Debunking: It was hard for convicts, too

3 Feb 2019

The myth of the convict is used to derail conversations about the brutality and unfairness of invasion and colonisation.

On 26 January 2019, tens of thousands of Australians took to the streets for the annual Invasion Day rallies. On camera, when asked about the large crowd participating in the Canberra rally behind him, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did some “crab-walking away from history” by dropping a classic colonial myth to deflect that question > convicts had it hard, too.

…conversations might have different results if more people relied on facts rather than myths.

On Twitter, people quickly rebuked Morrison’s convict fable:

Earlier that day, at the national flag-raising and citizenship ceremony in Canberra, Morrison mentioned two of three ancestors that were transported English criminals. Ending his speech with: “I am glad William and Kezia made the journey, and I’m glad you have too.”

That must have been an unsettling moment for many in the room. Especially new Australians who’ve been subjected to non-factual race-based messaging from media and government, of non-existent criminal activities and violent behaviour amongst their communities.

White Australians’ cyclic shift from shame to pride and back to shame of having convict ancestry is interesting, to say the least. These conversations might have different results if more people relied on facts rather than myths.

Morrison has numerous free settlers on his family tree but, curiously, he only spoke of two criminals in his speech to welcome new citizens – William and Keiza Roberts. Expressing both pride and pity for his convict ancestors is another attempt to disrupt the call for a more balanced and truthful telling of Australia’s colonisation history.

He opened with “To elders past and present, I say thank you for the wonderful inheritance you have given to us…” before speaking fondly of two of his many ancestors that have benefited from this stolen inheritance.

If the intent was to find common ground with both new Australians and First Peoples of this continent, then I believe Morrison failed.

Undoubtedly, those earlier days were hard on the transported convicts, just as it was difficult for the other colonisers and settlers. Food was scarce. Violence was plentiful. And let’s not forget how dangerous some of our animals are, especially the small beasties.

However, the chains were removed from the transported criminals shortly after their arrival. And they were not confined behind bars, or anything else, for too long. It was First Peoples who’d felt the chains around their necks, and heard the locks turn in doors, the longest.

Unlike the prisoners transported from England, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were not sentenced for committing a crime. They were chained and incarcerated during waves of invasion and colonisation, as the colonisers/settlers swept over the lands of many sovereign peoples.

In 1938, the 150th year of British colonisation, the last transported prisioner (convicted for arson) died peacefully in a WA nursing home.

Also in that year, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:

  • had no citizenship rights
  • could be denied the right to own homes, property or businesses
  • could be confined on missions and reserves against their will
  • could be forced to work as station hands and labours without pay (i.e. slavery)
  • had limited access to doctors or hospital; were not allowed to give birth in many hospitals
  • could be denied the right to marry
  • could have children forcibly removed on the basis of eugenics; to be indoctrinated into Christianity and trained as unpaid domestics and labourers (i.e. slavery)
  • could be denied schooling
  • could be barred from pubs and clubs
  • And subjected to other race-based laws, policies and procedures.

It is estimated that 5 – 25% of Australians are descendants of a convicted criminal transported from England to Australia to serve out their sentence. Approximately 3% of Australians identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders.

Comparing the current economic, health and social disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is enough to prove that there are no generational disadvantages for Australians whose ancestors were transported criminals.

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The myth of the convict is used to derail conversations about the brutality and unfairness of invasion and colonisation. It is used to point the finger: my convict ancestors got over it, so why don’t you?

To further demonstrate how incorrect the convict legacy myth is, let’s look further at Morrison and his ancestors that had been convicted for criminal activities.

John Greenhalgh was transported after being convicted of uttering forged notes. His wife and children followed him, which indicates he had the means to pay their passages.

Uttering is when a person knowingly defrauds others by selling, publishing or passing forged or counterfeited documents or notes (i.e. money). This type of crime was generally committed by educated people who’d chosen to engage in crimes of deception for profit, not out of necessity.

William Roberts, who Morrison spoke affectionally of during his speech, was convicted of felonious theft from a business. This type of burglary was often premediated and committed by well-dressed thieves that pretended they had the means to purchase the expensive items they stole. They generally had connections to criminal gangs. It is highly likely that Roberts was a repeat offender.

Two years after sentencing, Roberts was selected to be part of the latest British colonial project. He was transported on the first fleet, to serve out his sentence.

His future wife, Kezia Brown, arrived on the second fleet. She’d been sentenced for the petty theft of stealing clothes. Brown was a gardener’s labourer, so it’s possible she stole from her employer.

After serving his sentence, Roberts was allocated a land grant of 30 acres. He quickly sold that and was given a second land grant of 50 acres. Roberts continued to increase his holdings and wealth, profiting off stolen lands. Upon his death, Roberts left his large family a considerable inheritance.

In comparison, First Peoples who’d watched Roberts and Brown disembark were chased off their homelands. The resources they depended on to sustain their families was taken by convicts and other settlers. Many were murdered and subjected to violence, or died from introduced diseases, during invasion and colonisation.

It has taken over 200 years for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population to reach a similar count to pre-invasion populations.

Fast forward to Morrison: a direct descendant of Greenhalgh, Roberts and Brown, holding the position of Prime Minister. He embodies why the convict myth needs to be debunked. Thanks to his enterprising relatives profiting from colonial violence on Aboriginal lands, he has inherited wealth, property and white privilege. And, like his ancestors, he passes on the spoils of invasion to his descendants.

The myth of the convict is used to derail conversations about the brutality and unfairness of invasion and colonisation. It is used to point the finger: my convict ancestors got over it, so why don’t you?

It is white privilege to expect sympathy for convict ancestors that experienced hardships hundreds of years ago – whilst also claiming that Indigenous people must have done something to ‘deserve’ ongoing state-violence and abuse from vigilantes.

And this imbalance extends to the way white Australia talks about new Australians that are from communities that are constantly persecuted through racism and other bigotry.

These types of arguments flex the muscles of empire building and whiteness to oppose truth-telling and fairness.

This nation and the personal wealth of so many settler-colonialists, such as Morrison, was undoubtedly built on the lands, blood and sweat of First Peoples. In comparison, there is scant blood of convicts mixed in the soil.

Pride in being a descendent of colonisers and early settlers, including convicted criminals that helped take over this continent, has always puzzled me.

I have no pride for my great-great-grandfather that contributed to the colonial project: travelling from England to Western Australia to provide expertise in mineral exploitation, before abandoning his wife and child to do similar in Africa.

Being honest about our familial and collective histories, and sincere about healing the wounds of invasion and settlement, requires a critical shift in thinking. Starting with – there is no pride in invasion and genocide.

 

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