When we think of the history of Australia we often only think of convicts like rapists and murderers from England being banished to the faraway colonies. First of all, Australia already existed and had a history before the West set foot in present-day Oceania; namely Aboriginal culture. Second of all, did you know that only a very small percentage of the convicts were murderers and the large majority was made up of poor citizens trying to survive by pickpocketing, forgery or taking part in other petty crimes. The Barracks Museum in Sydney tells just some of their stories.
The Bloody Code
The Industrial Revolution and soaring population growth caused poverty and misery. To decrease crime and social unrest, authorities implemented a cruel penal code in the 17th and 18th centuries. Eventually, more than 200 crimes were punishable by death, including pick-pocketing more than a shilling, cutting down trees, forgery, piracy, being an unmarried woman concealing a stillborn child. Public executions were supposed to scare people and deter crime, but instead they became a mass entertainment.
Here you can see a long list of convicts, their crimes and punishment. Examples: manslaughter – seven years, and picking pockets – life? I don’t really see the logic here…
Transportation to a penal colony became the ‘humane’ alternative to death by hanging or prison time. Convicted criminals in the overcrowded jails could be made ‘useful’ to the mother country if taken to places where their labour was needed. Britain shipped convicts first to America from 1718, and to its Australian colonies from 1787. Men, women and children were sentenced to transportation across the seas for seven or fourteen years, or for life. Most convicts had little prospect of returning home, but ‘life’, even at the other side of the world, surely was better than the alternative.
As many as 50,000 transported convicts passed through Hyde Park barracks between 1819 and 1848. This exhibition just tells some of their stories. For the first 30 years of the colony, convicts had extraordinary freedom. There was no jail or barracks to house them, so they had to find their own lodgings in the town. Governor Macquarie established this barracks in order to control the convicts’ working and living arrangements. The building itself is a monument to his aspirations to improve the penal colony and transform it into a thriving new society.
Conditions in Britain led to a huge increase in the number of convicts sent to the colony after 1815. Some 14,000 new convicts arrived in just five years, and the barracks played a significant role in housing, sorting and assigning them. Build to hold 600 men, at times it housed up to 1300.
Many traces of convict lives remain. Inked into shipping ledgers and court records are minute personal details of men, women and children – their scars and tattoos, names and aliases, crimes and sentences. Treasured keepsakes tell of love, pain and distance. But there are other stories too – of opportunity, new lives and family. Most convicts served out their sentences and blended into society as ‘free’ citizens.
You can find the museum at Queens Square, Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW 2000. Adult tickets are $12, Concession tickets (students, seniors, etc) $8. Definitely worth a visit if you like to learn more about Sydney’s convict history!
Source: The Barracks Museum