Thursday, 18 December 2014

Australia: Pre-famine Irish emigration

The First Fleet settled at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 and NSW became a British penal colony. Convicts greatly outnumbered free settlers and most prisoners were transported for terms of 7 or 14 years, but some went for life. [1] The new colony was a curious hybrid: a military colony that was run by naval officers but with a civil justice system largely because this was the system under which convicts had been sentenced. Initially settlement was confined to the new colony of NSW. VDL was settled in 1803 as a military outpost of the Sydney prison colony largely to limit French interest in NSW’s southern approaches. [2] Between 1788 and the termination of the system in 1868, Australia received over 160,000 convicts, approximately 40,000 of whom sailed from Ireland. A sense of belonging to a new nation was encouraged in 1817 when Macquarie recommended adopting the name ‘Australia’ for the entire continent instead of New Holland. Continued colonial expansion[3] resulted in the separation of VDL from NSW in 1825 followed, four years later in 1829 with the addition of Western Australia. There was further subdivision of NSW to create South Australia in 1836[4], the genesis of the Port Phillip district from 1835 into Victoria in 1851[5] and in 1859 the northern parts of NSW became Queensland.[6]

The history of Irish settlement in Australia has been called ‘ambiguous’ and ‘often shadowy’. Because of the distance involved and the logistics and cost of the journey, Australian emigration did not develop as a mass movement until the 1820s. Unlike the United States after independence in 1776, some travelled to the southern hemisphere as convicts but the transportation system was progressively withdrawn from 1840 onwards. There were government-assisted schemes such as the emigration of workhouse inmates to Australia. Emigrants who arranged their own travel to Australia were generally better off than those who emigrated from Ireland to North America and Australia attracted a larger proportion of emigrants who had the resources to purchase land or set themselves up in business.[7]

Legislation permitting transportation from Britain to NSW was passed in 1784 and the Irish Act followed two years later. The Irish Statute provided for ‘removal to some of His Majesty’s plantations in America, or to such place out of Europe’ while the British legislation did not name the destination, merely saying ‘beyond the sea, either within His Majesty’s dominions or elsewhere outside His Majesty’s Dominion’s’. This difference appears to have allowed transportation to Australia from England to start in 1787, while there were problems with the Irish Act. Further legislation passed in 1790, designed ‘to render the transportation of such felons and vagabonds more easy and effectual’ and this resolved matters.

When a transportation sentence was handed down, the prisoner was normally returned to the local gaol. Southern prisoners were housed in the city gaol at Cork while those brought to Dublin were mostly placed in Newgate and Kilmainham gaols. The removal of the male convicts to hulks in 1822 meant that conditions at the Cork depot improved considerably.[8] From 1817, a holding prison was provided in Cork to house the convicts and in 1836 a depot was provided in Dublin for female convicts, who had previously not been segregated. Temporary depots were opened, prior to the opening of Mountjoy Convict Prison, at Smithfield (Dublin) and Spike Island in Cork Harbour, for male convicts. Convicts often had to wait up to two years before they were actually transported to Australia.

As soon as a ship arrived in Australia, it notified the port if there were male or female convicts on board. The port authorities inspected the ship and the convicts. The convicts were brought up on deck and inspected by the colonial secretary. Within a few days they were interviewed and asked about their qualifications and previous work history. The convicts were usually assigned soon after this and there was a demand for farm workers and mechanics. The more dangerous prisoners were usually sent to road gangs of up to 300 men guarded by the military. The assignment system had many critics who felt it was corrupt, and too severe. However, convicts from Ireland, especially if they were labourers, were often better clothed and fed than the poor back home. [9]

Convicts only accounted for 12 per cent of the Irish to settle in Australia in the nineteenth century but their influence in shaping subsequent migration from Ireland to Australia far outweighed their numbers. During the 62 years of transportation from Ireland to eastern Australia and VDL, O’Farrell suggests that approximately 40,000 Irish men and women (29,466 men and 9,104 women) were transported to Australia and many more followed their loved ones as free settlers to a new life in the colony. Of those sent from England, estimates suggest that about 8,000 were Irish born and perhaps a similar number of Irish descent. For example, Thomas Wade wrote to his wife in 1826 encouraging her to come to NSW as a free settler and stated that he has permission for her to join him.[10] In 1839, James Stewart was transported for fourteen years for burglary while his father was convicted of receiving stolen goods. His mother, Mary Stewart, residing in Omagh, County Tyrone, requested a free passage to NSW.[11] Peter Cunningham commented in the late-1820s

The Irish convicts are more happy and contented with their situation on board than the English, although more loth to leave their country, even improved as the situation is for a great body of them is by being thus removed...while the burden of another was ‘Many a Mac in your town, if he only knew what the situation of a convict was, would not be long in following my example!...I was never better off in my life...’[12]

O’Farrell estimates about 1.5% of these were unambiguously sent out as political offenders or participants in rebellion or conspiracy, with the great bulk of these coming in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion. [13] If crimes of agrarian discontent and social disaffection are included under the heading of ‘political crimes’, then the proportion of Irish political transportees rises to about 20%. The great majority of Irish convicts were, therefore, sent to Australia largely for petty crimes. John Ahern, for example, was tried at Limerick in April 1849 and sentenced to 15 years transportation for cow stealing[14] while earlier that year Pat Ahern was tried at Cork was transported for 7 years for stealing a cloak.[15] Certainly United Irishmen, Young Ireland and Fenian leaders were transported, but both in Ireland and Australia the myth that many, if not most convicts were sentenced for political offences is unfounded.

Transportation from Ireland to Australia effectively came to an end in 1853. The last ship to carry convicts directly from Ireland to Australia was the Phoebe Dunbar that sailed from Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) near Dublin and arrived in Western Australia on 30 August 1853 and as far as is known, nobody convicted of a crime committed in Ireland was transported to Australia between 1853 and 1868. The sentence of transportation was abolished in July 1857 under an Act of that year, but the Act allowed for convicts sentenced to penal servitude to be sent ‘beyond the seas’. By this means, transportation continued from England until 1868. In 1868, 63 Irish Fenians who had been convicted in Ireland but imprisoned in England were transported from England. They arrived in Western Australia on 9 January 1868 on board the Hougoumont, the last convict transport ship to sail from England to Australia.[16]


[1] Keneally, Thomas, The Commonwealth of Thieves: the story of the founding of Australia, (Chatto and Windus), 2006. See also, Bernard, Michel, La colonisation penitentiaire en Australie 1788-1868, (Harmattan), 1999.

[2] Foster, Colin, France and Botany Bay: The Lure of a Penal Colony, (Melbourne University Press), 1996, considers French interest in Australian settlement and its influence on the development of their own penal policy. Giblin, W. R., The Early History of Tasmania, Vol. 2, 1804-1828, (Melbourne University Press), 1939, Shaw, A.G.L., (ed.), and West, John, The History of Tasmania, (Angus & Robertson), 1971, ibid, Robson, Lloyd, A History of Tasmania: Vol. I, Van Diemen’s Land from the Earliest Times to 1855, pp. 137-315 and Boyce, James Van Diemen’s Land, (Black Inc.), 2008, pp. 63-250 provides material on VDL’s development.

[3] For discussion of this territorial expansion, see, ibid, Brown, Richard, Three Rebellions, pp. 120-136.

[4] South Australia never accepted convicts directly from England but accepted ex-convicts from other colonies. In the early days of settlement, South Australia was plagued with problems attributed to ‘bolters’ or escaped convicts from the penal settlements in the east of the continent. A significant, but unknown number of ex-convicts also chose to settle in South Australia.

[5] Ibid, Shaw A.G.L., A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, is an excellent study of the period to 1851.

[6] Evans, Raymond A History of Queensland, (Cambridge University Press), 2007, pp. 51-77, considers the creation of Queensland in 1859.

[7] On the Irish in Australia, see Hogan, J.F., The Irish in Australia, (Ward & Downey), 1887, reprinted (Echo Library), 2006, McConville, Chris, Croppies, Celts & Catholics. The Irish in Australia, (Edward Arnold), 1987, O’Farrell, Patrick, The Irish in Australia: 1788 to the Present, (University of New South Wales Press), 1987, 1993, 2000, Ronayne, Jarlath, The Irish in Australia: rogues and reformers, First Fleet to Federation, (Viking Press), 2002 and Jupp, James, (ed.), The Australian People: an Encyclopaedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, (Cambridge University Press), 2001, pp. 443-486.

[8] Elizabeth Fry inspected the state of Irish gaols in 1826; see comments in Fry, Elizabeth and Gurney, Joseph John, Report addressed to the Marquess Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, respecting their late visit to that country, London, 1827, pp. 21-22. She was not convinced, however, of the need for such depots, and seemed more in favour of the English method of bringing the convicts straight from the county and city gaols to the transport ships for embarkation.

[9] Ibid, Shaw, Alan, Convicts and the colonies and Robson, L.L., The Convict Settlers of Australia, (Melbourne University Press), 1976, examine the process and the participants. Costello, Con, Botany bay: the story of the convicts transported from Ireland to Australia 1791-1853, (Mercier Press), 1988 generally considers Irish transportation while Robson, Lloyd, ‘The origins of the women convicts sent to Australia 1787-1852’, Historical Studies of Australia and New Zealand, Vol. 11, (1963), pp. 43-53 and Robinson, Portia, ‘From Colleen to Matilda’, in Costello, Con, (ed.), Ireland and Australia: Bicentenary Essays 1788-1988, (Gill & Macmillan), 1986, pp. 96-110 look at the role of women.

[10] National Archives of Ireland: PPC 3030, letter dated 8 February 1824.

[11] National Archives of Ireland: FS 1840 18.

[12] Cunningham, Peter, Two Years in New South Wales, 2 Vols. London, 1827, Vol. II, p. 235. Peter Miller Cunningham (1789-1864) was a Scottish naval surgeon who made four voyages to NSW after 1817 as surgeon-superintendent on convict ships without of loss of any of the 600 convicts. See also a favourable review in the Quarterly Review, January 1828, pp. 1-32 and Fitzhardinge, L. F., ‘Cunningham, Peter Miller (1789-1864)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 267-268.

[13] Ibid, O’Farrell, Patrick, The Irish in Australia: 1788 to the Present, pp. 23-24.

[14] National Archives of Ireland: TR 9, P 107.

[15] National Archives of Ireland: TR 8, P 38.

[16] Pickering, Paul, ‘Loyalty and Rebellion in Colonial Politics: The Campaign Against Convict Transportation in Australia’, in Buckner, Phillip A. and Francis, R. D., (eds.), Rediscovering the British world, (University of Calgary Press), 2005, pp. 87-107 is a recent discussion of the end of transportation.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Regionalism and political power: an unresolvable conundrum

One of the casualties of the reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s was the Isle of Ely absorbed within a much extended Cambridgeshire.  While there may have been a logical and administrative case for this, it still rankles with many older residents in the now expunged shire.  Yet even in the Isle there were differences largely between those who regarded themselves as Fen people and those who did not, a distinction based on whether you were a Fen person born and those regarded as ‘foreigners’ (and that included those born in the old shire of Cambridge).  The Fens was not an administrative unit but covered parts of the Isle, Norfolk, smidgeons of Suffolk and Lincolnshire.  The trick is to find a structure that marries individual identity with historical traditions (and myth) and administrative necessities.

This is indicative of the problems involved in creating a regional structure in England—or in fact in Scotland or Wales.  People, even in these days of global social networking and global awareness, still have an intense attachment to ‘their’ localities.  In part this is a consequence of how the English state developed before 1945.  Although that state was already centralised with most political power and decision-making (at least at the level of policy) made in Westminster, how people experienced those policies was mediated through local institutions—face-to-face contact with ‘government’ was through the vestry, parish council, the shire structures rather than with Westminster and declining involvement is politics can be explained by the breakdown in this personal contact with those institutions.  If all key decisions are made in London, why should people really bother about what’s going on in their own localities?  This is reflected in the paltry number of voters in local elections—why bother to vote for something that really has little control over your destinies—and this has had a debilitating effect on national elections with a progressive decline in turnout.  Today, no political party in local or national government has a majority mandate for its actions.  What we are witnessing is the de-democratisation of politics and the creation of technocratic conceptions of government in which elections do not really change anything but essentially tweak policies.

The question is whether an English parliament—for which there is a strong case within a federal structure—or establishing self-governing regions will put the ‘demos’ back into democracy.  If not, then all we will have is another administrative reorganisation that will bring about ‘cosmetic change’—it will seem to address the constitutional concerns of the people (well at least that will be what politicians in Westminster say: ‘we’re listening’!) but all it will do is create another tier of ambitious, self-important and self-obsessed, if well-meaning politicians who lack any real popular legitimacy.  The truth is that we cannot go back to the regionalism of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy or the early-modern notion of the ‘commonweal’—England is no longer a rural, democratic idyll, something that has long been discarded in the dustbin of history.  Yet, for some people at least, nostalgia for a ‘lost past’—that is reality did not exist—lies behind their support for regionalism.  Yes there are differences between the different parts of England—a diversity that should be celebrated—but whether regional constitutional structures resolve those differences rather than magnifying them is a moot point.