Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place

Larry Holzwarth - January 10, 2020

After the loss of the American colonies, Great Britain needed a new outlet for prisoners, many of which had formerly been sent to the Americas. It also needed land for Loyalists who were deprived of their property when the Revolutionary War was lost. In the Southwest Pacific Australia beckoned. The establishment of colonies in the lands claimed by Great Britain bolstered trade with the Indies, strengthened the British Empire at the expense of those of Spain and France, and offered a needed refuge for convicts. Several conflicts had already occurred between explorers and the indigenous people of Australia, but to His Majesty’s ministers, they were of no consequence. A transport fleet was assembled, and the colonization of New South Wales was begun.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Ships of the First Fleet arrive at Botany Bay, 1788. State Library of New South Wales

Born of a convict colony, and with resistant peoples standing in the way, Australia in the 19th century was foreordained to be a place of conflict. The settlement of Australia which began at Botany Bay was a time of hardship, frequent hunger, conflicts with the natives, and within the groups of settlers. For decades additional convicts were dispatched from Great Britain to the penal colony. They were often hardened urban criminals, adept at cutting purses, but lacking the skills needed for the colony to thrive. Gradually they were supplemented by free settlers. Some of the early prisoners gained their freedom, and the colony looked to expand, though the natives stood in opposition. Here is some of the history of the colonization of Australia in the 19th century.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Sir Joseph Banks supported the colonization of Australia, though he opposed transportation of convicts. Wikimedia

1. An American Loyalist was the first to propose a colony in New South Wales

James Matra (he changed his surname to Magra for part of his life) was a New York-born resident of London when James Cook prepared for his exploration of New Holland in 1768. Matra joined the expedition, sailing with Cook in HMS Endeavor. His presence during the expedition led to a long friendship with the influential Sir Joseph Banks. Matra remained loyal to King George III when his countrymen rebelled against British rule, and in 1783 he wrote, A Proposal for Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales. His proposal was based on his observations during his voyage with Cook.

Matra envisioned the establishment of a British colony or colonies along the lines of the lost southern colonies, Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. He suggested the Australian land and climate were suitable for crops to replace those lost. He also believed that he would make a fine Royal Governor for the colony, which was to be settled by American loyalists as compensation for lost lands. Convicts were included to fill the role of slave labor. His patron, Joseph Banks, opposed the idea of convict labor, suggesting that South Sea Islanders, familiar with the climate and the naturally occurring plants of the region, would make a more suitable labor force.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
William Pitt the Younger was a supporter of sending convict labor to the Australian colonies. Wikimedia

2. Penal transportation appealed to the British government

Prior to the American Revolution, the British government transported prisoners to Maryland and Virginia at the rate of about 1,000 per year. Prime Minister William Pitt was beset with demands for reform of the overcrowded British prisons and the horrendous conditions found within them. He and his supporters were intrigued with Matra’s plan as it applied to prisoners, though giving land to American loyalists did not appeal. Public knowledge of the possibility of deportation to far-off Australia was, to Pitt and his advisors, a solid deterrent for would-be criminals to consider when they contemplated an illegal act.

In May 1787, the gathering of ships known to posterity as the First Fleet departed Great Britain, bound for the South Sea. It was commanded by Arthur Phillip and consisted of 11 ships. Aboard were over 1,000 settlers, which included 778 convicts, of which 192 were women. The fleet made landfall at Botany Bay the following January. Finding it unsuitable for settlement, Phillip moved to Port Jackson near Sidney Cove, where the male convicts and the fleet’s marines went ashore on January 26, 1788. Phillip became the first governor of the fledgling penal colony, and the male convicts were put to work building the settlement. The women went ashore on February 6, and the following day the Colony of New South Wales was officially established.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
A chart of Botany Bay showing depths in fathoms. Wikimedia

3. The convicts of the First Fleet faced hunger and want

The First Fleet arrived with insufficient food and supplies to support the new colony, which was forced to rely on resources ashore, local livestock and crops. Unfortunately, most of the convicts which populated the settlement lacked agricultural skills. They were mostly former dwellers of the worst of London’s expansive slums. Many were skilled at theft, but there was little to steal. The arrival of the Second Fleet was to have improved the situation. Instead, it made things worse. Many of the convicts arriving with the Second Fleet were sick, and the added mouths to feed brought little food with them.

Even before the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay, attempts to escape were conducted by the convicts. Aboard the ship Swift, convicts released from their shackles as a humanitarian gesture by the ship’s captain overpowered the crew, seized the ship, and ran it aground in Sussex. The convicts escaped into the British countryside, though most were recaptured. In New South Wales prisoners plotted escapes, though the prospect of a long voyage on the open sea was daunting. In 1791, a party of convicts led by James Martin, which included a woman and child, escaped from the colony by stealing a fishing boat and sailing to the Dutch settlement of Coupang on Timor. There they were taken into custody by Captain Edward Edwards, who was also holding some of the mutineers from HMAV Bounty, headed to England for trial.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Arthur Phillip, in the uniform of Captain of the Royal Navy. Wikimedia

4. New South Wales quickly established the machinery of government

Under Phillip, the government of New South Wales was quickly operational, with magistrates, constables, and the other bureaucratic offices needed to administer the colony. Food was controlled by the government, and as supplies dwindled it was strictly rationed. Convicts had many positions of authority and responsibility, based on the need of the colony for the skills they offered. Experience in the building trades was valuable. So were seamanship and fishing skills. The more experienced of the latter were by necessity put in charge of the fishing boats, earning the resentment of other convicts not as impressed by their skipper’s talent.

Stocks and a prison within the prison which was the colony were erected, as well as a whipping post and the gallows. The magistrates were kept busy through hearing the charges of crimes, in particular theft and escape attempts. There were, not surprisingly, crimes of violence as well. Lesser crimes such as theft of tools were punished by whipping, or banishment to hard labor under guard. More serious crimes, including recidivism regarding the theft of food, led to death by hanging. As more and more convicts arrived, as well as free settlers, the colony began to grow and explorers ventured forth from Port Jackson to explore other sites for settlement in New South Wales.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Port Jackson and Sydney Cove, as it appeared to a visitor in 1788. Wikimedia

5. The formation of the New South Wales Corps

In the summer of 1789, a new regiment of the British Army was formed in Great Britain under the name of the New South Wales Corps. It was created to relieve the Corps of Marines which had sailed with the First Fleet to guard the convicts and protect the settlements. The regiment was recruited in Britain and sailed to Australia in small units, eventually three companies of about 100 men each. Once in New South Wales its commander, Francis Grose, recruited an additional company from the Marines who had decided to remain in the colony. When Phillip left to return to England at the end of 1792, Grose became the highest authority in the colony.

Grose took advantage of his newfound authority by abolishing the courts established by Phillip. The colony was placed under military control, the magistrates under one of his captains. He slashed the rations distributed to the convicts while maintaining full rations for the corps. He also abandoned the collective farming established by his predecessor and awarded large tracts of land to officers of the corps and civilian non-convict settlers. Grose provided convict labor to work the new tracts. He also allowed the officers of the corps to engage in the trade of rum, previously prohibited, which they adopted so enthusiastically that it became known as the Rum Corps.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Governor Gidley King’s personal journal contains much of what is known about the earliest days of the colony. State Library of New South Wales

6. The Castle Hill convict rebellion

Irish rebels from the failed rebellions of the late 1790s were among the convicts deported to New South Wales, many of them without trial, and with indefinite sentences. They proved troublesome for the authorities in the Australian colony from the outset. In March, 1804, Philip Cunningham led 233 convicts, mostly Irish, in a mass escape. The convicts overpowered the guards at armories and other government storehouses. Obtaining weapons and supplies, they were joined by like-minded compatriots. The population of New South Wales was then about 5,000 free citizens.

Both the Sydney Loyal Militia – a volunteer force – and the New South Wales Corps were mustered to suppress the rebellion. Governor Gidley King declared martial law. The force of convicts swelled to around 600 well-armed men, on the march to a rendezvous with other escaped bands at Constitution Hill. Cunningham announced his intention to overthrow the British government of the colony, establish an Irish one, and prepare a military unit to send to Ireland in support of rebels there. The exact number of convicts who escaped and joined the uprising is debated, but the government response was swift, driven by panic among the colony’s free citizens.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
The Castle Hill insurrection was the largest convict rebellion in Australian history. Wikimedia

7. The insurrection was crushed at the Battle of Rouse Hill

Government troops encountered the massed Irish convicts near a site known as Rouse Hill, now within the confines of the city of Sydney. The Irish called the conflict the Second Battle of Vinegar Hill, after a battle between Irish revolutionaries and British troops at a site so named in Ireland in 1798. The government troops, commanded by Major George Johnston, sent forth a Catholic priest to convince the convicts to surrender without bloodshed. Cunningham, who had by then declared himself the King of the Australian Empire, refused. When the government troops were in position they opened fire, maintaining it for about a quarter of an hour.

The troops then charged, Cunningham was cut down in the melee which followed, and the convicts fled or surrendered. Small bands continued to remain free for several days following the battle. Cunningham survived, though badly wounded, and was taken prisoner along with most of the other convicts later described by the authorities as the leaders of the rebellion. At least fifteen convicts were killed at Rouse Hill, and several more were killed in the ensuing weeks, some by pursuing soldiers. Others seized the opportunity to settle personal vendettas and killed fellow convicts. It was the worst convict rebellion in Australian history.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
An aborigine gathering at Newcastle, circa 1818. Wikimedia

8. The Castle Hill uprising led to the establishment of Newcastle

On March 10, Governor King announced an amnesty for any remaining convicts at large who turned themselves in to the authorities. Several did, while others chose to continue to elude capture. Those that were captured at Rouse Hill and its aftermath faced immediate reprisals. Several of the leaders, including Cunningham, were hanged. Others received public whippings of between 100 and 500 lashes. Still, others were sentenced to be held in irons, for indefinite periods. Some Irish convicts who did not take an active part in the insurrection, but were suspected of supporting it secretly, were sent to Norfolk Island, as prisoners.

Others who had taken part in the insurrection were sent to the coal mines at Kings Town, a settlement which had failed three years earlier. On March 15, 1804, Lieutenant Charles Menzies of the Royal Marines was assigned as superintendent of the new settlement, to be called Newcastle. The convicts and their marine guards arrived by ship, and for the next decade, Newcastle was a harsh prison colony within a prison colony. Many of the worst offenders from the other settlements were dispatched there, essentially to work as slaves in the mines. Others worked in the manufacture of lime by burning oyster shells, giving nearby Limeburner’s Bay its name.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
John Macarthur’s wealth and connections allowed him to repeatedly challenge the governor’s authority. Wikimedia

9. Corruption grew in the first decade of the 19th century

By 1805, the officers of the New South Wales Corps were well-established in the trading of rum, a word which was used generically to refer to all distilled spirits. The importation of rum, most of which came from India, was illegal. The prestige and power wielded by the Corps, and the ineffective governance of Gidley King, allowed the officers to enrich themselves through the trade. King was also ineffective at restraining the ambitions of John Macarthur. Macarthur was a shepherd and farmer who claimed over 5,000 acres of land along the Nepean River. The tract included lands which had been reserved for the communally owned cattle of the colony. Governor King protested, but Macarthur ignored him.

In 1806, severe flooding occurred in the settlements along the Hawkesbury River. The officers of the Corps, as well as several more prominent men of the colony, including Macarthur, took advantage of the situation by granting loans to the victims. The loans were in the form of food, supplies, and other necessities, as part of the colony’s barter economy. Rum was also used as a form of payment within the colony. Several of the larger landholders and officers of the Corps profited from the difficulties encountered by the Hawkesbury settlers. Such were the conditions in the colony when a new governor, William Bligh, arrived in August, 1806.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
William Bligh was sent to Australia to restrain the illegal rum trade and clean up local corruption. Wikimedia

10. William Bligh arrived with orders to end the corrupt business practices in New South Wales

In March 1805, William Bligh, of Bounty fame, was appointed Governor of New South Wales following the strong recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks. Before departing London Bligh was given instructions by the Colonial Office to stop the illegal activities of the members of the colony’s developing aristocracy, and the officers of the New South Wales Corps. Of particular concern to the Colonial Office was the illegal rum trade, which was supported by the Corps in Australia and the East India Company in India. Noth profited handsomely through the untaxed practice. Bligh was a man who followed orders to the letter.

He immediately received communications from Hawkesbury settlers which informed him that Macarthur and other shepherds were deliberately withholding sheep from the market in order to artificially increase the price of lamb and mutton. He also learned of the plight of the settlers following the flooding. Bligh ordered the release of sheep and other supplies from the herds and storehouses owned by the colony. His action gained the support of the settlers and the enmity of Macarthur and the wealthier landowners. Bligh also took steps to end the illegal trade in rum, advising the Colonial Office in a letter that such steps would be resisted.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Lord Castlereagh instructed Bligh to seize control of the rum trade in New South Wales. Wikimedia

11. The seeds of the Rum Rebellion were planted in 1807

In 1807, Lord Castlereagh, then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, instructed Governor Bligh to end the illegal importation of rum. Bligh was told to take control of the trade and establish regulations for the sale of rum, as well as enforce penalties for illegal trade. He received his instructions on the last day of 1807. Throughout the year, while waiting for authorization to move against the liquor trade, Bligh had dismissed colonial officials he deemed corrupt. Among them was a magistrate who was a close friend (and business partner) of Macarthur’s. Bligh also demanded Major George Johnston, who commanded the New South Wales Corps, crack down on the corrupt activities of his officers.

Johnston responded by writing a letter to London complaining of Bligh’s interference in the affairs of the Corps. When a convict escaped by stowing away on one of the Macarthur’s ships, Bligh ordered the bond paid against such possibilities to be forfeited. He ordered the Judge-Advocate to try the issue, with Macarthur present. Macarthur did not present himself. He was arrested, released on bail, and again failed to appear at trial. The court included six officers of the Corps who removed themselves, thus negating the court and the trial. When Bligh called for the Corps’ commander to explain the actions of his officers, Johnston replied that he was too ill to comply.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
A cartoon, likely drawn by a Macarthur supporter, showing Bligh arrested while hiding under a bed. Wikimedia

12. The Rum Rebellion overthrew the legal government of the colony

In January, 1808, Bligh again ordered the arrest of Macarthur, who was then released by Johnston. Macarthur presented a petition, which was signed by prominent citizens and the officers of the Corps (though most of the signatures were added after Bligh’s arrest). Johnston then arrested the governor and kept him in Government House. Johnston assumed the position of military governor, and the government of New South Wales went under the control of the New South Wales Corps. Macarthur called for Bligh to be tried but Johnston, likely aware of the illegality of his actions, refused. He demanded instead for Bligh to return to Great Britain. Bligh refused to leave until he was legally relieved as governor.

It took years to settle the matter. The Colonial Office found Johnston and Macarthur acted illegally. The New South Wales Corps was recalled to England, renamed the 102nd Regiment of Foot. It was replaced by another regiment, the 73rd, commanded by Major General Lachlan Macquarie, who was appointed governor of the colony. Johnston and Macarthur were returned to England for trial. Johnston was convicted of mutiny and cashiered (discharged). Macarthur was not allowed to return to Australia until 1817, the year William Bligh died in England. The Rum Rebellion was the only successful armed coup in Australian history. The illegal rum trade continued.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
An Eora warrior some believe to be Pemulwuy, fishing from a canoe. Wikimedia

13. The frontier wars during early British settlement

Australia was populated by numerous aboriginal tribes when the British arrived, and they resisted the colonization of their lands in a manner similar to what occurred in North America. Fighting along the frontiers began in 1795, when Dharug warriors attacked farms and settlements along the Hawkesbury River. Clans of the Eora tribe attacked settlers in the areas of Parramatta and the Georges River around the same time. Garrisons were established by soldiers of the New South Wales Corps and subsequent British troops as the settlements pushed further inland. In 1801, Governor King authorized the shooting on sight of aborigines in several frontier regions.

Governor King also issued an order the same year for the capture of an Eora warrior named Pemulwuy, with a reward offered whether the native was dead or alive. Pemulwuy was a leader of clans fighting against the British encroachment who had been previously captured while wounded and escaped from custody. Governor King believed that the Eora were the agitators and chief cause of the hostility against the British. Pemulwuy was killed in 1802. His head was preserved in spirits and sent to Sir Joseph Banks. Another leader, Pemulwuy’s son Tedbury, took up the cause of his father. Frontier fighting continued throughout the period of colonization.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Australian aborigines were ill-prepared to deal with the incursions upon the land they occupied. Wikimedia

14. There were similarities between colonization of America and Australia regarding the native tribes

In Australia, as they had in America, the British found some native tribes hostile, while others were willing for a time to ally themselves with them. The native clans which supported the British did so to obtain more lands for their own use. Nearly all eventually returned to hostility against the settlers. As in America, as the settlements pushed inland land was cleared for farming. The farms destroyed the food sources of the natives. The natives responded by raiding the farms and settlements. Both sides used brutal tactics and conducted massacres of the other.

When the British settlements crossed over the Blue Mountains into the central plains of Australia, they were attacked by warriors from the Wiradjuri tribe. It led to the Bathurst War, a conflict in which the natives used mostly guerrilla tactics. Their methods were dictated by their lack of firearms. Fighting between settlers and natives changed the methods and deployment of the British troops. Over time, mounted infantry units were created for superior mobility, and rifles gradually replaced muskets. Some convicts chose to escape and join the natives in their resistance to the British settlements. The fighting continued throughout 19th century, and even well into the 20th in some areas.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
By the mid-19th century British colonies covered most of the continent of Australia. Wikimedia

15. The British opened other colonies, leading to other conflicts

In 1803 a British settlement was established in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). A military attachment was sent in response to reported French exploration of the area, and the colony was quickly peopled by free settlers and convicts. The following year it was split into separate counties, Cornwall and Buckingham. Neither maintained friendly relations with the natives they encountered very long. As in so many other examples throughout history, the European expansion threatened the way of life of the natives, destroyed their traditional food sources, and ignored their customs and spiritual beliefs. The settlers of Van Diemen’s land needed pasture for sheep and cattle, and they simply took it.

The result was the Black War, which was fought for nearly a decade between the settlers and the natives and left over two hundred British settlers and soldiers dead. Between 600 and 900 natives were killed in the conflict. It wasn’t entirely over land that the attacks on settlers were launched in the early days of the conflict. Convicts frequently “escaped” temporarily, attacking and raping native women, a fact which was admitted more than once by colonial authorities to the Colonial Office in London. It was another way the policy of transporting convicts disrupted the colonies in Australia, leading to difficulties and tragedies for all concerned.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Frontier warfare was a constant during the 19th century in the Australian colonies. Wikimedia

16. The settlement of Western Australia brought conflicts with the natives as well

In 1826, the British established a military garrison in Western Australia on the day after Christmas. They named the new post Frederick Town. The site was selected because it was strategically located on the shipping route between Port Jackson and Great Britain, and was thus of necessity to be denied to other European powers. The British troops establishing the new site were accompanied by convicts brought along to perform the necessary labor. As with so many similar circumstances, at first, the relations between the British and the native inhabitants of the region were cordial.

Soon the natives, the Noongar people, were forced from their traditional lands and food sources. They began to steal settlers’ food and stock, and the settlers in turn defended their property when it was threatened. The pattern thus established was repeated in other areas of Western Australia, and led to conflicts throughout the vast region. Fighting between natives and settlers of Western Australia was still reported in the aftermath of the First World War, in 1920. Throughout, it was marked by singular violence and the conduct of personal vendettas among both settlers and natives, particularly in the northwest region.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Norfolk Island’s penal colony was among the worst in the Australian settlements. Wikimedia

17. Norfolk Island was a penal colony Which suffered several convict uprisings

Norfolk Island was colonized, abandoned, and colonized again, due to its lack of a safe harbor preventing effective communication with the other settlements. A disadvantage for colonization, the lack became a security asset for imprisonment. Escape from the island was considered unlikely. It was established as a penal colony to house the hardest prisoners, those who had committed crimes after their arrival in New South Wales, or exhibited unruly behavior such as refusal to work. Norfolk Island gained the reputation for inhumane confinement of prisoners which was enhanced by several convict uprisings, the first of which occurred in 1826.

About fifty convicts, led by John Goff, overwhelmed their guards, wounding several and killing one with a bayonet. Stealing three boats and supplies, they sailed to Phillip Island. They were quickly recaptured, most of them being returned to Norfolk Island. Goff and two others of the ringleaders were sent to Sydney, where they were tried and hanged. During Goff’s sentencing, the Chief Justice informed the convict, “…your whole life has been one career of crime”. The judge further informed the prisoners that the purpose of the penal colony was to serve as a “place of terror to evil-doers…to repress the mass of crime with which the Colony unhappily abounds”.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Some convicts tried to escape by boat to the Dutch settlements at Coupang. Wikimedia

18. Convict uprisings continued at the Norfolk Island penal colony

In December 1826, 66 convicts being transported to Norfolk Island seized the ship carrying them, holding the crew and their guards’ hostage. They sailed to New Zealand, where the ship was recaptured. 23 of the convicts were sentenced to hang, though only 5 were executed. The rest were returned to the penal colony. In 1830, 11 convicts escaped in a small boat, sailed to Phillip Island, and robbed the supplies of a botanist there. They were then put to sea, and none of them were ever seen or heard from again. It was presumed they drowned, though some of them may have made it to the Dutch settlements.

In 1834, about one hundred convicts mutinied against their guards in an attempt to steal a small vessel and sail to freedom. It failed and thirteen of the convicts were hanged. The repeated attempts to escape and the violence against the guards led to the increasingly harsh treatment of the convicts, as more and more recidivists were sent to the island prison. The harsh treatment and hard men on which it was inflicted made the island a desperate place. In 1844, Joseph Childs was placed in charge of the island. He immediately took steps to remove what few privileges remained for the convicts, and ordered harsher punishments for infractions.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Initially, bushrangers were convicts who escaped to commit crimes from the bush which hid them. Wikimedia

19. The Cooking Pot Uprising of 1846 was the last of the Norfolk Island uprisings

William Westwood was a convict and bushranger (escaped convicts who robbed and committed other crimes while hiding in the bush) who had escaped from several of the penal colonies before being sent to Norfolk Island. More than once he felt the whip, being given 100 lashes on two occasions while at Van Diemen’s Land. At Norfolk Island he nursed a growing grudge as Joseph Childs removed the few privileges the convicts enjoyed; private garden plots, days of leisure as a reward for good behavior, and the allowance for the convicts to cook their own meals.

Childs ordered the cooking utensils in the convicts’ possession confiscated. Westwood responded by inciting a riot, using the utensils as weapons as they overpowered the guards. Several of the convict guards and other prison officials and workers were killed in the uprising. When it was brought under control by troops dispatched from Government House, the prisoners were sent to their cells and armed guards patrolled the common areas. 13 men, including Westwood, were charged with the murders of the men killed in the riot. All were hanged. Joseph Childs was relieved of his duties and replaced following a government investigation.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Australia’s bushrangers were the cousins of America’s western outlaws. Wikimedia

20. Bushrangers became a part of Australian folklore, similar to American outlaws of the Old West

Bushranger was first used as a term to define convicts which escaped into the Australian bush, from whence they robbed and stole in order to support themselves. Eventually, the term came to describe the thieves and desperadoes who chose a life of crime. As with the outlaws of the American West, many became legendary figures, though their crimes were often violent and brutal. Dan Morgan, for example, was a thief, kidnapper, and murderer who terrorized towns and settlements, robbing houses, businesses, and travelers in several areas within New South Wales.

The Clarke brothers worked in the southern goldfields in the 1860s, though they didn’t dig for gold. They were responsible for more than 70 robberies and several murders (including one of their own gang members). Their career led to the passage of legislation which made it legal for any citizen to shoot a bushranger without any questions or attempt first to disarm them. The brothers, John and Tom, were eventually captured and hanged after a trial which was completed in less than one day. The bushrangers became a romantic part of Australian history and folklore, though in reality most of them were brutal murderers and unrepentant thieves.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
The Catholic Church was suppressed in Australia despite the large population of Irish Catholics. Wikimedia

21. Freedom of religion was not extended to convicts in the early Australian colonies

About one-third of the convicts transported to Australia were from Ireland, some convicted of crimes, and some sent without trial for taking part in seditious activities. Many of them were Catholic. Upon arrival in New South Wales, Irish Catholics were compelled to attend Church of England services. Children of Catholics were raised as Protestants. The first Catholic priests arrived in New South Wales as convicts themselves, found by British authorities as having taken part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. One of the first three priests to arrive in the colony was Father James Dixon.

Father Dixon arrived in the colony in 1800. In April 1803, Governor King granted Father Dixon partial emancipation and permission for the priest to celebrate Mass. The first Mass said in Australia occurred on May 15, 1803. The permission was rescinded following the uprising of Irish convicts in 1804, though Father Dixon attempted to persuade the convicts to submit during that event. King returned to the practice of compulsory attendance of all convicts at Church of England services, though Dixon and other priests continued to perform Catholic baptisms and administered the Sacraments.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Squatters became men of wealth and influence in the Australian colonies. Wikimedia

22. The term squatter changed from a derogatory description to a laudatory

When the First Fleet arrived in Australia all of the lands to be colonized belonged to the British Crown. Grants of land to settlers were made by the Royal Governor, an appointee of the Crown. As subsequent colonies were authorized, they too consisted of lands owned by the Crown, controlled by Royal Governors. Lands which were occupied by settlers, especially pastoral lands, without title to the land led to the settlers being called squatters. The practice grew as the colonies grew, with large tracts occupied, or used, without title. Eventually, squatters gained title to the lands through unchallenged occupation or use.

Some squatters gained control and eventual ownership of large estates, becoming among the wealthiest in the colonies. By the mid-1830s the negative connotations of the word shifted to referring to one of the higher classes, in terms of wealth and social status. In the mid-19th century, government authorities began licensing and regulating squatters on Crown land. The growing number of wealthy (and thus politically influential) squatters led to them being called as a class the squattocracy. Arguably the most famous of all Australian songs, Waltzing Matilda, referred to a squatter, and the term remains in use as a description of a large landowner, especially in rural areas.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
The aborigines of Australia were devastated by contact with the British settlers, as were the natives of North America. Wikimedia

23. The aboriginal people were annihilated by colonial settlement

When the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay in the late 18th century, approximately a quarter of a million aboriginal peoples lived on the Australian continent. By 1920, according to most estimates, there were roughly 60,000. Some historians and other observers have referred to the reduction of the population as a genocide. There were numerous clashes and massacres of native peoples during the colonization of Australia, as well as similar brutal events imposed on the settlers. The number of settlers killed during the period, many of them convicts performing forced labor, were usually not mentioned during discussions of genocide in the colonies.

The vast majority of the natives who died succumbed to disease, not the bullets and knives of settlers and soldiers. With no natural immunity to diseases such as smallpox and measles, epidemics swept through native villages and settlements. Nomadic peoples carried infectious diseases throughout the continent, and ineffective medical practice ensured they were fatal, especially to the elderly and the very young. As in the United States, the forced removal of natives from the lands on which they had hunted and roamed was the result of expansion into the hinterlands, and contact between colonists and natives was inevitable.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
The majority of the convicts deported to Australia found new and ultimately better lives there. Wikimedia

24. Many convicts created new and successful lives in the Australian colonies

Beginning in 1788, and continuing until 1868, well over 150,000 convicts were transported from Great Britain to the colonies. Some, though classified as convicts, arrived without ever having been convicted of anything. Irish who participated in the rebellions against British rule, or who were merely suspected of supporting the rebellions, were transported without trial. Many others were hardened criminals, under the sentence of death, commuted in exchange for transportation. Depending on where they were sent to in the colonies, the conditions they encountered were relatively easy or unremittingly harsh. Many escaped to take up a life of crime in the colonies.

But many did not, completed their sentences, and remained in the colonies to build a new life. Arriving under a commuted sentence of death did not necessarily mean the convict was a hardened criminal. In Great Britain, in the late 18th century 225 crimes carried the death penalty. One could be hanged for a crime such as staying in a Gypsy camp for more than a month. A child between the ages of 7 and 14 could receive the death penalty for “exhibiting malice”. For the majority of the convicts transported to Australia, the sentence was an opportunity for a new life, and they made the most of it in their new homeland.

Australia in the 19th Century was a Dangerous Place
Alexander Pearce went from a shoe thief to murderer and cannibal during his stay in Australia. Wikimedia

25. At least one escapee resorted to cannibalism

Alexander Pearce was sentenced in Ireland for transportation, after being found guilty of stealing six pairs of shoes. In 1822 he escaped, with seven companions, from the penal colony on Van Diemen’s Land. The group was soon starving, and two weeks into the escape they killed one of their party, selected by lot, to feed the remainder. Gradually the party was reduced to two, Pearce and another escapee, and Pearce succeeded in distracting his partner sufficiently to allow him to be killed. Pearce remained on the run for another three months, joining a group of sheep thieves and another of bushrangers, before he was finally captured.

Though he confessed his cannibalism his captors did not believe his story, and he was returned to the penal colony. Within a year he escaped again, this time in the company of one fellow prisoner. He was recaptured ten days later, with parts of his former partner in his pockets. He again confessed, and he was tried for the murder and cannibalism and hanged in Hobart in July, 1824. Though most of the convicts who arrived in Australia found new opportunities, others simply found new victims for their crimes, as well as new ways of committing them.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Matra, James Mario”. Alan Frost, Australian Dictionary of Biography. 2005. Online

“The First Fleet: the real story”. Alan Frost. 2012

“Memorandums by James Martin: An Astonishing Escape from Early New South Wales”. Edited by Tim Causer. 2018

“Redcoats to Cams: A History of Australian Infantry 1788-2001”. Ian Kuring. 2004

Castle Hill Rebellion”. Article, National Museum of Australia. Online

Newcastle – The Making of an Australian City”. James Cairns Docherty. 1983

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“The Remote Garrison: The British Army in Australia 1788-1870”. Peter Stanley. 1986

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“Australia’s Most Notorious Bushrangers”. Lauren Smit, Australian Geographic. October 23, 2014. Online

Catholics in Australia”. Article, Church in Australia History. Online

“Squatting laws and being a ‘legal squatter’ are still a thing in 2018 – here’s why”. Nick Sas and Lily Mayers, ABC News (Australia). October 31, 2018

“The Unfortunate Irish Exiled to Australia”. Matthew Calfe, Irish Central. July 10, 2015. Online

“A real life horror story of the Irish cannibal who terrorized Australia”. Staff, Irish Central. October 4, 2018. Online