PostHeaderIcon OUT OF SIGHT

OUT OF SIGHT, the civic heritage of convict transportation

This article originated as a speech to the Independent Scholars of Australia Association (ISAA). It was published in The Australian on 24 January 2009 under the title Safe Harbour .

As historians consider their draft for the national history curriculum, it is important they find a place for close study of the convict era.  Not just the First Fleet.  Not just New South Wales. Australians need to understand there were convicts somewhere on the continent for over eighty years and that, once free, they moved through all states of Australia, a reality with lasting implications for our society

School is the only time for the whole population to absorb and analyse this information yet some reports about the planned curriculum suggest that significant study of Australian history will start from Federation in 1900. Study of the 19th century will be consigned to primary school and taught mainly from the angle of family history. Or simply as an extension of European society.

Let me explain what we will lose if convict history is not given due weight in our schools.

Over and above all else we will lose the ability to understand the origins of our distinctive Australian culture and character. They were hidden long enough by shame about our penal foundations, shame that in the late twentieth century too often transmogrified into derision from those caught in the paradigm created by opponents of transportation.

For the last 150 years the idea that convict foundations were a blot  on Australia's history has shaped political, social and intellectual thought to such an extent it is as though the first sixty - eighty years never existed. The reality and strongly developed ethos of a flourishing convict society is neither remembered nor understood. Its people have been reduced to caricature.  They are 'out of sight', taking with them knowledge of out civic heritage from the transportation era.

Convict society in full flourish -  was careless, rough, exuberant, optimistic and energetic. Humorous.  Blasphemous.  Egalitarian ...everyone had been rendered equal by a criminal conviction... Tolerant - many cultures were in the same boat - literally.  Above all, people were judged only by what they were.  In fact many of the convicts had a tattoo that read - 'Speak of me as you find'.

Some argue - historian John Hirst is to the forefront on this (see The Monthly July 2008) - that if we accept the penal community was not just a slave colony as the stereotype depicts, then it must have been simply a British working class society. Nothing different or distinctive about it. No particular influence from the convicts.

Hirst, for instance, argues that Australian humour is nothing more than ordinary working class British and Irish humour. But research in the actual convict archives, as well as the trials in Britain, proves him wrong.

Firstly, convict humour contains little trace of the good-humoured deference that can be found among law-abiding Britons. Crime made deference irrelevant. A criminal conviction made it unnecessary.

Secondly, unlike their compatriots, the criminals who founded our nation used humour as a weapon. It was the means by which convicts and ultimately their wider community subverted authority, pricked pomposity and 'levelled' any attempt at class barriers.

Thirdly, and more seriously, humour was used by the convicts to hide their fear and misery and vulnerability. For some, humour was a shield to face death. For others, a resource which helped them endure physical and emotional privation.

Given the numerical dominance of emancipist families throughout the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that humour...a distinctive, sardonic, gallows humour became entrenched as a 'typically' Australian characteristic.  And to those who would suggest that free settlers overwhelmed the convict numbers making them irrelevant, I would reply that idea is yet another of the great distortions. Misled by secondary sources, we have failed to recognise that the convicts and their children intermarried with the immigrants in significant numbers.

We owe our pervasive secularism to penal society. Blasphemy flourished in convict Australian. Indeed, over time,  the local preference for inserting a profanity at every second word resulted in "bloody' being described as 'the great Australian adjective'. And why not?  Most of the former prisoners and subsequently their families had little reason to feel grateful to the church.

In Britain it was frequently clerical magistrates (the younger sons of aristocrats) who decided whether to let off an offender with a warning -  or to commit them for trial.  In the colony, it was evangelical clergymen who judged the convicts by middle class standards they could not possibly meet. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was clergymen who led the shaming campaign that declared the convicts a source of depravity and contamination, forcing the former prisoners and their descendants to hide their past.

With that history, the kind of religious underpinning we see so vividly in American culture, could never take root here regardless of what religion it was. The later migrants tried, but they failed to change the attitude that dated back to convict times.

If we do not study the 19th century in some detail, we will never appreciate that Australian tolerance began in the convict era.  Certainly the prisoners who disembarked in their thousands were mainly from England, Ireland and Scotland but they were never entirely homogenous. Black faces and foreign accents were sprinkled amongst them on virtually every ship.

Convict society was always multi-racial, drawing its numbers from the far reaches of the British Empire as well as cosmopolitan London and the seaports of Liverpool and Glasgow. Hottentot bushmen from the Cape of Good Hope were convicts. So were Maori from New Zealand, negroes from America and the West Indies.  And men and women from India and Mauritius. Described in the ships' indents as 'men (or women) of colour', they shared with the 'whites' the common denominator of a criminal conviction.

Being populated by people like this, the absolute bottom layer of society - not just the poor, or the 'deserving' poor but the desperately  poor - meant that any concern about race and ethnicity and religion had been overwhelmed by the need to survive. The shared struggle created fellowship between people of a different background, an ethos that was recreated in the colony.

Racism can be found towards the Aborigines as modern research has conclusively demonstrated. However, racism is notable by its absence towards others who were not white-skinned. The proof that tolerance has deep Australian roots can be found in the huge number of migrants who have been absorbed peacefully in the years since the convict era.

But, in convict society - and modern surveys reveal this continues today - there was always a condition to the welcome:  newcomers were expected to adapt to the local ethos and customs.

Contrary to modern assumption, this requirement historically had nothing to do with race. Its source was the ex-convicts fear of being overwhelmed by British free settlers who would return them to the outcast status that was their rank in Britain.

The former convicts were determined that the class structure and economic privilege of Britain would not to be replicated in the community they had created. Using mockery and humiliation, they quickly cut down anyone with pretensions to social or economic superiority. In the colony,  a man or woman was to be judged without the usual markers of birth, education, wealth or propriety.

Three elements contributed to this distinctive ethos.

One was the criminal conviction which in a stroke rendered everyone equal. No lawyer or doctor or merchant found guilty by the courts could claim greater virtue or status than  your common-or-garden highwayman or pickpocket.

Secondly - and fundamental to refuting those who search for a class drama - is understanding that there was no large body of free settlers to create a middle class through almost the entire duration of the convict colonies. There was no 'Us' and 'Them'. It was evident for all to see in 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 that 'Them' was 'Us'. They were one and the same. And you could find Irish as well as English in any one of the roles.

The third contributor to our precious social ethos began in 1788 when Governor Phillip decided that every one, regardless of rank, should share equally in the starving settlement's rapidly diminishing food. In issuing that order Phillip overturned every expectation of the class-ridden society from which the colonists had come.  He made it clear that the humanity of the most lowly convict was as important as his own.

The value the convicts themselves placed on Governor 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. By the 1830s it was deeply entrenched.  In the twentieth century, this heritage could be observed among our men who were prisoners in Japanese camps. Its influence can be seen today in the community consensus that our government should always provide what has come to be called a 'safety net'.

If this history was understood, we might judge our fellow Australians less harshly when they repeat today the mantra  of 'preserving the Australian way of life'. Of course they don't understand why they feel so strongly on this subject, nor can they explain what constitutes 'the Australian way of life'. How could they? No one has taught them the history necessary to comprehend its roots.

John Hirst and I agree on one point: convict society was a functioning working class society. Forget the traditional images of chain gangs, and flogging, and a dominant cruel force of soldiers and guards mixed with a few privileged overseers who had lickspittled their way up from the ranks of prisoners.  This was only true in a limited way. Most of the male prisoners (something like 75-80%) did not experience it. Just as 90% of the women were not the drunken, useless whores traditionally depicted.

But our functioning working class had distinctive features created by its penal context and the fact its citizens were predominantly ex-convicts and their descendants.

For example, we need to understand that the prisoners weren't afraid of contradicting a magistrate. Nor were they behind in ticking off their employers. They had a strong sense of their rights and frequently stood their ground in an argument. And once they realised that many of their employers had themselves arrived as convicts, there was no holding them.  Stuck in the distorted historical stereotypes no one has yet analysed these early industrial relations.  When their history is finally written, it will be revelatory about the character of the Australian people and the origin of our working culture.

Because they were successful, the ugly template created by the opponents of transportation has been accepted as fact. Analysis of Australia ever since has been shaped by their propaganda. The Reverend John West the leading strategist of this group, wrote a history book that is still used by historians as a primary source. Until now, no one has challenged his claim that convict society was a system  of 'revolting severity and prisoners debased by habit',  that it left 'a class embittered by ignorance and revenge'.

West's book was a template for the gothic histories produced in the 1880s and 1890s (for example Marcus Clark's 'Term of His Natural Life') and for the attitudes displayed in the Bulletin magazine at that time.  It remains the template for too much contemporary analysis.

Family historians began researching the convict records in significant numbers during the late 1970s. They quickly discovered that convicts believed in the future of Australia. It was they and their children who built the social as well as the physical infrastructure. Their children served on the local councils of our cities and towns. Some of those children became community leaders such as the local mayor and in one case Lord Mayor.  Some were squatters. Some of them became professional men.  Some started newspapers. Many were small businessmen and women, an occupation with very long roots in Australia.

It was convict families with their 5 - 10 - 12 children who populated the country - increasing exponentially throughout the 19th century and intermarrying with the immigrants who came later. It was their grandchildren - and in some cases children - who fought at Galipolli.  It was convict culture that moulded the character of the diggers who served in World War 1.

Equating the convicts and the diggers is not overstretching it. Consider the following similarities:  In the 1840s, the squatter C.P. Hodgson said about his ex-convict workforce, '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.'

In 1918, General Monash said about the Australian soldier,, 'Psychologically, he was easy to lead but difficult to drive... he required a sympathetic handling, which appealed to his intelligence and satisfied his instinct for a "square deal"...'

Because we don't know the convicts, we have not seen the link to the diggers. In turn their historical prominence owes much to the vacuum about what preceded them.

We will never comprehend the military emphasis in our history if we fail to understand what created it in the 19th century. And the culture exemplified by the diggers will remain bewildering without that earlier knowledge.

This idea that early Australia was nothing but a brutal slave colony has dominated our history books and our popular imagination for too long. It blocks a realistic analysis of the first eighty years of European settlement. Gripped by this gothic template, we fail to understand the origin of some of our best qualities and by default recognise only the bad because they seem a logical outcome of that image.