I read and write historical fiction because I want to be transported to a different era. Few eras are more fascinating than Australia from 1778 to 1868 when it served as a penal colony for the British empire. Magistrates shipped 162,000 men and women off to Australia during that time.
Now I can’t tell you exactly how much a ship voyage from England to Australia cost back in the day, but let’s just say it wasn’t a cheap ticket. The thirteen American colonies are closer to England than Australia and the poor would indenture themselves for up to seven years to earn ship passage to America.
Why spend all that money to ship a thief to Australia rather than just pay for a short jail stay? The British originally set up a penal colony because of their belief that convicts were genetically defective and no amount of consequences, help, or education could ever rehabilitate them. The British wanted those defective genes as far away from their lovely country as possible, so they sent the criminals 9,000 miles away to Australia.
The convict ships were far from luxury cruise lines. Harsh conditions led to as many as one-third of the deported convicts dying on the journey to Australia. After arriving in Australia, some convicts were confined in jails or factories, but many others were hired out as unpaid laborers to the free settlers. This didn’t make their treatment any less harsh, however, and convicts often felt the abuse of lash and leg iron. The women, always a scarce commodity in a new land, were often more or less forcibly married off to the free settlers.
The irony in the British’s deportation scheme is that these despised convicts went on to set up successful farms and businesses and build the backbone of Australian industry. Women labeled as whores and shoved into the harsh conditions of female factories went on after their term of imprisonment to starts schools and hospitals.
Today, the nation built on the backbone of these “unredeemable” criminals has a flourishing free-market economy and is a popular tourist destination.
I bet the British magistrates who condemned criminals to Australia never would have guessed that.
Who today does our society unconsciously think incapable of redemption? How would these people’s lives improve if we recognized their potential?