Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

The 'Knotted Hands That Set Us High': Labour History and the Study of Convict Australia

Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

The 'Knotted Hands That Set Us High': Labour History and the Study of Convict Australia

Article excerpt

The study of convict Australia is a study of the creation of self-sustaining settlements, quintessentially involving work and labour that was intended to be retributive and reformative, but also economically productive. Australian settlement belonged to an era of nascent industrialisation and capitalism, albeit motivated initially by penological imperatives and imperial ambitions, with the prevailing impulses of laissez-faire curtailed by strict state-controlled economic and social regulation. For much of the early colonial period, convicts dominated Australia's working population. Convict labour built the colony's infrastructure, and its emerging industries and businesses, and the discussion of convict labour--its quality, nature, management and outcomes, and its role in penal policy--was integral to the ways in which the colony was administered and interpreted throughout the early-nineteenth century.

It therefore seems strange that in the twentieth century the contribution of labour history to the study of convict Australia was slow and subdued. This reflected an apparent difficulty in dealing with an era where labour was forced rather than waged, and where the economy was dominated by the state rather than private capitalism. The discomfort was, of course, widely shared. Australian reflections on the convict past were long shrouded in ambivalence and ambiguity, 'spoken of with bated breath, as though the details of it could not be tolerated in the limelight of public criticism'. (1) The convict story became buried in silence, or was excused and romanticised, and historical reflections became consumed with the perceived moral dimensions of the subject and with the possible cultural, psychological and institutional legacies of the period. The result was an emphasis on questions concerning the criminality and culpability of convicts, rather than appreciation of their plight as workers. Yet when labour history perspectives did intervene, they proved critical to challenging and resetting the conventional paradigms of convict history.

Grappling with Ignominy

Australian historians of the early-twentieth century were not alone in grappling with perceived ignominy in their nation's origins. Americans, also needing to account for 'undesirable citizens' in their colonial past, (2) deliberated on the moral character of transported British convicts, dividing themselves between those who purposefully refuted any impression that their founders were 'criminal or dissolute persons', (3) and those who forthrightly insisted that the national genesis was forged by 'baser matter' than 'pilgrims and martyrs'. The latter view at least evidenced the transformative powers of the American environment, for it showed 'that many who have fallen will rise again if they have a chance'. (4) Some conceived that British convicts were exiled merely for 'stealing a loaf of bread to sustain life', (5) while others posited them as 'thieves' whose 'character do not warrant whitewashing'. (6) Sidestepping the question of character, some placed convict transportation as 'a chapter in our economic history', supplying 'a portion of the compulsory labor which helped to produce the wealth and the consequent freedom' of the colonies, rather than being a matter 'connected with our social history'. (7) While much of the discussion was decidedly empirical and erudite, by mid-century it could still be observed that the question remained 'larger than American patriotism has generally admitted'. (8)

Australian scholarship and commentary echoed these concerns, although the matter seemed vastly more urgent and fundamental. For Australians the convict past was a more immediate and formative one, involving far greater numbers of 'pioneers' and living descendants, and apparently requiring a more earnest negation of those 'illiberal reproaches cast on the beginnings of a nation'. (9) The strategies for managing and construing that past were multifaceted and interwoven, often conflicting and contested. …

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