A world of pain
The combined aims of the assignment system, from 1826 onwards, were to equip farmers with cheap convict labour, to disperse convicts away from towns (and other convicts) and to keep an eye on each worker’s whereabouts and treatment.
The administration saw itself producing useful and reformed ex-convicts, capable of supporting themselves, preferably in regional areas, as fledgling farmers or under the employment of free settlers within the so-called ‘’. The major advantage of private assignment, as officials saw it, was that it reduced costs by lowering the number of convicts fed, clothed and housed by the government.
By 1826, the bustling port town of Sydney had taken on a vigorous commercial complexion, humming at the centre of a rapidly expanding colony. For the first time, convicts experienced a punitive system where cruelty and deprivation prevailed, ramped up to give the colony a fearsome reputation as a place of terror for those contemplating crime. At the heart of this system was the administrative hub of the Hyde Park Barracks, coordinating the labour, location, fortune or fate of convicts across the broadening reach of settlement.
On arrival in 1825, the new governor, Ralph Darling, quickly turned his attention to tightening up the convict bureaucracy. From now on, each incoming convict was given a number. Not only that, requests made by settlers for assigned convicts were to be processed through a central Assignment Board, while the newly created role of Principal Superintendent of Convicts kept tabs on each convict’s identity, work, behaviour and punishment. Both of these new, and overworked, departments were installed at the Hyde Park Barracks; after 1830, it also housed a special bench of magistrates to conduct convict trials and order punishments.
Almost overnight, this new concentration of convict administration all housed under the one roof raised the importance of the Hyde Park Barracks. Having previously operated as a dormitory for town gangs and short-term lodgings for individuals awaiting assignment ‘up country’, the site now sat at the heart of a sprawling and dispersed network of convict labour. The barracks also became the engine room for the march of settlement across the tribal lands of an increasing number of Aboriginal groups.
Turning his eye to the distant penal stations at Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay and Norfolk Island, Governor Darling was troubled not only by their excessive costs but also by what he saw as a lenient and lax approach to punishment. To better achieve their primary role as fearsome places of secondary punishment, they needed to be more jail-like and discourage convicts from committing further crimes in the colony.
This meant tougher discipline, heavier labour and the removal of free time and ‘easy work’ as earned privileges. Unlike in Sydney, private farming and trading by officers and convicts were prohibited. Access to extra food and clothing sent by friends or family was banned. From now on, prisoners were divided into first and second classes according to their behaviour, with only the well-behaved permitted to have family members accompany them to these remote settlements and live nearby.
On Norfolk Island conditions were made even worse. All women were removed from this windswept Pacific outcrop, and cooperative convicts were appointed as warders to mete out ‘rough justice’ as they saw fit. The intention was to make Norfolk Island, more than any other penal settlement, a place of terror and dread.
Back in Sydney and surrounding farmlands, the growing population, an influx of free settlers and a booming private economy increased the need for roads and raised the pressure to push the frontier outwards. The solution, as Darling saw it, was to divert the most hardened and troublesome men – those unlikely to be assigned to private settlers – to the network of outlying road gangs and force them to work in heavy and gruelling manacles and chains. These teams were called iron gangs.
Toiling under extreme conditions, large teams of men chained together, some as young as 11 years old, carved new roads through the bush – breaking rocks, clearing trees, constructing stone culverts and bridges. They returned each night to well-guarded and fortified stockades – high-walled enclosures constructed in the bush – or slept in cramped wooden caravans that were hauled along by the workers themselves as the road-building progressed. Food was inadequate, overseers were cruel, and punishments were indiscriminate and brutal.
The menace of bushrangers
There were unintended costs of removing the ‘worst class’ of convicts from the remote penal stations and putting them to work on the colony’s outlying roads. Gathering the most desperate and depraved convicts and sending them in gangs to isolated areas increased the temptation to escape and take to the bush. And it soon became apparent that the harsh and ruthless treatment only increased their hunger for freedom.
Darling’s iron gangs were useful and driven by the necessity for roads and infrastructure, but their brutality gave rise, unwittingly, to the more serious problem of convict bolters, or bushrangers.
By the early 1830s, fear of bushranging had spread across the countryside as violent attacks on travellers and outlying homesteads became a regular occurrence. And to make matters worse, a policy of granting tickets of leave to convicts for capturing ‘bolters’ was releasing unsavoury characters back into society. Convicts capable of tracking and overpowering desperate runaways were typically tougher than their captives – not the well-behaved, sober and industrious individuals Darling had counted on rewarding.
Aboriginal trackers were sometimes involved in the apprehension of bushrangers too, and were often armed themselves. There were also Aboriginal bushrangers – another example of the complex dynamics involving Aboriginal people behind the frontier.
The three phases of the war against bushrangers
A new governor
In July 1831, Richard Bourke, a more humane and liberal-minded administrator, took control of a colony in which, for the first time, the combined population of free settlers and locally born children outstripped convicts under sentence.
Colonial business was booming and the economy was healthy and self-sufficient, thanks to the emergence of local manufacturing and a lucrative maritime trade. Whalers, cargo ships and coastal traders jostled on the docks and Sydney’s waterfront hummed with activity. Ship-building and allied industries like coopering, rope and sail-making kept entrepreneurs busy while the pubs, haunts and flop houses of The Rocks were filled with excitement and brimming with customers.
Circulating around this bustling town were the surviving Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney. As Judge Barron Field observed in the 1820s, they were ‘the carriers of news and fish; the gossips of the town; the loungers on the quay. They know everybody; and understand the nature of everybody’s business’.1 They were not always welcome, having abuse (and sometimes stones) hurled at them on occasion, so they tended to visit the houses and businesses of more sympathetic Sydneysiders. Among these was ex-convict turned butcher Charles Smith, whose shop and residence opposite the Sydney Markets (today’s Queen Victoria Building) was a popular gathering place for Aboriginal people visiting to socialise or sell fish and other goods.2
A few years earlier, the stern-minded governor Sir Ralph Darling stood before a map of the colony and drew a semicircular line roughly 400 kilometres from the centre of Sydney. This inked-in perimeter, declared Darling, was the ‘Limits of Location’, beyond which no-one could graze their herds or stock. Not surprisingly, Darling’s ‘limits’ were ignored. A few years later, around half the colony's sheep roamed illegally.
Governor Bourke took another approach. From 1835, a compromise was reached with the creation of so-called ‘squatter’s rights’ allowing farmers to graze stock beyond the official boundaries for an annual payment of £10.
More significant was his decision the previous year to ‘proclaim’ all lands beyond these limits as ‘crown land’. Bourke’s 1835 proclamation was in response to the unsanctioned establishment of the Port Phillip colony by squatters from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and treaty arrangements they endeavoured to strike with local Wurundjeri people. The proclamation made it clear that Aboriginal people were not considered to own the land and could not therefore negotiate with settlers. This would eventually lead, several decades later, to the controversial legal concept of terra nullius (meaning nobody’s land), which was only successfully refuted in 1992 with the High Court’s Mabo decision.
Frontier violence and skirmishes had been common occurrences since early settlement. The rush for land in the 1830s, however, pushed the frontier further and further onto Aboriginal lands. Often isolated pastoral stations were staffed by poorly supervised convicts, and violent confrontations and vigilante atrocities against Aboriginal groups, while sometimes poorly documented, were regular incidences. The 1838 Myall Creek massacre is a key event in this troubled history. It was one of the most well documented atrocities on the frontier because for the first time the perpetrators – all convicts or ex-convicts – were arrested and tried. Seven of them were executed as punishment for this heinous act of vigilante violence against innocent Aboriginal women and children.
Conflict of interest
For Bourke, well known for his progressive anti-slavery opinions, the colony was riddled with contradiction. Years earlier, Bourke had accepted his commission under the impression that transportation was soon to end, with the colony shedding its former reliance on convicts. To his disappointment, not only was convictism stubbornly entrenched, but despite the growing free population, the intake of convicts to New South Wales was larger than ever. On top of that, money to fund the garrison (the troops guarding the colony) had been cut, meaning there were fewer guards to wrangle a greater number of prisoners.
Brimming with commerce though swamped with convicts, the colony wrestled with two opposing identities. On the one hand – optimistic about their future – locals held hopes of a free society, buoyed by wealth and endless land, and replenished with a flood of immigrants, representative government and eventually self-rule. On the other hand – saddled with the realities of a penal colony – this was also a place of enforced pain and misery, of dreaded exile, where convicts toiled on roads and farms or rotted in cruel and distant settlements.
By the middle of the decade, escalating fears of bushranging and convict rebellion were allayed by increasing the harshness of convict life. Meeting the colony’s rising concerns with increased severity did little more than stoke further fear. Convicts, particularly those who were hardened and desperate, were more inclined to escape. Images of the countryside plagued by murderous runaways and ruffians skulking in the bush lurked in the minds of colonists.
Many also worried about becoming dependent on a system that supported the economic basis of their society yet also terrified them. At the same time, other aspects of convict transportation were sparking concern. Local workers fumed at the prospect of competing with free convict labour. More broadly, there was the perception that a convict ‘stain’ was imperilling the colony’s advancement. Like slavery, the convict system was seen as a dehumanising evil, corrupting both the criminals it sought to punish and those tasked with maintaining it.
Unlike Darling, who had backed the squatters and wealthy settlers, and given them power as magistrates and officials, Bourke listened to the community of ex-convicts and fought to restore their civil rights. Given that new convicts remained crucial to the colony’s expansion, Bourke was forced to keep the vast convict bureaucracy running. For the time being at least, a fully free society would have to wait.
Convicts who re-offended after arriving in the colony could be assigned to do hard labour in an iron gang
Back in England, as part of a wide-ranging review of the government’s handling of crime and punishment spurred along by prison reformers and progressive thinkers, a committee was formed in 1837 to scrutinise transportation to the Australian colonies and their network of penal settlements.
Prepared by the 26-year-old ‘radical’ William Molesworth, who conducted numerous and lengthy interviews with free settlers and colonial administrators over a four-month period, the so-called Molesworth report painted a grim picture of a brutal, expensive, ineffective and unjust system of punishment, out of step with current ideas on the treatment of prisoners and deterring crime.
... most persons in this country, whether belonging to the criminal population, or connected with the administration of justice, are ignorant of the real amount of suffering inflicted upon a transported felon ...
Sir William Molesworth, 1837
Not surprisingly, the report echoed the perceptions and biases of the colony’s leading transportation critics. The horrors of convict transportation, according to the evidence gathered, were reflected in rising crime and lawlessness, prostitution, homosexuality and drunkenness, among other perceived evils. Overall, it was the failings and flaws of the assignment system that concerned Molesworth the most.
Not only was ‘assignment’ like a lottery, where a convict’s fate rested on the whims of his or her ‘master’, but the system was open to abuse and corruption. Worst of all was the realisation that a convict’s treatment, or the conditions he or she endured, were unrelated to that convict’s crime. Rather, it was the haphazard, perhaps even questionable, needs of private and public ‘masters’ that governed his or her fate.
The Molesworth report spelt the end of assignment as a longstanding method of allocating convicts. More dramatically, it led to the end of transportation to New South Wales. By the time the last transport ship, the Eden, dropped anchor in Sydney Cove in 1840, 52 years of convict transportation meant that more than 80,000 men and women had entered the colony under sentence.
- Quoted in Grace Karskens, The colony, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2010, p432.
- Paul Irish, Hidden in plain view, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2017, pp56–60.
Explore our range of online resources designed by teachers to support student learning in the classroom or at home
From a struggling convict encampment to a thriving Pacific seaport, a city takes shape.
In 1820, the convicts living at the Hyde Park Barracks would have been woken at sunrise by the ringing of a bell in the yard