Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet

Mike Wood - January 24, 2018

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
The flag of the Australasian Anti-Transportation League and a forerunner to the modern Australian flag. Flags of Empire.

12 – Transportation was stopped – because Australians didn’t want it any more

“Hurra for the noble Leaguers!
Hurra for our British Queen!
Hurra for the tread of Freemen
Where Bondsmen erst have been!

Peal on, ye shrill-voiced heralds
Your thrilling music tells
Tasmania’s happy future;
Peal on, ye English bells!

From city hall to cottage,
O’er all our island homes,
Ring round your benediction!
The Unstained Future comes!”
The Hobart Town Daily Courier, 1853

As the colony grew, the numbers of free settlers from Britain, Ireland and other countries began to increase. Within 30 years of the landing of the First Fleet, Sydney had grown from an outpost clinging to the side of a continent to a viable colony, fully capable of sustaining itself. In short, it was no longer necessary to force people to go there to keep it going.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that Australia was fruitful and held rewards for those willing to make something of the opportunities there. When convicts came to the end of their sentences, they would take over land and farm it, producing notable profits and generating economic activity – though crucially, they did not own the land on which they were farming. There was an obvious incentive for many poor people in England to migrate to Australia and make something of themselves in the new land, something which the New South Wales colonial government was enthusiastic to promote. By the time of the cessation of transportation to New South Wales in 1840, almost a third of those who came to Australia were coming of their own volition.

The mood in the colonies, too, had changed. The newly prosperous middle classes that had sprung up in the cities objected to the association with criminality – though they were never bothered by the brutal nature of convictism – and campaigned for abolition. It was granted in 1846 across all colonies, but was soon reinstated as the prisons of England immediately began to fill again. The Australians – no longer British colonists – were outraged and the protests against transportation sparked up again.

The last ship would sail for Botany Bay in 1853, by which point gold had already been struck in Victoria. Amid the floods heading for the goldfields, the final detachment of convicts paled into insignificance. From just one ship a year in the first decade to a peak of 36 ships and 7,000 people in the peak year of 1833, a major swath of British society had been uprooted and rehoused in Australia. Across the whole period of transportation, around 150,000 people were sent from the British Isles to the other side of the world against their will. Those sent, exiled from their homes, torn from their families and everything they had ever known, would become the bedrock of a new society.

The vast majority stayed in Australia when their sentences were served. To this day, an estimated 20% of all Australians have convict ancestry and the perceived stain carried by a convict heritage has largely dissipated. Even John Howard, Australian Prime Minister between 1996 and 2007, was the descendant of convicts, and to many Australians, their heritage as the criminal class of Britain is taken as an ironic source of pride, a vindication of the anti-authoritarianism and larrikin spirit of their nation.