Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Katharine Quarmby explores why Britain’s story of transportation – the biggest forced migration in its history – has largely been buried 

Walk towards the River Thames and away from the grand front entrance of the Tate Britain, you come to a grey stone buttress. A modest plaque, the letters faded, states: “Near this site stood Millbank Prison which was opened in 1816 and closed in 1880. This buttress stood at the head of the river steps from which until 1867, prisoners sentenced to transportation embarked on their journey to Australia.”

There is little trace of the prison, also known as Millbank Penitentiary, which once stood here. Now, much of its foundations are hidden underneath the capital’s art gallery. But there was a time when men and women walked chained down the river’s steps and onto longboats to be rowed to ships which would take them on their final journey along the Thames. The river winds down to the seaports where the ships often weighed anchor before they set sail at last to Australia and the convicts left their home country behind them, usually for ever. 

Transportation to mainland Australia and Tasmania – the largest forced migration of English, Irish, Scots and Welsh people ever to take place – is part of our colonial history. Yet it is almost invisible and unmarked in the UK. There are just a few plaques and statues across the UK and in Ireland, in seaports such as Portsmouth and Plymouth and several statues commemorating political dissidents who were transported and mostly were never seen or heard of again. But there is no museum of hulks and transportation to remember this part of our history, although London’s Migration Museum estimates that there are around two million people in the UK with convict history in their families – around one in every 30.  

The National Archives, based at Kew, estimate that around 162,000 British and Irish convicts were transported to mainland Australia and Tasmania between 1787 and 1868, when the practice ended. Clare Anderson, Professor of History at the University of Leicester, ran the Carceral Archipelago project, looking at the states – many of them empires – which made use of transportation. Her work exposes how transportation was used to expand imperial borders and how convicts were used as unfree labour, a form of labour exploitation that had a longer history in European empires than slavery itself. Prof Anderson estimates that the British Empire exported around 376,000 people – making Australia the biggest recipient of British convicts during the period of transportation.

Britain’s history of the practice started in 1618 and then gathered pace as convicts – around 50,000 men, women and children – were sent to America. But, when Britain was defeated in the War of Independence in 1776, the prison hulks – decommissioned ships – used to house convicts on the Thames became severely overcrowded and politicians sought another solution. In 1778, the so-called First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay, now a few kilometres south of Sydney’s business district. The British at this time called Australia ‘Terra Nullis’ – unowned land; a doctrine only overturned in 1992 by five Strait Islander people.

British folk history, such as it is, only faintly remembers that most of those transported were poor men and women, the former mostly convicted of property offences and the latter of prostitution. In fact, very few women out of the 26,000 or so who were transported were actually transported for that reason, with most also convicted of crimes such as theft or robbery. Some 20,000 children, mostly boys, were sent out. 

The ostensible reasons matter because they speak to our dim memory and understanding of transportation. Now, contemporary historians are focusing much more deeply on the real reasons why Britain exiled so many people and a deeper analysis of imperial exile is coming into focus.

Many groups agitating for political change were subjected to transportation. Among them were rural convicts, especially the Swing Rioters from east and southern England from around 1830 onwards, many Chartists from the 1830s and 1840s, Welsh workers protesting labour conditions, and political prisoners and dissidents from Ireland and Scotland. 

Some of these groups were mentioned in E.P. Thompson’s seminal 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class. Writing in the preface, he observed: “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘Utopian’ artisan… from the enormous condescension of posterity… Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.”

But Thompson did not follow the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper or the Swing rioter out to Australia, where so many ended up. There is no mention of transportation in the book’s index or of Australia itself. That erasure encapsulates the British forgetfulness, even on the left, about our transportation history. 

Once people were sent away, forcibly exiled in the largest mass deportation policy from these shores, it was as if they no longer existed. But they did, and many thrived and continued to protest. They did not vanish from history – they vanished from a peculiarly British, insular version of history.


A Forgotten Past

The late Stuart Hall, one of the most incisive observers of British colonial history, observed in The Empire Strikes Back that “empires come and go. But the imagery of the British Empire seems destined to go on forever. The imperial flag has been hauled down in a hundred different corners of the globe. But it is still flying in the collective unconscious.”

Others have also interrogated the British public’s inability – or perhaps reluctance – to talk about the multiple legacies of empire. But it seems particularly apt when looking at the many thousands of people who were transported. 

Up until recently, this also seemed true of our institutions and official bodies, although that is changing. Dr Tim Causer, a senior research associate at University College London, researches the life and thoughts of the reformer Jeremy Bentham, as well as histories of convict transportation, colonial history and crime and punishment. He notes that the “blind spot” of transportation remains neglected in the wider public space, even though it was a major plank of the penal policy of the British and all the other major empires.

“Beyond the Tolpuddle and Scottish Martyrs and the Chartists there really isn’t that much recognition,” he says, while adding that there is more knowledge and folk memory in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. He is also struck by the lack of physical memorialisation of transportation in the UK – a far cry from the vibrant history sector in Australia, where the “convict stain”, as the habit was known of not talking about what was at one time seen as a shameful past, disappeared a long time ago. In its place is a vivid sense of both the history of transportation, and, increasingly, attention to the deep injustices that the British ‘invaders’ (as many Australians now prefer to say) imposed on First Nation Peoples (not just in Australia, of course). 

When I visited in 2018 to research the stories of two young convict women transported in the 1820s, I found a country discussing – and at times even re-enacting – its convict past. I attended the bicentenary commemoration of Parramatta Gaol and what remained of the Female Factory, where women convicts who were not assigned or married were housed in the 1820s and 1830s.

I spoke to local historians with convict roots, many of whom were dressed up in costumes from the 1800s. The writer Thomas Keneally, who is descended from Irish convicts, spoke with fervour about how the English had convicted and transported so many Irish people in particular.

In Tasmania, I visited the well-tended ruins of the Cascades Female Factory with Alison Alexander, President of the Women’s Press, who showed me around the grim former distillery where British and Irish convict women were imprisoned between 1829 and 1855. One in four of the children who were born there died. Alexander is the author of several books looking at the history of the island, women and the long legacy of empire. She and other women have traced their family lineages back to the UK and there is a lively sense of family and island history in Tasmania.

When I ask her why this isn’t replicated in the UK, she wonders whether the “yearning for empire only includes the good bits” as “people want to believe the Empire was benevolent… spreading the benefits of British civilisation around the globe”. “It seems as if the British Empire’s tantalising mystique and glory lingers on… after the Empire itself had gone,” she adds. She also notes that the convict stain seems to have faded as time has gone on in Australia: “Although Australians shunned any mention of convicts until about the 1970s, 1980s, they’re far enough in the past now to be interesting and novel.”

A depiction of the Female Factory at Parramatta

The Politics of Transportation

Many political radicals deemed to be ‘enemies of the state’ – Irish rebels, agricultural workers, industrial protestors – were banished to Australia.  

Tony Moore, Associate Professor of Media at Monash University, charted their history in his book Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868, which was made into a feature-length documentary featuring the singer Billy Bragg and Thomas Keneally.

Since then, Prof Moore has set up and runs a digital history project, ‘Conviction Politics’, which investigates and explores the link between the actions that convicts took to control their unpaid labour and political and social democracy in Australia. He has used convict records to show how the many political prisoners who were transported resisted being exploited. 

Conviction Politics is part of the British Australia Season of work for the British Council and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade this year and next, working with museums, trade unions and universities in both countries. The People’s History Museum in Manchester has launched Conviction Politics in the UK this month, with a panel discussion exploring the story of some of those who were transported.

It includes the stories of Scottish Martyr Thomas Muir; the Newport Chartist uprising; the Young Ireland revolutionaries of 1848; and the first black leader of a British political party, London Chartist leader William Cuffay, whose father was born into slavery. Cuffay was transported for his political activities, lived to be reunited with his wife and to see the last transport ship arrive in his adopted homeland. These are stories of how convict women and men resisted the brutal penal system while advancing democracy and workers’ rights in Australia.

Prof Moore estimates that at least one in every 45 convicts was transported because of their political beliefs, although the proportion could be even higher. Characterising transportation as the “largest involuntary exploitation and export of unfree workers in history”, he says that it is no coincidence that it came off the back of the Enclosures.

“Land hunger in Britain was caused by turbo-charged capitalism – what Max Weber called the disenchantment of the countryside,” he explains. “Then the land hungry of Britain are given the land of the dispossessed in Australia, at the same time as removing the trouble-makers and the ringleaders and putting them to work.”

He is struck by the fact that it is the “educated middle class in Britain who look to civil rights in the US but have forgotten about the relationship to Australia”; that they “remember post war immigration but have forgotten the emigration out”.

Another part of Britain’s colonial amnesia is around the attempted genocide of Indigenous people in Tasmania and the massacres that took place across Australia when First Nation Peoples resisted. As Prof Moore says, “imagine you take the most developed industrialised society on the planet and bring it to the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet and bring them into conflict. It’s not going to end happily”. But, he adds, some of the convicts, particularly the Young Irelanders, “saw commonality between what was happening in Ireland and what was happening with Indigenous people”.

Prof Moore wants to use Conviction Politics to connect all the digital archives together and to create a deeper global understanding of transportation history.


Raising the Dead from Paper

Dr Tim Causer believes that we are barely aware of the connections between the hulks, the penal system and transportation and that “a museum would be quite important”. “This was an enormous movement of people who were forced to move, and many of them left their families behind,” he says. “There is no memorialisation of that.”

Prof Moore too, embraces the idea, sitting alongside his transmedia project to bring the history of transportation to life and connect Britain to Australia at a deeper level: “We want to understand how some of the people who made Britain and Australia safe for democracy sacrificed their lives or freedom for that. We need to remember them and honour them. A Museum of Transportation would be just the ticket.”

I think of the young woman I traced from a stray line in a history book about my Norfolk hometown, a survivor of the horrific trauma of witnessing her mother being staked after death for a suspected crime for which she was never convicted.

I followed her through the historical archives in Norfolk to the Refuge for the Destitute in Hackney, where she met another young woman. They then appeared together at the Old Bailey, the Millbank Penitentiary and at a prison hulk. My search ended with a line from the Superintendent of the Refuge for the Destitute, back to a lawyer in my hometown, saying that the Norfolk girl had been transported to Botany Bay. With that, she disappeared from British history – a poor young woman convicted of grand larceny with her friend and castigated in official records.

In many ways, her crime was to be poor and to resist. By creating a Museum of Transportation, she and others can at last return to British history – and be seen in a different way. 

Katharine Quarmby’s novel, ‘The Low Road’, based on a true story about the transportation of two young women in the 1820s, is forthcoming. Professor Clare Anderson’s book ‘Convicts: A Global History’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in December

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