Long after the First and Second fleets, convicts continued to be transported all over Australia.
Tasmania – or Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then known – became one of the most heavily populated convict settlements in Australia, with around 75,000 convicts arriving between 1803 and 1853. Tasmania’s most infamous convict was Alexander Pearce, described by The Wellington Times in 1891 as ‘a man of horror and crime’.
Pearce was born in Ireland in 1790, and was sentenced in 1818 to seven years of deportation for stealing six pairs of shoes. After his arrival in Tasmania in February 1821 Pearce twice attempted escape, but his most infamous attempt was made in September 1822, after he was exiled to the most hellish and remote spot of all the British colonies – Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s western coast.
In September 1822, Pearce and seven other convicts were cutting pine logs when they decided to band together and make a run for it. They had boldly planned to commandeer a boat and sail out of the harbour towards the Pacific Ocean and freedom, but were forced to flee into the surrounding rainforests on what turned out to be a nine-week, 225-kilometre crawl through some of the world’s most brutal natural terrain. After eight days of privation, three of Pearce’s companions turned back to face whatever punishment awaited them at Macquarie, but the remaining five continued. According to an 1891 report in The Wellington Times, when they failed to stave off starvation with wild berries, the men ‘took off their jackets made of kangaroo skin [and] roasted and devoured them’, too.
But after 15 days without food, the remaining men began to eat more than berries: they began to eat one another. By the end of their trek, Pearce had outlived all of his companions but was soon captured by the authorities. So grim was his tale of cannibalism and flight through the wilderness that, at first, the authorities didn’t believe him. It was only when he turned once more to cannibalism after yet another escape that he was sentenced to death and hanged in 1824 – only four years after his arrival in Van Diemen’s Land.
Convict settlements today
Today, many former convict settlements are heritage-listed sites that provide valuable insights into a time when convict labour was seen as a reasonable solution to resource and labour shortages, despite the hardships many had already faced on their journey by sea. Convict labour is responsible for more than 3000 remaining historic sites around Australia, including roads, bridges, lighthouses, military buildings and prisons. Some of the most well known are Hyde Park Barracks in New South Wales, Fremantle Prison in Western Australia, and Port Arthur in Tasmania. And while there are undoubtedly bloodcurdling and unbelievable tales among these stories of forced migration,many are humbling reminders that the road leading to Australia’s current justice system was never smooth.