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Searching for Roots Down Under

It is common knowledge that convicts were sent from England, and elsewhere, to Australia in the 1800's. But what else should you know about searching Down Under?


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Many of us have this perception that British convicts were sent to Australia, to lessen the overcrowded prisons in England, and then they stepped off the boat and lived happily ever after down under. This is actually a misperception.

The convicts were not treated to a pleasant ocean voyage and then set free on Australian soil. They were incarcerated in Australia to serve out their term. Since they were not given a return ticket, they often settled in Australia. Home was a world away.

Tasmania was most often their destination for the duration of their sentence. Abel Tasman landed there in the mid-1600s while on a voyage on behalf of Anthony van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. The name Tasman chose was Anthoonij van Diemenslandt. In 1803, the British Anglicized the name as Van Diemen's Land. The locals called it Van Diemonian or Vandemonian.

In 1856, the British renamed the island Tasmania in honor of Abel Tasman. Among others, Irish convicts were routinely sent to New South Wales, Australia. The more unruly of these were often sent from New South Wales to Van Diemonian. The Mayberry homepage features a searchable database of Irish Convicts to New South Wales.

Among other things you'll discover among these passenger lists is a vast number of ships that were transporting as few as a single convict. Of the dozens of ships listed carrying convicts to New South Wales, very few were weighted down with hundreds of passengers. Among the ships were both men and women convicts, although seldom on the same ship.

A spectacular amount of searchable information is available about convicts who spent time at Van Diemonian, or Tasmania. The Index to Tasmanian Convicts includes 76,000 prisoners who were convicted and incarcerated in Tasmania from 1804 to 1853.

If we search for Thomas Wallis, we find he was convicted in Portsmouth, U.K. and shipped to Tasmania. He was tried in Portsmouth on Oct. 20, 1845, and sentenced to 15 years. He set sail for Tasmania on Dec. 1, 1845, and arrived on May 20, 1845.

The convict records have been digitized, with the original convict records completely viewable for free. The records are handwritten but quite detailed. For instance, we can clearly see that Wallis was a Protestant who could read and write "a little."

As with modern-day prison records, prisoner's identifiable marks were documented. As some would say, this prisoner had "ink." Thomas Wallis had a scar on his face and several tattoos.

Even though the original sentence was for 15 years, the Tasmania record shows that he had to serve 24 months of labor. Presumably, his sentence had been reduced from 15 years to 2 years by agreeing to go to Tasmania. He was originally to serve until 1860, but his sentence would have meant he would be released by 1847.

As mentioned earlier, the more cantankerous convicts were sent to Tasmania. During his incarceration, the detailed record of his stay show that he continued to be at odds with the law. By 1851, his record shows that he was again convicted of additional crimes. As late as 1857, Wallis's lawbreaking continued.

We also gain some insight to life in Tasmania. He was given 50 lashes and then another 36 lashes for disobedience. We also see that possession of tobacco and snuff were considered bad behavior. From such records, we can establish where Thomas Wallis was during those years. We know that, at one point, he was in Hobart Town, Tasmania, because he broke the law there. Such records are useful and, unfortunately, many people did gain passage by virtue of having broken the law. As a result, there are convict records for quite a few immigrants.

The Tasmanian Archives contain considerable data. There are also Tasmanian photographs, films and videos online. It's almost as good as being there.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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