"On British felony, the sun never sets": Australian convict narratives, 1788 to 1868

Dr Tim Causer (University College London)
29 January 2015

Dr Tim Causer from the University College London discusses Australian convict narratives from before, during and after their time spent serving their sentences. He states how convicts were interviewed during transportation about all of their features, including their physical appearance, their skills and the reason why they were convicted, therefore creating a valuable source that gives current historians an insight into the convict’s life at that time.

Causer goes on to explore the two types of narratives provided by the convicts. The first were published and edited books, usually featuring male protagonists that got into drinking, were transported, saw rather than experienced the worst aspects of convict life, emerged reformed, and wrote about their experiences to warn others against their behaviour. He uses various examples, one being William Ross, to show how some parts of the books that were published were exaggerated or just made up in order to sell copies.

The second type are manuscripts that were written by the convicts directly, and were not published, so not edited. This meant that they were a lot more graphic and detailed in nature; for example the diary of John Ward. Dr Causer uses many examples of manuscripts that show the more graphic side of the convict’s experiences, such as ‘The Demon’. He weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of the narratives as sources used before moving onto political manuscripts.

Here, he talks about how political manuscripts are less reliable than other sources, as the authors have an agenda; to present themselves as not criminals, but just unlucky people caught up in the system. In their narratives, Causer points out how they were generally mortified at being placed in the same situation as lower-class convicts, and though they complained about unfair treatment, they were actually given decent benefits. This is illustrated via the example of a convict named Mitchell, who was allowed his family with him, was given a farm, and was able to have friends over on occasion with drink and cigars.

In the final part of this talk, the author concludes that manuscripts that have come directly from normal convicts are the most useful, as they are not distorted by a self-serving agenda; the convicts just want to tell their story so people are aware of what happened. On the contrary, political prisoners wrote in order to present their survival as a victory against their country, and so set out to display themselves in a better light.