On this day in 1836, the convict ship Elphinstone left England for Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) carrying 240 transportees to punitive exile in Australia. Aboard were three McAllisters – Archibald and John, brothers from northeast Scotland who were convicted of assault and robbery, and another John, from England, convicted of stealing some clothes and cash from his lodgings. All three were sentenced to transportation for 14 years.
Transportation of criminals (and in some cases other ‘undesirables’) to Australia had been going on since 1788. The idea was not new. As early as the mid-1600s, prisoners of war as well as convicted lawbreakers were being transported to the North American colonies. In the mid-1700s, thousands of Jacobite prisoners were shipped off to Barbados and Antigua. Regardless of destination, transportation served several purposes: It got troublemakers out of Britain’s prisons and off the streets, it provided man- (and woman-)power to develop the resources of an enormous continent, and the threat of it was believed to deter crime. But in one respect, transportation to Australia was unique. Unlike the North American and West Indian colonies, and despite the presence of non-convict settlers, Australia was specifically “designed to be a vast penitentiary”. The Australian government estimates that before the practice ended in the 1860s, roughly 162,000 convicts were transported. About 20 percent of them were women.
What happened to the McAllisters who sailed for Van Diemen’s Land on this day in 1836 is not clear, but they probably spent the rest of their lives in Australia. Although in theory transportees were allowed to return to Britain once their sentences had been served, most lacked the means to return from so far away, and not all of them wished to do so anyway. Instead, many former convicts joined the free population of the growing colony and built a new nation out of what had been their prison.
Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013