Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Van Diemen's Land . . .

"Transported over the seas and far away . . . to Van Diemen's Land for a period of seven years." Van Diemen's Land was England's colonial dumping ground to solve the problem of bulging prisons. In fact, the early governors of VDL ran the colony as a vast prison. Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875) was the first to attempt to remove the 'convict stain' by referring to the island as Tasmania, after Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer who discovered this large island south of Australia.

Interesting what myths we build of our nation's beginnings and how these shape our national identity. In the United States, the earliest settlers came in search of religious freedom, that no government could tell a group of believers what to do, thus rebellion from the earliest days, culminating in separation from the homeland and a historical separation of church and state. Land was wrested from resident Indians, and this very rich land led settlers to move west in a stubborn, restless search for Nirvana, under no man's thumb.

In the Carribean and South America, successive waves of second sons of the Spanish and Portuguese dons (and other exiles) created vast sugar plantations, a slave-based extractive economy that would allow them to return home wealthy. Many never intended to stay.

And in Van Diemen's Land and Australia, begun with convict labor, men and women were exiled from home, denied their history, shamed to admit any ancestor had been a convict. Following World War II, this began to change. Robert Hughes, in The Fatal Shore (158), argues that the Australian working class, shaped by 19th Century battles with land or factory owners, remembered and retold stories about their convict forebears, these heroes who survived what seemed impossible conditions -- the whip, the fetters, the servitude, the 'convict stain.'

Today, having a great-grandmother or great-grandfather who was once a convict is a source of pride. For they survived.



  1. Wow, Beth--great post! It's true how the "birth" of our countries shape our mentality moving forward, and it's a mark of strength and national maturity to recognize it and rise above, like Australia has. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Having a convict ancestor now admits one to Australia's version of Royalty. A friend of mine in Tasmania has documention on his convict ancestors, from both sides of his family. In fact the estimate is that 75% of Tasmania's population has convict ancestory. Not that this is a matter of shame these days. Many of the convicts were highly skilled or had committed trifling offences just to survive. Others were political prisoners. The convicts actually had greater opportunities to thrive in Australia and many lived better lives than if they had stayed in the hovels of Britain. Food eventually plentiful and the climate better as well as hygiene. Opportunities existed to own land and prosper. Eventually the British Government tightened the sytem as it became evident that transportation was not sufficiently arduous. Not to minimise the horrors of the system or the degradation. It is ironic that in the US I have heard Australia referred to as a Nation of Convicts when in fact on mainland Australia free emmigration has for 2 hundred years way outpaced the relatively small number of convicts transported. Even more ironic is that transportation originally was to the American colonies and Britain only sent convicts to Australia after the American Revolution. The Fatal Shore makes enthralling reading, though some more balanced books are available these days. Good luck with your writing.

  3. Oops typo...I should have typed "documentation up there but blew it!