So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Was Australia really founded by criminals? Australia being founded by criminals is a foundation myth that seems pretty strong, both within Australia, where I assume it fits the Australian self-image of independence and self-reliance and without, where it makes for a predictable set of Australian jokes. However, I have often read that criminals made up only a small proportion of early colonists, and Australia’s economic potential was much more important.


The penal colonies (plural!) were a central part of Australia and its development until the gold rushes of the 1850s, 70 years later.

In 1788, the British landed a fleet of ships near Sydney (the First Fleet), containing over 1,000 people, about three-quarters of whom were convicts. The bulk of the remaining people were marines and their families – not settlers, as such. Over the next 80 years, about 165,000 convicts were transported to various colonies around Australia: Sydney, Hobart, Brisbane, Perth, to name the main ones.

These are now four of the six state capital cities in this country. Only two capital cities were founded by free settlers: Melbourne and Adelaide.

Convicts provided a significant source of free labor for the settlers who came to Australia; they were, after all, sentenced to hard labor! The colony administrators would assign convicts to work for farmers and sheep grazers and builders and artisans and such – and to the colony administration itself. Convicts worked as builders, laborers, clerks, nurses, domestic servants, and more. It is not an exaggeration to say that the country was built with convict labor – there are (and were) countless buildings and roads and bridges across the country that were built by convict labor.

It was surprisingly uncommon for the convicts to rebel and attempt to flee, especially in the early years. They were stranded thousands of miles from home and surrounded by unfamiliar and deadly bushland. Most of them didn’t run. A few did, though. There was once a group of convicts who escaped and decided to walk back to England (they really didn’t quite comprehend where they were). But, most escape attempts were prevented by the sheer impossibility of getting home.

A few individual convicts did escape; some survived by living with the Aborigines. William Buckley is a famous example of this. He lived with a local Aboriginal tribe for 32 years before he was found again. Those convicts who did escape were sometimes assisted by the Aboriginals’ belief that these pale-skinned people were actually the reincarnations of dead tribe members. On a side note, many of the ‘handlers’ were themselves convicts: “trusties”. A few of these let the power get to their heads, and become petty tyrants. But, most were good responsible people. But, overall, attempts to escape or rebel was infrequent.

Many convicts had only a fixed term sentence: 7 years, or 14 years (only a very few were sentenced for life). At the end of this, they were free. Most of them stayed in Australia and became settlers and merchants and artisans themselves. They married (or not!) and had children. Some ex-convicts went on to become respected members of the fledgling society around them. Convicts and ex-convicts were a large part of the growing Australian society.

In terms of numbers, the convicts and ex-convicts were in the majority for decades. In the main colony of New South Wales (Sydney is the capital), for example, convicts started at about 75% of the population in 1788, gradually dropping to about 60% in 1796. There’s a further drop to about 30% by 1805 – probably reflecting the fact that many of the earlier convicts had completed their sentences. The numbers then climb again, to hover around 40% of the population until the mid-1830s. So, for at least the first half-century of New South Wales’ existence, most people were either convicts, ex-convicts, or the children of convicts (known as “currency lads and lasses”, because they weren’t as good as the true “sterling” settlers).

The transportation of convicts continued until the colonies themselves fought to have it ended in the mid-1800s, as more and more free settlers arrived. There was concern that the free labor provided by convicts was unfairly competing against the paid labor of settlers, whose work prospects were thereby reduced. The final convict transport ship arrived in 1853.

It was around this time that gold was discovered in the Australian outback – most famously near Ballarat. This started a whole new wave of immigration which diluted the convict influence in Australia. But, until that time, convicts and ex-convicts were an immense part of Australia and its development.

Something to bear in mind is that while convicts/former convicts/descendants of convicts were the majority at times and a large minority even today, they weren’t really involved in any positions of power. Speaking from a Tasmanian perspective, having convict heritage was considered something quite shameful up until the 1970s even 80s. Off the top of my head, Kevin Rudd (Australian PM 2007-2010) was the first Australian Prime Minister to speak proudly of his convict heritage.

So yes, Australia was founded by criminals in the sense that they built the stuff and lived all over the place. But not in the ‘Founding Fathers’ sense.

(Apologies, but this is necessarily a summarized overview of the period. There are more subtleties and nuances involved, which requires books to cover properly.)

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Last Update: October 6, 2016

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