Convicts and Colonisation


Did you know that the very first convicts to land in Australia did so in 1788? This was part of a transportation system that was put into place in Britain to ease their crime rates. At the time, most people were arrested for stealing, and they were often incarcerated on hulks - prison ships. The penal colony was under the charge of Arthur Phillip, who later became the first governor of New South Wales. Australia was also claimed to be 'empty land', or terra nullius in Latin, which gave them justification for taking First Nations land around Sydney Cove. While the British government claimed that transportation was a more humane alternative to execution, many of the convicts sent to Australia suffered from terrible conditions. Many died during the voyage, and those who survived were often met with hostile Indigenous Australians who were being dispossessed of their land.

Crime in Europe

Crime rates in Britain were high in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was primarily due to the fact that there was no police force at the time. As a result, people often resorted to crime in order to make a living. The most common crimes were theft and robbery.


There was widespread poverty in Britain at the time, and many people were forced to steal in order to survive. Many people who were arrested were quite young and starving. The average age of a criminal in Britain was just 21. The most common items they stole were food, clothing, and money.


The punishment for stealing in Britain at the time was usually imprisonment. However, so many people were being arrested for minor crimes, that the regular prisons soon ran out of room for them. The British government came up with a clever solution. They decided to use old warships as prisons. They tied up the unused ships on rivers and locked criminals in them.

However, even the hulks began to run out of room and the government needed a third solution. It was decided that to get rid of the huge number of prisoners, they would simply send them overseas. 


A system of transportation that was put into place in 1717. The British government decided that transportation would be a more humane alternative to execution. They believed that sending people to distant colonies would give them a second chance at life. This involved sending people to penal colonies in America or Australia. 


Australia was claimed to be 'empty land', or terra nullius' in Latin, which gave the British justification for taking First Nations land around Sydney Cove. The British government believed that they had the right to claim any land that was uninhabited. Terra nullius was used to justify the dispossession of Indigenous Australians and the theft of their land.

The First Fleet

In 1787, the British government decided to establish a penal colony in Australia. A penal colony is a settlement that is used to house criminals. The British government believed that Australia would be an ideal place to send their convicts because it was so far away from Britain. They also thought that the climate would be better for their health.


The First Fleet was a group of 11 ships that set sail from Portsmouth, England in May 1787. The fleet was commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip. It consisted of around 700 convicts, 200 soldiers, and 30 sailors. Most of the convicts were sentenced to seven years, but some were given life sentences. While transportation was seen as a more humane alternative to execution, many of the convicts sent to Australia suffered from terrible conditions. Many died during the voyage.


The fleet arrived in Botany Bay, Australia in January 1788, but it was decided that the site was unsuitable for a penal colony. A few weeks later, the fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, which is now known as Sydney Harbour. The penal colony was under the charge of Arthur Phillip, who later became the first governor of New South Wales.


The convicts were immediately put to work building houses and farms. They were also assigned to work gangs on public projects such as road-building. Many of the convicts were treated harshly and were frequently flogged. However, some were given preferential treatment in return for good behavior.

After a few years, the colony began to thrive. A school was established and churches were built. The convicts were also given land to farm. This made them less likely to turn to crime. The First Nations peoples in the area were not happy about the arrival of the British. They had already been dispossessed of their land and resources by European settlers. Clashes between the two societies rapidly increased, which would later lead to significant conflicts as European settlers expanded their control over the land.


As the colony grew, more and more free settlers arrived from Britain. They brought with them their families, farmers, laborers, and businesses. This led to a rapid expansion of the colony.


By 1868, the transportation of convicts to Australia had come to an end. Around 160,000 convicts had been transported to Australia during this time period. It is estimated that one in every ten Australians is descended from a convict.


The establishment of the penal colony marked the beginning of British settlement in Australia. The first years were very difficult for the colonists. They had to face harsh conditions and hostile Indigenous Australians. However, over time, they managed to establish themselves and create a new society. 


The colony also marked a time of dramatic impacts on the Indigenous peoples because of the dispossession of their land and resources. The British established a system of law and governance that would shape the country for centuries to come, which often did not recognise the First Nations as holding any legal right to Australia.