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 Research Guide > Convict Tattoos

Research Guide

Descriptive records of convict tattoos reveal a mine of information

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In late 1997, David Kent published the results of his search for the meaning behind the tattoos which adorned the skin of so many of our early convicts. He found that of the 3000 or so convicts who were transported to New South Wales in 1831, about 30% of the men and 10% of the women carried tattoos. He said they were etched into their skin with the soot and black sediment from lamps and recorded their hopes, beliefs, disappointments and loves.

The Associate Professor of History from New South Wales' University of New England was convinced that he had found a mine of information that could tell him something about the convicts that no other records could.

Professor Kent believed the tattooed inscriptions showed that the convicts were real men and women with hopes and fears just like the rest of us and although the tattoos were recorded by the authorities to help identify escaped convicts, to the convicts they were a way to make human statements about themselves.

For some convicts, tattoos were purely decorative, while others recorded the date of their trial, transportation, or date when their sentence would expire. Others gave family trees, slogans, religious symbols, and many more. One of the most popular images was an anchor and interestingly, most of the wearers had nothing to do with the sea. It was used as a symbol of hope and constancy and was often attached to a loved one's initials.

One example of how symbols were used was that of Laban Stone. He married Sarah Burgess in 1828 and fathered a son, John, before his exile. The markings on his left arm were recorded as:

"LS, SS, sun, JS, tree, 1831, heart"
Other markings, such as the dots on the hands of ten men and 14 women, have meanings that have been lost to time. Another marking that defyied interpretation was that of a flowerpot, which was drawn on 14 men.

There were a large variety of other tattoos including triumphal arches, marine trophies, monuments, lovers' knots, a crocodile and a kangaroo. Religious motives and slogans were common, some of them sharing skin with defiant slogans and "obscene marks".

The positioning of a tattoo was also seen as a significant factor. The most personal messages appeared to have been reserved for parts of the body that were usually covered up. Professor Kent cited the tattoo on the upper left arm of Eleanor Swift and its message which read:

"Patrick Flinn I love to the heart"
A copy of a the 1997 press release promoting Professor Kent's findings is now available on this site.

More recently, a book entitled "Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History" was published by Reaktion Books. It was edited by Jane Caplan and reviewed in the Tasmanian "Mercury" on Sunday April 9, 2000. A chapter about tattoos on transported convicts was been written by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, a Port Arthur Fellow at the School of History and Classics at the University of Tasmania.

Similar tattoos were etched on the skin of convict men arriving in Western Australia and there are many transcriptions of the various markings among the physical descriptions recorded for the convicts on the Western Australian shipping pages on this site.

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