Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Transportation to Australia 1787-1868

Although we are accustomed now to think of imprisonment as one of the more obvious forms of punishment for convicted criminals, this was not so in the past. Most criminal offences were punished by death or by a fine and/or whipping.

Transportation emerged during the seventeenth century as a humane alternative to the death penalty. Transportation was initially mainly to America, but the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 meant that this was no longer a possible destination. Sentences of transportation were still passed, but convicts were held in prison instead. Naturally these soon became overcrowded, and extra accommodation had to be provided in old ships (the ‘hulks’) moored in coastal waters.

The solution to the crisis was to develop a new penal colony and on 13 May 1787 the First Fleet set sail for Australia, 6 ships taking 717 convicts of which 48 died en route, arriving in January 1788 at Port Jackson. The names of the convicts transported are listed in P G Fidlon and R J Ryan, ed. The First Fleeters (Sydney, 1981). A list of convicts transported on the second fleet of ships, which left in 1789, and during which 278 died, has also been compiled in R J Ryan, ed. The Second Fleet Convicts (Sydney, 1982).

Transportation was not formally abolished until 1868, but in practice it was effectively stopped in 1857, and had become increasingly unusual well before that date. During those 80 years 158,702 convicts arrived in Australia from England and Ireland, and 1321 from other parts of the Empire, making a total of 160,023 men and women transported. A good account of the transportation system is given in R Hughes, The Fatal Shore (London, 1987).

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