With 20% of Australians descended from convicts, convict ancestry is for many a badge of honour. But just how criminal were these criminals?
While it’s difficult to generalise, given that a staggering 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia in total, certain offences appeared more frequently than others among our convict forebears. Here are 10 common crimes that entailed the sentence of transportation.
1. Petty theft
By far the most common crime that led to transportation was petty theft or larceny. Historians estimate that roughly a third to three-fifths of the male convict population came under the category of ‘other larcenies’. A broad category, larceny could include pick-pocketing, receiving stolen goods, cutting false coins, stealing clothes from washing lines, and more. It was particularly common amongst urban convicts.
2. Burglary or housebreaking
Burglary or housebreaking was considered a more serious form of theft because of the level of premeditation involved. Another common crime amongst male convicts in particular, stealing from a dwelling (as it was sometimes known) carried the death penalty.
3. Highway robbery
More serious still was highway robbery. Though commonly romanticised as a gentlemanly crime, highway robbers often employed violence. It was essentially a form of armed robbery occurring on public roads, similar to the later Australian phenomenon of bushranging.
4. Stealing clothing
The crime of stealing clothes, along with jewellery, fabrics, and other household items, was particularly common among female convicts, especially those who worked as domestic servants or prostitutes.
5. Stealing animals
Stealing animals like sheep and cows was most common among convicts from Ireland and, unsurprisingly, rural areas. In Ireland, this crime was often associated with major upheavals such as the potato famine. Remarkably, stealing a sheep carried the death penalty.
6. Military offences
Military and civil officers were used as guards and security forces during the early colonial period – but many former military men were also amongst the convicts’ ranks. Soldiers could be transported for desertion, insubordination and mutiny.
Early convict women were unfairly labelled as ‘damned whores’. It’s estimated that roughly 20% of female convicts in total were prostitutes (and only 13% of Irish female convicts). The exact number is difficult to determine, as the term was widely applied to women who were in de facto (or ‘co-habitating’) relationships.
8. Crimes of deception
Historian James Jupp compares the colonial-era offences of forgery and embezzlement to the equivalent of today’s white-collar crimes. The convicts who committed such crimes tended to be more educated and skilled than the average working convict, and often found work in the colonial civil service.
9. Political protest
At roughly 4,000 in total, political protestors make up a small, yet important, category among the convict population. These included not only Irish nationalists, Fenians and insurrectionists but also French Canadian nationalists, First Scottish Martyrs, Yorkshire rebels, early trade unionists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, Luddites, Swing Rioters and people who engaged in activities like rural riots, machine-breaking and cattle-maiming.
10. Assault: The number of convicts transported for crimes of violence was fewer than 5%. This scarcity also likely had practical considerations, given the confined spaces on board convict voyages, not to mention the small population of the fledgling colony beyond!