10 Truly Messed Up Facts About Britain's Historical Relationship With Australia

Australia may seem idyllic, but its past is rooted in bloody colonialism at its worst. Britain and Australia's fraught relationship can be traced in the soil of the continent. What would become a massive country started as a colony of exiles and convicts that were no longer desired in England. Accompanying them were members of the British military, many of them sadistic and violent. The eventual founders of Australia lived in harsh conditions, battling hunger and the elements, and inflicting atrocities on the indigenous population.

The British presence in Australia had a high capacity for cruelty. Whether it was toward the convicts, native Australians, or each other, many members of the military could make life horrific for others. This led to rebellions, escape attempts, and even political coups. But the most grave injustices were the massacres against Aboriginal Australians who originally inhabited the continent. They're some of the most brutal British Empire stories of all time.

Keep reading to learn more about Australia's violent history and Britain's dark past.

  • Terrible Relations With Aboriginal Australians Led To Massacres

    Terrible Relations With Aboriginal Australians Led To Massacres
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / via Wikimedia Commons / No restrictions

    As the European settlers of Australia explored deeper into the continent, they encountered the Aborigines. The settlers disrupted the ecosystem and violated native land, quickly souring relationships with the native population. The Aborigines tried to fight back against the invaders, but their efforts were in vain: the British settlers murdered them with superior weapons.

    The terrible damage inflicted by the settlers didn't stop there. Over the next 100 years, 20,000 indigenous people were killed from a combination of violence, smallpox, and forced relocation.

  • Australia Started As England’s Penal Colony

    Australia Started As England’s Penal Colony
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    The prevailing belief in 18th century England was that criminals could not be rehabilitiated, and had to remain separate from the rest of society. But the prisons were becoming overcrowded. So, in 1788, the country shipped the first of about 50,000 criminals with sentences of seven years or more to Australia. The 736 convicts were sent under the rule of Captain Arthur Phillip, and after landing in Botany Bay, they began a settlement that would become a major country.

  • Female Convicts Were Often Forced Into Prostitution

    Female convicts were treated no better than their male counterparts, and in some cases much worse. Most of them were convicted for petty theft and exiled from England for at least seven years. Once they reached Australia, their options for survival were limited, but they usually included indentured work like the men. Many also became wives and mistresses to the men in the camp, but the combination of military men and convicts created an environment where women were frequently abused. For a number of these women, prostitution was the only way they could earn a living.

  • Aboriginal Australians Were Used As Slaves

    Aboriginal Australians Were Used As Slaves
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    After the American Civil War deprived the world of a steady cotton supply, cotton plantations were started in southern Queensland and sugar plantations were founded in the northeast. Aboriginal Australians were frequently removed from their homes to work these plantations, under the pretext of protection provided by the government. However, the "free" Aborigines never received their full wages - if they received any wages at all. They were also subject to violence, abuse, and horrific working conditions.

    Slavery was officially abolished in Australia in 1901 - the same year it became a Commonwealth.

  • English Settlers Tortured Convicts For Entertainment

    English Settlers Tortured Convicts For Entertainment
    Photo: Wellcome Library, London / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    Many of the British soldiers who made the voyage to Australia seemingly had a sadistic streak. Floggings were supposed to be used on convicts as a punishment for misconduct or refusing to work, but they quickly grew in popularity.

    Convicts would often be flogged with a short whip until they confessed to crimes or gave important information. These whips were made of strands of knotted leather, which would split the skin of the back and sometimes even expose bone. Some convicts died as a result of the beatings. As gruesome as the spectacle was, these punishments were frequently carried out in public, and settlers would watch for entertainment.

  • There Were Bloody Rebellions Against British Rule

    There Were Bloody Rebellions Against British Rule
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    With so many convicts and military personnel in the same place, an armed conflict was bound to happen. The Irish prisoners, still reeling from the Irish Rebellion in England, organized a resistance with the goal of escaping captivity. Their initial force of 200 men quickly grew after they attacked nearby settlements. The New South Wales Corps responded with force, cornering them. Major Johnston of the corps pointed a pistol at one of the rebel leaders and told him he would “blow his soul to hell” before attacking.

    The event became known as the Castle Hill Rebellion, or the Second Battle of Vinegar Hill, in reference to the earlier Irish Rebellion. In all, nine rebels were killed, 30 were exiled, and the rest were flogged.