Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Myths in History
Fabrications for politics

Should they be defined as part of a war?

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

1967 referendum
The myths

Convicts and their legacy

Convict legacy
How the past shapes the present

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Larrikin Convicts
Breaking rules

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


Can Convict Creations be relied upon?

Convicts and their Legacy

For almost 80 years, or the founding third of Australia’s urban existence, British Convicts were transported to Australia, a fact that still embarrasses many Australians. As Bill Bryson, an American author wrote:

"I can personally affirm that to stand before an audience of beaming Australians and make even the mildest quip about a convict past is to feel the air conditioning immediately elevated.”

Because they have been a taboo topic, not much is agreed about any Convict legacy in Australia today. Nevertheless, the legacy could be defined as 1) cultural creations of Convicts 2) reaction against Convicts by non-Convicts 3) symbolic 4) biological.

Cultural legacy of Convicts

A strong legacy of Convicts can be found in myths of Australian culture. In regards to identity, the creation of the larrikin stereotype has very strong Convict fingerprints. As defined by historian Manning Clark,

“Soaring over them all is the larrikin; almost archly self conscious- to smart for his own good, witty rather than humorous, exceeding limits, bending rules and sailing close to the wind, avoiding rather than evading responsibility, playing to an audience, mocking pomposity and smugness, taking the piss out of people, cutting down tall poppies, born of a Wednesday, looking both ways for a Sunday, larger than life, sceptical, iconoclastic, egalitarian yet suffering fools badly, and, above all, defiant."

Aside from the larrikin identity, perhaps another Convict legacy is the absence of conflict between Christian denominations that is common in Europe, as well as the USA and New Zealand to a lesser extent. Most of the Convicts were religious but because they were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, religion offered individual hope for something better rather than be an instrument to wield cultural power (as it was for many free people).  Furthermore, irrespective of their religious background, the Convicts shared the stigma of their criminal status together and that criminal stigma dominated over religious stigma. As stated by the colonial Reverend Samuel Marsden,

“When men become convicts, a difference of religious opinions is hardly discernible among them”

Even though Convict transportation ended in 1868, the Convicts' private approach to religion stunted myths and institutions from being created where religion could be used to wield cultural power. Perhaps a reflection of that stunting has been the way that Samuel Marsden has largely being forgotten in Australian history. Despite being a very prominent figure in colonial society, very few Australians have heard his name. In contrast, Marsden also spent time in New Zealand where he was revered for bringing the Christian flock together. Today, almost all New Zealanders have heard his name and God has become part of the New Zealand national anthem.

Aside from influencing identities, it has also been suggested that the inventive nature of Australian English is a Convict legacy. As argued by Sidney Baker in The Australian Language:

" No other class of society would use slang more readily or adapt it more expertly to their new environment; no other class would have a better flair for concocting new terms to fit in with their new conditions in life "

Furthermore, words like have a "fair go" are probably derived from 'fair crack of the whip' which referenced a fair flogging (punishment by whip).

It could also be argued that the bias towards informality in Australian English, such as the use of first names for bosses, may also be a Convict initiative. (Both American and Brtish English tends to use more formality in greetings and respect for titles like Mr, Mrs and Lord.) In regards to values, Australian egalitarianism and the tall poppy syndrome may be defined as Convict legacies. An early example of the egalitarian values can be found in the writings of Convict JF Mortlock:

"Men betraying their companions or accepting authority over them, are often called "dogs", and sometimes have their noses bitten off- the morsel being termed "a mouthful of a dog's nose."

Although it is not possible to find nose biters today, nor authority figures lacking a nose, throughout World War 1 and 2, Australian soldiers were renowned for trying to irritate British officers by turning up uninvited at their drinking establishments.

Finally, some traditions, such as Australia Day were Convict initative. Specifically, in 1808 emancipated Convicts used January 26 as a date to organise great parties to celebrate the land they lived in. In a way, the parties celebrated their survival. Although the more “reputable” members of colonial society weren’t too keen on putting the old ball and chain on their legs in tribute to the founding fathers and laying down in a sexual pose in tribute to the mothers, they just couldn't say no to a great party.

As the parties grew in size, emancipists and their children infused them with political edge as they campaigned to have the same rights as free British migrants. In 1818, their cause was embraced by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who acknowledged the day with its first official celebration of what was then known as Foundation Day. Macquarie declared that the day would be a holiday for all government workers, granting each an extra allowance of "one pound of fresh meat", and that there should be a 30 gun salute at Dawes Point – one for each year that the colony had existed.

Over the following two centuries, colonial, state and federal governments removed any Convict association so how Australia Day started is unknown to most Australians. Neverthless, the fact remains it started with Convicts.

Legacy in reaction to Convicts in Australia

People can have influence, not only by what they do, but also how others react to them irrespective of what they do. In Australia, the reactions to Convicts by non-Convicts significantly shaped the 19th century. Firstly, the dehumanisation of Convicts created a corrupt police force that was devoid of humanity. When the police force treated free migrants on the goldfields the way they had treated Convicts, support grew for symbols of rebellion, such as the plight of bushranger Ned Kelly and the Eureka Stockade . (As a point of contrast, New Zealand was colonised at at same time by people with similar geographic origins but has no equivalent events or mythology.) Secondly, fear that Convicts would pollute Australia’s gene pool resulted in community leaders organising meetings to ban ex-Convicts entering a region and later, proposing that a Federated Australia was the answer to keep out Convicts and other "un-desirables classes" - such as non-whites.

convicts and Asians

Melbourne Punch, 3rd May1888 - A Federation poster appearing in Punch magazine contained an old man advising a youngster:"Right, my boy, your worthy of your sire. In the old days I stopped the convicts in the bay. And now you must bar out the yellow plague with your arm."

In short, the Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia Policy) originated in prejudice against Convicts that mutated to prejudice against non-white migrants.

Symbolic legacy of Convicts

All over the world, the symbols, events, and stories from the past shape contemporary identities. In Australia; however, the Convict chapter has always been problematic for government initiatives aimed at inspiring pride in Australia’s history and culture. For example, in 1938, a re-enactment of the arrival of the first fleet had Arthur Phillip setting flight to a party of Aborigines. Convicts had not been included in the re-enactment. Media reports questioned the omission of Convicts, not necessarily because the journalists were proud of their Convict heritage but because the omission seemed somewhat fake. (Aborigines later protested about the celebration of an invasion.) Likewise, advertisements for the 1988 Bicentenary had lots of celebrities in front of Uluru singing about celebrating a nation but there were no reference to the penal colony in Sydney that marked its founding year. Today, no Australian government has given its approval to renactments of the landing that include Convicts. With a major part of Australian history being a taboo topic, it has been difficult for governments to encourage any kind of identification with the past. As a result, many Australians do not feel an identification with their heritage outside of the more honourable military tradition.

The 1988 Bicentenary advertisement is large on recommendations to celebrate without any reference to people or landscape that the Bicentenry started from.

Noting the sensitivities that some Australians feel about their nation's past, some people from other countries have turned the knife when they have wanted to offend. The English have taken a particularly strong lead here. For example, at cricket contests involving Australia, the Barmy Army often chant:

"We came here with backpacks, you with ball and chain!".

"The Aussies love the English, you might find it quite strange. 'Cos we sent them all down under, with only balls and chains. And when they see the English, they always shout and scream. But when they had the chance to vote they voted for the Queen."

"You all live in a convict colony," *to the tune of Yellow Submarine.

In the 1999 World Cup, Ajuna Rantaunga, the Sri Lankan Cricket Captain, had an indirect dig at Australia’s heritage when he said of Australians:

"We come from 2,500 years of culture and we all know where they come from".

In the Simpsons episode Bart versus Australia (1995), writers offended many Australians by portraying the first prime minister of Australia as an unnamed Convict. The episode received 100 letters of complaint from Australians, and writer Mike Reiss even stated he had been condemned by the Australian parliament.

First Prime Minister of Australia

The Simpsons portrayed the first prime minister of Australia as an unnamed Convict. In truth, the first prime minister was a drunk racist but not a Convict. Most Australians don't know his name.

Although most Australians have approached the Convict past as a skeleton in the cupboard that everyone knows is there but they don't want mentioned anyway, at times there has been an attempt to build patriotism around them. For example, in the later 19th century, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life built a kind of patriotism around criminality in Australia much like Victor Hugo’s  Les Misérables built in France. At the beginning of the 20th story, highly successful movies like the Eureka Stockade, The Assigned Servant, The Squatters Daughter, Attack on the Gold Escort, Sentenced for Life and The Mark of the Lash picked up themes of rebellion and injustice and positioned them at the heart of a fledging national identity. In response, the NSW government banned the movies. Communists continued to promote the Convict story in the hope it would encourage a left-wing approach to social life. Perhaps the Communists weren't good at persuasion or the government was too strong with counter propaganda. Either way, present day Australian Communists have largely rejected patriotism as a positive virtue and therefore they are not inclined to find anything positive in Australian history, Convicts included.

Biological legacy of Convicts in Australia

During Australia’s penal era, there was a widespread belief that crime was hereditary; however, the theories they were based on have since been universally dismissed. Even if crime was hereditary, the so called criminal gene would have little expression today as it has been diluted. Only around 25 per cent of Australians can claim a Convict ancestor. Admittedly, without immigration, that 25 per cent would eventually reach 100 per cent but it would be further diluted with each generation. To put things into perspective, someone whose grandfather had a Convict grandfather would only be 1/16th Convict. Their children would only be 1/32 Convict if their partner lacked Convict ancestry. In short, genetic ancestry tends to be stronger in mind than in body.

One possible influence might have been in a version of survival of the fittest that resulted in only the strongest Convicts surviving the disease, floggings and hardships, which in turn was concentrated when their descendants bred. This is the same argument used for why black Americans, as the descendants of slaves, dominant Olympic track and field. Such an argument was once proposed by English sports writer Ted Corbett to explain Australian success in cricket:

"We also have to consider the laws of the survival of the fittest and make a comparison with the West Indies, another team who dominated world cricket as the Australians are at this moment.

Australia was born as a prison cell, a dumping ground for criminals and political upstarts left a harsh environment when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay in 1788. It was a rubbish heap for tough, rebellious men and their warders; and women who were prepared to defy the conventions and fight for their equality.

What better start could there be for a country that was eventually to hold sporting prowess as its greatest achievement.

There is a similarity with the West Indies, manned for hundreds of years by slave men and women who had been force-marched across the African continent before being shipped across the Atlantic. The strongest lasted the distance and, when their descendants were freed, grew into tall, handsome and fearsome competitors with a little hate in their hearts for the men who had made them suffer such indignities. So it was in Australia. "

Activity 1 - Who can be proud of their history?

Choose a cultural group somewhere in the world that has a history to be proud of. What makes the history admirable? How is the legacy expressed in the identities of the present?

Activity 2 - Find something to be proud of in Australia

Australia Day has always been problematic for Australian governments. For almost 150 years, the Convict associations were problematic. In more recent times, the invasion associations have become problematic. As a consequence, Australia Day celebrations have largely been meaningless and devoid of reference to the past.

Fine some event in Australian history that are worthy of respect and subsequently create some rituals and re-enactments that can be unifying.






John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese

Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears

Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero

Nancy Wake
A larrikin and a hero

The Depression
Australia's Greek Moment

World War 2
The eastern chapters

Cold War
The expression of transnational identities

Prime Ministers
Values and policies of Australian leaders


The Europeans
Building a new Australia

The Vietnamese
No longer "New Australian", now "Multicultural"




"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)