History, Politics & Society
History of Australia
Australian Colonial Settlement

Did convicts have an impact on shaping Australia?

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08/05/2014

Very much so. The convicts had a most significant impact on Australia. It could easily be said that convicts were the ones who built Australia - socially, economically and politically.

Much of Australia's emerging national pride in the 1800s came from the sense of coming from a "downtrodden" class, and developing into a rich and vibrant country. Already in the early years, there was a distinction between the "currency lads and lasses", i.e. native-born Australians, and the British free settlers and officers (sometimes colloquially known as the "Sterling interlopers", for obvious reasons). The whole ethos of the "working bushman" (a concept which Australians still take pride in) came, in many respects, from a combination of the radical young currency class, together with the Irish political rebels and the working-class convicts. Had Australia been settled purely upon free British, we may have merely become a British outpost, instead of a young country struggling to throw off those "British bonds". It was upon this that Australia's social and political environment was built.

Economically, it was the convicts who did all the foundational work - tilling, planting and harvesting seed; experimenting with their own farms or setting up their own trades once they were free; constructing the roads and bridges of the new colony while on the road gangs; felling the timber, making the bricks, literally constructing so many of the buildings in the early decades. In the early years, convicts were put to work immediately on building projects, particularly roads, and farming. New buildings needed to be constructed as the first shelters were just tents and lean-tos. Some of the convicts were assigned as servants to the free settlers or the officers. As the colony developed, the convicts worked in more skilled areas such as smithing, building tools, and even more intellectual pursuits where they showed aptitude. One of Australia's most famous architects, Francis Greenway, was a convict.

For the reasons above, many people take pride in tracing their roots to the early Australian convicts.