Australia in the 1820s

Penal settlements

The British Colonial Office wanted transportation to be seen as a terrifying ordeal and had come to the conclusion that New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie (1762–1824) had been too lenient in his policies towards convicts. Thus new penal settlements for reoffending convicts were established between 1822 and 1824 at Port Macquarie (New South Wales), Moreton Bay (Queensland), Macquarie Harbour (Van Diemen's Land) and Norfolk Island. Convict assignment was the practice used in many penal colonies of assigning convicts to work for private individuals. Sometimes this practice was described as slavery.

In 1822, the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement was established on Sarah Island. Located on the west coast of Tasmania, it was a place to be feared even by the worst type of convict. The settlement could not produce food. Malnutrition, dysentery and scurvy were common conditions for the prisoners. Typical punishments included solitary confinement for up to 14 days, wearing leg irons, working on the treadmill and receiving up to 100 lashes. In 1823 alone, over 9,000 lashes were given. Many convicts tried to escape; one successful escapee was Matthew Brady, the bushranger. Convicts worked as timber cutters and shipbuilders. In 1828, there were 531 people at the settlement, comprising 380 convicts, 95 military, 14 women and 27 children.

In 1823, John Oxley sailed north from Sydney to explore Port Curtis (now Gladstone) and Moreton Bay as potential penal settlements. He found the Brisbane River at Moreton Bay and explored the lower part of it. A year later, he returned and established a temporary settlement at Redcliffe, moving to the area where the central business district of Brisbane now stands. The settlement was initially called Edenglassie, a tribute to the Scottish towns Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Moreton Bay penal settlement under its commandant Captain Patrick Logan (1791–1830) was used for reoffenders and was the harshest penal settlement in New South Wales. By 1828, 693 convicts were imprisoned at Moreton Bay. Many tried to escape; James Davies (1808–1889) was one of the 'wild white men' who lived with the Aboriginal people of the region.

Penal settlements_1820

A snapshot of 1828

  • February
    • The Cape Grim massacre took place in Van Diemen's Land.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became Surveyor-General following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • Australia's first bank robbery took place. The robbers broke into the vault of the Bank of Australia in Sydney.
    • The holey dollar currency was withdrawn from circulation.

  • November
    • Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur declared martial law against Aboriginal peoples in the settled districts of Van Diemen's Land.
    • The first census was held in New South Wales, showing that 24 per cent of the total population was born in the colony. Children under 12 years comprised only 16 per cent of the total European population. The Indigenous population was not included.


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