Redeveloping the Penal Colony




As Australians, we pride ourselves on upholding the qualities of freedom, egalitarianism, tolerance and mutual respect. So where in history lie the origins of our cherished ideal of the ‘Australian way of life’?

If we properly understood our penal history as a triumph of social inclusion, it would be evident that our battle cry for a ‘fair go’ was instigated in the equal treatment of all settlers, including convicts. Babette Smith, historian and journalist, reveals that the foundation of Australia’s egalitarian spirit lies in our penal history.

What exists in place of this history however, Smith contends, is a cultural cringe,which indoctrinates a feeling of shame about our colonial beginnings. Instead of being taught that mutual respect and equality between convicts and settlers were the foundations of Australia’s colony, we choose to believe that Australian convicts were a debased group, remaining outcasts even as free settlers.

What Smith’s research details, is that colonists and convicts were always rendered equal, and not only by equal ration policies imposed by Governor Phillip. More importantly, Smith points out, prisoners were judged by their character, and not by their background.

For over thirty years, colonial authorities managed the penal colonies with only the date of the convicts’ trial and length of sentence. Details of their crime were not provided until the mid-1820s. Even more fascinating – and seemingly forgotten in Australia’s historical memory – is that nearly every ship in the First Fleet held convicted doctors, lawyers, architects, merchants and clergymen. Everyone was rendered equal, regardless of their class, their wealth, or their background.

Freed prisoners laid the foundations of the Australian colony, just as other settlers did. Freed prisoners built their homes, ran their businesses, and provided employment for convicts and settlers alike. There was no distinction between a freed prisoner and a settler, because both groups had an equal claim to the land, food and services of the new colony. Both groups were hard workers and toiled to create the Australian colony.

So where has this ethos gone? Why do our communities and our governments fail to provide equal opportunities to freed prisoners as we had done? Why are freed prisoners inhibited by their community and by their government, from working hard to advance the modern Australian colony, just as they had done in the 1800s?

Australia has changed from a community that welcomed freed prisoners, to one that rejects them, despite the system remaining the same.

Because the current structure of the criminal justice system creates social exclusion and isolation, rates of recidivism (the return of a freed prisoner to custody) – almost non-existent in the 1800s – have increased to the disturbing level of 43%.

The ‘Australian way of life’ certainly still flourishes as a national ideal, but why have we not cherished its origins in granting freed prisoners their right to a ‘fair go’?

If the ‘Australian way of life’ is a right to an education, to a job, to good health-care and to shelter, why isn’t every Australian entitled to this right?


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