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'.
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
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 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:
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