Australian history

Irish convict transportation to Australia

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by Australian historian Brad Webb

In the early nineteenth century, Britain embarked on a social engineering scheme that saw Australia become the first colony to build a society on the labour of convicted felons. With growing poverty and no organised police force, transportation was an integral part of the English and Irish justice systems. Between 1787 and 1852, more than 150,000 convicts were transported to eastern Australia with around 50,000 prisoners being of Irish origin. Brad Webb explains.

THE COMMON gaols of England were cramped, unhealthy places designed for the temporary detention of those awaiting sentence. To alleviate the over crowding, labour tasks were allocated to a number of inmates. When attempts to find new markets for this labour failed, the government decided to create a convict colony, a settlement in which the Crown would employ convicts for imperial gain.

Convicts tried in Ireland were also different from their English counterparts – far more of them were women, more were married and juveniles were fewer. The men were, on average, two years older than English, Welsh and Scots offenders, and the criminal records that they brought with them were more likely to be minor. Robbery and theft of animals were crimes for which the Irish were overrepresented, and minor thefts predominated (Nicholas and Shergold 1988, p.25).

As an avenue for the Empire to expand its interests in the East and possibly, as an effort to circumvent the French, New South Wales was chosen. Because of this decision, the Irish became a founding people in Australia’s colonisation. Although only a small percentage of total Irish emigration, Irish immigrant numbers were higher in proportion of the Australian population than in any other Irish migrant destination.

The role and experiences of convicts versus free migrants were similar in many respects. For while conditions aboard transport ships varied greatly depending on the designation of the traveller, once the migrant arrived in Australia they experienced some form of alienation. Many convict and free migrant stories told of how both were initially over whelmed with the immigration experience.

Many convicts were bewildered by the first days of the voyage to Australia. Most of them probably had never seen the open sea until they boarded the convict ship, and few had travelled in a ship. Most had not visualised themselves making any journey of even 200 miles so long as they lived. And now, by sentence of the courts, they were about to begin one of the longest voyages any traveller could make (Blainey 1980, p.30).

While the majority of convicts were common offenders, social and political rebels accounted for up to ten percent of the Irish population. When reviewing the criminal records of many of these Irish nationals sent to Australia, we find the majority were not hardened to crime in the same way as the English city thief. The Crown, however, viewed these dissidents as the worst kind of convict, transporting many to Australia without trial, while others were given the option of rotting in prison or exile. Little wonder then many Irish felt themselves a doubly colonised people.

Australia was the official Siberia for Irish dissidents at the turn of the century. Their presence caused the System acute strain and insecurity. Rebellious Irishmen, known as “United Irish” and “Defenders”, had been sent out in dribs and drabs during the 1790s. But between 1800 and 1805 their influx began in earnest (Hughes 1987, p.181).

This convict class was singled out for special treatment by the Australian authorities. Oppressed with particular vigilance and dealt unusually hard punishments, these Irish formed the country’s first white minority. The Irish convict’s first and only attempt at rebellion, the 1804 uprising at Castle Hill, was ruthlessly put down. With many of its leaders hanged in chains, further opportunities to rebel were removed by scattering the dissidents across the land. Dispersed in an expanding colony, organised revolt was neutralised by geography as much as by law.

Doomed to Port McQuarie Toweringabbie Norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyranny and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke Were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land (Brown 1980, p.255).

Nearly forty per cent of convicts transported to Australia had left their country of birth long before their journey southward. To some extent, this mobility reflected the fact that certain occupations, which required travel, were over represented – seamen, farm labourers, domestic servants, etc. Although for many of these people, migration was a part of everyday life, few would have though their journey would take them to the other side of the world.

Governor Captain Arthur Phillip

To ensure convicts served their sentences productively; Governor Phillip founded a labour system where, irrespective of their crime, prisoners were employed according to their skill. The result saw large numbers of people benefit from being categorised as a particular kind of worker – carpenter, brick maker, nurse, servant, farmer, etc. Making up less than one-third of the population, women convicts were assumed most useful as wives and mothers. By settling emancipists into the role of householder, the Crown thought marriage benefited men too, offering them opportunities similar to those afforded free migrants.

Up until the 1820s, in order to entice immigration to Australia, free land was offered mostly to men of money. However, in 1831 the British government began to subsidise the fares of poorer migrants. It was not long before the number of assisted migrants exceeded those who paid their own way to New South Wales. Passage to Australia was generally too expensive for the desperate and poor of Ireland who usually opted for the quicker routes to Britain or North America. The four-month journey was not only expensive, it also meant no wages could be earned. Subsidised fares were to become essential for most British Isle migrants throughout the nineteenth century.

Australia’s assisted Irish immigrants were overwhelmingly rural people who came especially from the modernising parts of the economy, where rural change from tillage to pasture threatened status and prospects. They included high proportions of Catholics and extraordinary high rates of female migration, which served to correct the sex-imbalance of the colonial populations (Davison et al 1999, p.350).

Whereas in the early years of convict transportation, the high rate of mortality was a regular occurrence during the migration southwards, the journey of the free migrant was different again. Travel time to Australia took up to four times as long as the passage to North America. For the free migrant, the distance enforced feelings of separation and permanency. Authorities adopted a high degree of state regulation and intervention to help alleviate the disruption to passenger’s lives. For the migrant, the result of a more disciplined and ordered journey allowed them to disembark in a far healthier condition, both mentally and physically, than even those travelling the shorter journey across the Atlantic.

Structures introduced to protect single women during their passage to Australia were designed to ensure safe passage and to encourage other women to embark on the journey. Well-organised immigration ensured the voyage to Australia witnessed one of the lowest mortality rates in nineteenth century passenger shipping. This was in contrast to the experiences of the convict, both male and female, whose transportation usually resulted in a will crushing exercise designed to intimidate and subjugate the victims by an oppressive penal system.

It was the Irish, more than any other group, who effectively utilised Australian immigration schemes. This effectiveness helped reinforce particular chains of connection. It also helped supply the two immigrant categories most in demand, namely domestic servants and agricultural workers. In additional to these well-known recruits, the Irish contingent also included physicians, academics, minor gentry, land agents, lawyers, surveyors and ministers of the church. Better than most other groups, Irish Australians manages to sustain a self-conscious identity.

Patrick O’Farrell has explored the Irish psyche in search of the essence of Irishness, discovering among The Irish in Australia (1986) special traits and spiritual torments in the act of expatriation. He suggests that the immigrant was critically burdened by a Gaelic culture, which had been dislocated from its homeland and stranded in an alien environment (Davison et al 1999, p.351).

In contrast with other immigrant societies, Australia’s Irish experienced little sense of segregation, with few geographical or occupational concentrations of any significance. Exceptions to other parts of the Diaspora could be seen in the willingness of Irishwomen to marry non-Irish husbands. In addition, unlike North America, the Irish in Australia did not occupy ghettoes. While their return migration rates were much lower, their remittances back to Ireland were on par with those of ex-compatriots in North America.

Although convict and free-settler immigration exhibited their own forms of distinctiveness, the underlining factor in the success and drive behind the colonisation of Australia was the continuing role the government played in directing and sponsoring their new subjects. Despite the large number of convicts transported from the British Isles, state sponsorship became the overwhelming success in Australian immigration. Rather than perceiving themselves as victims of a heartless bureaucracy, Irish women and girls, in general appear to have eagerly grasped the opportunities offered by free passage.

Evidence contained in the convict indents on occupation and literacy suggest that the Irish sentenced in British courts were significantly more skilled and educated than those who remained behind. In comparison, Irish free migrants, though on a whole less literate and skilled than contemporaneous immigrants, continued to move upwards into many spheres of colonial society, especially the public service, the police force and the professions.

Both convict and free-settler experienced the pain of leaving their homeland. In particular the breaking of family ties were hard felt within Irish society. Some historians, like Miller, argue that Catholics throughout Ireland, not just in remote Irish-speaking areas, were far more reluctant to leave home than their Protestant countrymen. This could be due to a Catholic’s correct assumption that Australia was a predominantly Protestant society. Separation from their homeland became a major incentive for Irish women in Australia, who were among the most numerous to successfully utilise the chains of connection to re-establish the family unit. The dedication displayed by Irish women, both convict and free, in petitioning the government for family reunion is indicative of their confidence.

Following her settlement into stable employment or marriage, having taken advantage of a free government-assisted passage on offer to young women and girls prepared to work as domestic or farm servants in Australia, an Irish daughter, or wife, or sister, often subsidised the personal costs of her siblings, husband, or parents (Haines 1998, p.44).

During the 1860s and 1870s, when the bulk of Irish arrived in Australia, they made towns and farms away from the city – establishing churches, social clubs and schools throughout the countryside – returning to the work that had sustained them in their homeland. While the majority travelled via government-assisted passage, it was women who were the seen as the most important import. British and colonial authorities sustained female assisted passage over a long period of time in an effort to even out a population dominated by males who had come to Australia either as convicts or in search of gold.

Yet as governments attempted to encourage free migrants into Australia a number of colonials voiced their opinions as to the effect large numbers of Irish, and in particular Catholics, would have on the population. Colonial society was rife with ethnic snobberies and religious sectarianism. One such opponent was the exceptionally bigoted Protestant leader, the Reverend J.D. Lang. In 1841, Lang denounced Irish Catholic immigration in his book The Question of Questions! His second book, Popery in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere, published in 1847, attacked Caroline Chisholm’s recruitment of single Irish Catholic women.

Caroline Chisholm

Chisholm was one of the few women in nineteenth century Australia to attain international recognition for philanthropy. From her arrival in 1838, she dedicated herself to improving the conditions of the poor, in particular, Irish single girls and women who were unable to find employment or adequate shelter. She was instrumental in raising money and awareness to the plight of the poor, and was a leading advocate in the promotion of bush families in a bid to curb the violence faced by Aboriginal women by frontiersmen.

As convict and free migrant transportation over lapped, occasionally in the bays of Sydney and Hobart a convict and immigration ship could be seen anchored close together, disembarking their new arrivals, ready to start very different lives. In 1841, thanks largely to public expenses, over 20,000 free migrants landed in New South Wales. That year alone subsidised travel amounted to one quarter of all convicts transported since colonisation.

The impression of normality among the Australian-Irish settlers is enhanced by analysing their peculiarly ordinary balance of the sexes. It is a unique attribute of Irish emigration to most countries that men and women left, usually unmarried, in almost even numbers, whereas other migrants, though more commonly married, were disproportionately male (Fitzpatrick 1979, p.52).

Free migrants became vital for a sustained population. In order for the colony to thrive, the need arose to balance the ratio between male and female. In less than twenty years, free immigration coupled with an increase in Australian births, helped achieve such a goal.

The free migrants, whether they paid for their own fare or came with help from the government, had profound effects on convict colonies. The free settlers on average were more independent, more radical in many of their political views, and more attached to family. Whereas the convicts were overwhelmingly male, the free settlers included more women. More so than the convicts, free migrants were a challenge to law and order. They demanded liberties and privileges, which a convict society could not easily concede. Slowly, however, the civil liberties of the free migrant and the emancipated convict were enlarged.

One of the most inhuman aspects of the transportation system was the fact that, although sentences were usually for a limited period, no provision was made for the repatriation of time-expired convicts. Some, who could afford the fare, managed the return trip, but others decided to stay in Australia, acclimatised as they were, and seeing it as a land of hope, if not glory.

It is this factor, above all others – namely the willingness to migrate, which separates the convict from the free settler. In a literal sense, convict transportation became another form of migration to Australia. However, these reluctant exiles – convicts and their warders – were not true migrants. Free immigration had no place in the foundations of New South Wales as a place of banishment and punishment.


  • Blainey, G. 1980, A Land Half Won, Macmillan, South Melbourne

  • Brown, M. 1980, Australian Son: Ned Kelly, Angus & Robinson, Melbourne

  • Davison, G. et al (eds.) 1999, The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford Press, Melbourne

  • Fitzpatrick, D. 1979, 'Irish immigrants in Australia: Patterns of settlement and paths of mobility'in The Irish in Australia, 2002, Griffith University

  • Haines, R. 1998, 'The priest made a bother about it: The travails of that unhappy sisterhood bound for colonial Australia', in McClaughlin, T. (ed.) 'Irish Woman in Colonial Australia', Allen & Unwin, Sydney in The Irish in Australia 2002, Griffith University

  • Hughes, R. 1987, The Fatal Shore, Collins Harvill, Great Britain

  • Keneally, T. 1999, The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English Speaking World, Doubleday, Sydney

  • Nicholas, S. and Shergold, P. 1988, 'British and Irish Convicts', in Jupp, J. (ed.) The Australian People, Angus & Robertson, Sydney in The Irish in Australia 2002, Griffith University

  • O’Farrell, P. 2001, The Irish in Australia: 1788 to Present, University of Notre Dame

  • Ross, J. (ed.) 2000, Chronicle of Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne
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