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A brief overview of convict transportation and settlement in Australia

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Australia's first European settlement began in 1788. The 11 ships of the First Fleet landed their cargo of around 780 British convicts and their gaolers at Botany Bay in New South Wales. Eighty years later, when the final shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia, the total number of transported convicts had risen to around 162,000 men and women.

About 70% were English, 5% Scottish and 25% Irish, but there were many more who had been sent from British outposts in India, Canada, the Cape of Good Hope, Bermuda, Mauritius and other places. Many of them were soldiers who had been transported for crimes such as mutiny, desertion and insubordination.

In the main, the majority of convicts were repeat offenders who had been found guilty of comparitively minor crimes against British society. The same generalisation cannot be made for the Irish felons as many of them were political prisoners.

Collectively, they may have been regarded as the dregs of British society, but on the other side of the world in 1850, as the population of New South Wales approached one million, they had become the backbone of the new nation.

Convicts were normally sentenced to 7 or 14 year terms but others had sentences ranging from 10 years to life. If they were well behaved, convicts were not usually required to serve out their full term and could qualify for a Ticket of Leave, Certificate of Freedom, Conditional Pardon or even an Absolute Pardon.

With good conduct, a convict serving a 7 year term usually qualified for a Ticket of Leave after 4 or 5 years while those serving 14 years could expect to serve between 6 to 8 years. 'Lifers' could qualify for their 'Ticket' after about 10 or 12 years. Those who failed to qualify for a pardon were entitled to a Certificate of Freedom on the completion of their term and it was calculated from their original trial date.

In 1788 the British colony of New South Wales took in the entire eastern half of the Australian continent and stretched far out into the Pacific Ocean where it took in numerous islands, including the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Early convicts were all sent to Botany Bay, but by the early 1800s they were also being sent directly to other locations. The main destinations were Botany Bay, Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay.

Transportation to New South Wales was abolished on May 22, 1840, but towards the end of 1844 a public meeting of free settlers in Melbourne agreed to ask for some shipments of reformed convict exiles to help alleviate an acute labour shortage in the Port Phillip District. A few years later, however, when migration from Tasmania and an influx of gold seekers resulted in an abundance of labour, they turned the convict ships away and Sydney ended up getting the unwanted exiles.

Transportation to the colony of New South Wales was officially and finally abolished on October 1, 1850 and three years later, in 1853, the order to abolish transportation to Van Dieman's Land was formally announced as well.

South Australia never accepted convicts directly from England, but it still had many ex-convicts from the other States living within its boundaries. The same could be said for New Zealand which officially separated from New South Wales in 1841. After they had been given limited freedom, many convicts were allowed to travel as far as New Zealand to make a fresh start, even if they were not allowed to return home to England.

During the 19th century, New South Wales began to evolve into a group of British colonies. The western third of the continent was also annexed by Britain in 1827 and later, in its 21st year, the colony in Western Australia chose to become the new destination for convict transports. A further 9,720 British and military convicts were transported to the Swan River Colony on 43 transports in the eighteen years from 1850 until the last convict stepped ashore in 1868.
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