The concept of transportation as a punishment for criminals dates back to before the establishment of the Australian colonies. The first British law establishing transportation as a means of dealing with criminals was the Transportation Act of 1718. This imposed sentences of transportation to the American Colonies for offences seen as too serious to be adequately punished by whipping but not serious enough to merit the death penalty. The American War of Independence effectively ended trans-Atlantic transportation, and felons sentenced to be transported were confined with Britain by means of prison hulks, in which conditions were appalling. Transportation overseas began again with the departure of the first convicts for the new Australian penal colony of Botany Bay in 1787. For nearly eighty years after that date, British convicts were sent to penal colonies in Australia; penal transportation was not abolished until 1857, and even after that date, until 1868, convicts were in some circumstances still sent to Western Australia. It is estimated that during this period some 160,000 individuals were sent from Britain to Australia as convicts. Why was such a large population of convicts sent to the other side of the world in this expensive and administratively complex way? Why were they not simply imprisoned and punished within Great Britain?
The fundamental reason is financial. However expensive the transportation system was, providing sufficient jails to house the rising number of convicts was more expensive still. There was no ideological problem with jails, as the Penitentiary Act of 1779, with its provisions for the building of prisons to hold inmates in conditions of varying severity according to their crimes, indicates, but no government was prepared to spend money on the amount of prison construction that would be required. By 1811 more than £2.5 million had been spent by the British government on the administration of the Australian convict colonies, but compared to constructing and maintaining largely non-productive domestic prisons, transportation was cheap. It also had the advantage of removing criminals permanently from British society, thus (it was hoped) reducing crime, and provided a workforce for developing the colonies. Instead of being a drain on the public purse the convicts would feed and clothe themselves by cultivating their own farms and producing their own necessities. At least one historian has concluded that the policy of transportation did produce a significance net financial benefit for Great Britain: "Not only was transporting convicts justified on the basis of cost alone but, more importantly, the net returns were very large."
With the American War effectively ending transportation across the Atlantic, the British government sought other potential locations for convict settlements. After considering and rejecting West Africa as too unhealthy, the government put forward a plan:
for effectually disposing of convicts, and rendering their transportation reciprocally beneficial both to themselves and to the State, by the establishment of a colony in New South Wales, a country which, by the fertility and salubrity of the climate, connected with the remoteness of its situation (from whence it is hardly possible for persons to return without permission), seems peculiarly adapted to answer the views of Government with respect to the providing a remedy for the evils likely to result from the late alarming and numerous increase of felons in this country, and more particularly in the metropolis.
The government's view was that the country's overcrowded jails were both socially dangerous and unhealthy. Botany Bay, on the south-east coast of Australia, was sufficiently remote to make the deterrent effect of transportation real and deny any absconders the opportunity to return home, but also had the potential for economic development of a particularly valuable kind. The penal colonies, it was suggested, could cultivate hemp and flax which could be used to supply the Royal Navy with rope and sailcloth, thus sustaining British naval supremacy and removing Britain's dependency on possibly unreliable European sources for these vital raw materials: "It may not be amiss to remark in favour of this plan that considerable advantages will arise from the cultivation of New Zealand hemp or flax-plant in the new intended settlements, the supply of which would be of great consequence to us as a naval power." In more general terms, the occupation and development of land in Australia, and related claims on adjacent territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, would represent an extension of British influence in that region of the globe and a consequent weakening of the positions of other European colonizing powers, at a time of imperial competition and intermittent open warfare between those powers.
For the convicts themselves, these considerations were irrelevant; their experience of the convict settlements was a harsh one. Conditions on the "First Fleet" of 1787 were relatively good, with only 32 convicts from the complement of 750 dying in the course of the voyage, but the second fleet of 1790 lost more than a quarter of its convicts. Once they were in the colonies, they were subjected to a regime that, in many cases, was one of great brutality: hard work, flogging and other physical punishment, humiliation (although conditions were highly variable); and of course forced exile in a strange land. There were incentives to work and contribute to the economy and productiveness of the colonies. Reduction of hours of labour, the granting of privileges, permission to own and develop land, to run businesses and, ultimately, to return home once their sentence was served or to remain as free people in Australia, were all used to encourage convicts to contribute to the penal communities of which they were part. This was the other side of the coin to the harsher punishments and bad conditions which were available at the same time. Ultimately, under the regime of Governor Mcquarie, many convicts worked extensively for their own benefit in businesses and on the land, and were able to take employment and receive payment.
From the British point-of-view, the transportation policy can be said to have had both direct and indirect benefits. The direct benefit was in removing convicted criminals from the streets of Britain. Had they remained in Britain as prisoners, their likelihood of a re-offending once released was high, and transportation spared their home country the costs and consequences of such behaviour. The costs of housing them in penitentiaries and hulks was reduced, although during the period of transportation more prisons still had to be constructed. There was also a direct financial benefit, in that the penal colonies were, to varying degrees, productive, producing income rather than acting as a drain on state finances. Indirectly, the policy contributed to the development of the Australian territories as economically successful and populous regions, which was beneficial to Britain and her empire. The establishment of the penal colonies was the basis upon which Britain claimed, eventually, the whole territory of Australia, and the basis for its development with agriculture, irrigation, transport and urban settlement. Trade and commerce benefited as a result. The success of the policy of transportation in populating Australia and laying the foundations of a successful nation can perhaps be seen most clearly in the fact that today, rather than regarding the penal colony period of their history as something to be ashamed of, "Most family historians in Australia regard a convict in their ancestry as enormously desirable."
The behavior of any society towards those it judges to be guilty of criminal acts reflects the balance of concern in that society between punishment and rehabilitation. The policy of transporting convicts to Australia is no exception. Given that one of the primary arguments for transportation was to reduce re-offending by removing the convicts from the environment which made their return to a criminal life likely, and that it depended upon changing criminals into useful hard workers, this issue is of particular importance in the case of transportation.
There was great variety among the convicts sent for transportation to Australia. The majority were of urban rather than rural origin (60.8%) and represented skilled working-class trades (skilled: 54.3%, unskilled: 26.5%). More than half the convicts recorded had already one or more previous convictions in addition to the crime for which they were transported, most were young, and the majority of their offenses were for crimes against poverty. Overall, there is evidence both for most convicts being genuine criminals rather than simply the victims of an unjust society, whatever view we may take today of the crimes for which they were convicted and the penalties imposed, and for a range of skills being available in convict ranks which were of benefit in building up the penal colonies and, ultimately, Australia itself. The experience of individual convicts within the transportation system were very varied; as one historian puts it, transportation was "not a simple punishment, but rather a series of punishments ranging through every degree of human suffering from a slight restraint on freedom to long and tedious torture."
The benefits of the work required of convicts in penal colonies were always seen as among the most powerful…