‘Decentring Australia’ in the History of Convict Transportation

Head and shoulders

Keynote speaker, Professor Clare Anderson of the University of Leicester.

When considering the history of the transportation of convicts we should ‘de-centre’ Australia and consider Empire-wide transportation argued Professor Clare Anderson in her keynote talk yesterday morning. Anderson moved from the story of the Bussa Uprising in Barbados in 1816 to Sierra Leone and then to British Guiana deftly working in the story of convict transportation throughout the Empire. Her talk demonstrated the complex use of scale to weave a compelling and coherent account of convict transportation which captivated her audience.

For so long the Australian colonies have dominated historical analysis of the transportation of convicts but Professor Anderson pointed out that the British colony of the Andaman islands received more convicts than any one of the Australian colonies. In an article that she has written in Australian Historical Studies she argues:

…the conceptual myopia that separates the Australian colonies from the Indian Ocean is unsustainable when for the first time the numerical scale and geographical extent of pan-imperial Asian convict flows is brought together, to reveal a transnational imperial history of transportation within the British Empire.

Through Twitter, Dr Katy Roscoe brought our attention to the Convict Voyages website which documents the global history of convicts and penal colonies. This not only looks at transportation in the British Empire but includes the practices of other nations and empires such as the French, Russian, Portuguese and Spanish Empires as well as Japan, and China.

Transportation of convicts to the Andaman Islands started after the 1857 Indian Uprising. There is an essay on the penal colony of the Andaman Islands on the Convict Voyages website. The fascinating maps that Professor Anderson used in her presentation can be found on the website too.

Professor Anderson’s presentation demonstrated the benefits of lifting a scale of consideration from a particular prison or colony to a nation-neutral perspective that follows the flows of convicts irrespective of where they started or finished. Currently Australians view convicts and transportation with a national frame, whereas the scale that Professor Anderson has chosen to use offers Australians another perspective of these historical processes. This allows us to understand our local, state and national histories better. Convict transportation is not unique to Australia and while the Australian colonies were a significant recipient of convicts they were not the only significant recipients.

Anderson briefly pointed out that the British Empire did not transport convicts in isolation. The independence of the former Spanish colonies had a direct impact on the British colonies in the West Indies, forcing them to create the HMPS Mazaruni penal settlement in British Guiana. She also noted that each Empire monitored how others were managing convicts and transportation.

One thing that I noticed on the Convict Voyages website was the absence of reference to transportation or banishment of prisoners in the Ottoman Empire. Akka (Acre) in what was then known as Palestine was a penal settlement where the Ottomans incarcerated their most reviled prisoners. Consideration of this might lend an added dimension to the analysis. Were the Ottomans influenced by the European practices on crime and punishment? Did the Europeans learn something from the Ottoman treatment of their prisoners? There is also room to consider the influence of various religious views on crime and punishment.

Professor Anderson demonstrated how historians can apply a ‘nation-neutral’ methodology in their research and uncover historical processes previously obscured by a national focus. Her demonstration of ‘de-centring Australia’ could inspire other projects on different topics. She also showed that attention to the local scale and individuals can help illustrate the global historical processes, and engage an audience.

Related Posts

This is the fifth post in a series I have written about the 2018 Australian Historical Association conference. The other posts in this series are:

  1. PHA NSW/ACT at the Australian Historical Association Conference – PHA NSW & ACT blog
  2. The 2018 Australian Historical Association Conference Begins!
  3. War, Masculinity and Belief – day 2, Australian Historical Association Conference
  4. Some Incomplete Thoughts on the Scale of History – Part 1

5 thoughts on “‘Decentring Australia’ in the History of Convict Transportation

  1. Interesting, and she’s right of course.
    It’s long interested me that the Brits sent convicts to America too, but the Americans have airbrushed that out of their national history myth and focussed on the Pilgrims and religious freedom instead.


  2. Popular history has it that transportation to NSW started because it was no longer possible to America but I have never read any account of transportation to the US or Canada – and why not to Canada which would have been much easier.


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