James Wilson was one of the last convicts transported to Australia. His words below are from a smuggled letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a Fenian leader, in America. James Wilson’s desperate appeal led the American Fenians to organise the 1876 Catalpa rescue — the liberation of six Fenian convicts from Fremantle gaol.
Now, dear friend, remember this is a voice from the tomb…we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb…it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain…one or the other must give away.
— James Wilson
Very best wishes for the New Year.
Today, is the anniversary of a significant date in Australian history.
One-hundred and fifty years ago convicts stopped being transported to Australia. The last convicts arrived at Fremantle, Western Australia on 10 January 1868, on the ship Hougoumont.
According to Richard Reid in Sinners, Saints & Settlers, 62 of these last convicts were Irishmen who would not have accepted their criminal status. They were Fenians, part of the revolutionary 19th century movement to establish an Irish Republic, through physical force if necessary. Forty-five of the men were political prisoners, tried for treasonous acts or taking part in attempted uprisings in 1867. The remaining men were military Fenians — soldiers in the British army court-martialed for mutinous conduct.
You can find interesting articles about the Hougoumont and the end of convict transportation in Troves Digitised Newspapers. One article, that caught my interest was the Perth newspaper, the Inquirer and Commercial News, listing on 15 January 1867 of the Fenian convicts and the sentences they received. See below for this or you can find it here.
The sentence hanged, drawn & quartered must have been underlined in the original newspaper. It is a bit disturbing knowing this sentence was actually given to convicts. Agree or disagree?
Thomas Alsop, Joan Beaumont, Ken Inglis, Thomas Keneally, Timothy Millett,
Babette Smith, Jack Thompson
Jervis Bay and Randwick, New South Wales
1788: first convicts transported to Australia; 1835: The Hive sank off the New South Wales coast; 1917: the Great Strike; 2008: Timothy Millett sells his convict love token collection to the National Museum of Australia
National Museum of Australia (NMA)
National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens
Who do you think you are
The Australian Colonists
Australians: Origins to Eureka
The Luck of the Irish
The rose soon drupes & dies. The brier fades away. But my fond heart for you I love shall never go astray. —Thomas Alsop [had words engraved on 1833 love token]
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. —Anonymous
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
The rose soon drupes & dies. The brier fades away. But my fond heart for you I love shall never go astray.
—Thomas Alsop [had words engraved on 1833 love token]
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?
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
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?
This posting has been produced using content from the National Museum of Australia’s Convict love tokens interactive.