Scotlands History\|Scots and Australia


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When the 11 ships of the First Fleet landed in Australia in 1788, there were 543 male convicts, 189 female convicts and 18 child convicts on board.

Britain had transported convicts to America until 1775 when the American War of Independence began. Transportation was viewed as a terrifying punishment. Criminals were exiled to the far side of the world, with little hope of ever returning home. It was intended to deter people from committing crimes. As Commissioner Bigge said, transportation should be ‘a fate to dread’.

The British authorities decided to ship criminals to Australia. The First Fleet of British convicts sailed from England to set up the colony of New South Wales. The colony as a whole became known as ‘Botany Bay'.

Botany Bay

Come all young men of learning, take warning by me,
I’d have you quit night walking, and shun bad company;
I’d have you quit night walking, or else you’ll rue the day,
When you are transported and going to Botany Bay... 

Extract from early 19th century broadside ballad

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Brad Manera, Head Curator, Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney: That group of convicts that were in places like Hyde Park Barracks, their day was very, very strictly controlled. They slept in hammocks like this. They were woken by the bell and their day was governed by the bell and the clock. They were roused at about 5 am in the morning and then they’d all have to go down and be counted. There would be a roll call and then they’d go in and have their morning meal. Then they’d be re-organised into their work gangs and they’d leave Hyde Park Barracks in their work gangs with their daily task. And their task could be anything from construction work to gardening, to a whole range of jobs to make this city run. And then they’d work ‘til about three or five o’clock in the afternoon, and then they’d have to come back here to the barracks. And if they were lucky, they got an evening meal and then they had a few hours to clean themselves and get bedded down. And their working week was about five and a half days long. Sunday was a day of worship and they would then go to the various churches around the city for divine worship. And then they had the rest of the day off, which usually tended to mean that they got drunk and, and disappeared to a variety of gaming houses and other places around the city.

Leonie Smallwood, Museum Co-ordinator, Rocks Discovery Museum, Sydney: Life in the early colony would have been quite different to the way we know life now. And some things that we take for granted, they didn’t have; like they didn’t have running water. You couldn’t just go and turn on the tap and have a shower every day. They had to fetch water to have a bath, so they didn’t have them that often. They couldn’t go to the toilet and flush it away. They went, usually in a bucket, or in a pit in the ground and then sometimes, they used what was in the pit to help the garden grow. They had to live with only the things they’d been able to pack on the ships to bring with them. Some things they could get here, like they could cut down trees, to get timber to build their houses. But things like seeds to plant and clothes to wear, they had only a limited supply that they’d brought on the ships so everybody was given only a certain amount of food every week, and only a certain amount of clothes to wear and you weren’t allowed any extras, because they didn’t have any extras.

Brad Manera: The convict diet was not what you’d think… well, it probably wouldn’t make your mouth water today. There was a lot of stew and gruel, lots of just, just basic flour and water with a bit of stewed meat; a lot of salt pork. Occasionally the convicts were allowed to have garden plots and in a place like Hyde Park Barracks, it had a very extensive vegetable garden and you might get vegetables once or twice a week.

Transportation was obviously a punishment. Once you’d arrived in the colony of New South Wales, there was a range of other punishments, as a convict, if you broke the laws that governed convicts. It could range from solitary confinement, reduction of rations, being riveted into a set of leg irons, so that they were put on by a blacksmith and fitted around your ankles and a blacksmith would put a hot rivet through the leg irons so they couldn’t be taken off at the end of the day. You wore them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. An immediate and quite savage punishment was being flogged, and the instrument they used was called a cat of nine tails; an old Navy term for a multi-stranded whip, and it was a huge ceremony. The person undergoing punishment would be brought out, his jacket and shirt would be taken off and then he would be lashed to a flogging triangle in a spread-eagled position. And then there would be at least one flagellator. Each lash would be counted. Usually convicts would received 25 or 50 lashes. They even had terms, like 25 lashes was known as a ‘tickler’. That was the minimum punishment. But often, punishments would include 100, or 150; sometimes 300 lashes. Another punishment that was very colourful was called the treadmill, and indeed in New South Wales they had a huge treadmill where Central Railway Station is today. It was like a… a huge version of the sort of things that you’d see in a mouse cage. But you might have sixteen men climbing hand over hand, foot over foot to make this piece of equipment turn; this huge wheel made of steps. And it turned two grindstones and they’d use it to grind flour. And much of the bread that the convicts ate was made from flour milled with human sweat in a treadmill. 

Monique Galloway, Special Heritage Project Officer, Rocks Discovery Museum, Sydney: Convict life in the very early days would have been very hard because there wasn’t any infrastructure and basically they had to build it. But once that was done, the convicts looked like they had a much better life out here than they would have at home. Their diet, for example, was much better. They had a lot more meat and fruit and vegetables in their diet than their families did back at home, back in Scotland. They had much more opportunity as well out here to build businesses and buy land and do quite well for themselves.

Brad Manera: In some cases, people at home are committing crimes with the intention of being transported to the Australian colonies.

Leonie Smallwood: When the convicts’ sentences were finished, they were free to go. The trouble was, the British government didn’t take them back to Britain.

Brad Manera: How did you get home? What chance did you have of getting home? The big problem that most convicts faced was that their chances of getting home were very, very slim indeed, because you had to pay for your own way, and even if you had the money there wasn’t necessarily a ship that would take you back. So many people tried to pay for their own passage back to Britain. Others tried to work their way on a ship but, for most, transportation was a one-way journey.

Leonie Smallwood: Now for a lot of them, they would have been already working for themselves on a ticket of leave, if they’d been well behaved, so they probably already had a job. Also, some of the governors, like Lachlan Macquarie, gave convicts who finished their sentences a land grant, so they would be able to start a farm or build a business; build a warehouse, build a pub. Some of the convicts did quite well after they finished their sentences.

Brad Manera: And they stayed here in Australia and built the populations; the Scottish populations, the Irish populations now that are many, many generations old and, and have become part of the Australian community, but still feel very strong links to… to their homes in the British Isles.

The convict settlement in New South Wales wasn’t just a giant prison – it was an attempt to use convict labour to build a new society. Convicts were set to work in chain gangs digging roads and hauling timber for building.

Hyde Park Barracks was the first convict barracks in Australia.  In the colony’s first years most convicts lived together in ramshackle huts in the Rocks area by the harbour. The Rocks became notorious for drunkenness, theft and violence so Governor Lachlan Macquarie decided to build a convict barracks. Hyde Park Barracks was built with convict labour, opening in 1819.

Governor Macquarie noted in 1820:

Not a tenth part of the former night robberies and burglaries [are] being now committed since the Convicts have been lodged in the New Barracks.

Work gangs of convicts left the Barracks during the day but returned each evening. They slept in hammocks in large dormitories. In 1830 reoffending convicts were sent to Hyde Park Barracks for punishment.

The outside of the Hydepark barracks

The country was harsh and unforgiving. Major Robert Ross, thought to be a Scot, said:

In the whole world there is not a worse country than what we have yet seen of this; all... is so very barren and forbidding.

A convict's daily rations were basic and almost the same every day:

  • Breakfast was bread and a porridge-like gruel made with oatmeal and water.
  • Dinner, in the middle of the day, was salted pork or beef, bread, and soup made with vegetables and salted meat.
  • Supper, at the end of the day, was bread, gruel and perhaps a cup of tea.

The main punishment used against convicts who neglected their work, ran away or got drunk was flogging. Convicts were strapped to wooden beams and lashed with a whip or a cat o’ nine tails, which had nine cords of knotted leather or rope.

Under Governor Lachlan Macquarie convicts were given 25, 50 or 100 lashes. Female convicts were given 40 lashes. Children were given 12, 24 or at most 36 lashes. In different places, at different times, under different Governors, the treatment and conditions of convicts varied. Some convicts were given 1000 lashes.

Child convict Jon Tree was sentenced to the lash for ‘neglecting his duty’ by pretending to be sick. In September 1833 he was given 36 lashes ‘on the breach’ - his bottom.

At the eleventh stroke the blood appeared, and continued running; he cried out loudly at every lash; this was the first time of corporal punishment. This boy suffered most severely; and in my opinion, twelve lashes would have been sufficient for him.

BA Slade, JP, Superintendent, Hyde Park Barracks, 1833