COLONIAL AMNESIA: The Forgotten Victims of Transportation

11.11.21 | Press

COLONIAL AMNESIA: The Forgotten Victims of Transportation

BYLINE TIMES,  11 November 2021

Katharine Quarmby explores why Britain’s story of transportation – the biggest forced migration in its history – has largely been buried.

Walk towards the River Thames and away from the grand front entrance of the Tate Britain, you come to a grey stone buttress. A modest plaque, the letters faded, states: “Near this site stood Millbank Prison which was opened in 1816 and closed in 1880. This buttress stood at the head of the river steps from which until 1867, prisoners sentenced to transportation embarked on their journey to Australia.”

There is little trace of the prison, also known as Millbank Penitentiary, which once stood here. Now, much of its foundations are hidden underneath the capital’s art gallery. But there was a time when men and women walked chained down the river’s steps and onto longboats to be rowed to ships which would take them on their final journey along the Thames. The river winds down to the seaports where the ships often weighed anchor before they set sail at last to Australia and the convicts left their home country behind them, usually for ever.

Transportation to mainland Australia and Tasmania – the largest forced migration of English, Irish, Scots and Welsh people ever to take place – is part of our colonial history. Yet it is almost invisible and unmarked in the UK. There are just a few plaques and statues across the UK and in Ireland, in seaports such as Portsmouth and Plymouth and several statues commemorating political dissidents who were transported and mostly were never seen or heard of again. But there is no museum of hulks and transportation to remember this part of our history, although London’s Migration Museum estimates that there are around two million people in the UK with convict history in their families – around one in every 30.

The National Archives, based at Kew, estimate that around 162,000 British and Irish convicts were transported to mainland Australia and Tasmania between 1787 and 1868, when the practice ended. Clare Anderson, Professor of History at the University of Leicester, ran the Carceral Archipelago project, looking at the states – many of them empires – which made use of transportation. Her work exposes how transportation was used to expand imperial borders and how convicts were used as unfree labour, a form of labour exploitation that had a longer history in European empires than slavery itself. Prof Anderson estimates that the British Empire exported around 376,000 people – making Australia the biggest recipient of British convicts during the period of transportation.

Britain’s history of the practice started in 1618 and then gathered pace as convicts – around 50,000 men, women and children – were sent to America. But, when Britain was defeated in the War of Independence in 1776, the prison hulks – decommissioned ships – used to house convicts on the Thames became severely overcrowded and politicians sought another solution. In 1778, the so-called First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay, now a few kilometres south of Sydney’s business district. The British at this time called Australia ‘Terra Nullis’ – unowned land; a doctrine only overturned in 1992 by five Strait Islander people.

British folk history, such as it is, only faintly remembers that most of those transported were poor men and women, the former mostly convicted of property offences and the latter of prostitution. In fact, very few women out of the 26,000 or so who were transported were actually transported for that reason, with most also convicted of crimes such as theft or robbery. Some 20,000 children, mostly boys, were sent out.

Read the full article here

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