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. Three of his ancestors - two convicts and a marine - sailed to Australia with the First Fleet.

Gary Sturgess can be contacted at gary@sturgess.org

What I'm Reading

Paul A. Van Dyke, 'Merchants of Canton and Macao, Vol. 2: Success and Failure in Eighteenth Century Chinese Trade', Hong Kong University Press, 2016.

For more than a decade, Paul Van Dyke has been writing the story of the small group of Chinese merchants which had a monopoly on dealing with the European merchants who traded with Canton from the early 18th century until the middle of the 19th century. None of their records have survived, but Paul has been reconstructing the history of the various houses by trawling through the papers of the European East India Companies, which have survived, in vast quantities.

This is the final book in a series which began with 'The Canton Trade' in 2005; the first volume of 'Merchants of Canton and Macao' was published in 2011, and for the most part dealt with Hong merchants who had retired, went bankrupt, or died by the 1780s. In this long-awaited volume, Van Dyke deals with give of the Hong families, and less well-known figures who played a significant role in the porcelain and silk trades.

Around a half of the convict transports and storeships that sailed to New South Wales in the decade and a half prior to 1800, returned via China, taking home a cargo of tea on behalf of the East India Company, so the significance of his work for our understanding of the Botany Bay trade is considerable.

In this volume, for example, Van Dyke provides detailed accounts of the only three Co-hong families that survived into the 1790s:

That of Monqua, who acted as security merchant for the Surprize (1790), the Bellona (1793), the Indispensable (1794), and the Prince of Wales (1797).

That of the Wu family, which included Geowqua, whose name was employed as security agent for the Charlotte (1788), the Scarborough (1790) and the Royal Admiral (1793), and his cousin, Puiqua, who was supposed to act for the Indispensable (1796), but seems not to have finally done so.

And that of Poankeequa, who acted for the Justinian (1790), the Young William (1795) and the Britannia (1797).

The detailed workings of the China trade were explained by Van Dyke in his earlier books, but this volume provides important detail on the decline of the porcelain trade, which had begun to lose its significance by 1788 when the first of the Botany Bay ships arrived. Some of the difficulties which the First Fleet ships experienced in finding suitable blue and white chinaware arose from the growing ambivalence among the directors of the East India Company, and the difficulty in providing the Chinese merchants with confidence in making advance orders.

Whilst in London, I also collected a copy of Patrick Conner's 'The Hongs of Canton'. Conner is an art dealer in St James's who specialises in historical paintings related to the East India Company and the China trade. This was published in 2009, but it provides an excellent companion to Paul Van Dyke and Maria Kar-Wing Mok's 'Images of the Canton Factories', just published and recently reviewed on this page.

- Gary L. Sturgess, 4 July 2016

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