LAWRENCE – It’s fashionable in Australia to admit to having convict ancestry. But it wasn’t always that way. Neither the descendants of the 18th- and 19th-century prisoners who were punished by forcible transportation to the South Pacific colony, nor of the Brits who decreed it, were proud of it.
And yet the crucial role of transportation — and the interlocking structures of social class — in the formation of an Australian national identity can be seen in literature from and about the period, University of Kansas researcher Dorice Williams Elliott writes in her new book, “Transported to Botany Bay: Class, National Identity and the Literary Figure of the Australian Convict” (Ohio University Press, 2019).
“One of my favorite anecdotes is in the introduction about an exchange student from the U.K. who took my class, and after a few days she said, ‘I went through the entire British school system, and I never heard anything about this. It's a disgrace!’ And I thought that was telling — that it was not covered in history classes in Britain,” said Elliott, associate professor of English.
“And I was surprised, in fact, that when I went to Australia and went to some bookstores, thinking that I could find paperback copies of some of these novels that I could mark up, that most of them weren't available. So they aren't that well-known in Australia, either.”
Here, of course, Elliott is leaving aside the most famous Australian convict in literary history, Abel Magwitch, benefactor of protagonist Pip in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” who is explored at length in her book, along with Dickens’ fraught relationship in other forums to the entire enterprise of transportation.
Elliott covers everything from Dickens and Trollope to novels written by transported convicts themselves to broadsides. Broadsides were one-page printed sheets that contained stories, songs and illustrations. They were sold on the streets for a penny and were often tacked up and read aloud and their ballads sung in pubs.
We forget today how popular this form of working-class literature was, with Elliott noting that more than 2 million copies of one particular broadside that told the story (or a story, anyway) behind a convict’s public execution were sold.
“For the working classes back in England — and that's mostly who was getting transported — all they knew about Australia is what they would have read or heard in a broadside or a ballad.”
“Great Expectations,” for instance, was not published until 1861, after the practice of transportation had ended.
Historical events bracketed the Australian transportation era. American independence ended the practice of sending British convicts here in 1776 and impelled Britain to start sending convicts there (beginning in 1788), while the Australian gold rush effectively put an end to it in 1851. In between, more than 160,000 men and women were exiled from Great Britain for a variety of capital crimes, including theft.
After a period during which they sought to replicate the British social class structure, with free-settler landowners on top and convict laborers below (indigenous people were slaughtered or repressed), this admixture of convicts (most of whom were ultimately freed) and their jailers and masters (and their families), began to take on a distinctively Australian character, Elliott writes.
In the new world, they were freed from Britain’s myths and expectations, Elliott said.
Even among the exiled convicts, “their standard of living was way higher than the working classes in England,” Elliott said, “and they had every reason to want to stay there. In his journal 'Household Words,' Dickens published letters from immigrants to people back home, and a lot of them are trying to convince their families to come out: ‘It's OK! The climate’s great. I'm doing well, and it’s warm. Just don't tell them that I'm a convict. Just go to my master's house and ask for me.’ ”
Echoes of the cultural influence of the transportation movement can be felt even in the United States today, Elliott said, as the sheep herding and cattle farming in which many exiles like Magwitch engaged gave rise to the Outback Steakhouses that line American interstates.
Illustration: Color lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson on Jan. 26, 1788, drawn by E. Le Bihan in 1888. Courtesy: State Library of New South Wales, via Wikimedia Commons.