The answer is not as easy at it appears.
When I was a lot younger I believed that our convicts were the result of Britain dumping them out here because they had nowhere else to go, at least that was what I was taught. In part that is true but there was a lot more to it than that.
To understand the true story we must go back to Britain’s, ‘Hulk Act’, of 1776. This was the start of the terrible prison ships that Britain employed for nearly eighty years. The act enabled them to house prisoners convicted of criminal offences in converted ships moored in the Thames River and other places as the need arose. The act was instigated because of the War of Independence in America that started in 1775 and went through to 1783. Prior to this time most of the convicts transported were sent to America at the rate of nearly 1,000 per year. This figure was disputed by Thomas Jefferson in 1786 by claiming the number would have amounted to only 2,000, total. He should have known better because by the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence about half of the 52,200 total transported ended up in his own state of Virginia.
So, when America shut the gate on convicts Britain had to resort to prison ships because their prisons were overflowing. This was the result of judicial leniency on executions. In the 1750’s 70% of convicts were being hung but by the time the First Fleet set sail convicts being hung were barely 25%.
By 1788 there were 60 prison hulks made up of about 40 ex-Royal Navy and 20 private hulks and all of them were bursting at the seams with convicts. More convicts died of disease in captivity than were ever exucuted.
If Cook landed in Australia in 1770 and within 12 months had reported his findings to the powers that be in Britain, the Battle of Independence commenced in 1775 and the ‘Hulk Act came into being in 1776 why did it take more than a decade to arrange the First Fleet?
There was a lot going on in England at the time with the ongoing war with France and Spain, the American War of Independence and of course the mounting problem of what to do with the convicts.
If it was just a matter of what to do with the convicts then it would have been far easier and cheaper to build more prisons than to transport convicts to Australia. The First Fleet cost 84,000 pounds ($153,620 Australian) which would have been 9.6 million pounds ($17,556,278.07 Australian) at 2015 figures. That’s a lot of money by anyone’s standards and when you consider that that was for only one fleet and there were many more to follow, then surely, they would have been able to build a number of prisons for that cost particularly since they had such a huge labour force readily available, the convicts themselves.
Britain transported more than 160,000 convicts to Australia. From the 11 ships of the First Fleet that left in 1787 and arrived in NSW in January 1788 to the Hougoumont that left Britain in 1867 and arrived in Western Australia in January 1868. That’s a span of almost exactly 80 years.
I had no idea that transportation of convicts to Australia went on for that long, particularly when at the time of the Hulk Act’s inception it was only expected that the prison ships would be in use for about two years.
Did you know that the convicts were given a choice? Either transportation or hanging! Tough choice aye!
So, there was a need to reduce the over-crowding in the prisons and prison ships and that is certainly one reason to transport the convicts to Australia but, as mentioned, it was not the only one.
To be continued so stay tuned.