When New Zealand shipped its criminals to Australia

by Nicholas Reid / 24 January, 2018
Among some Pakeha, there used to be the legend that when New Zealand was a new British colony, only the best British people settled here. We weren’t like those uncouth Australians, whose European foundations were three penal colonies for the scrapings of Britain’s jails. No convicts were transported here.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. Our earliest British settlers included a fair quota of thieves, conmen, fraudsters and violent offenders and a few murderers. Not only that, but New Zealand’s early colonial government was itself involved in the business of transportation. For 10 years, magistrates “cleansed” the colony by transporting criminals off to penal servitude in Van Diemen’s Land. Australia’s offshore island was renamed Tasmania only after transportation ended in 1853.

Prisoners on a transport ship bound for Australia; 110 New Zealand criminals were sent there between 1843 and 1853. Photo/Getty Images

From 1843 to 1853, 110 convicts were sent across the Ditch. Of that number, five were Māori. The colonial government was wary of imposing harsh penalties on the tangata whenua at a time when Māori still made up the majority of the population. Only one woman was ever transported from New Zealand. Margaret Reardon richly deserved her conviction for perjury, as her false testimony had almost hanged two innocent men for a murder to which she herself was an accessory.

There were a few white-collar criminals. But overwhelmingly the transportees were single, young working-class men. Saddest of the bunch were the so-called “Parkhurst boys” – basically a cohort of unaccompanied juvenile delinquents who were unloaded on the colonies by British judges. Some of them made good here, but many were packed off to Van Diemen’s Land for relatively minor offences.

Very over-represented were soldiers or discharged soldiers, often for offences such as brawling, insubordination or being drunk on watch. One poor redcoat wretch deliberately broke the rules in the hope of being transported. He reckoned labouring in a penal colony would be more bearable than the repeated floggings that army discipline made him endure.

Kristyn Harman. Photo/Dan Cripps

This detail reminds us how harsh legal justice then was. Tales of adolescents transported from England for stealing a loaf of bread are not fiction. Kristyn Harman chronicles many such cases. Justice was also very uneven. William Phelps Pickering, a convict who later became a respectable and wealthy Wellingtonian, got seven years’ transportation for a minor act of fraud. Exactly the same sentence was handed down to a sea captain guilty of the much more serious charge of piracy, when he stole a ship and set off on an unauthorised voyage.

A New Zealand historian now settled in Australia, Harman is very even-handed in her judgments. She fairly notes how often judges showed clemency and how many solid citizens campaigned for humane penal reform. Our Victorian forebears were not all supporters of vindictive, punitive justice. She also details how the penal settlements in Van Diemen’s Land were run. Sexes were, of course, segregated, labour was intensive and conditions were harsh. This is a brisk read, but a grim one.

 

CLEANSING THE COLONY: Transporting Convicts from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land, by Kristyn Harman (Otago University Press, $35)

Nicholas Reid is a writer, poet and historian who blogs about books at Reid’s Reader.

 

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Fighting fast fashion: the rise of ethical consumerism
95853 2018-09-25 00:00:00Z Business

Fighting fast fashion: the rise of ethical consume…

by Mina Phillips

In the era of fast fashion, what can consumers do to ensure what they're buying hasn't been made by exploited workers?

Read more
Naseby's chilliest night means a rare opportunity for curling
96697 2018-09-25 00:00:00Z Sport

Naseby's chilliest night means a rare opportunity …

by Guy Frederick

Weather conditions have to be perfect for an outdoor curling match – last winter, for the first time in seven years, Naseby delivered.

Read more
Students walk out of Hamilton high school over principal's truancy comments
96723 2018-09-24 14:06:35Z Education

Students walk out of Hamilton high school over pri…

by RNZ

More than 100 students walked out of a Hamilton high school in protest after the principal said truants are more likely to wind up being a rape victim

Read more
Colin Craig drops damages claim against former press secretary
96717 2018-09-24 13:10:01Z Politics

Colin Craig drops damages claim against former pre…

by RNZ

Colin Craig has withdrawn his claims for damages against his former press secretary Rachel MacGregor but is still suing her for defamation.

Read more
PM in New York: Ardern's first speech focuses on lifting children from poverty
96691 2018-09-24 07:54:36Z Politics

PM in New York: Ardern's first speech focuses on l…

by Chris Bramwell

Jacinda Ardern has used her first speech in the US to recommit the government to making New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child.

Read more
Give Kate A Voice: Bringing Kate Sheppard's speeches to life
96352 2018-09-24 00:00:00Z History

Give Kate A Voice: Bringing Kate Sheppard's speech…

by Noted

Famous Kiwi women read the powerful words of Kate Sheppard, who fought for the right for women to vote.

Read more
Ladies in Black – movie review
96686 2018-09-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Ladies in Black – movie review

by Russell Baillie

This nicely nostalgic female coming-of-age tale set in a Sydney department store almost sings.

Read more
A Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing hops
95518 2018-09-24 00:00:00Z Small business

A Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing ho…

by Mike White

Nelson and Motueka are well known for their hops but Garston hops are starting to be noticed by brewers.

Read more