Tasmania as a penal settlement [chapter 40 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 40 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 31 March 1935.]

The story of Australia — XL

Tasmania as a penal settlement

Governor Arthur was recalled in 1836, and Sir John Franklin, the great Arctic explorer, succeeded him. He had already seen service in Australia, as he had been a midshipman in the Investigator when his cousin, Matthew Flinders, made a survey of the Australian coasts in 1801.

For many years he had been engaged in Polar exploration and survey work, and his appointment as Governor of Tasmania was probably due to the desire to reward his valuable services. No better man could have received the honour, yet, as later events proved, his term of office proved a very unhappy one.

When he reached Hobart in January, 1837, he looked forward to a period of ease and dignified rest after much toil. But his hopes were doomed to disappointment. He found it a succession of struggles against the brutality of the convict system and the arbitrary acts of the friends, and relatives of the late Governor who occupied high positions in the colony. Although he succeeded in securing the good will of the people, he was continually being censured on his administration, for under his rule began the decline of the colony which continued for nearly 30 years.

Influx of convicts

It is not difficult to find the cause of this retrograde step in the history of the colony. In 1840 transportation to New South Wales had stopped, and it was thought that Tasmania would also cease to be a convict settlement. But Britain did not immediately repeal the transportation laws. She even made it clear that Tasmania was to be made the only convict settlement. Consequently, nearly the whole of her transported felons, about 4000 a year, were poured into Tasmania, and to Franklin fell the task of controlling them.

The new system had a disastrous effect on the colony. It not only stopped the influx of hard-working immigrants, but by introducing convict labour it drove free workmen and labourers out of the colony. In a very short time many districts became depopulated; streets of houses became vacant, and all industries came to a standstill. By the end of the year 1844 Tasmania was losing its free population, and gradually becoming a mere convict settlement.

Franklin devoted all his energies to the betterment of the convicts’ condition of life, and the gradual improvement of social life by the better organisation of education. He was ably assisted by Lady Franklin, whose wealth was ever ready to promote prosperity and alleviate suffering.

A marked feature of Sir John’s term was the help given to science and art by the Governor and Lady Franklin. The Royal Society of Tasmania was established, and Tasmania became for a time the intellectual centre of Australia.

Financial depression

In 1843 Franklin was recalled, and he was succeeded by Sir Eardley-Wilmot. He was the first civilian to occupy that position, and in 1844 his authority was extended to include the administration of Norfolk Island. He was confronted with many difficulties. Thousands of convicts were being poured into the colony during a period of financial depression when industry was at a standstill.

By the beginning of 1847 the population numbered 66,000, of whom 29,000 were convicts. The free settlers, who were already suffering from the depression, now strongly objected to paying any more taxes to meet the cost of maintenance of gaols.

The Governor proposed to the Legislative Council to borrow money for this purpose. Those of the Council who were Government officials were afraid to vote in opposition to his wishes, and he had a majority at his command. But the other members, six in number, denounced the scheme and resigned their seats. For this action, they were called the “Patriotic Six.” This attempt on the part of the Governor to coerce the people resulted in his recall in 1846, when he was succeeded by Sir William Denison.

Transportation abolished

During Sir William Denison’s term of office transportation of convicts to Australia was abolished, with the exception of Western Australia. By 1853, when transportation to Tasmania ceased, the total number of convicts sent there had risen to 67,655. The country was flooded with unemployed prisoners, and bushranging revived, though not on such a large scale as formerly.

With the cessation of transportation in 1853 the old name of Van Diemen’s Land was officially changed to Tasmania. Tasmania’s first Parliament under responsible Government was called together on December 2, 1856.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 31 March 1935, p. 29

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