A recent report in Molecular Psychiatry identified a “warrior gene” connected to criminal behaviour. This inspired renewed speculation that a convict ancestry might make Australians more predisposed to violent crime.
This fear of genetic contamination from convict ancestors has existed in Australia since early settlement. Between 1788 and the end of transportation in 1868, around 162,000 convicts were sent to the colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia.
An estimated one in five Australians has convict ancestry. In Tasmania, the figure is even higher. In 2009, 74% of Tasmania’s population was estimated to be descended from convicts.
From source of shame to pride
Today, a convict ancestor is a matter of pride, a connection to the rough and tumble of early Australia. But for past generations, including some convicts themselves, it was a shame that had to be hidden at all costs.
Freed convicts celebrated their fresh start by giving false or deliberately mis-spelt names to government officials. Some went to the effort of returning to England, then “emigrating” respectably as a free settler under a new or married name.
Following the end of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, the colony itself underwent a name change. In 1856, it was renamed Tasmania in an attempt to purge its convict past. The word “convict” was rarely used and access to the state’s convict records was closely guarded.
As late as the 1960s, Tasmania’s Library Board refused permission to doctoral student Peter Bolger to publish convict names for fear of embarrassing their descendants. When he published his thesis as the book Hobart Town, he cited the duplicate British records.
In an attempt to remove the convict stigma, in the early 1900s, the newly federated NSW government planned to destroy its convict records. It was held back only by concerns that the records might be the property of the British government.
Australia celebrated 150 years of European settlement in 1938. It was also the year in which the last transported convict died in Western Australia.
Attitudes towards convicts were changing. Australian nationalists began to view the penal past as an era when the British ruling class unjustly persecuted noble workers and revolutionaries. Sent to Australia because of their “struggles for freedom” or trivial offences, they had demonstrated their good character by founding a prosperous democracy.
But not everyone was happy to embrace Australia’s convict heritage. The Chronicle in Adelaide reported that officials organising a re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney as part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations had been insisting that the terms “transportees” or “deportees” should be used instead of “convict”. After a fair amount of ridicule, the following announcement was made:
The existence of convicts in early Australia will be officially recognised. Where necessary convicts will be included in the historical scenes, but no special float showing convict life will be included in the pageant. Neither will any attempt be made to single out convicts for special attention.
Meet the ancestors, whoever they were
In the 1950s and ‘60s, historians argued that Australians should not romanticise either the convict system or the people within it. Manning Clark and Alan Shaw viewed the convicts as a “disreputable lot”. They were considered to be perennial petty thieves who made an active choice to supplement their grinding poverty with criminal spoils, rather than suffering virtuously, like the poor people who didn’t have a criminal conviction.
Mollie Gillen memorably described them as:
… raggle-taggle nobodies … who walked the streets as idle and profligate persons.
In their book Convict Workers, first published in 1988, Stephen Nicholas and Peter Shergold challenged these assumptions. Their analysis of NSW convict records revealed a greater proportion of literate and skilled convicts than expected.
Further studies by Tasmanian historians such as Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Lucy Frost used the stories of individual convicts to provide insight into the convict system in general, revealing a more nuanced picture of convict lives.
Today, enough distance has passed to allow Australians to look back on their convict heritage with interest rather than repugnance. The former convict settlement of Port Arthur is a tourist attraction that draws more than 290,000 visitors a year. Convict descendants can research their ancestors’ stories through sites such as LINC, Tasmania’s online archives, the National Library’s TROVE newspapers and genealogy websites.
The proceedings of London’s Old Bailey court, where many convicts were sentenced, are available in a searchable online database. Some records contain information about convicts’ families, occupations and conduct records. There are detailed descriptions, including distinguishing features and tattoos.
And the fear that we might be cursed with a genetic predisposition towards criminal behaviour? A 2001 Victorian parliamentary report on crime in Australia found that, adjusted for population, Tasmania – with the highest proportion of convict descendants – had the second-lowest crime rate in the nation.