Australia, a Counterrevolutionary Colony

With the British settlement of Australia, Europe’s long history of overseas convict transportation entered one of its most bizarre chapters, as an entire continent was excised as an open-air prison for England’s criminalized lower classes.

On November 24, 1792, in the midst of the French Revolution, the curtains rose on a new play in Paris. A motley collection of French princes, barons, priests, and bankers stumbled across the stage, exiles in “an uncultivated country” in the distant south. These remnants of the French upper class had been escorted from “a ship at anchor” by revolutionary “French volunteers.” The local indigenous people, led by a “Chief Oziambo,” joined the volunteers in raising an obelisk to commemorate the occasion.

This play, Les Emigres aux Terres Australes (The Emigrants to the Southern Lands), was the first to be set in colonial Australia. The subtitle was Le Dernier Chapitre d’une Grande Révolution, Comedie (The Last Chapter of a Great Revolution, a Comedy). The playwright, a certain Citizen Gamas, had reimagined the invasion of Australia and flipped it upside down. In place of the English sending their criminalized lower classes to the Antipodes, the French had sent their aristocrats — a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the guillotine.

If Gamas’s satirical inversion was revolutionary, then by implication, Britain’s colonization of the Australian continent was counterrevolutionary. Eric Hobsbawm describes this era as the first global Age of Revolution: in France Louis XVI would be beheaded within two months, in the Caribbean the Black Jacobins of Saint-Domingue had risen up in revolt, and from Connecticut to Cuzco the peoples of the Americas were challenging the divine right of monarchs to rule.

Great Britain may have lost its colonies in North America, but it was rapidly accumulating territory in India, and had no intention of letting its own lower classes sabotage its plans for global hegemony. While the Sans-Cullotes revolted in Paris, many of Britain’s vagrants, petty criminals, and political dissidents were exiled to the far side of the world, put to the service of settler colonialism and capital, which seized Aboriginal land and resources in Australia.

By the time it formally ended in 1868, England’s criminological experiment in the South Pacific had assisted in staving off political revolution at home, while defending the propertied interests behind the industrial revolution. The precise effects of the Australian penal colonies in deterring political dissidence (such as the English Chartist movement) and property crimes (such as the Swing riots) are impossible to quantify, but the intention behind their establishment is clear. Virginia and its neighboring colonies were first established to muscle in on the pillage of the Americas, with the outflow of convicts to these settlements occurring as a handy by-product.

In Australia, by contrast, the long history of European overseas convict transportation entered one of its most bizarre chapters, as an entire continent was excised as an open-air prison for England’s criminalized lower classes. The subsequent expansion of settler colonialism in Australia added another more sophisticated dimension to this counterrevolutionary strategy. The British ruling class maintained its hegemony at home, while white settlers in Australia pursued progressive labor reforms alongside the acquisition of Aboriginal land.

Blueprint for a New Colony

Plans for the British colonization of Australia were first floated in reaction to the American Revolution. Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied James Cook’s 1770 expedition to the east coast of Australia, was the first advocate for a British invasion of the continent, but the original blueprint for the new colony was written by James Matra, a New York–born sailor and diplomat. Matra had also sailed with Cook and Banks on their expedition, and had subsequently fled the United States following its independence. As he put it, a new colony in Australia would “afford an asylum to those unfortunate American loyalists to whom Great Britain is bound by every tie of honour and gratitude to protect and support.”

Modestly, Matra proposed that he himself could be the governor of an outpost at Botany Bay. In contrast to later Australian immigration restrictions imposed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Matra also imagined that “we may draw any number of useful inhabitants [for the colony] from China.”

Matra explicitly laid out the benefits of the potential colony to English commerce and the ongoing stability of its political system:

A body of emigrants … may in a commercial view be of great and permanent service to their parent community in some remote part of the world, who, if they continue at home, will probably live to see their own ruin, and will be very prejudicial to society.

By “society,” read the interests of the English ruling class. While Matra was keen to forestall further political revolutions, he had no qualms about promoting an economic one:

With good management, and a few settlers, in twenty or thirty years [the climate and soil of Australia] might cause a revolution in the whole system of European commerce, and secure to England a monopoly of some part of it.

Lord Sydney, the British Home Secretary, agreed to implement the plan, on the proviso that Matra reframe the colony as a penal settlement. Lord Sydney’s idea was far from novel. Convict transportation and European colonization had gone hand in hand since the early 1500s, when Portuguese felons were dumped on the Brazilian coast to act as emissaries to local indigenous groups. Indeed, the first known Europeans to see out their lives in Australia were Dutch rather than English convicts. The soldier Wouter Loos and the cabin boy Jan Pelgrom De Bye were abandoned on the Western Australian coast in 1629, as punishment for their participation in the Batavia mutiny.

The British government too had engaged in previous penal transportations, exporting over 50,000 convicts to its North American colonies prior to their independence. Nevertheless, no North American settlement had been established exclusively as a penal dumping ground. Virginia, which received the largest number of convicts, functioned primarily as a commercial plantation colony. The founder of Georgia, James Ogelthorpe, initially planned to populate the colony with inmates from debtors’ prisons, but this project was never realized. Following the American revolutionary war, the British government sought a new location to discard its troublesome lower classes, identifying Australia as the ideal location.

Australian Settlement Amidst Global Insurrection

As Claire Anderson and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart have noted, Australia’s great selling point as a penal colony was its distance from other networks of unfree labor in the British empire. Penal colonies for Indian convicts were established in 1789 in the Andaman Islands; convicts from Britain and Ireland, however, would be sent to Australia. While not all convicts who came to Australia were white, the overwhelming majority were, and this penal segregation allowed the British Empire to maintain racialized labor hierarchies in its Atlantic and South Asian colonies.

The first Australian penal colony at Botany Bay was established during an unprecedented revolutionary upswell across Europe and the Americas. The American Revolution was the earliest successful manifestation of this phenomenon, but it was far from the most radical. The founding fathers of the United States came from the propertied classes and maintained slavery as an institution. In stark contrast, Toussaint L’Ouverture and his allies amongst the slaves of Saint-Domingue took the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to its logical conclusion and overthrew their French oppressors. The revolution in Saint-Domingue became the only slave uprising in history to establish a new nation-state, Haiti, in 1804.

Simultaneous to the American war of independence, a massive indigenous insurrection in the Andes, led at first by Túpac Amaru, a descendant of the Incas, was suppressed by the Spanish at the cost of up to 100,000 lives. Even as counterrevolution triumphed in Europe after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the president of the newly independent republic of Paraguay, Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, nationalized royal estates and church lands, handing them to the country’s Guaraní speaking farmers. President Francia, described by Paraguayan writer Guillermo Sequera as “Robespierre in a Poncho,” went so far as to ban marriages between members of the white Spanish elite to break their hold on the fledgling nation’s economy.

Revolutionary ideas also found their way to Britain and Ireland, but many of those advocating them were quickly identified and arrested, with transportation to Australia wielded as a key punishment. In the 1790s, English and Scottish radicals advocated for universal suffrage, annual parliaments, progressive taxation, women’s rights and a universal basic income funded by an inheritance tax (described by the writer and propagandist Thomas Paine as “groundrent”). The Tory government viewed these demands as a local manifestation of French Jacobinism, claiming that the dissident groups were advocating for:

The entire overthrow of the British constitution, the general confiscation of property and the erection of a Democratic Republic founded on the ruins of all religion and of all political and civil society, and framed after the model of France.

The government responded quickly, with Scottish reformists such as Thomas Muir were transported in 1793. When a French-backed uprising was defeated in Ireland in 1798, many of the Irish republican rebels were also sent to Australia. The majority of the 162,000 convicts transported to Australia between 1789 and 1868 were petty criminals arrested for nonviolent property crimes; the number of political prisoners sits at somewhere around 3,600. While this is a small proportion of the total, the targeted transportation of political dissidents was designed as a general deterrent to others who might be tempted to take up such ideas. The transportation of large numbers of petty criminals, in turn, also served a less explicit counterrevolutionary purpose, preventing these unruly, excess inhabitants from swelling the ranks of any future uprisings.

The British ruling class agreed with James Matra that political revolution should be avoided, while economic revolution should be encouraged at all costs. It was fear that the Haitian Revolution might encourage similar slave revolts in the English Caribbean colonies that contributed to the growing strength of Britain’s abolition movement, with the empire’s plantation owners redirecting their profits into the nascent industrial revolution. The Manchester textile industry exploded as slave-trading merchants sunk capital into the development of steam-engine technology, cotton mills, and railways. The subsequent profits cemented Britain’s position as the great industrial capitalist power of the nineteenth century.

The only problem was that the workforce required for the mills and factories refused to take on the job. As both E. P. Thompson and Andreas Malm have shown, opposition to industrialization proved so great that enslaved orphans were used as workers in the mills when waged laborers could not be found. Waves of industrial unrest followed. Textile artisans known as “Luddites” smashed power looms and agricultural workers — the “Swing rioters” — dismantled the threshing machines that were replacing their manual labor. Refusing to countenance this opposition to their economic revolution, the government took definitive action, and those Luddites and Swing rioters who weren’t sent to the gallows were transported to Australia.

In the 1840s they were followed by the Chartists, a working-class reform movement that contributed to the early acquisition of labor rights by workers in colonial Australia. Michael Quinlan has documented the strikes and proto-unionization that occurred amongst convicts and settlers in the first half of the nineteenth century, laying the groundwork for a form of “radical democracy” that achieved key Chartist demands. The secret ballot, universal suffrage, and the eight-hour day appeared in Australia well ahead of the introduction of these reforms in England. While these achievements were significant, the benefits gained by the white ex-convict and settler working class were not extended to First Nations peoples.

From Coastal Prisons to Inland Invasion

In a revival of James Matra’s original proposal, during the early nineteenth century Australia transitioned from a series of coastal prison colonies into a fully-fledged settler colony, premised on the attempted elimination of Aboriginal people and the appropriation of their land. Lorenzo Veracini argues that the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations was fully compatible with the pursuit of equality among white settlers. The British metropole permitted progressive reforms such as trade-union rights and women’s suffrage in Australia, so long as they came at the expense of Aboriginal Australians, rather than the British ruling class itself.

According to Patrick Wolfe, the development of a key export commodity, merino wool, was the critical spark for Australian settler colonialism. The Australian wool industry was interlinked from its beginning with other branches of the British imperial economy. Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, British slave owners (rather than the slaves themselves) were granted compensation for their “loss,” and many redirected this money into the foundation of banks and pastoral leases in Australia. One epoch of oppression and stolen wealth in the Caribbean now begot another in the Antipodes. Australian sheep farmers would soon provide a mass supply of cheap wool to further bolster the British textile industry and the industrial revolution.

In Les Emigres aux Terres Australes, the French aristocrats onstage mockingly compare the “savage” inhabitants of the Southern lands to “common laborers.” The British ruling class were disdainful of both the convicts sent to Australia and the Aboriginal people that they would dispossess. Unfortunately, an experience of oppression alone rarely translated into solidarity between white convicts and Aboriginal resistance fighters. Many of the political dissidents sent to Australia eventually became landowners, including members of the “Scottish martyrs” transported with Thomas Muir in 1793.

Four decades later, several of the Swing rioters participated in the initial colonization of Melbourne. Having achieved emancipation, they dedicated themselves to stealing Aboriginal land rather than smashing English farm machinery. The material interests of these ex-convicts now aligned with the British settler-colonial project.

Many indigenous freedom fighters were also imprisoned in Australian penal colonies. The British used the Australian colonies as a destination of last resort to expunge anti-colonial resistance on their other imperial frontiers in South Africa and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Kristin Harmyn’s investigations demonstrate that Māori resistance leaders were sent to Van Diemen’s land during the first stage of the British invasion of Aotearoa. In South Africa, David Stuurman, a leader of the Khoi people, was imprisoned for his leadership of a pan-indigenous revolt in the Cape Province of South Africa. Stuurman escaped twice from Robben Island, a prison off the coast of Capetown where Nelson Mandela would be held 150 years later. He was then transported to Sydney in 1822, where he died eight years later. In 2017, the South African government conducted a spiritual burial for Stuurman. His body could not be returned for the funeral, as it is believed to be buried beneath Sydney Harbour Bridge.

As Australian settler colonialism took off in the mid-nineteenth century, Aboriginal resistance leaders were targeted by an accompanying surge of suppression and incarceration. The city of Melbourne occupied an important strategic position between the goldfields of central Victoria and the rich pastoral lands of the Western district. This area, known before invasion as Narrm, now became a flash point in the new wave of violence. The first people hanged in Melbourne were Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, members of a Tasmanian Aboriginal group who had moved to the mainland and conducted a series of guerrilla raids on the frontiers of the new settlement. Tullamareena, a Wurundjeri man, was the first person to escape from Melbourne jail, burning the building down in 1838 during his getaway. It is oddly apt that Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport now bears the name of the city’s first great escape artist.

Neocolonial Prison Islands

Even after the transportation of British and Irish convicts to Australia officially ended in 1868, ever more islands off the Australian coast were converted into jails for Aboriginal people. Around 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys from mainland Western Australia were imprisoned on Rottnest Island between 1838 and 1904. Off the coast of Queensland, Palm Island was established in 1918 as a detention center for First Nations people from across the state. Today, Aboriginal people constitute 3 percent of the total Australian population, yet over 28 percent of the prison population.

Citizen Gamas’s ironic proposal of an Antipodean penal colony for French aristocrats never leapt off the theater stage into reality. Instead, Britain’s Pacific solution to the threat of revolution inspired France to establish its own penal colony for political dissidents in New Caledonia, northeast of Queensland. After the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, thousands of communards were sent to the tropical prison. In 1868 the indigenous Kanaks rose up against French rule. Of the communards, only the anarchist-feminist communard Louise Michel took the side of the Kanaks. As in Australia, the vast majority of the formerly radical French convicts sided with the government that had recently been massacring them rather than the indigenous population in rebellion.

Established in response to the American Revolution and inaugurated simultaneously to the French Revolution, when the British ruling class feared for its own survival, the Australian penal colonies, coupled with subsequent settler colonization, were one set of tools in Britain’s counterrevolutionary arsenal. The colonization of Australia has never ended, and nor has anti-colonial resistance. On Palm Island, the struggle for justice against police violence is ongoing. In parallel to this year’s Invasion Day march, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and allied organizations have launched a “Pay the Rent” site to raise funds for various campaigns, including the fight to end Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Over two centuries ago, Les Emigres aux Terres Australes imagined a satirical alternative to the British invasion of Australia. But the transportation of French aristocrats, like British convicts, would have still functioned as a form of colonization, a projection of interclass violence onto the inhabitants of another continent. Justice may have been better served if the French had transported their revolution, along with a guillotine or two, to England instead.