During early Australian settlement, convicts outnumbered free men and women; Australia was essentially an open-air prison. For more than a century after convict transportation to Australia from Britain ended in 1868, this convict heritage was a point of shame. There were many ugly truths to hide; some convicts had done little more than steal a loaf of bread or a bag of sugar; some were political prisoners; some were falsely accused; and some were only children.
It was also in poor taste to acknowledge that the blood, sweat and tears of convict servitude tamed and cleared the wild land that the early settlers disembarked upon. Convict labour was also responsible for much of Australia’s early built environment. In fact, our convict past is indelibly written into the national identity – it’s estimated that around 20 per cent of modern Australians are descended from convicts.
Australia has lately come to embrace, or at least acknowledge, its chequered history. New understanding of the plight of many convicts has made what was once a stigma into a point of pride, and the source of some of our most gripping historical sagas. Tales of sudden fortune, celebrity outlaws and everything in-between have given rise to dark tourism sites all around the country, where the grim aspects of our past are explored.
It’s also interesting to note that convicts weren’t just free labour, but also a highly profitable trading chip. In times of convict surplus, men would be rewarded with large plots of land in return for putting convicts to work on their property. Surplus or particularly atrocious criminals were condemned to far-off corners, where they were often responsible for constructing the prisons that held them. Several of these prisons are decommissioned but remain open as tourism sites, with well documented and gory histories communicated through displays and tours.
Twenty-five kilometres north-east of Hobart, Richmond Gaol was the first prison built in Australia (1825) that still stands.
To read more on Tasmania’s dark past, check out the Winter 2022 edition of Caravanning Australia!
Image: Port Arthur’s historical site (C) Hype TV.