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.


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