Was Australia Really Founded as a Penal Colony?

Ruins of settlements and prison for convicts at Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia.
Ruins of settlements and prison for convicts at Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia.

It's true. Australia was originally established as a penal colony. The British established their first exile colony in New South Wales in 1788. Previously, the British were transporting the felons to the American continents, but after they were defeated in the American Revolutionary War, the government had to look elsewhere. The British sent numerous ships under Captain Philip Arthur to New South Wales to establish a penal colony. A camp was established in Australia and the Union Jack was raised on January 26th 1788 at Sydney-Cove, Port Jackson. A day which is now celebrated as Australia Day. 

Other penal colonies were established in Queensland (1824) and Tasmania (1803). Western Australia was founded as a free colony in 1829, but it began receiving convicts in 1850. The transportation of convicts to penal colonies stopped in 1868 as protests throughout the territory intensified. After being emancipated, ex-convicts stayed in Australia, with some becoming prominent individuals in society. Currently, more than 20% of the locals are descendants of the emancipists.

Reasons for transportation

During the eighteenth century, the industrial revolution saw a surge in cimes in the United Kingdom. London was overcrowded with unemployed, poor people. The harsh living conditions forced many people to commit petty crimes, resulting in the prisons being overcrowded. The overcrowded prisons forced the government to convert the ships left after the 7 years war to floating prisons. During that time, serious offenses were punishable-by-death, while the petty offenders were transported to another part of the world. 

Penal settlements

Prisoners were sent to the United States, but after 1782, there was nowhere to send criminals. The British government decided to send a colonization party of civilians, convicts and soldiers to Botany Bay on August 18th 1786, under Admiral Philip. The first fleet of ships carried 775 convicts in 6 ships. The prisoners were accompanied by marines, crew members, officials, and their families. The ships arrived at Botany Bay on January 20th 1788. The British realized that the Bay was not suitable for establishing an exile colony, due to soil dampness and openness of the area. Instead, they sailed to Port Jackson, where they established their first penal colony in New South Wales. The region developed into present-day Sydney.

Cessation of transportation

With the number of free settlers migrating to Tasmania and New South Wales increasing by the 1830s, many people started opposing the transportation of offenders to Australia. The numerous protests against transportation forced the government to stop shipping them to some parts of colony. The British government stopped transporting them to New South Wales in 1840, and by then, over 150,000 convicts had been sent to the penal colonies. The decision to stop shipping felons was not unanimous and so it continued in other places like Tasmania until 1853. The British government continued sending criminals to Western Australia until 1868. About 164,000 convicts were sent to the penal colonies in Australia from 1788 to 1868. Northern Territory and South Australia only received ex-felons from other states. The felons were allowed to go as far as New Zealand to start a new life.


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