All countries must maintain law and order.  Wrongdoers must be punished and removed from circulation.  Too often in eighteenth century Britain, the death penalty had been the answer.  But although in theory many crimes could lead to execution, in practice juries would not always convict, and even when they did, most death sentences were commuted and only murderers, rapists and persistent criminals were usually executed.

Long-term imprisonment is a modern idea: it’s expensive, and it doesn’t always work.  Countries with Mediterranean coasts condemned their criminals to row the galleys; but galleys were not used in our waters.  In Russia, criminals were sent on a very long walk to Siberia.    Britain too had its Siberia – the American colonies.  Almost from the beginning, criminals were transported there.  Once there, they became “indentured servants” effectively slaves but only for a specified period, and were sold to settlers who made use of their labour.  Many made good.  The system worked well, much better than our prison system does, and many people were rescued from a life of crime; some became prosperous colonists.

But in 1783, the American colonies became independent and soon let Britain know that they would no longer accept convicts.  The  problem rapidly became acute, particularly in London. The prisons were overcrowded.  Old warships were taken over to accommodate prisoners; conditions on the ships became horrific.  There was an urgent need to find somewhere for these unwanted people to go.

During one of a series of voyages of discovery, Captain James Cook had explored the south-east coast of Australia and found it very suitable for colonisation.  One place, which he named Botany Bay because of its luxuriant vegetation, had appeared particularly attractive. After some discussion, in 1786, Lord Sydney, head of the Home Department, decided on the foundation of a convict settlement in the South Seas – and Botany Bay was chosen. It sounded like a good place. Each convict should be provided with:

“a few acres of ground as soon as they arrive, in absolute property, with what assistance they may want to till them.  They cannot fly from the country, they have no temptation to theft and they must work or starve.”

It was decided to equip a fleet, appoint a commander and first governor for the new colony, and despatch 750 convicts, suitably guarded by marines, as soon as it could be conveniently arranged.  Captain Arthur Phillip, the best possible choice, was appointed to command.

It was an extraordinary venture, which many did not expect to succeed; but in the event, conditions proved quite unexpectedly favourable. New South Wales was certainly a suitable destination. The climate was perfect. The aboriginal Australians were never a problem in the way that the Amerindians had been in America.  Most of them simply melted away, conquered not by firepower but by European diseases.  And most of the convicts were willing enough to work when the alternative was starvation.  But they were hardly the obvious people to pioneer a new colony.  And the problem, not sufficiently recognised, was that in many cases, coming from London, they knew nothing of agriculture.  The colony was soon securely established but it almost starved to death.

It did not starve; it succeeded; and more convicts were sent out to join those already there.  From now on, there was a steady flow of convicts, not to Botany Bay, which had proved unsuitable, but to a new settlement not far away, with a wonderful natural harbour.  It was named after Lord Sydney.  Many of the convicts prospered quickly; they proved to have a multitude of talents, which were put to good use.  Most of them had been sentenced to 7 years’ transportation, and some returned home; but many were only too happy to stay in Australia.

Sydney is now one of the great cities of the world, in perhaps the most attractive, well ruled and civilised country in the world. The original colonists, many of whom proved such good human material, despite previously getting themselves into trouble in Britain, were soon supplemented by voluntary immigrants.  When gold was discovered further south, people flocked in, and the city that grew on gold – Melbourne – still considers itself superior to Sydney, which retains the association with its origins.  But gold-diggers do not always make better citizens than people who have been in trouble with the law.  For me, the city of Sydney and the memory of the great Arthur Phillip who founded it, will always be a reminder that our modern society does not always deal with its wrongdoers in the right way, nor does it seem to know how to keep them out of trouble for the future.  Very few people are irredeemable.

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