Weird History

How Exactly Did Australia Become England's Penal Colony? 

Jessica Bedewi
Updated January 2, 2020 2.8k views 16 items

Providing a brief history of Australia is hardly possible, especially when you consider the nation's long and fraught history with Britain. Australia started as a penal colony - a place for lawbreakers to reside outside the confines of England's general population. Britain believed getting rid of responsible parties would end crime altogether, so it sent them across the ocean to the largest island in existence.

While many penal colonies in Australia were known for their heinous conditions, other British colonies across the ocean offered a chance for people to start fresh, with little connection to their past life of misconduct. But why did the British send convicts over to Australia in the first place? Opportunity combined with necessity provides a succinct explanation of Australia's origins as an English penal colony. 

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Photo: Thomas Rowlandson, Augustus Charles Pugin, John Bluck, Joseph Constantine Stadler, Thomas Sutherland, J. Hill, and Harraden/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
England Believed Convicts Were Part Of A 'Criminal Class' And Should Be Removed From The Country

From the years 1750-1900, England underwent changes to its punishment system. Before that time, punishments largely focused on shame and humiliation. Methods such as the stocks and whipping were the norm within England. Over time, however, much of the public increasingly considered those punishments to be barbaric and inhumane. Public opinion on appropriate consequences shifted, and the country had to find new ways to deal with its lawbreakers.

Thus the concept of transporting guilty parties out of the country rose in popularity. England believed all convicts were part of a "criminal class." By removing lawbreakers from the country, officials assumed they were chipping away at this defective group and thereby decreasing crime rates across the country.

Transporting Convicts To New Countries Allowed England To Build Up Overseas Colonies

Although transporting convicts out of the country allowed England to rid its population of the so-called "criminal class," it also served another purpose. By sending convicts to newly established overseas colonies, England expanded its realm of control without sacrificing members of its law-abiding citizenry. 

Creating new settlements demanded hard work. Convicts provided sorely needed labor for British colonies that allowed overseas communities to grow and thrive. It was a win-win scenario for England - it rid itself of supposedly harmful individuals while still employing its convicts as valuable resources necessary to expand the English empire. 

Convicts Were Originally Sent To America, But The American Revolution Interrupted The Process

Initially, England transported its convicts to America. It's estimated that around 2,000 were sent to the nine American settlements per year, totaling roughly 50,000 convicts transported across the Atlantic Ocean. The convicts committed a wide variety of misdeeds, ranging from political offenses to abductions. 

While sending convicts to America was a fairly efficient system for English officials, it was interrupted by the American Revolution. After the US formally gained independence in 1783, England could no longer send its felons to the newly sovereign country. 

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Photo: John Alexander Gilfillan/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Captain James Cook Claimed Australia As A British Colony In 1770

The major conflict of the American Revolution started in 1775, but England had already moved to expand its rule beyond the North American colonies. In 1770, Captain James Cook's voyage on the ship Endeavour established the first contact between the British Empire and Australia.

Cook landed in Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia, an area now known as New South Wales. He immediately claimed the country for the English Crown, bringing a new piece of land under British control.