Tag Archives: australian history

Are convicts Australian royalty?

History and serendipity covered the story of how Timothy Millett’s  collection of convict love tokens were bought by the National Museum of Australia. Prior to the sale, Timothy had tried to research the history of convicts named on the tokens. This had been difficult because people were reluctant to acknowledge their convict ancestors.

It would be interesting to know if this reluctance related to previous generations or contemporary families or both. Likewise was this restricted to British families or Australians as well.

From the start of European settlement convict identity was a concern for the Australian colonial community. As Ken Inglis explains in the  The Australian Colonists:

Respectable people worried about the future of a community composed so largely of men and women who belonged to it because they had been caught stealing. The convicts’ morals, it was feared, accompanied them to freedom and comfort, and infected other members of the civil and military population…How a man happened to have come to New South Wales was the most delicate of topics in colonial conversation. The word ‘convict’ came to be forbidden from general discourse.

At some point, though, this changed for Australians. When actor Jack Thompson discovered, on Who do you think you are, he had convict ancestry, he joyously announced he was descended from Australian royalty. You can also get bumper stickers along similar lines — Descended From Australian Royalty and Proud of It.

Hopefully, this more favoured view of convict forbears will lead to more of the convict love tokens at the National Museum of Australia being matched to the convicts who gave them to their loves ones.

When do you think Australians moved from shame of their convict relatives to celebration of convict ancestry?

The other convicts

Of the dated tokens in the National Museum of Australia’s collection of convict love tokens, the most recent is a 1856 token and the earliest is a 1762 token .

Anyone familiar with Australian history will know, that the first convicts transported to Australia arrived in 1788.

The 1762 token is a reminder that imprisonment and transportation are not exclusively an Australian story.

As Thomas Keneally explains in Australians: Origins to Eureka:

As immortalised in popular ballads, foolish young men and minor criminals, perhaps to the number of 120,000 were torn from the breasts of their lovers to be shipped to ‘Amerikay’. From about 1650 to the outbreak of hostilities between the Americans and British in 1775 they arrived in Virginia or Maryland or the Carolinas, where American settlers would bid for their labour generally for seven years at the auction block. The administrative beauty of this was that the master took over the prisoner, and troubled the authorities only in the case of escape or major unruliness.

What happened to these other convicts? They seem to be a footnote in Australian history. Are they featured in American history?


The First Fleet entering Port Jackson 1788

The rose of England never bud till I gain my liberty

May the rose of England never bud. The thistle of Scotland never grow. The harp of Ireland never play. Till I poor convict gain my liberty.

This is one of the more original verses found on the convict love tokens held by the National Museum of Australia. The verse is from this convict love token dated 1837, engraved for an unknown convict sentenced for seven years.

Have you heard this verse before? Do you think the token was left with a loved one or was for the convict alone? 

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Scotch thistle

This posting has been produced using content from the National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens interactive.

When this, you see remember me

When this, you see remember me, and, bare, me in, your mind let, all, the, world say, what they, will speak of me, as, you find
— Anonymous

This is one of the sayings that appear on convict love tokens . You can see it on this token. I was a bit unsure if these sayings should be attributed to the convict (where known), but anonymous seems more fitting as I assume the origin of these words is unknown.

What we do know, though, is that these words were meaningful for the individual convict who had them engraved on a token for their loved ones. In history the voices of the disadvantaged can be hard to hear. Convict love tokens are one of those rare historical sources where the dominant voices are not the winners but the losers. This makes them very special.

Do you agree?

This posting has been produced using content from the National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens interactive.

What is a convict love token?

This month I have been writing about Convict love tokens at the National Museum of Australia.

What is a convict love token? These tokens are coins that were smoothed and engraved with messages of affection. Convicts that were transported from England would use the tokens, as a memento, to leave with their loved ones. They are also called leaden hearts.

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The Valentine, 1876

Never speak about the lower classes

Thinking about the Great Strike of 1917 and Australia’s convict heritage, had me thinking about The Luck of the Irish by Babette Smith. This is a great book to add to your reading list if you are interested in colonial Australia.

In 1835 the ship The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast, south of Jervis Bay. On board were 250 Irish convicts. Miraculously all survived. Babette tracked what happened to the survivors and found in their personal histories much that explains the Australian way of life.

One of Babette’s arguments is that Australia’s egalitarianism was founded in the work practices and attitudes that were required because the government, in the early years of the colony, were completely dependent on the convict workforce to sustain the colony. Babette explains it like this:

The penal colonies created a dilemma for leaders who were faced with extracting productivity from workers who had no predisposition to cooperation, let alone obedience. In fact, the opposite. They were likely to respond with subterranean ridicule or dumb insolence to someone in command. And they could counter harsh commands or coercion by reducing their productivity. While the lash might punish them, it could not deliver a workplace result.

According to Babette the desire for classlessness continued after the convict era. In 1902, Henry Montgomery, an English bishop wrote a manual for clergyman heading to the colonies. His advice included:

Never speak about “the lower classes”. Australians don’t like it.

Do you agree Australia’s egalitarianism is founded in Australia’s convict heritage?

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Chain gang, Hobart