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Port Arthur Historic Site

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Natural Wonders

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Amazing Walks

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Unique Wildlife

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Stunning Coastline

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Amazing Locations

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6.1 Saltwater River: The Convict System

The Convict System

Being transported to Van Diemen's Land in the 1820s or 30s bore little relation to serving a modern prison sentence. On arrival in the colony the convict was assigned to work for someone as their servant. If all went well, within a couple of years, the convict would receive a 'ticket of leave', and was free to go anywhere in the colony and work for wages. He or she could also marry and even run a business. The whole system was much more like exile than any modern prison term. A few more years might see a well-behaved convict free and farming a small plot of land granted him by the Governor.

The assignment system worked very well to develop the country and, despite the 'Gothic Horror' of punishment stations like Port Arthur, it established European society in Australia. However, by late 1930s the authorities in London had grave misgivings about the system on two, seemingly contradictory, counts.

On the one hand, the use of convicts as serfs to free settlers smacked of slavery, but on the other, emancipated convicts in the colonies were presented with far greater opportunities for a decent material life than their cousins back in Dickensian London. This seemed to even liberal-minded observers neither just desserts for crime nor a deterrent to its commission. There was a constant tension between those trying to make the system work and establish modern society in the colonies, and the authorities in England who wanted crime adequately punished.