2 – Britain saw Australia as the solution to a law and order crisis at home
“From there, the convicts would never return. The names of Newgate and Tyburn, arch-symbols of the vengeance of property, were now joined by a third. Botany Bay.” Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore
Britain in the 1770s was a society that was in the foothills of the greatest social change in its history. The population had been stable for the first half of the century, hovering around 6 million people, but had skyrocketed within the previous generation. The onset of the Industrial Revolution, which would come to completely change the entire makeup of Great Britain, had forced people off the land and into the cities, breaking centuries of tradition and creating a social class that had never been seen before in such numbers.
Britain’s cities were spectacularly unable to cope with the influx. Urban diseases were rife and the authorities were utterly incapable of controlling a mass of people in such a small geographic area. Law and order had been designed with a largely rural population in mind and a broadly neighbourly attitude, meaning that parish watches and local informers were the most likely way in which a criminal might be brought to justice. In the cutthroat modern city, these were altogether too corruptible. Moreover, the so-called “Gin Craze” was in full swing, bringing cheap alcohol to everyone. City-dwellers were largely poor, often underemployed and readily supplied with booze – so the crime wave that followed was understandable.
The government became increasingly draconian. The number of capital crimes quadrupled in a century, with the vast majority of new death sentences handed down for offences against property. With a poor, hungry and neglected majority living side-by-side with a small, wealthy minority, theft was always going to be a problem and thus punishment for larceny was incredibly harsh. Hungry people, however, fear starvation as much as the hangman and it had little effect.
On top of that, as more and more people were sentenced to death, it was a public relations disaster for the government to kill everyone that it said it would. Judges deliberately valued stolen goods at just below that amount that mandated a death sentence, saving thousands from the noose but ballooning the prison population. Old warships were pushed back into service as “hulks”, huge floating prisons moored off cities, while transportation to the Americas became a regular punishment. It is thought that somewhere between 60 and 120,000 convicts were sent to North America in the century preceding independence – between a third and two-thirds of the number that were shipped to Australia. As soon as the seeds of revolution began to be sown in America, however, it was seen as foolish to send a class of people that were already-disposed towards the British crown to a place where they could conceivably fight against it.
With America no longer a viable option, the hulks began to crowd again and the British government’s hand was forced. They would find a new home for their unwanted criminals, a place where they could be put to work, where they could not possibly escape and where nobody cared if they lived or died. At the very worst – if the colony failed and all the convicts died – they would have done something to ease the ongoing problem of prison overcrowding.
Why the British saw fit to send their criminals out of sight and out of mind lay largely in the way that they saw criminality itself. It was not an act, but a lifestyle, and one into which we will delve in the next page.