Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Matters of Conviction

Long, long time between posts. Sorry, guys.

Most of us of Anglo descent in Australia have convicts in our families. It used to be a point of shame. After all, these people had broken the law and been forcibly removed from society. Their arrival in Australia was a matter of punishment, not choice. And who wanted to admit to a criminal in the family?

My grandmother was always very proud of the fact that her grandmother was a free settler who arrived in South Australia, a colony that did not have convicts. She never told us that her grandfather was the son of a convict. That was kept very quiet.

Convicts going to work nr. Sidney N.S. Wales, Edward and James Backhouse, 1842. State Library of Tasmania
How things have changed. Now there is a certain cachet in claiming convict ancestors. A vicarious thrill, perhaps? Or a pride in being part of the beginnings of this country, albeit involuntarily, particularly if you can claim a First Fleeter. I get that, I feel that (the latter). But it all seems to come with a certain amount of romanticising. We are all familiar with the idea of the wrongful conviction, or the plea of "they were driven to it". When you talk to people, so many convicts seem to have been sent out for stealing a loaf of bread. But go and look at the records and a different picture emerges. Yes, there were clear cases of stealing to survive, grabbing some food to feed the starving family, but that was not all that was being taken, and the reason for the crime was not always so pitiable. Clothes were a popular target, along with household items and linen. These were largely taken to resell, and not all thefts were from the rich. There are few real Robin Hoods in real life. Then there was the theft of animals - sheep stealing and the like. Counterfeiting, or "coining" was also a common offence. And don't forget assault. Quite a number of our convict ancestors were violent thugs or career criminals. Whether crimes could be justified or not, there was little that was romantic about any of it.

Undeniably there was poverty, no social welfare, and if you think the workhouse was an option, go and actually read "Oliver Twist". Life for the lower classes was hard and tough and cruel. But not everyone resorted to crime to get by. There was a concept of right and wrong, and people strove to do the right thing. For those who took the lower path, transportation rather than hanging gave the convicted a second chance and many found that they could do the right thing when the opportunity arose. What they achieved here was remarkable.

Almost all my convict ancestors I have found did commit an offence. Whether or not the punishment was proportionate is another matter entirely, but the fact remains that they were guilty. I say almost all because there is one clearly wrongful conviction and one that is very suspicious, but all the others definitely deserved their day in court.

I have had to accept my family's convict past. Unlike my grandmother I have no trouble doing so. It is a fact of history and that is all there is to it. Quite frankly, it is a surprise to find a free settler when I go looking, the number of convicts far outweighs them. And convicts leave a wonderful paper trail to follow.

So, over the next little while I am intending to write about some of my convict ancestors. Some stories will be more sketchy than others, that's the way of family history. We will see what comes out.

1 comment: