Monday, July 16, 2012

Send Us Convicts to Mind Our Sheep!

The Resumption of Transportation Debate

In 1839, transportation of convicts to Moreton Bay ceased, the Brisbane penal settlement closed, and the region opened up to free settlers.  During the 1840s the pastoral industry boomed and by 1850 there were over two million sheep in what was then known as the Northern Districts of the New South Wales Colony.  The squatters were desperately short of labour and had begun to import Chinese coolies.

Although convict transportation had officially ceased, the British started a new scheme in 1844 to thin out their prison population.  Prisoners of good conduct could opt to serve out the rest of their sentences as “exiles” in Australia.  They would be free to work for pay but had to remain in the district to which they were assigned.  In the colonies these convicts were known as “Pentonville Exiles” because most of them came from the newly built Pentonville Prison in London.

Convicts exercising in Pentonville Prison

The scheme was not popular in the colonies as it had the scent of a return to the old convict days.  By 1849, the southern settlements refused to allow convict ships to land in their ports.  Subsequently, the final group of “Pentonville Exiles” set sail for the Moreton Bay Settlement. The Moreton Bay Courier reported the news.

A New Convict Settlement.-Her Majesty's Secretary for the Colonies having consented to the transportation of convicts to Moreton Bay, New South Wales, a vessel is about to be despatched with 400 males to that colony, a great number being Pentonville exiles, who from good conduct have had their sentences mitigated.[1]

The arrival of the convict ship caused great excitement in Brisbane, and the exiles were snapped up by labour starved employers, even by those who, the local correspondent observed wryly, were previously outspoken opponents of convict transportation.


IMMEDIATELY on the arrival of the prison ship “Mountstuart Elphinstone” having been made known yesterday morning, a general excitement was evident amongst such of the employers of, labour, and   agents of such persons, as were in town. It was intimated that the men would re- main on board of the ship until hired, and that they were to be removed at the expense of the persons who engaged them, but that the vessel would not be suffered to remain longer than ten days, at the utmost, in this port, as she was under engagement to return to Sydney with the military guard and surplus stores.

The Mountstewart Elphinstone 1840

The arrangement was almost prudent one on the part of the Commissariat authorities, and was exactly suited to the capacities of those for whom it was intended. Accordingly the bait was eagerly snapped at, and there was a general rush to engage boats and other aquatic conveyances for the bay.

Amongst the most eager of the competitors, Asmodeus[2] would have smiled to see many of the bold patriots who were lately loudest in their condemnation of the convict system. Alas! human nature is frail, and it would be too much to expect that conscience should be placed in unprofitable opposition to business. However, the principals and delegates started off to the ship yesterday, and in all probability before this sheet is dry the whole of the prisoners on board will have been engaged, the completion of their sentences of transportation having been kindly undertaken by the colonists.

Thus was the great debate regarding free labour, convict labour, and Chinese labour ignited.  Public meetings were called to discuss the issue.  In January 1850 a rowdy meeting of “squatters and other employers of labour” was held in Ipswich.  The gathering assembled at the Court House but then moved to innkeeper George Thorn's billiard room.

Ipswich Court House, 1860

The CHAIRMAN opened the meeting by stating that he was happy to see so many employers of labour present upon this important occasion. He   was sorry that there was any difference of opinion as regarded the proposed introduction of exiles. It was not disputed that the supply of labour was unequal to the demand, and the only question was whether employers would or would not be prepared to receive exiles, as they could not get free immigrants.[3]

The proposition was put by Mr. Bigge, a prominent squatter, who spoke in favour of the resumption of transportation.

Mr. BIGGE read the proposition, which was to the effect that the continuance of transportation to Moreton Bay was desirable, and that a memorial ought to be adopted, soliciting the Secretary of State for the Colonies to send out exiles, accompanied by an equal number of free immigrants.

Flocks and herds were increasing rapidly, but population did not increase in proportion. As they wanted labour, he would rather have the pick of gaols than the refuse of workhouses.[4]

A large mob of sheep in Western Queensland

The Reverend Stewart rose to oppose the proposition and to propose an amendment.

The Rev. C. STEWART had an amendment to propose, to the effect that the resumption of transportation would be injurious to the moral, social, and political welfare of the colony.

He could give many reasons in favour of the amendment. If only self respect was considered, it should be sufficient to induce them to oppose the introduction of the filth of the earth, and the scouring» of gaols.

Employers said that their property was wasted for want of labour, and if they could not get good they must have bad men. But he wanted to show them that society was based on rules which circumstances could not affect; that they should support starving and virtuous families, in preference to those who had broken the rules of decorum and virtue. It seemed that persons who had transgressed against those rules, and who, in consequence, were condemned to be transported,   were wanted by the squatters.[5]

Patrick Leslie, a wealthy squatter on the Darling Downs and a major employer, naturally opposed the amendment.  He spoke eloquently amid many interjections, when appeared in the newspaper report in square brackets.  He turned the debate to the question as to whether they wanted exiles or Chinese labourers.

The Honourable Patrick Leslie, Squatter

Mr. P. LESLIE was opposed to the amendment, and, if they would allow him, he would quietly state his reasons. It had been already stated, and was well known to every person of experience in the colony, that more labour must be obtained from some source or other: for that, as the flocks and herds increased in a greater proportion than the increase of the population, a continuous influx of fresh persons was required to keep pace with the demands of the flock masters. The mode that was now offered to supply this want was by the introduction of exiles. ["No convicts!"]

They were not convicts, but held most of the privileges of free men. It was known to everybody there that no distinction was made between old hands[6] and immigrants. ["There is! There is!"]

An "Old Hand" Ex-convict
Leslie then tried to turn the discussion into a choice between exiles and Chinese.

The question before the meeting was not whether they would receive exiles or immigrants, but whether they would receive Chinese and Coolies with immigrants. ["No Chinese!" and loud cheers]

He had been fifteen years in the colony, and had been a large employer of labour; he had had government men[7] in his employment, and he had not the ingratitude to say that his government men had ruined him; far from it. He had never found any difference between those men and immigrant labourers. There were good and bad of both parties.[8]

One speaker rose to challenge Leslie’s spin on the question at hand.

Mr. RICHARDSON, in supporting the amendment, said that there was an error he wished to correct. Mr. Leslie had said that the question was exiles or Chinese and Coolies. Now, although he (the speaker) advocated free labour, he neither wanted Chinese nor Coolies.

He would rather pay a free man £20 a year than one of those "exiles" £12. While he claimed candour for himself, he gave Mr. Leslie credit for the same, but he agreed with a speaker at one of the Brisbane meetings, that "cheap labour," so called, was in the end dear labour! He observed by the late papers that 37 English ships were laid on for these colonies in the month of September ("But none for Moreton Bay."). The introduction of exiles would be hurtful to every working man.

Anti- Chinese Immigration Cartoon

The meeting ended with no consensus reached by the squatters and their opponents.

Eventually the Chairman decided that the majority of the meeting was certainly ¡n favour of the amendment; but that a majority of the employers of labour was in favour of the resolution." Judging from appearances, it seemed likely that the graziers who voted for the resolution, and the other gentlemen who voted with them, were larger employers of labour, in the aggregate, than were those who voted on the other side: but it was purely a public meeting; evidently made so only from some strong faith in an influence over the labouring men; and which faith was without any solid foundation.

Ultimately the campaign to reintroduce the transportation of British convicts failed.  A few years later a more acceptable source of labour was found – the German States.  The first emigrant ships which sailed directly from Hamburg arrived in Moreton Bay in 1855.  By the end of the 19th century, one third of the population of Queensland was either born in Germany or was of German descent.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier Monday 30 July 1849
[2] Hebrew King of Demons
[3] The Moreton Bay Courier Monday 14 January 1850
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier Monday 14 January 1850
[5] The Moreton Bay Courier Monday 14 January 1850
[6] Old ex-convicts.
[7] Ticket of Leave men.
[8] The Moreton Bay Courier Monday 14 January 1850

1 comment:

  1. very interesting.have never read any of this valuable information until today .good work on somebodies part.