Tasmania’s convicts: how felons built a free society
Something that has interested me ever since I found out my own convict heritage is the effect on Tasmania of having so many convicts in its early population. I gave the population figures to my son, who does this sort of thing, and he worked out that even today, 74 per cent of Tasmanians are descended from convicts (owing to very low immigration, and the extremely high original percentage). What effect did all these criminals have?
Tasmania’s Convicts explores this, first describing the convicts and convict system and showing that, in fact, they were mainly petty criminals, because major crims were executed in Britain. After serving their sentences, most of them joined the ordinary population, doing nothing worse than getting drunk or a bit of pinching now and then – as everyone in Tasmania knew perfectly well. They were mostly ordinary people and there is no difference in the Tasmanian population after about 1880 that can’t be explained by being a not-very-wealthy, isolated community. Crime rates etc are the same as everywhere else.
However outsiders, especially in Britain, looked down on Tasmania for its convict background: the convict stain. Tasmanians were very sensitive to this, and from 1856 when Tasmania became independent, people went to enormous lengths to hide, explain away or even deny the convict past – while a strong undercurrent of sympathy existed towards convicts themselves. Fear of the Stain only eased from the 1950s. I really enjoyed writing this book, searching for reactions to the past, which no one had done before.
Allen & Unwin published it and were wonderful, except for insisting on the subtitle, which as I told them isn’t what the book is about. But she who pays the piper …