Early Australian Convict Transportation

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The vast majority of the 162,000 convicts sent to Australia between 1787 and 1868 were transported by private contractors. And for the first three decades, from 1787 until around 1815, these contractors, and their agents on board the ships - the ships' officers, the surgeons, and the crew members - were also responsible for the day-to-day management of the convicts. Thereafter, the ships' owners and operators continued to play a significant role in the process of transportation, but day-to-day management of the prisoners themselves was primarily the responsibility of government-appointed surgeon superintendents.

With the exception of Charles Bateson in his 1959 classic, The Convict Ships, and Michael Flynn, in the introduction to his biographical database of the Second Fleet (1993), historians have paid little attention to the emergence and development of the transportation system.

No one has closely studied the chain of contracts that cascaded from the Navy Board (and from 1794, the Transport Board) to the convict contractor to the ship owners, to the ship's master to the individual members of the crew, and how these contracts were enforced. To date, no historian has sought to explain the legal framework that allowed private contractors to discipline convicts at sea, or the system of law and administrative practice that enabled convicts to protest at ill-treatment.

There is still no definitive account of life among the convicts on the lower deck - how the convicts were housed; how they were clothed and fed; what their toilet arrangements were; how (and how often) the prisoners washed; what arrangements were made for the sick; what private property they took with them; how some of them were able to buy provisions and trade goods on the outward voyage; how some were employed by the ships' officers throughout the voyage. . .

Little is known of the early convict contractors, and what little has been published has often been wrong. Not much is known about the ships themselves or the ships' officers. And virtually nothing has been written about the homeward voyage, which was essential to making the voyage to Botany Bay a commercial proposition. One of the consequences of this latter oversight is that historians have failed to appreciate the dangers associated with a voyage to and from the Antipodes in the late 18th century - of the 28 vessels that carried convicts and stores to New South Wales in the first five years of European settlement, one in four never made it home.

In recent years, a number of academic studies have looked at mortality rates, but (influenced by Bateson) they have focused on 1815 as the turning point, the year after surgeon superintendents were appointed. Recent research by the moderator of this site and some of his academic colleagues, has shown that while mortality rates did fall after 1815, they fell a great deal more around 1800, following a series of reforms initiated by an Irish surgeon and inspector of convict ships, Jeremiah Fitzpatrick.

This wiki is a study of how convict transportation actually worked in the first decade and a half, from 1787 (when the First Fleet sailed) until 1800. The sample of 59 convict transports and store ships is small enough to identify every document relating to these vessels, and large enough to provide detailed insight into how the system worked and how it changed over time.

It draws upon the research for a forthcoming book on the Botany Bay trade in these early years, and seeks to make available to professional researchers and family historians, the results of more than fifteen years of research in British and Australian archives. This vast archive of material will be published on this site over time.

- Gary L. Sturgess

Gary L. Sturgess holds the New South Wales Premier's Chair of Public Service Delivery at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the University of New South Wales. He is also Professor of Public Service Innovation at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He is a leading international authority on the design and management of public service markets, and brings to the study of convict transportation a practical understanding of the design and management of effective public service contracts. He is the former Director General of the NSW Cabinet Office and was awarded the Order of Australia in 2005 for services to government.

His great, great grandfather, James Sturgess, was sent to Australia in 1847 for stealing books.

Gary Sturgess can be contacted at gary@sturgess.org

What I'm Reading

Erica Charters, 'Disease, War and the Imperial State: The Welfare of the British Armed Forces during the Seven Years' War', University of Chicago Press, 2014.

One of the reasons why Australian convict transportation is worthy of study by a wider community of scholars, is that this was one of the earliest examples of the state becoming involved in public health management. The surgeon superintendents who were appointed to manage the convicts throughout the voyage from 1815, were responsible for ensuring that the convicts cleaned themselves and their berths, and that they regularly changed their clothes, and not merely for attending to them when they were ill. Prior to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, former naval surgeons could not be spared for this service, but from the turn of the century, the Home Office and the Transport Board issued instructions to the ships' surgeons, and scrutinised their conduct upon arrival in the colony. So successful was this scheme, that it was later adopted on emigrant ships, and on vessels carrying indentured servants from India to the West Indies and Africa.

Public health regulations were issued on some troop ships throughout late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly on voyages to and from the East Indies, but there is (as yet) no evidence that it was routinely done. Erica Charters provides us with yet another precedent. It is understandable that military commanders would be concerned about the physical wellbeing of their men: what was not clear to me until I recently read her book, was that this involved them in supervising their dietary and sanitary arrangements.

Once again we find ourselves in the seemingly mundane world of resource management and logistics. Charters belongs to that tradition of naval studies which is concerned with bureaucracy and administration. This movement was launched by Ian Christie at University College London in the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequently pursued by his students Mary Condon, David Syrett, Norman Baker, Roger Knight and Roger Morriss. It was, in a sense, an outgrowth of John Brewer's work on the fiscal-military state, paying close attention to how public resources were spent, as Brewer had been concerned about their collection.

Inevitably, this led the members of this school, most notably Syrett, Baker and Knight, to study the role of contracting in the repeated success of the British military throughout the long 18th century. Even the American War of Independence, the one war which the British did not win, was remarkable in the logistical support that was provided for an army operating four thousand miles from home.

Roger Morriss concluded his 2011 book, 'The Foundations of British Maritime Ascendancy', with the observation: "It was the capability of the military bureaucracy which assured Britain if victory at sea and of an effective army in its land campaigns. The success of this state bureaucracy in turn depended upon reform in government, partnership with the private sector, and experience in managing support for the armed forces by sea."

Roger Knight concluded his 2010 study of naval victualling throughout the French and Napoleonic Wars: "Success in war was not only dependent upon a plentiful supply of money, but also the ability to spend it to best effect. It has long been established that the British state was more adept at tapping taxpayers' purses than its rivals, but its ability to spend that money wisely was equally important. It did so through a multitude of departments much like the Victualling Board. Their administrative acumen and their effective engagement with and management of countless contractors gave Great Britain the decisive edge in the Great Wars with France."

Erica Charters has taken a similar approach to the management of disease in the military, with particular focus on the Seven Years War, and it is thus unsurprising that it was Roger Knight who referred me to this book. Charters argues that 'Britain's fiscal-military power was necessary for victory, but it was also the conservation of manpower and the prudent use of resources that ensured global success. . . The successful fiscal-military state was a caring fiscal-military state, one that paid attention to and invested in the welfare of its armed forces'. (p.3)

Because of the theories of disease that prevailed at the time, particularly the miasma hypothesis as to the dissemination of disease, the health of the troops was seen as a question of good management. This was particularly so with the crowding diseases, most notably typhus (known as among soldiers as camp fever, and among convicts, as gaol fever). While the vector which spread typhus would not be known fun til the early 20th century, the importance of ventilation, exercise and clean quarters was widely recognised (albeit for the wrong reasons). An outbreak of camp fever reflected very badly on the senior officers. While it was entirely misconceived, the miasma theory drove a search for systemic solutions.

It would not be until the 1930s that the role of Vitamin C in preventing scurvy would be understood, but military officers and medical practitioners of the mid-18th understood that fresh fruit and vegetables were fundamental in the fight against this disease. This was not discovered by James Lind or James Cook. The problem was that they had no way of preserving fruit and vegetables on a long ocean voyage or through the long northern winters. But this fact - the recognition of a link between diet and scurvy - meant that an outbreak of the disease in circumstances where it could have been prevented reflected very badly on the managerial capabilities of the officers in question.

Military commanders ordered seeds from their headquarters, they planted gardens so as to have a supply of fresh vegetables in the spring and summer, and they were criticised by the press and by the general public when they presided over large mortality rates among their troops.

Of course, the convicts sent to New South Wales were not regarded as a national resource in the same way that her soldiers were - although the Governors who were responsible for the administration of the colony certainly did (and particularly in the early years). But high mortality rates on the Second Fleet (1790), and later on the Hillsborough (1798) and the Atlas (1802) were looked upon as a failure of management, and those who were responsible for the management systems were closely scrutinised.

Charters helps us to understand why management - good and bad - lies at the heart of European Australia's foundation myth.

- Gary L. Sturgess, 14 January 2017

What's New


The Ships The Voyage Managing the Ships Convict Life Governance Contracts People
The Botany Baymen Prison to Ship row 1, cell 3 Prison Layout Convict Rights Transportation Contracts Convict Contractors
First Fleet First Leg row 2, cell 3 Provisions Legal Authority over the Convicts Contracts of Effectual Transportation Crew
Lady Juliana Madeira row 3, cell 3 Water Self-Government by the Convicts row 3, cell 6 Masters
Second Fleet Tenerife row 4, cell 3 Clothing Diet Tables row 4, cell 6 Merchants
Third Fleet Second Leg row 5, cell 3 Bathing Mutinies row 5, cell 6 Naval Agents
Pitt Rio de Janeiro row 6, cell 3 Toilets row 6, cell 5 row 6, cell 6 Public Officials
Britannia (1792) Third Leg row 7, cell 3 Cleaning the Prison row 7, cell 5 row 7, cell 6 Ship Owners
Royal Admiral (1792) Cape of Good Hope row 8, cell 3 Disease row 8, cell 5 row 8, cell 6 Ship Brokers
Kitty Crossing the Southern Ocean Insurance Seasickness row 9, cell 5 row 9, cell 6 Soldiers
Bellona Port Jackson row 10, cell 3 Time on Deck row 10, cell 5 row 10, cell 6 Surgeon Superintendents
Boddington row 11, cell 2 row 11, cell 3 Convict Irons row 11, cell 5 row 11, cell 6 Surgeons
Sugar Cane row 12, cell 2 row 12, cell 3 Private Property row 12, cell 5 row 12, cell 6 row 12, cell 7
William row 13, cell 2 row 13, cell 3 Valuables row 13, cell 5 row 13, cell 6 row 13, cell 7
Indispensable (1793) row 14, cell 2 row 14, cell 3 Trade in Services row 14, cell 5 row 14, cell 6 row 14, cell 7
Speedy (1793) row 15, cell 2 row 15, cell 3 Sexual Activity row 15, cell 5 row 15, cell 6 row 15, cell 7
Resolution) row 16, cell 2 row 16, cell 3 Trade in Food and Clothing row 16, cell 5 row 16, cell 6 row 16, cell 7
Salamander (1794) row 17, cell 2 row 17, cell 3 Sounds of a Convict Ship row 17, cell 5 row 17, cell 6 row 17, cell 7
Surprize (1794) row 18, cell 2 row 18, cell 3 row 18, cell 4 row 18, cell 5 row 18, cell 6 row 18, cell 7
Young William row 19, cell 2 row 19, cell 3 row 19, cell 4 row 19, cell 5 row 19, cell 6 row 19, cell 7
Sovereign row 20, cell 2 row 20, cell 3 row 20, cell 4 row 20, cell 5 row 20, cell 6 row 20, cell 7


Ship Logs row 1, cell 2 row 1, cell 3
Convict Journals & Memoirs row 2, cell 2 row 2, cell 3
Personal Journals row 3, cell 2 row 3, cell 3