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.
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.
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
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
Buckley, “the wild white man” who escaped captivity and lived out his days
with the Aboriginal Watourong tribe.
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.
Kelly’s remains were identified
in a mass prison grave in Melbourne, thanks to a DNA sample from his great
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.