Monday, 19 March 2007

For the term of your natural life

“I can personally affirm that to stand before an audience of beaming Australians and make even the mildest quip about a convict past is to feel the feel the air conditioning immediately elevated.”
- Bill Bryson, American travel writer

I'm looking out towards Tasmania - Australia's answer to our own quirky Newfoundland - and although we won't get there on this trip, it's a place I highly recommend ... not least because of its convict past and the fascinating window it opens to the Aussie character.

As an outsider, I find it ironic that the national day of celebration – appropriately named Australia Day ‑ commemorates the first landing of white settlers here, as if the arrival of a bedraggled group of unfortunates, thieves and conmen was something of which to be proud. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying, is all.)

People here generally don’t make much of a conscious connection to their convict heritage but it’s still worth noting how white Australia came to be. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the Aussies’ near-mythical reputation as a laidback, she’ll-be-right nation is due in large part to the attitude of the convict "settlers" who came here in misery, worked in misery and lived out their lives in misery while managing to form lasting bonds of mateship and getting on with the job of building a colony with a minimum of fuss.

So how did it all happen?

Part of the enormous upheaval of the late 18th-century industrial revolution in Britain was the creation of an underclass of poor who sought work in the cities and then turned to crime to stay alive. Once overflowing prisons became a problem too large to ignore, administrators seized upon “transportation” as a solution, even though the final destination - the virtually unknown Botany Bay, near modern-day Sydney ‑ was a whopping 24,000 kilometres and eight months away by sea.

Between 1788 and 1868, 165,000 British and Irish convicts, most no worse than petty thieves, were brought here in the most of horrific conditions. Disease, overcrowding and scurvy were rife, and for the first 20 years of transportation, prisoners were chained for the entire hellish journey. Those who did make it ‑ by 1800 one in 10 died en route – were forced into hard work in unyielding conditions that were hardly inspiring.

Pity even more those unco-operative ones who got sent to the worst penal colonies such as Tasmania's Port Arthur. Years after visiting that place, I still can't shake the haunting.

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