The British Empire’s dirty secret

January 25, 2022
Kanak labourers in a Qld sugarcane plantation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Kanak workers in a sugar cane plantation in Queensland in the late 19th century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire.
By Graham Seal,
Yale University Press, New Haven and London,
2021, 280pp $24.95

“Thieves, robbers and villains they’ll send ‘em away, To become a new people at Botany Bay...”

‒ From a popular street ballad sung around the time of the First Fleet in the late 1780s.

In Condemned: The Transported Men, Women and Children Who Built Britain’s Empire, historian and author Graham Seal documents how the British government, under various schemes, shipped more than 376,000 people to its colonies from the 17th century to the mid 20th century.

Classified as criminals, the poor, political rebels, or otherwise “superfluous”, they were rendered to the Americas, the West Indies, British Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore), Australia and elsewhere.

Coinciding with the rise of early capitalism in England and evolving from the medieval concept of banishment, transportation was first suggested by English historian Richard Hakluyt in his 1584 document Discourse of Western Planting. In it, Hakluyt argued that criminals, the poor and their children should be transported, stating that “Sturdy vagabonds”, and “the fry of wandering beggars of England that grow up idly, and … burdensome to this realm”, could provide labour for the developing colonies.

By the early 1600s, the English (later British) authorities started sending people to its colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. While profitable for the authorities, for those transported, the conditions were terrible. Hundreds of people were shoved below deck, mostly in chains, with little food and water, and no place to even lie down — resulting in disease and/or death for many. Those who survived the journey were forced into indentured servitude in the new settlements.

After the United States won its independence from the British in 1783, the British government found itself with a rising prison population, often forced to languish in rotting offshore prison ships known as Hulks. It was during this period the British started transporting convicts to Australia. Between 1788 and 1868 more than 160,000 convicts were transported to New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Western Australia.

Sentenced to be shipped off to the Australian colonies for up to seven years, the men, women and children transported to Australia were subject to great cruelties. Hard labour, treadmills, flogging and even hangings were common punishments for even the smallest infraction. Even after their term of imprisonment expired, convicts often didn’t have enough money to go home, so transportation was effectively a life sentence.

Many of the people transported to Britain’s colonies were political prisoners, such as Scottish religious dissenters, trade unionists and Irish Republicans. Many of these people drove acts of resistance in the colonies, such as the 1804 Vinegar Hill rebellion in New South Wales, the successful escape by Fenian prisoners from Fremantle jail abroad the Catalpa in 1876, as well as numerous mutinies and escape attempts.

A result of colonisation was the violent dispossession of First Nations peoples from their traditional lands, resulting in many of them being internally transported to penal settlements such as the Quod prison on Rottnest Island in Western Australia. From 1838 to 1904, more than 4000 Aboriginal men and boys were sent to do hard labour in appalling conditions, and it is estimated that more than 370 men and boys died. Even after the Quod prison was closed, Aboriginal prisoners were forced to build roads and other works projects up until 1931.

In the 1870s, the Queensland colonial government starting regulating a trade in South Pacific Islander labour to work its sugar cane fields. Although their employment was meant to be regulated under the 1872 and 1875 Pacific Islanders Protection Acts, the demands of the industry led to the practice of “Black birding”, where South Pacific islander men were lured to Queensland under false pretenses and forced to labour under slave-like conditions. This shameful practice is one of the legacies of Britain’s transportation policies.

The practice persisted from the 1860s until 1904, when the Australian government deported indentured labourers and their descendants under the White Australia Policy. However, several thousand remained, forming the basis of a 20,000-strong islander community residing mostly in North Queensland.

While transportation to Australia ceased in 1868, its legacy continued with various migration schemes. Destitute and orphaned children were sent from Britain to labour in settlements throughout the British Empire, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), from the late 19th century until the 1940s.

Using the same logic behind convict transportation, the British authorities saw these children as expendable and being able to service the labour needs of the colonies. This led to settlement schemes where many children endured abuse. It was only in 1981 that the last of these schemes, the Fairbridge farm school near Pinjarra in Western Australia, was closed. Campaigns and inquiries to expose these abuses eventually led to the British government establishing an ex gratia payment scheme for the victims in 2019.

Seal makes the case that another way in which Britain’s legacy persists in Australia is through its racist anti-refugee policy. Since the John Howard Coalition government instituted (with bipartisan support) what it called the “Pacific Solution” in 2001, people seeking asylum and refugees have been banished to offshore detention centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. Seal compares these places to the offshore Hulks, where prisoners suffer a similar form of bondage.

Seal has extensively used letters and documents — mostly first-hand accounts but also official records — to expose the cruelty and suffering of convicts, abductees, rebels and child migrants who were transported under various government and private schemes to provide slave labour for the British Empire.

While dwarfed by the Atlantic slave trade — under which it is estimated that up to 12 million African people were enslaved and sent to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries — the injustices of Britain’s transportation policies enabled its colonial system to profit at the expense of its victims.

Condemned plays a vital account in exposing this dirty secret.

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