First published in The Australian 23 January 2010

Most Australians nominate 'egalitarianism' as a key value of our society. We are sure it exists, yet we struggle to describe what we mean.

Outsiders have not found it difficult. In the 1920s, visiting novelist, D.H. Lawrence wrote,  'There was really no class distinction. There was a difference of money and of "smartness". But nobody felt better than anybody else, or higher; only better off. And there is all the difference in the world between feeling better than your fellow man, and merely feeling better-off.'

How did Australian society achieve this unique composition?  I believe its roots lie in the convict era and we have never been able to describe it because, traditionally, we lacked detail about that time.

Our ignorance was compounded by scorn that a penal colony could give rise to such distinctive equality.  In 1958 when Russel Ward, an historian of the 'Old Left' made this claim in his book The Australian Legend  he was attacked by young historians of the 'New Left' for whom class shaped everything. But, fifty years on, the New Left is old and, in the intervening years, research in the convict archives has proved Ward right.

The first major contributor to Australia's egalitarianism was the culture the prisoners brought with them.  My research into convicts' crimes in Britain revealed our founders were defiantly unrepentant, making a virtue of necessity by boasting about their crimes and ridiculing anyone who appeared self-righteous. In the 1820s, surgeon Peter Cunninham who made several voyages on convict ships wrote 'Thieves generally affect to consider all the rest of mankind equally criminal with themselves... It is their constant endeavour to reduce everyone to the same level with themselves.'  This levelling attitude was bolstered by the presence on nearly every ship of a lawyer, or doctor or architect, sometimes a couple of merchants, even the occasional clergyman - middleclass people rendered equal by the criminal conviction.

In crowded, hierarchical Britain, the sceptical criminal ethos was scattered through society and had no broad influence. It is our good fortune that Britain put all its bad eggs in one basket, which reinforced their levelling instinct and enabled them to create a community in their own image.

In Australia, events conspired to reinforce the wistful egalitarianism of transported  criminals.

Most startling to people used to being disregarded outcasts, was Governor Phillip's order in 1788 that rations in the starving settlement were to be shared equally regardless of rank. By this, Phillip made it clear that the humanity of the most lowly convict was as important as his own. Furthermore, he conferred value on the prisoners in their own eyes as well as others.  The significance they placed on Phillip's decision can be judged by its long-lasting effects.  Evidence exists that the practice of giving everyone equal worth and sharing equally was cherished from Phillip's day. The convicts made it the pattern for how Australians related to each other.

For instance, by the 1830s when their master shortchanged the convicts' rations, the men implemented an egalitarian practice which took care of everyone. Bushranger Martin Cash reported, 'I have seen meat for forty men weighed off in a lump, which then had to be divided into individual shares by the men themselves... all of whom shared alike. I believe it to be a fair representation of nearly all others throughout the colony.'

Cash was right. It was not an isolated example. Out on a reconnaissance with Major Mitchell, sharing freezing conditions on a mountaintop in NSW, five convicts in a scouting party divided the remaining ration of one of their number into five equal, if tiny, portions. It got them through the night until they reached the depot next day.

The enduring nature of Phillip's decision was on display in Japanese camps during WWII where the Australian practice of sharing resources regardless of rank is well-documented.  We can see the same influence today in the community consensus that our government should always provide a 'safety net' for the less fortunate.

These qualities in our society are not accidental. They arise from our past experience.

Another factor in developing Australia's egalitarianism was the sparse information which the British government sent here about its transportees. For over thirty years, colonial authorities managed the penal colonies with only the date of the convicts' trial and length of sentence. Details of their crime were not provided until the mid-1820s. In the vacuum, a culture developed of judging people by their character and behaviour here rather than by their background. This suited the prisoners, many of whom arrived here sporting a tatoo which read:  "Speak of me as you find."  What began inadvertently became a defining characteristic of our society. In the 1850s it was evident again when an ex-convict digger displayed the slogan 'Live and let live' above his goldfields business.

In Australia, the traditional markers of birth, or education, wealth or religion were not the passports to status that they were in Britain even after a later influx of educated middleclass migrants. In the 1870s, novelist Anthony Trollope was intrigued that  'Men are constantly hired without any "character" but what they give themselves; and the squatters find from experience that the men are able to do [what they claim]'

Try as they might in the early years, the 'authorities' never succeeded in bending the convicts entirely to their will. Sheer weight of numbers combined with the obstreperous nature of the transportees meant the penal colonies had to be largely a co-operative venture with the prisoners. Local society was far more fluid than envisaged by policymakers in London.

From 1788, individual relationships broke down what elsewhere would have been ranks of power and status. Officers and convict women became lovers. 'Infatuated soldiers' from the other ranks settled here with their convict partners when the original guard returned to Britain. In NSW, a notorious pickpocket became Superintendent of Convicts. Prisoners and ex-prisoners became policemen, soldiers in the NSW Corps, farmers on their own land, householders. Many disregarded instructions to do what they wished. James Ruse, for instance, successfully farmed for the government, then dropped his co-operative facade and led a band of convicts and emancipists to farm at the Hawkesbury without authority. Court-martialled soldiers transported as convicts also blurred discrepancies of power and class: deals were done and liberties taken because so often the gaolers found common ground with the people they guarded.

British expectations of hierarchy, control and orderliness were turned upside down. Each boatload of newly arrived prisoners was confronted with a society that lacked the traditional barriers of class and privilege. They could see that their own kind were among the police constables, the scourgers, the ships' crews and military guards, the clerks and employers, the pastoralists and squatters, the wealthy as well as the poor. Convicts and emancipists intended to keep it that way.

In the approximately thirty years between the First Fleet and the arrival of free settlers in any significant numbers, the colonists became possessive about the society they had created. Traditionally we have been led to believe that Australians fear foreigners but examination of our convict years reveals that 'foreign' had nothing to do with it.  The convicts feared being overwhelmed by the British class system which would return them to outcast status. They waged a relentless campaign that forced free migrants to take on the local ethos. "New chums", they called them. Or more insultingly 'Self-imported devils."  This 'colonization' process which could often be harsh or even cruel to newcomers was well-known at the time. James Macarthur commented in 1837, 'They feel the colony is theirs by rights, and the emigrant settlers are interlopers upon the soil.'

Most free settlers were from the same socioeconomic group as the prisoners and although sometimes quite ruthlessly indoctrinated, they conformed to fit in. Middle class settlers bitterly resented the attitudes of the locals. In 1834 George Bennett wrote: 'It is well known that free emigration is detested by most of the convict party, and a wealthy individual of this class once remarked, 'What have the free emigrants to do here? The colony was founded for us. They have no right here.' Twenty years later, Reverend John West declared resentfully  'A community of little more than half a century old cannot be entitled to denounce Englishmen as foreigners or to complain that strangers usurp the rights of the country born.'

Another contributor to egalitarianism was work practices and attitudes that sprang from the power the prisoners possessed when the government needed their help to put the colony on a sustainable footing. Many continued throughout the convict era even after the system tightened.

It was thirty-two years before a barracks was built in Sydney to house the convicts. Until other accommodation was built prisoners lived in their own houses where they developed private lives and private possessions. They operated businesses in their homes.  Their households provided board and lodgings and in many cases, employment, for later convict arrivals.

Being assigned to work for one of their own kind was a major contributor to our democratic culture. Throughout the penal era, convicts were assigned to employers who had themselves been prisoners, some of whom were wealthy which continued the levelling ashore which began on the convict ships. In 1819, when Commissioner Bigge investigated the penal colonies, he found that many ex-convict employers shared their living arrangements with their convict servants and maintained 'little if any Distinction' between them'.

Feisty women convicts played their part in social levelling. The records are littered with examples of women acting with fine disregard for the master/servant relationship or a discrepancy of power. Some insulted their employers' social status, claiming it was less than their servant was used to. Others took more direct action. A woman was punished for a physical tug-of-was with her employer. Another who was assigned to a laundry business run by ex-convicts dunked her master's head in a bucket of water.

In Governor Phillip's day the convicts announced that they would 'sooner perish in the woods' than be obliged to work regular hours, nor anything like a full day. They demanded task work instead. This meant that once the daily task was completed, they were allowed free time to earn money, plant their gardens, play or wander as they chose.' Many were still working under the task system thirty years later.

Initially, convicts were paid wages only for extra work. By the early 1820s however, pastoralists were obliged to pay their convict workers a wage set by Government regulation. When this policy changed in 1823, many masters continued to pay wages as an incentive and the practice faded slowly. The provision sugar or tobacco as incentives became entrenched in the system of convict management. Sometimes, if these were not provided prisoners went on strike.

The convicts recognised that withdrawal of labour gave them power and used it more frequently and effectively than we have realised.  Combined with a refusal to defer, a disregard of rules and a determination to do only what suited them, it could leave even a commandant with arbitrary power at his wits end. At the remote punishment settlement of  Wellington Valley in the 1820s, the Commandant despaired about what he called 'the  insolence and treachery' of the prisoners. With embarassment, he conceded,  'It must appear strange that from the civil and military situation I had held for some years before, I should now find it difficult to manage a few convicts.'

Through experience, the prisoners developed a technique of enforcing their wishes from below which extended eventually to the style of leadership they were prepared to accept. One of the clearest examples can be found in the way convict members of Major Mitchell's exploratory party treated his Assistant Surveyor Granville Stapylton, who was the blacksheep of an aristocratic family and expected deference and obedience. By comparison, Mitchell treated the men according to how they performed on the spot and, in return, they supported him. In the 1840s squatter Arthur Hodgson described what was required to get the best from his convict workforce when he said 'They must be led not driven. They must be humoured not ordered; for knowing their own worth they will only exert themselves [according to] the treatment they receive.'

Those who believe that being a convict in Australia was the equivalent of slavery maintain that slave colonies in the West Indies prove the discrepancy in numbers in Australia between a  tiny middle class and a large convict population did not eliminate class. This point demonstrates the danger of applying a remote British Empire yardstick to Australia, carrying within it assumptions that are the product of the dominant class in Britain. More than one group participates in the creation of class. It is not simply the product of beautiful Georgian houses, wealth and carriages and lots of sheep. Attitudes count. Self-assertion of class is meaningless, its power circumscribed, if it is not accepted by those excluded from the privileged group.  And in Australia it never was.

Evidence for the rejection of class is scattered through the records in a variety of ways, in different situations, at different times and locations.  Free settlers did not displace the ethos developed in Governor Phillip's time and sustained thereafter by the intense colonization which locals inflicted on newcomers. Using humiliation and mockery, convict society ensured that social class designators were kept at bay. In Van Diemen's Land, James Boyce gave one example of many describing how  "[Bushranger] Matthew Brady targeted the pretensions of the free. settlers.  Brady made the aspiring gentry assume the roles of their servants. He also gaoled soldiers in their own cells. The enormous popular support Brady received, and the speed with which his exploits became legend, reflected how deeply this challenge to the pretensions of the elite resonated in popular culture."

It was no different on the mainland.

From the earliest times, the prisoners pressured otherwise middleclass people to act as if they were equals. In the 1830s, Martin Cash described how he would offer a cup of tea because  "... at this time any gentleman travelling through the bush was not above sharing our hospitality, it being a general understanding through the colony

This pressure for classlessness continued after the convict era. In 1902, when Henry Montgomery returned to England from his post as Bishop of Tasmania, it was very clear he had absorbed the enforced democracy of the ex-convict community. Writing a manual for clergymen sailing to the colonies, he told them 'Make sure to clean your own boots and learn to shoe a horse. Don't use "the affected voice or manner". And never speak about "the lower classes". Australians don't like it.'

Observing the same phenomenon in 1974, author Craig McGregor wondered 'why the wealthy feel under some pressure to be accepted by ordinary working Australians rather than the other way round?'  In the 21st century, the same pressure - its source unrecognised - makes the Prime Minister feel obliged to sit beside his driver.

Dig deep in our penal history and you will find the underlying dynamics of Australian society.

For much of the penal era, free settlers could not come to the convict colonies without permission which delayed the creation of a middle class. The vacuum allowed the prisoners' ethos to consolidate. Even after free settlers began to arrive from the 1820s, they were still substantially outnumbered by emancipist families and their descendants not just for decades but, I would argue, throughout the nineteenth century. The free settler figures have always been fudged because later generations wanted to promote the idea that convicts were insigificant. Opponents of transportation promoted the idea they had few descendants. 'Most died childless' proclaimed John West who led this group. He also originated the idea that the goldrush had subsumed the remaining convicts, something many Australians still believe.

The mobility of convicts around Australia has been underestimated since the threat of their 'contamination' was a key plank in West's scaremongering.  With much hysteria, Victoria and South Australia passed legislation to keep them out. As late as 1870 Anthony Trollope was required to get a passport from Western Australia which certified he had never been a prisoner. Without it South Australia and Victoria would not allow him to land.

In this as everything else, the convicts proved adept at outwitting the state. Even before transportation ended, thousands of prisoners, often with families, moved around the continent following gold or escaping the stigma of convictism that could occur in the community where they served their sentence. Thankfully for us, they took their insistence on an egalitarian culture with them.

copyright Babette Smith 2010.

This article is based on my 2009 Russel Ward Lecture at University of New England.