Kelly was captured and later hanged.

Last autumn, Kelly’s remains were identified in a mass prison grave in Melbourne, thanks to a DNA sample from his great grandnephew.

The convict era left behind a number of landmarks throughout the country for locals and travellers to explore, including the Tasmania Convict Trail, the 11 Australian Convict Sites (now World Heritage Sites) and Ned Kelly tours.

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