The late 18th century was a time of social and political change. France was recovering from revolution. America had likewise just gone through a revolution to achieve independence.
In Britain the industrial revolution had pushed thousands of poverty-stricken people from the country villages to the crowded cities. Crime in the cities grew as people could not find work having been displaced by industry. The jails were over flowing as the Crown dealt with the under class of criminals. In 1787 the government needed a new way to the problem of the burgeoning prison population.
The initial idea had been to transfer the British jail population to the Crowns colonies in America. However, in 1783 the Crown lost the American option due to the Americans winning their war for independence. The British looked around their empire for other locations to house their jail population.
The explorers from Captain Cook’s discovery expedition 18 years earlier came upon the idea of Botany Bay, Australia. Their idea was to use the land down under as a giant repository for convicts. It wasn’t the ideal choice because the place had only been glimpsed once and the 15,000 mile voyage would take more than 8 months. Of course, the jails in Britain were full to capacity.
Between 1788 and 1868 165,000 British and Irish convicts made the perilous voyage to a strange land now referred to as Australia. The majority of the 165,000 convicts sent to Australia were impoverished and illiterate. The under class were victims of the Poor Laws and social conditions in Georgian England. Eight out of ten prisoners were convicted for larceny. Many did not consider themselves to be criminals. They were trying to survive in an industrialized Britain.
Apart from unskilled and semi-skilled labourers from Britain and Ireland, transportees came from varied ethnic backgrounds: American, Corsican, French, Hong Kong, Chinese, West Indian, Indian, and African.
There were political prisoners and prisoners of war, as well as a motley collection of professionals such as lawyers, surgeons and teachers.
The average age of a deportees was 26, and their group included children who were either convicted of crimes or were making the journey with their mothers. Just one in six was a woman. Depending on the offence, for the first 40 years of transportation convicts were sentenced to terms of seven years, 10 years, or life.
Most of the convicts stayed in their new home of Australia. They were free to return home after they served their jail term in Australia. However, a return voyage was not likely for many. After all, how were they going to afford the trip back to this original home in Britain? Aside fro the expense of going back to Britain, many of the transporters had begun to see Australia as their true home.
FIRST FLEET ON KRNN, 5/13 at 8am: Sailors and convicts set sail from Portsmouth, England, to found the first European colony in Australia, Botany Bay with the “First Fleet”, on this date in 1787. We hope you join us aboard the boat headed for an all Aussie playlist on Crosscurrents, 5/13 at 8 am.