The first immigrants to Australia
Life in 18th century England
In the eighteenth century (sometimes called the 1700s), the gap between rich and poor was huge. In England, King George III (cf. image on the left) lived in his palace on the rich side of London, while in the east of the city most people were poor and hungry.
People began their working lives at the age of six, labouring long hours in factories for small wages.
Men had to live close to their workplaces, so hundreds of families would be crowded into just a few streets near butcher’s shops and tanneries, where leather was made. The waste from these places, as well as sewerage from the houses, often ran openly in the street. Disease was very common in these slums. Nobody thought that life would get any better, so men and women tried to forget their troubles by getting drunk on cheap alcohol.
"Steal or die!"
London’s population doubled between 1750 and 1770. This fast rising birth-rate meant that suddenly England had too many workers who had no hope for the future. There weren’t enough jobs to go round, and the only way people could survive was to steal.
More and more people were turning to crime, and there seemed to be no way to stop them.
Transportation had been used since the beginning of the eighteenth century to rid the English of their prisoners. Usually, convicts were taken to the British colony of America, but the American War of Independence (1775–1783) changed all that forever.
America won the war, and its new government told Britain not to send any more white convicts. The Americans preferred to use black African slaves to do the work.England had to do something soon about the overcrowded jails. A solution was found. There were some old, disused ships known as hulks moored in the Thames River that flows through London, and at sea-ports on the south coast of England. It was decided that these would become floating jails. Convicts would eat and sleep on the hulks, and be taken to work on the land every day.
While the hulks were filled with prisoners, the government tried to decide which of Britain’s colonies could be a place for the unwanted convits.
The west coast of Africa was a possibility. So was Australia: the great southern land that no one knew very much about. West Africa was the favourite option. Because it was closer to England it would be cheaper to transport people there. The site was explored, but it was found to be unsuitable.
By 1785, living conditions on board the hulks were getting worse. Almost a thousand more convicts were being added to the swimming jails each year. In 1786 there was a rebellion on one prison hulk — eight convicts were shot dead and 46 wounded. Then they decided to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia.
The convicts´lives and crimes
What kind of criminal came to Australia?
The First Fleet carried 736 criminals. They were all thieves. Over a hundred had used violence in carrying out their crimes (there were 31 muggers and 71 highway robbers on board), but none was transported for a violent crime, like murder. These first convicts were not naturally dangerous or violent. They were mostly hungry people who could not support themselves without stealing.
What happened to them in Australia?
Well, as you can guess, life wasn´t a beach when they arrived in Australia.
The government men
In general, the unluckiest convicts were considered to be those who were kept in government service. If you were a government man, you had the highest chance of ending up in the terrible chain gangs that had to do the hardest work, such as rock hewing and road building. Although conditions in many private jobs were dreadful, at least the assignment system offered you a slim chance of a better life.
Being sent to Australia was only the first punishment for the transportees.There were many more to greet them once they’d arrived.The punishment most popular with officials was flogging, and the threat of the lash hung over the everyday lives of the convicts.