When Were the Last Convicts Sent to Australia?
The last convicts were sent to Australia in 10 January 1868. They arrived in a ship called the Hashemy, the first convicts to arrive in the colony since 1840. The Hashemy docked in Melbourne, but public protests against the landing of the prisoners caused the authorities to move the ship on to Sydney. There the public outcry was even greater and the Hashemy sailed to Brisbane, where the convicts were put ashore.
The protests arose because many Australians, especially trades-people and wage earners, were bitterly opposed to the continued flow of free labour to the colony. But transportation (the sending of convicts) was still favored by sheep owners and farmers, who wanted the labour, and by the British Government, who found it a cheap way of getting rid of unwanted citizens.
After the convicts from the Hashemy had finally disembarked, anti-transportation leagues were formed and attracted so much public support that it was decided to send no more convicts to any part of the colony. Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported by the British government to various penal colonies in Australia.
The British government began transporting convicts to overseas colonies in the 17th century. When transportation to the American colonies declined with the move towards American independence in the 1770s, an alternative site was needed to avoid further overcrowding of British prisons and hulks. In 1770, James Cook charted and claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain.
Due to the continent’s isolation, it was considered ideal for a penal colony, and in 1787, the First Fleet of 11 convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to found Sydney, New South Wales, the first European settlement in Australia.
Other penal colonies were later established in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1803 and Queensland in 1824, while Western Australia, founded in 1829 as a free colony, received convicts from 1850. Victoria and South Australia remained free colonies. Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and dropped off significantly the following decade. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia on 10 January 1868.
Many convicts were transported for petty crimes, while a significant number were political prisoners. More serious crimes, such as rape and murder, were punishable by death, and therefore not transportable offences. Once emancipated, most ex-convicts stayed in Australia and joined the free settlers, with some rising to prominent positions in Australian society.
However, convictism carried a social stigma, and for some later Australians, convict origins would be a source of shame. Attitudes became more accepting in the 20th century and it is now considered by many Australians to be a cause for celebration to have a convict in one’s lineage. Around 20% of modern Australians are descended from transported convicts.
The convict era has inspired famous novels, films, and other cultural works, and the extent to which it has shaped Australia’s national character has been studied by many writers and historians.