Freedom from Indenture or Prison in Australia

views updated

Freedom from Indenture or Prison in Australia


By: Anonymous

Date: June 5, 1838

Source: "Freedom from Indenture or Prison in Australia," June 5, 1838. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

About the Author: The Hulton Archives are a collection of significant historical documents maintained by Getty Images, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to such communications groups as advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, new media organizations, newspapers and producers. The document is in the standard form employed by New South Wales correctional authorities in 1838.


The history of the transportation of convicted criminals by Britain to its Australian colonies commencing in 1788 is an integral part of the history of Australia. When Captain James Cook first explored the Australian coast in 1770, he reported to his English political masters of the agricultural potential of the region. The first significant economic benefit that England directed to Australia was the establishment of a penal colony in the district that Cook had named New South Wales. The modern Australian city of Sydney is today the capital of the state of New South Wales.

The decision by Britain to export a significant percentage of its criminal population was motivated by a number of factors. The first was that of rampant overcrowding in English and Irish prisons; for offences that did not call for an automatic imposition of the death penalty, transportation to far-off Australia (a term synonymous with deportation) was an attractive and economical alternative. The second benefit gained by British authorities was the usually permanent removal of an undesirable lower-class strata of its citizens.

The third benefit gained by the imposition of a transportation sentence to Australia was the provision of free labor in the new Australian colonies. The typical sentences imposed in English and Irish courts as the alternative to imprisonment was a period of seven to fourteen years in the colony, where the convicted person would be required to work for no income to the satisfaction of the colonial authorities.

The rigors of the transportation sentence began with the sea voyage to Australia. The passage from England would typically take between six and eight months, including necessary stoppages for repairs and reprovisioning. It was not uncommon for the convicted passengers to succumb to scurvy, a disease caused by a vitamin-C deficiency, or dysentery, an often fatal intestinal infection.

The type of service that a convict would be required to perform in Australia depended upon the severity of the crime committed and the skills possessed by the convict. The two general categories of penal service were government labor and the labor provided to a private landowner. Much of the government service was carried out under armed guard in a fashion similar to the chain gangs common in parts of North America during the twentieth century. The work directed by private landowners was primarily that of agricultural labor.

The successful conclusion of the sentence was marked by the issuance of a Certificate of Freedom, documentary confirmation that the sentence had been served. Where a sentence was partially served to the satisfaction of the authorities, a probationary document, better known in the Australian colonies as the "ticket-of-leave," might be issued, permitting the holder some liberties as to where they could be employed. Once a Certificate of Freedom was issued, the convicted criminal generally had no restrictions upon their liberty, except that in most cases the holder was prohibited from returning to England.

The Australian population became an intermingling of British convicts and immigrant settlers when the first free settlement began in the colonies in 1793. By 1850, British authorities had transported over 150,000 convicts to New South Wales. Virtually all of the transported persons were from the British Isles, with six males transported for every female. Given the relative populations of England and Ireland during the period of transportation, a disproportionate number of Irish persons were sent to New South Wales.



See primary source image.


The penal colonies of Australia played a pivotal role in the establishment of the modern Australian population, as an overwhelming majority of the ticket-of-leave and Certificate of Freedom convicts remained in Australia at the conclusion of their sentences to settle, farm, and to raise families.

The modern traits of the Australian national character are ones that can be traced to the establishment of the Australian penal colonies. It is not surprising that the remnants of a decided anti-British feeling in the country would persist to this day, given that the forced transportation of over 150,000 people to Australia was carried out by Britain against its own citizens. It is significant that this sentiment has persisted notwithstanding Australia's formal political connection to Britain through its Commonwealth membership.

An early example of this attitude is found in the installation in the Australian public consciousness of the outlaw Ned Kelly as an Australian national folk hero. The story of Kelly, the son of an Irish ticket-of-leave man and the killer of a number of police officers in a spree of lawlessness near Melbourne until his shooting by the authorities in 1880, springs directly from the convict heritage of Australia.

The 1838 Certificate of Freedom depicted here was the culmination of what by modern standards would constitute a harsh criminal penalty—transportation to a far-off, primitive, and often inhospitable place, where labor was demanded over a seven-year period with no remuneration. For most convicts, the prospect of life anew in Australia was a reasonable alternative to the life of the under classes they had left behind in London, Manchester, or Dublin. While alleviating a problem of prison overcrowding in Britain, the authorities inadvertently stimulated the growth of an Australian population that would become largely homogeneous and capable of developing a definable national spirit and outlook in a relatively short period of time. The last British convicts were transported to the western coast of Australia in 1868, and Australia was declared an independent nation in 1901.

The notion of freedom as guaranteed by the Certificate was a most valuable commodity given the legal basis upon which the lesser ticket-of-leave could be revoked by the penal authorities. Australian records confirm that tickets-of-leave were frequently "deprived," as the Australian authorities described their surrender by the holder, returning the convict to his initial convict status in the colony. The seemingly trivial breaches of the peace that included insubordination, a suspicion of having stolen money, and for being present in a public house (tavern) after hours were all legal bases for the loss of a ticket-of-leave. The ticket-of-leave was intended by the colonial authorities as a rehabilitative tool.

A further unintended significance of the Certificate of Freedom was that unlike other cultures, where a criminal record would be a lifelong stigma, given the nature of the developing Australian society and the large numbers of persons in similar circumstances, the stigma of a criminal sentence was not the same impediment to future progress.

Certificates of Freedom would issue to those convicts who had served the standard sentences of seven, ten, or fourteen years; convicts serving a life sentence could be granted a pardon, but not a Certificate of Freedom.

The importance of the issuances of Certificates of Freedom to Australian convicts is evidenced today in the comprehensive records maintained by the State Records of New South Wales. The index of the Certificate of Freedoms extends from 1823, when New South Wales was converted from a penal colony to a formal colony of the British Empire, to 1869, when the last Certificate was issued. Over 40,000 Certificates are on record in New South Wales alone.



Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish and Cassandra Pybus. American Citizens, British Slaves: Yankee Political Prisoners in an Australian Penal Colony 1839–1850. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2002.

Neal, David. The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony: Law and Politics in Early New South Wales. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Web sites

National Archives of Ireland. "Transportation of Irish Convicts to Australia (1791–1853)." 〈〉 (accessed June 19, 2006).

State Records Office of Western Australia. "Convict Records." 〈〉 (accessed June 19, 2006).

About this article

Freedom from Indenture or Prison in Australia

Updated About content Print Article