A Number of Convicts under Sentence of Transportation are to be sent to the new Settlement at Botany-Bay, in New South-Wales, which was discovered by Capt. Cook, where they are to have some singular Privileges in Case of good Behaviour.[1]


Tonight the BBC will air the second episode of their historical drama ‘Banished’.  The seven episodes of the series are based on the initial weeks after the arrival of the so-called ‘first fleet’ to New South Wales in 1788.  The dramatic climax of the first episode rests on, and drives home the premise that this community is cut-off from home, ‘banished’, forgotten, and for all intents and purposes dead to the metropolis ten thousand miles away.  Were they ‘Banished’?  Forgotten, abandoned even, by the metropolis?   The historical truth of the matter is, as always, more complex.

In the late eighteenth century transportation was a long established form of punishment, and an alternative to death for a variety of crimes.  Botany Bay was a serendipitous discovery which allowed for the practice to continue unabated after the loss of the American colonies.  From 1787 to 1857 transportation ‘beyond the seas’ to Australia formed a central part of the penal system in England and Ireland.[2]   Over the course of two generations tens of thousands of men and women were sentenced to a number of years in the far flung colony.  After a precarious eight month voyage aboard a relatively small sailing ship they found themselves ten thousand miles from home, in a hot and unfamiliar but not entirely alien world.  Contemporary newspaper accounts painted a positive picture of the proposed penal settlement.  As part of an expansive maritime empire, and in an age when water travel was the fastest mode of transportation over long distances, New South Wales was described in a manner befitting a luxury travel brochure:


A month’s sail from Cape Good Hope; five weeks from Madras; the same from Canton in China; very near Moluccas, less than a month’s run from Batavia; and lastly within a fortnight’s sail from new Zealand… [3]


Who was sent?  Plucky prostitutes?  Hardened criminals?  Those that were sent were considered the more serious criminals of their day; prostitutes did not number among them as prostitution itself was not a crime.  A transported woman may have been a prostitute but she was transported for crimes such as burglary or theft.  At the other end of the spectrum, there were just fifty murderers sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey, out of the over 41,000 to whom that sentence was given.[4]  It also transpires that many sentenced to transportation never made it antipodean shores.  Data linkage work at the Digital Panopticon, a major project to explore the life histories of the men and women sentenced at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1875, has tentatively identified 70% of those sentenced to transportation at the Old Bailey in subsequent transportation records, leaving at least 30% who never arrived.   Detailed analysis of those who were left behind reveal that ill health, death and pardons were the primary factors in their not making the journey.   Neither was transportation an immediate wrenching of a convict from all that they knew; some waited for up to six years in hulks and prisons before making their journey south.  As for those that were sent, they were no rag-tag random bunch of pickpockets and prostitutes, research shows that youth played a part in being finally sent to the colony, as did the possession of a useful trade.


Accounts of how the early colony was faring featured in the news and give an insight into how the colony was integrated into the established trade routes.


13th of April last.  The Colony had very much extended its agriculture… Samples of its produce of wheat, barley, and rice, all of which are of the finest quality, and very abundant in their growth… the harvest of last year already produced 300 bushels of corn… fish were caught in great plenty… The supplies sent from the Cape of Good Hope… were expected to have arrived soon… and the several store-ships, which sailed from England in November, 1789, it is calculated must have reached them by June last…[5]


The intention from the start was for New South Wales to be a settlement.  By November 1789, less than two years after the arrival of the ‘first fleet’, a convict became a settler.  At the expiration of his sentence ‘a hut was built, and one acre and an half ground cleared for him’, on a farm totalling thirty-one acres.  Moreover he continued to be provided for by the communal stores for a further three months, and his wife and child availed of them until the end of the year.[6]  Families were created from among the ex-convicts and, in later years, families from the metropolis were encouraged to follow prisoners to the new colony.[7]  Others who petitioned for pardons still travelled to the colony to start a new life as free settlers.[8]  A community was created, at first an out-post of the empire it was soon integrated into the whole.  Started by coercion, rather than by a spirit of adventure, or a search for freedom; the convicts sent had little choice in the matter but they were never banished.

[1] Northampton Mercury,  9 September 1786, p.2

[2] Transportation was available in some cases until 1868

[3] Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 19 October 1786, p.4


[5]Hereford Journal 29 December 1790

[6] Oxford Journal 2 June 1792, p.4

[7] Perry McIntyre, Free Passage: The Reunion of Irish Convicts and Their Families in Australia 1788-1852 (The Irish Abroad Series) (Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2010)

[8] National Archives of Ireland ‘Convict Reference Files and Prisoners’ Petitions and Cases’


Aoife O Connor is a University of Sheffield PhD student, based in Ireland, researching the impact of digital resources in the history of crime as part of the Digital Panopticon project. You can follow Aoife on twitter @Ordinary_Times at the Digital Panopticon @digipanoptic .


Image production shot from BBC:

Tags : Australiabanishedcoloniescriminal historydigital historyeighteenth centuryfirst fleethistorical dramaNew South Walestelevisiontransportation
Aoife OConnor

The author Aoife OConnor


  1. “…they were never banished”. So Aoife, if they were never banished as such, then how many ever made it back home to their families? And how many families left behind in the “metropolis” found the loss of young, healthy family members capable of working to be a positive event in their lives? How many of your ancestors stole food or money to feed their families, and were punished by being taken from their families never to be seen again? Many convicts endured years of harsh conditions whilst providing slave labour for wealthy colonists on land stolen from Indigenous people. Just as these people had no protection from genocide at the hands of colonists, convicts had little to no means of returning home. The majority were merely exploited labour, assuming they survived. For some families this resulted in transgenerational disadvantage and trauma. You perhaps underestimate the knowledge, memory, and attitudes of convicts’ descendants regarding the experiences of their forebears.

  2. Hi Michelle, thanks very much for your comment. I should start by saying I’m really not an expert on transportation, I look at London based forms of punishment- but, from what I understand from Aoife and the Digital Panopticon’s research, what the Panopticon is trying to establish is exactly what you are asking here- how many convicts did go back to England, and what was the effect of transportation upon their lives and the lives of their descendants? The answers, I believe, are showing that in fact a fair few convicts did return to England (certainly in my own research I come across quite a lot of people who have already returned from transportation once, maybe twice previously) and that those that did not, as Aoife shows in this piece, were sometimes integrated into a nascent colonial community. The other main thing the Panopticon is doing is comparing the effects on perpetrators in terms of both them and their families between those who were sentenced to transportation and those who were sentenced to imprisonment. Now that is absolutely not to say that transportation was a good or justifiable punishment, or that it was not based upon a very high level of exploitation, and of course you are right in pointing out that many convicts did die; this is by no means a ‘good’ subject of history. I think what Aoife means by not ‘banished’ is that the British state did not leave convicts shipwrecked somewhere, but in fact took part in a much more sinister practice of continuing links with the colonies where they could benefit from their labour (for the defined time in which they were sentenced- if, of course, they survived it). I think the other thing worth noting is that the characterisation of convicts as those ‘stealing to feed their families’ is not the whole story- it may’ve been rare for those kinds of petty theft to be punished by transportation – for example most of those I see in my own research had committed serious violent and sexual assaults. Again, this is absolutely not at all to justify the practice of transportation. But, what I think the Panopticon is trying to do is to put some quantifiers on that, so the real mechanisms of it, sinister as they were, can be understood.

    1. Thanks for your response, Anna. Your assertions about returning convicts appear to be based on a minority of convicts, according to statistics that are readily accessible online at the very least. As for convicts who stole for survival being ‘pretty rare’ – I would suggest that a quick perusal of Australian convict records (e.g. arrivals in Van Diemen’s Land or NSW) might prove informative for you. In just one example known to me, 4 ancestors for an existing Australian family have unconnected histories, locations of origin, and offence times. One ancestor stole 2 sheep to feed her starving family in Ireland (with no prior record), one teenager stole a ham to feed his family in London, another teenaged head of family stole a small amount of money ‘from the person’ to buy food, and the fourth was a 9 year old street boy who picked pockets in Northampton. His case is particularly tragic given that he was thrown into a prison hulk on the Thames for 18 months prior to deportation at age 11. Any statistician worth their salt would suggest that your assertions place this family’s ancestry in the “Oh my gosh what are the odds!!” basket. However I doubt this is the case at all. Of the many convict descendants I interact with, the clear majority have similar petty offence records such as stealing loaves of bread and handkerchiefs. I also add that locating records for specific convicts gives one ample time to get a feel for the average conviction. It could therefore be considered naive, disrespectful, or offensive to suggest that the majority of convicts were hardened violent or sexual offenders, notwithstanding that those type of prisoners were also transported…and likely on the same hulks/ships upon which the unfortunate street boy spent a good 2 years. A quick check of his transporting vessel revealed that he was not the only surviving boy of similar age transported for theft. What a journey that must have been, eh? Lucky them? Logic should suggest specific enquiries for keen research minds. For example,if the convicts were indeed all so very bad, as you seem to suggest, then what happened after transportation ceased? Did English society suddenly reform all on its own after that date? Or did the English secretly devise some other sinister way of offloading serious felons that we are yet to hear about? One should, I suppose, account for the famines and land theft in Ireland and Scotland. Emigration for survivors of those arguably avoidable disasters would have taken up a fair amount of post-transportation slack? Or is someone suggesting that the majority of degenerate offending genes, so to speak, had already been successfully transported by then? If I wasn’t overly educated I might be very scared by that inference, being an Australian. Here’s hoping the Panopticon has some seriously watertight methodological processes and checks to avoid adding bias to what is basically a fairly self-explanatory history of a social tragedy that was based on social cleansing and colonisation. Finally, as for being banished – the last time I checked the definition for “banish” the answer offered a clear and objective explanation of exactly what happened to these people. Shipwrecks are almost entirely irrelevant (except for those involved, of course).

  3. Hi Michelle, you are right of course that the offenders that I look at are a minority of convicts, and of course my own subject matters is going to throw up. I did not mean to suggest that all convicts were hardened ‘felons’ but I would add that I don’t think it is as clear cut as ‘good people stealing to feed their family’ and ‘evil hardened felons’- the study of judicial infrastructures and crime at this period are extremely complex in terms of narratives of exploitation, persecution and discrimination behind them. The Panopticon will provide more information about exactly which crimes led to trasnportation and which did not. In terms of the methodologies of the panopticon I refer you to

    1. Thanks Anna – however it was my familiarity with research themes, questions, and methodologies of the panopticon that initiated my comments on History Matters. I doubt further reference will alleviate my serious concerns regarding reliability of a retrospective (post-hoc) cohort study that has absolutely no way to determine the accuracy of baseline data (i.e. the assumption of guilt or responsibility for conviction crimes), significant selection bias through using only Old Bailey cases, no control over an inordinate amount of confounding variables (e.g. pre and post-conviction deprivation, illness, abuse, psychological trauma, nutrition, education, social policies, institutionalisation, etc etc), and a reliance on subjective qualitative interpretation of records that were subject to inaccurate record keeping and transcription. My chief concerns were amplified by discourse associated with the research, which unfortunately appears to infer the following:-
      1. There is real danger of bias whereby researchers achieve exactly what they set out to achieve, i.e. any researcher can subjectively distort even the most pure of data to achieve specific results through combination with, or exclusion of, other variables; and through generalisation. This is suggested by examination of discourse themes arising in panopticon blog and forums, and within several of the 7 panopticon research themes and one research question in particular. The narratives offered by you and Aoife both contained several outstanding examples of bias;
      2. The obvious trade-off for ‘big data’ analyses is the amount of critical information lost in the translation of averages, particularly for historical populations. So let’s now put some perspective into this discourse using conservative calculations and statistical benchmarks. Let’s assume that only 5% of convicts to Australia (162,000) were statistical outliers at 2 SDs on any panopticon finding. Let’s now only allocate to them an extremely conservative 2 offspring every generation for a further conservative 5 generations. That amounts to over 250,000 Australians. The point is that historical injustices should not be compounded by misinterpretation and misrepresentation, especially given potential widespread impact; and
      3. Following on from this, the influence of publications should not be underestimated. The average interested Internet reader or documentary watcher is unlikely to access academic publications let alone accurately determine validity and reliability of methodologies. It is more likely that additional popular generalisations would result in popular memes. Even after discounting the origins of Andrew Wakefield’s contributions to science and medicine, they stand as a pertinent example of the power of popular memes. While outcomes may not be as serious in this case, they should not be underestimated. I sincerely hope the ethics and digital history theme is as thorough and overarching as the ethics approval processes.

      Am I being too critical of this research? No – I sincerely hope that it produces reliable and useful information without achieving inaccurate social memes. If my discourse generates more thorough attention to ethics, methodology, and interpretation of findings, by researchers and readers alike, then the criticism was worthwhile.

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