Who knew convicts could organise
March 29, 2024 5:19 PM   Subscribe

The forgotten history of Australia's convicts - Radio National, from the Australian ABC.

"Convicts have either been seen as a situation comedy, like 'aren't those rascals lucky enough to come over to Australia where it's sunny', or the [author] Marcus Clarke version of the gulag from hell … where they lack agency," Dr Moore says.

"Whereas we are saying no, they collectively resisted, and they resisted at a great scale."

In doing so, "they were able to shape the beginnings of the labour movement" here.

And what were once considered radical or even treasonous ideas around workers rights, egalitarianism and democracy took root in the Australian colonies in the mid-to-late 19th century and continue to define us today.
posted by freethefeet (9 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
"Convict" is, in Australia, generally reserved for use regarding those people subject (in the past) to the historical practice of transportation as a punishment. It isn't usually used to refer to the contemporary prison population. The American colonies were previously subject to the same system but it seems to have developed some technical problems around 1777.

There is prison labour, if that's what you're asking. Prisoners are paid around $2/hr. As the minimum adult wage is around $23/hr, this is quite controversial, but often overlooked. Yes, first nations prisoners are disproportionately subject to this (and to imprisonment generally).

What I found interesting about TFA is expressed in this quote:
"The convicts were in fact, an unfree labour force used and exploited … to build the colonies, to build the economy and to enrich the employers in those colonies," Dr Moore says.

"We've not really understood this in Australia — that [transportation] was a massive machine for building colonies."
"Australia" (the modern capitalist nation state and all its infrastructure) was built on stolen land by conscripted labour.

That's much more egregious than simply underpaying prison labour. It also makes the resistance the convicts organised all the more impressive, especially given that many of them had been transported for the "crime" of organising labour. The linked article is about them.

It's worth a read.
posted by GeckoDundee at 6:15 PM on March 29 [12 favorites]

Great quote:

Professor Maxwell-Stewart also points out that "one of the tricks that transportation pulled off was [it] greatly increased sentences".

"If you were sentenced to a stint in prison in Britain or Ireland, it's likely to have been measured in months [because] sending somebody to prison is insanely expensive … But if you got sentenced to transportation, the minimum sentence was seven years," he says.

"This is like minting 2 million years of unfree labour that the British can use. Effectively what they did is … steal time from [mostly] thieves to steal a continent
posted by eustatic at 4:47 AM on March 30 [8 favorites]

If you do some of the tours around Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's (ex-Van Diemen's Land's) west coast, which was the site of a penal station between 1822 and 1833, you'll hear all about how convicts were essentially a source of free labour—at one point it was the largest shipyard in all of the Australian colonies.

Large parts of Australia were built on the back of involuntary labour: first the convicts, then Pacific islanders. Not entirely, of course, but enough that we don't really have much to crow about when comparing ourselves to the U.S.
posted by rory at 6:29 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]

Some of those transported were children, orphans who survived the “famine” in Ireland and were convicted of stealing food for themselves and surviving siblings.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:36 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Couple of comments removed, a few left for context.

The article is centered around Australia, do not make this thread about the USA.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 7:30 AM on March 30

Interesting story. Pity about the condescending post title. Not only did populations sentenced to transportation include folks sentenced for political crimes, as described in the first three paragraphs:
Among the convicts that were transported to colonial Australia, there was a small group accused of very different crimes to the others.

Of the roughly 162,000 convicts sent here from 1788 to 1868, there were at least 3,600 political prisoners including trade unionists, democracy advocates and Irish revolutionaries.

And far from abandoning their politics when they arrived, these people — along with many others — banded together to bring political resistance to the colonies.
but there has been quite a long and storied history of organizing among criminalized working class people in general that predates the colonization of Australia, that the examples of organized resistance to colonial exploitation described in the link are one important part of.
posted by eviemath at 8:34 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]

Large parts of Australia were built on the back of involuntary labour

When my gx2 grandmother disembarked from the Midlothian in Hobart in 1853 she was faced by crowd of men all eager to secure one the female convicts for 'farm duties'. Sure, she spent some time in the Cascade Female Factory, illustrated in the article, but only when she was between labouring jobs. At least she had the freedom to quit or be fired from a job and return to the female factory to work before being shipped out again to another farm. Finally, after 12months of her 14 year sentence, she was allowed to marry and become a beneficiary of the farm she was labouring for. Unfortunately her husband was disabled and the farm output was sparse. She tried to offload her, by now, five offspring onto the State as wards. The State would have none of it, and she eventually moved to town with her husband and had another ten children. All fifteen lived to adulthood and she died a respectable woman at the age of 85. Had she stayed in Ireland ...
posted by Thella at 4:25 PM on March 30

I don’t know if it is because a lot of my reading about Australian history, and my own family history, centres on convicts that the thesis of this article about conquest via conscripted hard labour feels a bit ‘well, duh.’

The criss-cross of family histories for anyone like me who’s been on stolen land for several/ many generations is absorbing. The various penal ships carrying members of my maternal and paternal lines, supplying the various mills, quarries, ports, sandalwood carting, land clearing endeavours of their originally conscripted labour are found in toponyms and tiny town cemeteries all over. Women who were the 18th child in a Kerry family found their way into Ticket of Leave blokes’ land allocations.

One of my favourite books about the convicts brought to Australia for obvious hard labour and colonial control is Sian Rees’ The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts. The hard labour for these women was in the provision of their bodies for sexuality, domestic duties, subduing of male-dominated aggression by providing the ‘hearth’ for men, and of course children. Several of my own female ancestors were on that ship.

When women were brought on ships and landed in Fremantle, Western Australia, men swarmed to the port and grabbed the women and ran. Didn’t matter who, didn’t matter how. Many of the women were already impregnated by prison or ship overseers.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:01 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]

Fremantle prison built by imported convicts to imprison indigenous aboriginals
posted by Narrative_Historian at 7:28 PM on March 30

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