A much-loved go-to pseudo insult of Australians by the English is “convict” or, if they’re feeling particularly nasty, “crim”. I am here to declare once and for all – calling us “convict” is not insulting. In fact, we love it.
No, really, we absolutely loooooooooove our collective convict heritage and, as a genealogist, there is nothing better than finding a convict in my family tree or the tree of someone for whom I am doing research.
The BBC series Banished has rekindled an interest in the plight of convicts sent to Australia, a place which is often referred to in the series as a “godforsaken corner of the world”. This is just unfair. Sure, they landed at Botany Bay (original name Stingray Harbour, but changed out of respect to Steve Irwin) but it’s not the fault of Captain Arthur Phillip that he chose to land in what would become Sydney. Had he simply persevered further south, he would have been able to land in what would become Melbourne, and they all would have had a much nicer time.
If Banished is to be believed, they actually had an alright time of it. Hanging out on the beach, getting married, enjoying good weather every day, being able to ignore the Paleo fad and living on a high-carb diet, hanging out with that bloke from Game of Thrones, and creating what would become one of the most amazing, friendly, inclusive and non-racist societies on the planet.
Researching ones convict ancestry can be tricky. Not only because every second person was called John Smith or Mary Jones, but also because the accuracy of their convictions, sentencing and subsequent duration of transportation can be a bit hard to ascertain.
Take the story of Patrick Glennon, one of my ancestors and the first convict feather in my genealogical cap (I have four, total, which actually makes the the equivalent of a Duke in convictdom).
Patrick was a native of Clontarf, Dublin, Ireland when, in 1849 he was arrested, tried and convicted of the stealing of one bullock. His sentence – 10 years transportation to Australia.
Well, that’s one version.
Another version has Patrick arrested, tried and convicted of the stealing of one bullock and one heifer (an enterprising young lad, Patrick understood that boy cow + girl cow = baby cows = money). His sentence was 7 years transportation to Australia.
Yet another version has his sentence as life.
What we do know is that young Paddy travelled with just 8 other convicts on the transport ship the Hyderabad. They left Dublin on 23 May, 1849 and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) on 26 August, 1849. Patrick is listed as being the only convict on the ship with a life sentence, the others having an average sentence of 7 years.
Patrick was pardoned in 1854-55 and went on to marry, have lots of babies and start one of the branches that led to me.
So, yeah I’m proud of him. Did he break the law? Probably. But what we need to keep in mind is the high levels of poverty in Ireland at the time. This was smack-bang in the middle of the Great Famine. People were hungry, people were desperate.
I won’t go into a discussion about the merits of transportation vs imprisonment – so many what ifs there it will just make my head hurt.
What I will say is this – men, women and children who broke the law (or broke the law) were transported to Australia. They were ripped from their homes, their families and friends, and taken to the other side of the world with no realistic chance of ever returning. They endured a horrendous journey, hard labour in a quite hostile land and, when they were released, often had to fend for themselves.
They formed the backbone of the country and embody the tough spirit of Australians. Aussies are tough, but we find humour in a lot of things. I believe this need for humour has been passed down the generations by the sheer necessity to see the positive in a situation in order to survive. Should we overlook the soap-opera feel of shows like Banished and take the history of convicts more seriously and should we more closely investigate the hardship and horrors endured by these people?
The story of every single convict is an important part of Australian and British history and sweeping it aside as the go-to joke when talking with Aussies could be considered inconsiderate. But, in true Aussie nature our go-to reaction is to see the humour in it and brush such comments aside as funny.
Because they are funny. While the well-behaved (or badly-behaved but imprisoned) British subjects didn’t have to endure a horrific journey to the other side of the world, never see their families again or do years of hard labour building a colony, they did have to continue enduring the British weather.
So next time you’re calling an Aussie a convict, keep in mind that behind the smile and the laugh there swells an immense pride, a silent nod and a raising of a glass to the men and women who helped shape our country and our culture to be what it is today.
 This is lies.