AUSTRALIA AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Associate Harry L. Walen describes how the settling of Australia by the British Crown was influenced by loss of the American colonies — and that some of the people involved in the early growth of our nation and the subcontinent had similar backgrounds.

As the time for the America's Cup race off Perth, Australia drew near, so also did interest in this vast subcontinent increase. There are many similarities between the governments and the life styles of our two countries. The frontier spirit of the United States of America is reflected in that of Australia, which many think of now as the "Last Frontier." The fact that Australia is on the other side of the planet Earth — at the "antipodes", at least 22 hours from Boston even on the wings of a 747 — is undoubtedly a major reason that it is not better known to us.

The possibility of connections between the development of Australia and our American Revolution, however, had never occurred to me until my wife and I visited Australia in 1985 — not, let it be said, in connection with the Cup races! At that time, reading the newspapers and conversing with residents, I became suddenly aware that Captain Cook had claimed Australia for the British Crown in 1770 and that in 1788 England established a penal colony near Port Jackson, which later became Sydney. The Columbia Encyclopedia says, "Australia was long used as a dumping ground for criminals, bankrupts and other undesirables from the British Isles."

Obviously, the English peopling of Australia began at this time. With convicts came supervisors, a military force to back them up, support services, wives and families, and subsequently entrepreneurs seizing on a possible source of inexpensive labor and adventurers seeking opportunity. The 19th century saw the development ofsuch agrarian industries as wheat farming and sheepraising, and the discovery of metal ores, with mining and smelting. Australia was-on its way.

Strong Convict Element
During our subsequent visit in 1986 we became keenly aware of the convict background as we visited Macquarie Harbor and Sarah Island in Tasmania, which housed penal colonies between 1803 and 1853. The television documentary serial, "... for the Term of His Natural Life...", dramatized the story of an early convict and brought that period into sharp focus.

"What," I wondered, "did England do with these convicts and bankrupts and political undesirables before the discovery of Australia? And why did they choose Australia at this particular time? And where did all the miscreants come from? Had there been a sudden crime wave in England?" And then it hit me like a stroke of lightning, so obvious that I felt a little foolish. Of course — Hadn't England formerly transported debtors, bondspeople, convicts sometimes to islands in the Caribbean and more frequently to the American colonies? And after the Revolution broke out — an event which at first must have seemed, to the British authorities, merely a civil outbreak — no further miscreants could be transported there. 

Gang labor on the Great West Road
Gang labor on the Great West Road. (National Library of Australia)

How fortuitous it must have seemed to the penal authorities in England to have a new, unpeopled colonial possession to receive those sentenced to be transported. Wasn't it, then, the American Revolution that was a direct antecedent of the early development of Australia as a penal colony — one composed of Englishmen many of whom had a tradition of lawlessness and little reason to love their mother country — and thereby indirectly responsible for the establishment of Australia as a nation?

End of War Stimulates Action

Was I off base in my assumptions? Where could I find further information about this subject? Reading in encyclopedias and historical reference books, I found references to The Story of Australia, by A.L. Shaw, the Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sydney, Australia, a "popular"history of Australia printed in Great Britain, and released in 1954 by Roy Publishers of New York. From this book I have excerpted the following passages:

On page 33, Mr. Shaw summarizes Sir James Cook's reports on the discoveries along the coast of what we now know as Australia, and then writes, "For fifteen years the (British) government did nothing. Involved in the difficulties of the American War of Independence, it had no time to consider any possibilities of settlement in the remote antipodes. Yet it was this American war that finally gave the stimulus to action; for the loss of the American colonies raised a number of problems for British statesmen.

What was now to be done with the convicts hitherto transported to America? What could be done, if anything, for the American `loyalists'? And for British trade?"

He goes on to describe the "fantastic state" of English criminal law in the late 18th century, the frequently futile attempts to ensure law and order with an inadequate police force and by the levying of extreme punishments to "deter offenders" and the reprieving of many convicted offenders from public execution in London "on condition of their being transported to the colonies, while many were sentenced to transportation in the first place, so that before the American War of Independence about a thousand criminals were sent to Virginia and Maryland every year.

"No wonder, then, that the war caused an overcrowding of the gaols (jails), which had never been intended to hold large numbers of convicted prisoners for long terms of imprisonment. No wonder either, that the hulks, fitted out on the Thames as a temporary, emergency measure to hold the convicts until they could again be trans-ported (shades of Great Expactations, by Charles Dickens!) were soon overcrowded also."

Settling Begins in Late 1700s
Shaw details the debate in England as to what to do with "four thousand convicts crowding the hulks and the county gaols." Finally in May 1787 "the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth (England), and on 26 January 1788 Governor Phillip, with his party of 1030, including 736 convicts, landed at Sydney Cove, in Port Jackson, New South Wales." From the home government Phillip soon requested "free settlers"; land grants were made to officers and marines; "emancipated" convicts, who had completed their terms, were given grants. By 1800 there was an increasing mixture of people in more than one location, providing the first stable English population of Australia.

Road gang near Sydney
A road gang in the bush near Sydney, c.1835. (National Library of Australia)

"Now, wait up a moment," thought I there was such a strong background for developing the life style of Australia, mustn't there have been something similar for those parts of colonial America that formerly had harbored the bankrupts and the convicts?" I remembered reading in the National Geographic that even in the middle of the 17th century, after many early inhabitants of Jamestown had died from malaria and other swamp-country diseases, or removed to Williamsburg, troops drummed the laborers from barracks to fields and woods to labor, back for a midday meal, thence to the fields and woods, and finally each day back to the barracks for food and sleep — certainly not a picture of the lives of free-born Englishmen. How many of our own early settlers, then, had been transported from England? How much of the character of our own early colonials had been moulded from such a background?

As a matter of fact, I have frequently wondered what forces had shaped the common man to follow the leadership in rebellion. There was, indeed, a sense of independence in frontier life. That England economized by allowing — indeed, even encouraging! — colonists to bear arms to defend themselves on the frontier (France had kept troops for this purpose, so that the peasant farmer immigrants had not developed this arms-bearing tradition.) — had produced an armed citizenry. But these elements could not entirely have shaped the reason for rebellion, although they did document one reason for its success.

Punishment by labor on maritime projects
Punishment by labor on maritime projects. (National Library of Australia)

There were, of course, many whose memories of England were not of thehappiest — people who had left religious oppression to fashion their own lives according to their beliefs, and others who had left under duress, as indentured servants, bondspeople, bankrupts or as convicts. Complete independence from a stern mother may have seemed to be a desirable goal.

Is it possible that we see pressures that could have played a part in setting the stage for the beginning of the American Revolution and then providing the impetus for seeing it to its sometimes almost impossible conclusion? Do we see England's safety valve blown off, only to be replaced by another in Australia? We do in fact see this vast subcontinent starting its national life as a penal colony of Great Britain. And, looking at common factors in our backgrounds, we descendants of the Founders and Patriots of America and Sons of the American Revolution can now see an historical link between the two countries that has been passed over too lightly.

It is interesting to note that a Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution has been formed recently in Sydney, Australia.