Life

The willingness of transported convicts to resist authority is a foundational characteristic of Australia’s democracy, highlighted in a new international project. By Amy Fallon.

The courage of our convicts

Tony Moore with Alex Saunes photographing a union banner.
Tony Moore with Alex Saunes photographing a union banner.
Credit: Roar Film

When Fanny Jarvis stole from her employer, the servant girl from Staffordshire in Britain received a tough sentence: transportation for life to a new country. Three years after her arrival in Australia she was charged with insubordination, likely unaware of the role that she and others who shared her fate were playing in the origins of the nation’s democratisation.

Today, she is still virtually unknown. But Jarvis, who endured nearly four years of hard labour and long periods of solitary confinement – and whose acts of rebellion included an uprising at the notorious Cascades Female Factory and refusal to testify in court – is part of a mammoth new international digital history hub. The Conviction Politics project interrogates the link between the collective action these prisoners undertook to control their labour, and the genesis of Australia’s unionism, as well as its political and social democracy.

Featuring data displays that put female convict resistance in a visual context, the project’s “transmedia” hub will eventually feature 120 documentaries, long and short reads, and original and “reimagined songs” by current artists. “It’s the Netflix of convict politics,” its lead, Associate Professor Tony Moore, head of communications and media studies at Monash University, told The Saturday Paper at a launch hosted by the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London in July.

“We thought there’s thousands of stories to be researched and brought to life. We’re not going to wait for the ABC, Channel 10 or Channel 9 to put this out to the public. We’re building our own converged post-television network, if you like, making public our own online streaming, data visualisations, interactive atlas, our own articles.”

Funded through the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects, Conviction Politics is a Monash University-based collaboration between universities, museums and unions in Australia, Britain and Ireland. Family historians and “citizen researchers” have also played crucial roles, says the project’s chief investigator, Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, of the University of New England, whose work on this also led him to co-author a book, Unfree Workers.

Conviction Politics draws on digitised records from a 2015 documentary Death or Liberty, based on Moore’s book of the same name. The film featured original songs written and performed by Billy Bragg, Mick Thomas and Lisa O’Neill, who are involved in the new collaboration. Invaluable archive content that has been “trapped in different national and institutional silos” for years will also be unleashed, says Moore, to bring to life prisoners who refused to work and eat, escaped en masse and seized ships, among other acts of resistance.

The project will be “bigger than Ben-Hur” by late 2024, when it embarks on an international travelling exhibition, says Moore.

 

Convicts may conjure up images for the average Australian of petty criminals unfairly sent to the other side of the world for stealing a loaf of bread or a silk hanky. But there’s a history of resistance to explore. More than 3600 political prisoners were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868 for crimes including journalism, “seditious speech”, forming unions, protesting and machine-breaking, according to records compiled by British Marxist historian George Rudé, who was a professor at universities in Australia and North America before his death in 1993.

The project views their transportation as “a cruel system of unfree labour, forced migration deployed by the British Empire to build the infrastructure, plantations, mines and cities of the Australian colonies, akin to slavery in the Americas,” says Moore. Digitised records – which show 12,000 acts of collective resistance involving 45,000 convicts – reveal protests in the 1830s that rival the 1890s union strikes. This contributed to colonial Australia’s democracy and ultimately “may have saved Australia going down the plantation route of the slave states of the US,”  he says.

“The convicts were our first labour force that was not only exploited, but one that resisted unfair treatment individually and, more importantly, collectively, even forming union-like combinations to bargain with employers.” We owe the eight-hour day, secret ballot and universal suffrage to these people, Moore points out. And Conviction Politics is an endorsement of the growing pride among people owning up to this ancestry in the years since the 1970s.

The project also has relevance for contemporary scandals, such as the secret ministries that former prime minister Scott Morrison had himself sworn into, he adds.

“Responsible and democratic government was one of the great things that generations of political prisoners transported to Australia fought for first in their homelands, then in Australia,” says Moore. He cites Scottish lawyer and media activist Thomas Muir, sentenced for sedition, and the British Chartists championing working-class suffrage.

Dr Monika Schwarz, a research assistant at SensiLab at Monash University, says the project underscores the double standard that women of the time were struggling against. Women such as Fanny Jarvis “suffered from a certain bias for decades [as] what might have passed as heroic behaviour in men was often only seen as recalcitrance in women”, says Schwarz, who worked on the data analysis for Conviction Politics.

“[They] suffered the convict system and fought back, and they have been part of the story of [Australia’s] democratisation from the very beginning,” she says.

Jarvis finally married and was conditionally pardoned, about a decade after being sentenced to life.

There is a more sinister implication embedded in this history of punishment and resistance, too. Moore adds that locking people up is “deep in the DNA of Australia”.

“Look at what we do with refugees – we’re re-teaching Britain to do it,” he says. “They’re going to do offshore detention in Rwanda. Look at our acquiescence in the imprisonment of [Julian] Assange.”

The archives also explore the punishment and resistance of Indigenous people, which Professor Greg Lehman – the pro vice-chancellor, Aboriginal leadership, at the University of Tasmania – says is crucial to a full understanding of Australia’s colonial history.

“In many cases, Aboriginal people were co-opted into roles otherwise performed by convicts,” Lehman tells The Saturday Paper. “The indentured labour system in Western Australia assigned Aboriginal people to land grantees, with decisions about their lives entirely controlled by individuals given powers of magistrature. In this comparison, convicts were in a much superior position, as they had protection as Crown subjects and could obtain a ticket of leave.” By contrast, full civil rights for Indigenous people were not properly recognised until the 1967 referendum.

“One of the biggest problems in Australian colonial history, especially as it exists in the popular imagination, is that the story is all about explorers, bushrangers, convicts and settlers. The reality is that the Indigenous experience includes all of these,” Lehman says.

 

The project’s short documentaries, produced by Tasmania’s Roar Film, and data visualisations will comprise a travelling exhibition starting at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in early 2024. It will include walking tours designed for Hobart and Sydney. In central Hobart, a physical “convict memorial” funded by the Tasmanian government and the state’s National Trust is already under construction. Visitors will be able to use a smart device to find content on a specific person, to be displayed on a monolith made from LED screens, says Maxwell-Stewart.

“The memorial will also be a place where you can book a ceremony to acknowledge a convict and get your own personal message about that individual loaded into the dataset,” he says. “This will be marked with a blue flower – a digital forget-me-not – to indicate that a convict has been remembered.”

The exhibition will then move to Sydney, hosted by the New South Wales Teachers Federation. Presently, there are several places in the NSW primary and high school syllabuses where the role of convicts in early Australian society is taught, said Margaret Vos, assistant director of the Centre for Professional Learning at NSWTF.

“The convicts included powerful political activists who were willing to fight for working rights and social change,” she says. “The Conviction Politics hub is an extraordinarily valuable resource for teachers and it should be made easier to incorporate its content into their class work.”

London, regional parts of Britain and Dublin will also host the exhibition in 2024 and 2025. In Britain, where mass strikes have brought the country to a standstill, the current government attitude towards unions is hostile. But the incoming Trades Union Congress general secretary, Paul Nowak, said the organisation was proud to be on board.

“It’s important not just to remember our history – including the Tolpuddle Martyrs transported to Australia for organising a union – but also to make the connection between the struggles of 200 years ago and the fight of workers today against falling living standards and for rights at work,” he told The Saturday Paper.

Eventually, Moore would like to see the establishment of a British museum dedicated to convict transportation. He said Britons needed to understand that more than 160,000 people were sent to the other side of the world for trivial offences.

“They became the unfree working class of the Australian colonies. [They] suffered, but in many cases also triumphed and stayed to build a new society,” he says. “There is a ‘Don’t mention the Empire’ amnesia about convict transportation in modern Britain.

“Such a museum will give visiting Australians, with or without convict ancestors, a place to remember this part of our origin story.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Courage of our convicts".

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