Australian Convict Sites

Brief Description

The property includes a selection of eleven penal sites, among the thousands established by the British Empire on Australian soil in the 18th and 19th centuries. The sites are spread across Australia, from Fremantle in Western Australia to Kingston and Arthur’s Vale on Norfolk Island in the east; and from areas around Sydney in New South Wales in the north, to sites located in Tasmania in the south. Around 166,000 men, women and children were sent to Australia over 80 years between 1787 and 1868, condemned by British justice to transportation to the convict colonies. Each of the sites had a specific purpose, in terms both of punitive imprisonment and of rehabilitation through forced labour to help build the colony. The Australian Convict Sites presents the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.

Port Arthur © Departmnent of the Environment water Heritage and the Arts More pictures …

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis

The property consists of eleven complementary sites. It constitutes an outstanding and large-scale example of the forced migration of convicts, who were condemned to transportation to distant colonies of the British Empire; the same method was also used by other colonial states.

The sites illustrate the different types of convict settlement organized to serve the colonial development project by means of buildings, ports, infrastructure, the extraction of resources, etc. They illustrate the living conditions of the convicts, who were condemned to transportation far from their homes, deprived of freedom, and subjected to forced labour.

This transportation and associated forced labour was implemented on a large scale, both for criminals and for people convicted for relatively minor offences, as well as for expressing certain opinions or being political opponents. The penalty of transportation to Australia also applied to women and children from the age of nine. The convict stations are testimony to a legal form of punishment that dominated in the 18th and 19th centuries in the large European colonial states, at the same time as and after the abolition of slavery.

The property shows the various forms that the convict settlements took, closely reflecting the discussions and beliefs about the punishment of crime in 18th and 19th century Europe, both in terms of its exemplarity and the harshness of the punishment used as a deterrent, and of the aim of social rehabilitation through labour and discipline. They influenced the emergence of a penal model in Europe and America.

Within the colonial system established in Australia, the convict settlements simultaneously led to the Aboriginal population being forced back into the less fertile hinterland, and to the creation of a significant source of population of European origin.

Criterion (iv): The Australian convict sites constitute an outstanding example of the way in which conventional forced labour and national prison systems were transformed, in major European nations in the 18th and 19th centuries, into a system of deportation and forced labour forming part of the British Empire’s vast colonial project. They illustrate the variety of the creation of penal colonies to serve the many material needs created by the development of a new territory. They bear witness to a penitentiary system which had many objectives, ranging from severe punishment used as a deterrent to forced labour for men, women and children, and the rehabilitation of the convicts through labour and discipline.

Criterion (vi): The transportation of criminals, delinquents, and political prisoners to colonial lands by the great nation states between the 18th and 20th centuries is an important aspect of human history, especially with regard to its penal, political and colonial dimensions. The Australian convict settlements provide a particularly complete example of this history and the associated symbolic values derived from discussions in modern and contemporary European society. They illustrate an active phase in the occupation of colonial lands to the detriment of the Aboriginal peoples, and the process of creating a colonial population of European origin through the dialectic of punishment and transportation followed by forced labour and social rehabilitation to the eventual social integration of convicts as settlers.

Integrity and authenticity

The structural and landscape integrity of the property varies depending on the site, and on the type of evidence considered. It has been affected by local history, at times marked by reuse or lengthy periods of abandonment. The integrity varies between well preserved groups and others where it might be described as fragmentary. Apart from certain visual perspectives in urban settings, the level of the property’s integrity is well controlled by the site management plans.

Despite the inevitable complexity of a nomination made up of a series of eleven separate sites with more than 200 elements that convey the value of the property, the authenticity of the vast majority of them is good.

Protection and management requirements

All the sites forming the property are inscribed on the National Heritage List. They are also protected by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

There is no direct major threat to the sites forming the serial property.

The general protection and management of the property are satisfactory. Conservation is articulated around a positive dynamic driven by the application of the conservation plans at each of the sites. The Brickendon and Woolmers Estate domains are an exception, and require ongoing assistance, both in terms of protection and conservation.

The management systems of the sites forming the property are appropriate, and they are adequately coordinated by the Strategic Management Framework for the property and its Steering Committee. For the sites involving the participation of private stakeholders for visitor reception, improved interpretation is however necessary; that includes the common objectives outlined in the Strategic Management Framework. It is also important to consider visitor reception facilities and their development in a way which respects the landscape conservation of the sites.

Historical Description

The transportation of people for forced labour is a system shared by many human societies, at various periods of history and in many civilizations. Most often, it involved slavery or the deportation of people following war. However, in the modern and contemporary eras, convict colonies were used as a place for prisoners to serve their sentences in a distant land, where they were generally used for forced labour.

Penal colonies were initially for the imprisonment of criminals, coupled with forced labour. In Europe they were concentrated in military ports, for example, to provide labour to work on galleys or for hard labour in arsenals, building infrastructure, etc. In times of war, forced-labour prison camps are similar in terms of their organization and objectives.

A new form of penitentiary combined with a colonial project appeared in the early 17th century in European countries, involving the permanent transportation of prisoners to new territories. Under the Transportation Act of 1718, England organized just such a system for its criminals in its North American colonies. France did the same after closing its galleys in 1748. Being condemned to a convict colony is in theory a severe prison sentence, for a serious crime. In reality, however, because of the colonies’ need for labour, all sorts of crimes, often relatively minor, led to transportation for more or less lengthy terms. The expression of certain opinions or membership of a banned political group were also punishable in this way.

In 1775 England stopped transporting its criminals to America, because of the upheaval that eventually led to these colonies gaining their independence. Australia became the replacement destination starting in 1778 with the gradual organization of many convict colonies. Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) was the first place where convicts were landed.

Transportation to Australia reached its maximum between 1787 and 1868, with 166,000 prisoners sent to its many convict stations. Australia was at the time a vast area, inhabited only by Aboriginal peoples, who were rapidly forced away from the most sheltered and most fertile coastal areas. From the point of view of the colonists, everything had to be built, starting with ports, houses, roads, colonial farms, etc. The convicts were often from the lower classes; women accounted for 16% of the total, and there were also quite a few children, who could be punished with transportation from the age of nine.

The Australian convict system took different forms in order to meet its many objectives. It evolved out of a great debate in Europe at the turn of the 19th century about how to punish crime and the social role to be given to the transportation of prisoners. The discussion included on the one hand the notion of punishment and on the other the desire to discourage crime through the idea of rehabilitation of personal behaviour by means of work and discipline. Transportation of a labour force to serve colonial development, especially in the more distant lands, was seen as a useful and effective response to these various social issues in England, as well in other European countries such as France and Russia.

In the Australian case, the convict system was in practice also designed to make the prisoners fully fledged colonists once they had served out their sentences. The considerable distance between Europe and Australia meant that that the convicts almost always remained after their release.

The Australian convict system included a variety of prison systems, ranging from outdoor to indoor work, from probationary transportation to simple imprisonment; it included convict stations for women or children (Cascades Female Factory and Point Puer). In some convict stations, the prisoners lived alongside free settlers (Brickendon and Woolmers Estates). Living conditions were naturally very strict, but they were variable in terms of their harshness, depending on the site and function.

Overseeing and transporting the convicts also required the presence of a sizeable prison administration, the organization of a specialized fleet, the presence of numerous guards, etc.

The most harsh stations, for those prisoners considered to be the most dangerous, included a prison, hard and often dangerous labour, corporal punishment, such as lashes or deprivation, and solitary confinement. Most sites had a prison and a solitary confinement area; but others were punishment stations, such as Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, and the Tasman Peninsula Coal Mines. These stations were renowned throughout the entire British Empire for their harshness, in order to maintain the fear of transportation among the population and so reduce crime in Great Britain and its colonies.

The convict gang system was used for public works, especially for roads and port facilities. They were generally very strict and the work was hard. Examples include Old Great North Road, Hyde Park Barracks, Port Arthur, Coal Mines, Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area, and Fremantle Prison.

There were also labour convict stations for those prisoners considered to pose less of a threat, where the convicts were made available for private projects, often farming. The entrepreneurs used them at their own risk. Examples include Brickendon and Woolmers Estates and Old Government House. Female labour was more of a manufacturing nature, such as Cascades Female Factory, a textile mill. These were, of course, still prisons with a system of punishment and rewards. Some convict stations used women as servants – for example, on farms and Old Government House.

Those convicts who behaved themselves could earn a lighter sentence, gradually leading to their early release. In the very vivid minds of the social reformists of prisoners, the aim was to establish a probationary path that would gradually lead to social rehabilitation through labour and, finally, to the status of fully fledged colonial settler.

The creation of convict stations in Australia, at the heart of the programme of creating colonies, had particularly negative effects on the Aboriginal peoples. This led to social unrest, forced migration, and the loss of fertile land, as well as devastating epidemics because of their lack of immunity. Conflict and resistance were frequent occurrences as settlers and convicts arrived, often resulting in death.

The penal settlements continued for quite a long time after the transportation system was abolished, up until the eve of World War II, driven by their own dynamic of prisoner management and similar practices, though applied on a far lesser scale, such as exile.

The last of the sites to remain in active use was Fremantle Prison, which closed in the early 1990s.

Today, most of these sites are entirely or in part places of remembrance, museums, or parks.

Source: Advisory Body Evaluation


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