I’ve moaned about the criminal element of the world holding the law abiding to ransom before – and the fact that there’s no such thing as a victimless crime. I’ve argued for tougher penalties, and parenting classes for new parents to raise socially responsible children. I’ve even suggested a points system – so many points for re-offending or serious crime, and you’re out – permanently.
The truth is nothing is going to change. Society is largely broken, and it will take swingeing changes to mend it that no governemnt is going to implement. The sad fact is that the law abiding don’t need the tyrannical laws that would have to be put in place, and the rest of society would break them anyway – all law gives us is a basis to argue a prosecution.
Two hundred years ago, things were harsher, but was there any less crime? We had debtors prisons, execution, and transportation for even minor crimes, and poverty meant stealing to eat was sometimes necessary. It’s a tempting thought to shove all our present-day criminals on a ship and land them on an island surrounded by shark-infested waters the far side of the world and leave them to fight it out between themselves – to live or die away from ‘responsible’ society.
Two hundred years ago, that island was called Van Diemen’s Land, present-day Tasmania, and we’ve all heard of Botany Bay, on the southern shores of Australia. Thousands of convicted criminals, men, women, and children, were packed into the holds of old wooden sailing ships and sent on a four-month journey from England, round the southern tip of Africa, and across the Southern, or Antarctic, Ocean to Australasia. Many didn’t survive the journey. A barrel of Thames water per convict had to last four months. Convicts were packed into dark, low-ceilinged ‘tween decks’ which were swelteringly hot in summer and freezing in winter. They had poor food, nothing fresh, little air, and a once a day exercise stint on deck. They had to work, picking oakam, the tar from ends of rope to use as caulking for the old ships’ leaky seams. Dysentry, typhus, scurvy, and fever swept through ships holds like fire through a tunnel. Burial at sea was common-place.
And their crimes to deserve such a fate? Records show girls being transported for the theft of a piece of ribbon from their mistress, and a man transported for ‘being in possession’ of a pair of boots, which presumably weren’t his. The term of transportation might only be a year or seven years for such petty crimes, but the reality was that convicts, once obtaining their pardons when their terms were served, had no way to get home. The fare from England to Australia in 1841, for example, was £29.00. Compare that to the wages of the time, and a girl in domestic service might earn £15 – £20 a year in England, but in Australia as a convict? It would take years to earn the fare home, and consequently, many never returned.
The truth is that the British government wanted to found colonies in Australia and America, and convict labour was a way to achieve that. The life of a convict in the colonies was brutal, escape, where it was possible, was often punished by death, and sexual and physical abuse was rampant. For a woman, the only way to survive was often to marry and become a domestic slave. If a male convict had no rights, a female convict was something to be bought and sold like an animal.
Many of us have convict forebears who made a life in Australia. Mine were Jem Underwood, Joseph Wooding, and Daniel Bedford – cousins in their twenties: young lads out poaching after the threshing machine broke, and they had an afternoon off work. They got into a skirmish with John Dunkley, a gamekeeper, in Yardley Chase on the estate of Lord Northampton. The fact that Dunkley fired first probably saved them from the gallows, but it didn’t save them from transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land in 1841.
Life meant life. They could work their time and gain a conditional pardon, but it meant they could never leave Australasia. They could never go home to England. As far as their families were concerned, families living in poverty and in need of a hare for the pot, they were dead. The best they could hope for was a letter if someone could be found who could write it and read it, and a letter took four months to travel by sailing ship. Another four months for a reply… You get the picture – the isolation these boys must have felt…
In England, we tend to think, if we think at all, that Australia is a land of convicts, or at least a land of convict heritage. It is sobering therefore to recall the words of a small Australian girl when asked recently what she knew about England. She replied. ‘Oh, that’s where all the criminals come from.’
I researched Jem, Joe, and Daniel’s lives through their committal and trial transcripts, and their convict conduct records, and my trilogy For Their Country’s Good is based upon that research. If you’d like to discover more about life in 1840s England and Van Diemen’s Land, Book One of the trilogy is free today. Download it at http://mybook.to/OnDifferentShores and meet Jem and the girl who loved him.
What do readers say about the trilogy? ‘Truly exceptional trilogy. Every second, minute or hour spent in Jem and Ella’s company is time well spent.’
‘From different climes, o’er wide spread seas we come,
(Though not with much eclat or beat of drum)
True patriots all, for, be it understood,
We left our country for our country’s good’
The Barrington Prologue
Henry Carter c1800