PostHeaderIcon Australian convict sites declared World Heritage


Australian convict sites declared World Heritage

(published in The Weekend Australian, 7-8 August 2010)

'The Empire's Gaol' as one colonial governor memorably described Australia, received a global tick of approval this week when convict sites across the continent were listed as World Heritage.

Eleven sites were nominated as a group. They range from Norfolk Island, Hyde Park Barracks and Cockatoo Island in New South Wales to Port Arthur, Maria Island Probation Station and the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart. Fremantle prison, which was central to the convict system in Western Australia, was also nominated.

Together the sites chosen span the entire convict era from 1788-1868.

Missing from the nomination were buildings that represent the management of women convicts in New South Wales. The Female Orphan School at Rydalmere, for instance, is older than Hyde Park Barracks, being designed by Elizabeth Macquarie and built in 1813. It can, apparently, be added later.

The nomination committee argued than the final eleven provided 'a complete representation of all the significant elements' of Australian convictism, including penal stations, gang labour, assignment, female factories and the Tasmanian probation system. In the committee's dossier their importance is skillfully woven into a broader argument for the universal significance of Australia's convict history.

Those of us attending the Professional Historians Conference on Norfolk Island last week were able to take a close look at the heritage there, which is particularly significant. The Island's historic buildings cover two distinct periods in Australian history. Some date from the early, more haphazard period of settlement when Lieutenant, later Governor, Philip King managed a small group of convicts and military who were attempting to produce enough crops to feed Sydney town as well as themselves. This era lasted from 1788-1815 by which time New South Wales was self-sufficient. When the settlement closed, ex-convicts and their children were moved to the area called New Norfolk in Tasmania. Children on the island during this time included the great Australian patriot William Charles Wentworth and Governor King's two sons by his convict mistress who were named Norfolk and Sydney.

Many buildings from the second convict period on Norfolk Island remain although some are semi-ruins, destroyed by weather or dismantled by Pitcairn Islanders when they came to live there. Despite this destruction, many others operate today as homes and government buildings. A splendid colonial Government House still overlooks the village of Kingstown and is occupied by the present Norfolk Island administrator.

The later convict era on Norfolk Island lasted from 1825-1856 when it was a place of secondary punishment designed to incarcerate men who were said to be 'the worst of the worst'. The Island was known throughout the world as 'a hell-on-earth', propaganda that some historians have simply followed. This reputation was based on allegations of homosexuality run rife, of lack of religious instruction, of insubordination and insolence, of disregarding rules that prohibited smoking and swearing.

Not all the prisoners were white Britons. For instance, eight Aborigines shared transportation to Norfolk Island with the Europeans. Something that our multicultural society today would regard positively then caused outrage. One clergyman who visited the Island was indignant at the mix of 'Chinamen from Hong Kong, the aborigines of New Holland, West Indian blacks, Greeks, Caffres and Malays...' along with British soldiers sentenced for desertion and, the clergyman added for good measure 'idiots, madmen, pig-stealers, and pickpockets.'

Dr Tim Causer from Kings College, London University, was at the conference. He is the first historian to check these melodramatic claims by researching the prisoners' archives. His work disproves the idea that the men on Norfolk Island were depraved and evil beyond imagination. Most had simply been re-convicted of property crimes after they arrived in the colonies. At Norfolk Island they worked building roads or bridges, tending agriculture, minding stock. Causer says they were not routinely chained. 'Only the gaol gang wore irons for short-term punishment.' Causer also disproved the legend that once sent there, no one left it. 'A small group known as the 'old hands' spent twenty years on the Island but the average length of stay was three years. And contrary to legend, some successfully escaped.'

As revealed in my book Australia's Birthstain, the second penal settlement at Norfolk Island formed the basis for a distorted history created during the campaign in Australia to end transportation. Causer's work confirms the exaggeration and scaremongering that occurred. This research together with the World Heritage listing should expose the reality of the convict system to Australians and increase their understanding of the way in which the prisoners laid the groundwork for modern Australia.

In reality, the convicts built the social as well as the physical infrastructure of our society. Their children served on the local councils of our cities and towns. Some of those children became community leaders, such as the local mayor. Some were squatters. Some of them became professional men. Some started newspapers. Many were small businessmen and women. It was convict families with their five, 10 or 12 children who populated the country, increasing exponentially throughout the 19th century and intermarrying with the immigrants who came later.

'The Empire's Gaol' was not a passing jibe. Nations from around the world long regarded Australia this way. Some still do particularly if, like us, they were once British colonies. In the face of Australian criticism in 2003, President Robert Mugabe riposted, 'Everyone knows Australians are criminals.' And in the recent controversy about Indian students in Melbourne, the Indian media was alive with references to what they saw as our disreputable past.

As a result of the heritage listing, a case has now been made for our convict history that transcends national boundaries. While the heritage sites will always have special significance for this country, designation as World Heritage required that they meet the criteria of being of 'outstanding universal value' to all humanity. In effect, preparation of the world heritage nomination caused a new history of convictism to be written.

Bruce Baskerville who was a member of the nomination committee, explained 'The "new history" prepared for the nomination has assigned a past to these eleven places that connects them through a shared history to a common future.'

This 'shared history' which other nations besides Australia have experienced, is the impact of ideas about how criminals should be treated. Should deterrence to lawbreakers be a priority? Or is rehabilitation possible?

A 'law and order' debate along these lines played out in Britain during the convict era in Australia. It was an argument that had great impact on the men, women and children transported here.

Prison reformer Jeremy Bentham was outraged in 1788 when the British government sent its criminals to a distant place rather than build his model prison. However, Bentham was a canny political strategist. He immediately wrote a pamphlet entitled Panopticon v. Botany Bay, which argued that purpose-built prisons were much less expensive than transportation 'beyond the seas'. In the years that followed he and his supporters publicised everything detrimental to the settlement at Sydney Cove.

By the 1840s, Bentham's ideas were winning the debate. A model prison had been built at Pentonville along the lines he advocated. A similar prison was later built at Port Arthur. But the consequences were mixed. The convicts who were sent to Western Australia as well as those who arrived in the later years in Van Diemen's Land, were subjected to the exquisite torture devised by these middle class prison reformers who seriously believed that months, years even, of silence and solitude would rehabilitate uneducated men. Their theories included incarceration in total silence, which extended to wearing padded slippers and masks to prevent the prisoners from having any communication with each other. Apparently no thought was given to whether they would possess the intellectual or emotional resources to cope with it. One convict explained that prisoners preferred the lash any day to imprisonment in a dark solitary cell. He wrote: 'Offenders dreaded this as infinitely worse than any brief [flogging]...Of course the brain is the seat of pain - very dreadful.'

Tim Causer's findings add to the conclusions of other historians, including myself, that approximately 75% of the convicts did not experience the brutal extremes of the convict system. The great majority were assigned to work for pastoralists or town businesses. They adapted their skills to meet the needs of this strange new land and the myriad of tasks they were expected to perform. Eventually they received a ticket-of-leave and transformed with considerable speed into citizens who called Australia 'home'.

copyright Babette Smith 2010

  • Full list of Convict World Heritage Sites
  • Kingston and Arthur's Vale Historic Area (Norfolk Island)
  • Old Government House and Domain (NSW)
  • Hyde Park Barracks (NSW)
  • Cockatoo Island (NSW)
  • Old Great North Road (NSW)
  • Brickendon-Woolmers Estates (Tas)
  • Darlington Probation Station (Tas)
  • Cascades Female Factory (Tas)
  • Port Arthur Historic Site (Tas)
  • Coal Mines Historic Site (Tas)
  • Fremantle Prison (WA)