A History of Fremantle, between 1850 and 1860, with particular reference to convicts.
Chapter 1. “Why Were Convicts Needed?”
Western Australia in her infancy in the 30's and 40's was in need of a labour force. The convicts were an important factor in providing this labour force which was to be essential in the development of western Australia. This is also the story of the struggle between the Home Government and the colony of Western Australia over financial problems and problems relating to the types of convicts to be sent out to the colony. Here is the story of why Britain wanted to be rid of the convicts and why Western Australia wanted them, and finally the system which came into being.
In 1850 Western Australia had taken what was possibly the most important step in her entire existence. On May 12, 1849 orders in Council were passed making Western Australia a place to where convicts might be sent. Captain Fitzgerald had succeeded Frederick Irwin as the governor of Western Australia in 1848. Fitzgerald decided that convicts were the only solution to the problems of the West. He asked for opinions and numbers in the various districts of Western Australia and then sent to Earl Grey a letter informing him of the decision to have convicts transported to Western Australia.
Let us now look at some of the causes which made it necessary for Western Australia to accept convictism. The price of land in Western Australia was very low in the early years of her existence, but in 1842 just as Western Australia was beginning to show that prosperity was possible, the Imperial Government imposed a new set of land laws which made prosperity impossible for Western Australia.
With its usual impersonal efficiency as regards colonial affairs the British government placed a uniform land price of one pound per acre on all land in Australia. Obviously all the land in Australia was not of equal value. It was here Western Australia suffered.
Western Australia found that it could not attract people by selling land cheaply and using the money to bring out immigrants. With this uniformly high price of land men would be much more likely to go to the Eastern Colonies where the land, for the same price, was of a better quality. This high price of land had cumulative results as far as Western Australia was concerned.
The indenture system of bringing settlers out to work on a farm for a specific period had been introduced, early, in an effort to stimulate migration to Western Australia. At the time competition for migrants was fierce throughout the world. The indenture system failed because a servant could stay with a master for a short time, save enough money to buy his own land and settle on it. Later, because land prices were high men who bought land could not afford to hire labour. This was disastrous to the West. Here the land was poor, sufficient labour and plenty of land were two essential requirements to be a successful farmer in Western Australia. Many acres, therefore, had to lie in waste while the small man had to try to cope with this vast, harsh environment. This high price of land (one pound per acre) had caused men to be wary of any investment in Western Australia. Consequently money stopped moving, and so the migration system which depended upon their money to bring out settlers failed. Western Australia was in a state of stagnation.
The low price of land originally had been the cause for the colony's failure, now the high price of land had produced a similar situation in the colony, namely, a lack of labourers.
The colonists considered that convicts would have a double effect on Western Australia. Two elements were lacking in Western Australia – a lack of labour and a lack of capital. These were the two basic causes for the poor start and for the continual struggle to make Western Australia pay. A labour force would help win the battle against poor soil – more acres could be planted and more cattle and horses could be tendered over a larger area. The costs of paying for gaols to house the convicts and money sent out to pay convicts wages would help to bring capital to Western Australia, and keep money moving. As regards the question of capital and, in fact, the whole convict system, both the British Government and Western Australia seemed to be using each other as much as possible. They persisted in trying to give when there was something not wanted and retain when they thought there was to be some loss. Western Australia only accepted convicts because she was in desperate need of labour and capital and not because of any favour to the British government. When conditions were drawn up Western Australia made it seem like a favour to accept convicts. She stipulated the type and character of the man to be sent out. At home the government gave out as many convicts as Western Australia could take, at times deviating somewhat from the original agreement drawn up. The British Government kept a close scrutiny on money spent on the system and several times objected to excessive expenditure on the part of Western Australia.
The building of the Fremantle Establishment and the payment of the police are examples of the Home Government's efforts to cut down on expenditure. Both parties required the system to relieve pressure but for Western Australia the system was of vital importance. Had Western Australia not taken on convicts the state may have had to struggle on for many more years until the eighties and nineties when gold thrust Western Australia into world prominence.
Another cause, a more immediate one, of why convicts were needed was the depression which passed over Western Australia in 1848-9. This was a severe setback just as the West was beginning to see her way clear on the path to prosperity. Because Western Australia was an established colony she had quite a deal of bargaining power with the British Government. The Eastern colonies had been established for the specific purpose of dispatching convicts. But Western Australia was on the map. She was brought into being by private enterprise under the crown. So to a degree the West was independent and had a small degree of bargaining power which the other colonies except South Australia, did not possess. Because of this power Western Australia could distinguish the type of convict she wanted. The British Government was in such a position that she would have agreed to almost any condition to be rid of the convicts. Possibly the only condition the Home Government may not have accepted was the excessive expenditure of money. Another point of interest is that when Peel drew up his original constitution and had it agreed to by the British Government he stipulated that convicts were not to be sent to Western Australia. This condition was ignored when convicts were brought into the colony.
There were five conditions which held for all convicts sent out from Britain. Firstly the convicts were to be males. This proved a topic for some heated arguments later in the period, but males continued to be the only ones sent to Western Australia. The number of free immigrants were to equal in numbers the convicts sent out. This proved to be a cause of annoyance among the colonists but in general the British Government did adhere to this principle. Only convicts under forty-five years were to be sent out. Many were in their early twenties and quite a number in their late teens. The two final conditions were of a rather arbitrary nature. The colonists stipulated that the individual was to be of god character and in good health. Judgments such as these can only be let to the individual but if one can ascertain results from the conduct of the convicts in general, then the individual Judgments of good character seemed to be fairly accurate.
Throughout the colony, there was the feeling that men had little faith in Western Australia. The period seemed to be one of disdain in which men hung onto land in the hope that something would change the situation. Convicts did just this. In a matter of a few months Fremantle was changed from a port in which trade was stagnant and there seemed little prospect of improvement into a thriving, growing community. A voice cried out for convicts from South Australians, who had lived in Western Australia and bought land. They found that they could not succeed and moved to South Australia. Their pleas for convicts came before it was finally decided to introduce them to Western Australia. These were the only supporters from other States. Most of the Eastern States colonies, with the exception of Tasmania had given up the practice of taking convicts. They openly decried Western Australia for the step taken. Victoria by an Act tried to prevent the influx of convicts from Western Australia.
It is important to realise one fact about the system in Western Australia. In this state the basis principle was to be remedial. There existed an honest desire to produce good citizens, to produce men who could not regard Western Australia as a gaol, but to think of it as a home. Many of the convicts did this and Western Australia profited, as did the convicts, from this principle. The men sent out to Western Australia were of much better character than those sent to Van Dieman's Land. These factors contributed greatly to the system than did the other colonies. This conclusion takes into account that Western Australia had far less in the way of resources than did the other colonies. In an issue of the Perth Gazette it was stated that a man in Western Australia gets twice as much food for 1/8 than a man in England receives for 2/-. This proves a point that conditions in Western Australia, although hard and exacting were not as harsh as those in England. Many convicts realized this point and considered that being sent to Australia to serve a term of punishment for a crime, which was very often brought upon the individual by the poor conditions in England, was a form of improvement and a chance to start a new life i a new land. This proved to be an important factor in the efforts of Western Australia to produce good citizens from convicts who were obviously not really bad. The remedial process had probably much to do with the fact that crime of a serious nature and convict escapes were kept to a minimum during the years of remedial rule. When Governor Hampton took over as governor in 1862 and the emphasis was shifted from remedial to a more harsh form of discipline the amount of crime and escapes seemed to rise considerably.
Battye seems to sum up the position from the point of view of the colonist. He states that to the colonist the convict system meant three things;-
1.The lavish expenditure of British funds.
2.Cheap labour for Public Works.
3.Secure a stream of free immigration paid for by the home authorities.
The British Government did not send out the convict merely to help the colony. English gaols were overflowing with crimes, and a harsh penal code was making the situation worse. These convicts had to be pushed off to somewhere at little expense. Western Australia proved a little expensive but it was the best available, an the British Government lost no time in responding to Western Australia's request for convicts. What then of the convict himself? A young convict who came to a colony such as Western Australia was bound to be better off than to stay in England where he was branded for life. In Western Australia no one knew his crime and most were not interested. If he worked he was accepted. Chances of advancement and better conditions existed in the colonies. The convict knew this and usually responded favourably to the prospect of being transported. The theoretical conditions were ripe for the convicts to come, but now the conditions in the colony must be examined to see how the convicts were received.