Tuesday, July 9, 2013
How attitudes have changed
Reprint of an article by Max Farley originally published in Vol. 29 No. 7 August 2011 of the KHS Monthly Newsletter
“Once families dreaded exposure of their convict connections. Today the discovery that a convict belongs in the family tree is a matter for celebration. ”
Most would today agree with these words expressed in Babette Smith’s recently published “Australia’s Birthstain – a Startling Legacy of the Convict Era”. For over 100 years, however, the existence of convict ancestors within families was kept a secret by later generations. So much so
that in many cases family members were not even aware of their convict’s existence themselves.
By the time the colony was 50 or so years old it was peopled in large numbers by emancipists who had served their time, by many Australian-born who had reached adulthood, as well as settlers who had come and prospered.
They all regarded themselves as “free”. Though crime, corruption, loose moral standards, gambling, profanity, drunkenness and violence existed in large measure, Babette Smith puts it that there was growing pride in what was being achieved in the new country. People were accepted for
what they were and not for what they or their parents had earlier been. Opportunities for advancement existed which were not available for them in their homeland. Ideas of introducing democratic institutions in the colony were being discussed, with WC Wentworth in the forefront.
Why did having a convict ancestor later come to be a guilty secret?
At the risk of oversimplifying her views, Babette Smith puts forward the theory that three main groups in the “Mother Country” saw their interests as likely to be best served by emphasising the sinfulness existing in New South Wales and ignoring the positive aspects. These were:-
• those who had opposed transportation in the first place and wanted it stopped in favour of penal reform being developed in Britain itself;
• the clergy, too, opposed transportation., although their mission was to reform sinners and it was important that the wickedness of the colony be recognised and, with it, the need for their services, which also offered opportunities to spread church influence; and
• fine-intentioned people whose liberal inclinations applauded the abolition of slavery in America and who saw a similarity with the transportation of convicts to Australia.
For the most part they, as individuals, were totally ignorant of the true position in New South Wales. A 27-year old, Sir William Molesworth, became Chairman of the Transportation
Committee of the House of Commons. A Report of that Committee was destined to cause great damage to the status of the young colony.
These groups may not have been alone in spreading the belief that sin was rife in the colony, but they spread it with success. As an example, the Reverend Thomas Arnold, principal of the Rugby School, is quoted by Babette Smith as saying in c1834 “that the stain should last, not only for
one whole life but for more than one generation… that no convict child should ever be a free citizen: and that even in the third generation, the offspring should be excluded from all offices of honour or authority in the colony.”
The Molesworth Transportation Committee Report, released in 1838, painted an unhappy picture of the colony’s moral state. Though seen within five years as a failure, the inhabitants were taken aback by the Report because they had been expecting praise for the progress they had achieved.
Not only was their pride hurt, but there was alarm at the political and economic damage to the colony’s reputation. Not surprisingly, the Report was widely condemned by many
who had practical knowledge of the actual conditions. However, the bad publicity given it in England was lasting and widespread. Babette Smith believes Molesworth’s “version of the convict stain” was to infect the colonists themselves. The seeds of shame had been sown.
For many years afterwards there was a conspiracy of silence, both in government and private circles, to keep convict ancestry a secret. Babette Smith points out that, even as late as the 1950s, hundreds of priceless photographs of convicts were destroyed when the old Fremantle Gaol was
being renovated. Even more indicative of secrecy was the controversy that arose, as recently as 1980, when the 1828 Census was privately published by Johnson and Sainty of the Library of Australian History. Amongst other things it disclosed which people living in 1828 had come as convicts.
The 1980 publication angered some people who saw it as a threat to their ancestors’ reputations. However, “more enlightened academics” took a different view, and information about our pioneers, convicts and otherwise, is happily now freely available. The outdated sensitivities have now been discarded to the dustbin and many older Australians have come to be delighted to find they have a dinky-di convict amongst their ancestors. It may not be stretching the imagination to suggest
that Australia over recent decades has recaptured the pride so unsympathetically beaten out of it 160 and more years ago.
(Babette Smith was Guest Speaker at our Family History meeting 6 November 2010.)