“Forced Migration” of British Convicts in Australia

Once upon a time, the concept of an Australian nation was nonsensical until 1 January 1901 when the Commonwealth of Australia was born. For a long time, Australia was a British colony. But its genesis as a colony was not intended for the British colonizers to explore raw materials for the benefit of the British government and it people. This is probably because of the continent’s geographical location and its arid and dry climate.  

Australia started as a penal colony, beginning after Britain lost American territories sometime in the late 18th century. Originally, Great Britain was sending its convicts to America. After the American Revolution – losing most of its territories in the new world, Britain opted to send criminals and political dissidents to a new penal colony: the “land down under.”

Great Britain has established several penal colonies all over the Australian continent including the popular ones in Norfolk Island, Tasmania, Queensland, and New South Wales.  An estimated 166,000 individuals including women and children (yes, the British once had a justice system where a 9-year old kid may be imprisoned depending on the crime committed. Remember, the film Oliver!?) were sent to Australia over an 80-year period between 1787 and 1868. These convict sites were established to be enacted as prison sites and as places for rehabilitation through forced labor, which eventually helped build the new colony. 

Today, eleven (11) convict sites are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, collectively called as Australian Convict Sites. Inscribed in 2010, these sites were chosen because they constitute “outstanding example of the way in which conventional forced labour and national prison systems were transformed, in major European nations in the 18th and 19th centuries, into a system of deportation and forced labour forming part of the British Empire’s vast colonial project. They illustrate the variety of the creation of penal colonies to serve the many material needs created by the development of a new territory. They bear witness to a penitentiary system which had many objectives, ranging from severe punishment used as a deterrent to forced labour for men, women and children, and the rehabilitation of the convicts through labour and discipline” (criteria iv) and the sites “provide a particularly complete example of this history and the associated symbolic values derived from discussions in modern and contemporary European society. They illustrate an active phase in the occupation of colonial lands to the detriment of the Aboriginal peoples, and the process of creating a colonial population of European origin through the dialectic of punishment and transportation followed by forced labour and social rehabilitation to the eventual social integration of convicts as settlers” (criteria v).

The sites include: (1) Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (Norfolk Island), (2) Old Government House and Domain (New South Wales), (3) Hyde Park Barracks (New South Wales), (4) Brickendon and Woolmers Estates (Tasmania), (5) Darlington Probation Station (Tasmania), (6) Old Great North Road (New South Wales), (7) Cascade Female Factory (Tasmania), (8) Port Arthur Historic Site (Tasmania), (9) Coal Mines Historic Site (Tasmania), (10) Cockatoo Island Convict Site (New South Wales), (11) Freemantle Prison (Western Australia).

During my trip to Sydney in October 2017, I visited three sites: the Old Government House and Domain (popularly called Old Government House), Hyde Park Barracks, and Cockatoo Island Convict Site (Cockatoo Island). 

On the left is the Mint Museum, and the the right is the Hyde Park Barracks, a living museum and one of the eleven Australian Convict Sites inscribed as World Heritage Site. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The facade and the entrance to the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
A model of the barracks ca early 19th century on display at the museum. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The first stop was Hyde Park Barracks. Located at the tourist district of Sydney, the Hyde Park Barracks is located at the Queen’s Square on the corner of Macquarie Street and Prince Albert Road. Today, this once upon a time convict site is a livin museum. Its official name is Mint Building and Hyde Park Barracks Group and Rum Hospital; Royal Mint – Sydney Branch; Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary; Queen’s Square Courts; Queen’s Square and it is managed by the Sydney Living Museums, of the Government of New South Wales.  

A living museum recreates the historical settings of the displays. This is to simulate the time period and to provide visitors with what in curatorship identifies as an experiential interpretation of history. As a living museum, Hyde Park Barracks recreates to the fullest extent conditions of a community, the natural environment, and the early 19th century Sydney.

Hyde Park Barracks was technically not a convict space. The site was used as a quarter for 600 plus convicts. The idea of a convict-quarter was initiated by then Governor Macquarie. This was to house convicts who were behaving “badly” on the streets of Sydney. At that time, convicts were allowed to look for their own lodging. But it was reported that they had a difficult time locating for decent rooms. In many occasions, these individuals opted to stay on the streets marking a portion as a territory. Often, invasion of one’s territory meant chaos.

Hyde Park Barracks was a four-story structure with four rooms on each story. Each room hung with two rows of hammocks. Longer rooms could sleep 70 men each. Thirty-five men slept in the smaller western rooms. These were recreated and in display at the Hyde Park Barracks. 

One of the old buildings used as lodging by the convicts from mainland Sydney. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
One of the old buildings used as “reformation” house of the convicts. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
One of the quarry places in the island. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

A forty-five minute to an hour ferry ride from the Circular Quay to the Cockatoo Island is the next convict site visited for this trip. 

Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. It is located at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers. At present, the island is synonymous with the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, starring the “Boy from Oz” himself Hugh Jackman as the title role. It was on the island where almost 60% of the film was shot. The island was also once-upon-a-time the largest shipyard in the entire continent-nation. The shipyard was in operation from 1857 to 1991. However, the island is also shrouded with “dark” history: being another penal site of the British government. Between 1839 and 1869, Cockatoo Island operated primarily as a place of secondary punishment for convicts who had re-offended in the colonies.

According to Cockatoo Island’s official website, “convicts were put to work initially quarrying stone for various projects around the colony. They also built stone prison barracks, a military guardhouse, granary silos, official residences and commenced work in 1847 on the Fitzroy Dock which took ten years to complete.”

In the last few years, Cockatoo Island was home to several arts festival. In 2008, for example, it housed the Bienialle of Sydney, which exhibited works of Ai WeiWei, Suzanne Lacy, Kate Newby, Khaled Sabsabi, to name a few. Visitors, who wish to do a “paranormal” (i.e. ghost) tour of the island, may stay for an overnight and sleep on a rented tent adjacent the visitor center. 

The Old Government House located at the centre of Parramatta Park. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The Old Government House as viewed from the park walkway (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Another hour of a ferry ride from Cockatoo Island to the west of New South Wales is Parramatta. Locals call the town as the countryside of New South Wales.

Parramatta is the oldest “government town” of the modern New South Wales. Because of the chaotic life living side-by-side the British convicts, then Governor John Hunter decided to transfer its official residence at the Parramatta region. The house that was permanently built in the area became what is known today as the “Old Government House” and the vast land of 110 acres where the house was erected became what is now known the “Parramatta Park.” The former is known today as the oldest government building and the latter, the oldest park in New South Wales.

Like the Hyde Park Barracks, the Old Government House is also technically not a convict site; but its inclusion in the WHS Australian Convict Site was based on its association with the penal system established and implemented in Australia.

On the day of visit at the site, there was a function inside the house. I was not able to see the glory that was the early 19th century English/British architecture localized in the down under.

Nine more convict sites, perhaps in the next years, I will have a chance to complete all the listed sites. Perhaps, I must visit Tasmania as my next Australian destination. This tiny island in the south of the continent prides to be the home of five sites. And I was told Port Arthur is a must-see because it is the largest of all the convict sites.

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