Julie M. Barst, “The Molesworth Report and the Dissolution of Convict Transportation to Australia, August 1838”


This entry focuses upon convict transportation to Australia (which spanned eight decades from 1788 to 1868) and argues that the Molesworth Report of 1838, which successfully built upon the rhetoric of the abolition movement by drawing connections between convicts and slaves, became one of the major deciding factors in eventually putting an end to the entire system of transportation. I claim that the report not only raised questions about the effectiveness of the system, but also generated sympathy for the convicts and led to a transformation in how Britons thought about the punishment of their criminal classes.

Portrait of convicts in New Holland

Figure 1: Juan Ravenet, Convicts in New Holland (1793)

When Great Britain lost the American colonies in 1783 following the Revolutionary War, it no longer had an alternative space to send the many convicts overflowing from its jails. map iconAustralia was eventually chosen as the new locale for this criminal population, and transportation to the far-flung landmass began in 1787 when the First Fleet of 760 convicts (including 192 women) set sail from Britain. They landed on the east coast at map iconBotany Bay, which had been charted by Captain Cook in 1770. Finding the location unsuitable for a settlement, the fleet moved north along the coast, landing in Port Jackson (now map iconSydney) on 26 January 1788, officially commencing the British colonization of Australia.[1]

During the early Romantic period, most Britons favored transportation to Australia as a means of deterring crime, ridding their country of criminals they could not house, and, ideally, rehabilitating those sent to the land down under. However, as time went on and more details streamed into Britain about the penal settlements in Australia, including the Molesworth Report of 1838, public opinion began to shift in favor of halting transportation due in part to the moral corruption thought to be spreading throughout the new British colony and the mistreatment of the criminals before, during, and after their journey to Australia.

The harsh reality of a transportation sentence did not begin with the convicts’ arrival in Australia, but long before, in the floating prisons called hulks. These old warships, which played an important role in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61), were moored in the bays and filled with convicts who awaited their actual transportation to Australia for months and sometimes years. Conditions on board the hulks during the first two decades of transportation were deplorable: criminals’ legs were chained together and they were not provided with adequate food or fresh air, and the ships were rife with disease. The voyage to Australia was not much better: convicts were housed below deck for most of the entire eight-month journey, resulting in a high death rate from illnesses such as scurvy and dysentery.[2]

Upon arrival in Australia, convict life varied greatly due to the assignment system, a process that would become an important touchstone for future debates. Some convicts were assigned to settlers and could be treated as anything from members of the family to something less than human, while others were assigned to work on government projects and were oftentimes treated with utter disdain and punished severely for the slightest offense. The worst treatments in any assignment consisted of floggings and appointment to chain-gangs, and repeat offenders were sent to the notoriously harsh settlements at Norfolk Island and Port Arthur in map iconVan Diemen’s Land (the present-day island state of Tasmania), where horrific acts of brutality were not uncommon. No matter what their assignment, several elements of convict life were consistent for the majority of criminals during the first decades of settlement: strenuous labor, inadequate food rations, and poor housing conditions. Although current scholars have questioned the accuracy of the reports of convict abuse circulating back to England and have argued that many were over-exaggerated,[3] the important point is that public sympathy was generated in Britain in support of the system’s demise. Questions arose as to the colony’s ability to reform convicts under such terrible conditions, but even more important for many Britons was the system’s perceived connection to the slave trade, a connection that would ultimately prove to be a deciding factor in its downfall.

In 1787, the first governor of map iconNew South Wales, Arthur Phillip, wrote in his plans for the colony’s management: “The laws of this country [England] will of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves” (“Philip’s Views” 1: 53). He was a progressive thinker in this sense, because, although Britain was not a slave-holding country, it would not abolish the slave trade proper until 1807, and the system of colonial slavery did not end until 1833. Interestingly, William Wilberforce, the renowned abolitionist, began campaigning for the end of the slave trade in May of 1787, the exact month the First Fleet left Britain’s shores for Australia. In spite of Governor Phillip’s early proclamation, by the 1820s the transportation system was being criticized for its likeness to the slave trade not only by some colonial administrators but also abolitionists such as Wilberforce, who believed the convicts were owned by the government or their masters, controlled completely, and punished severely in the same ways that slaves were. Although modern social and historical criticism questions this strong connection,[4] what matters here is the belief in, and thus oftentimes the strong conviction of, a significant likeness between convictism and slavery. It is this conviction that led to the first rumblings of discontent with convict transportation, which many historians believe were first instigated after publication of Bigge’s reports on the colony in 1822 and 1823.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which had resulted in the decline and sometimes suspension of individual rights and an increase in protest and crime, officials in Britain decided to analyze the system of convict transportation in order to determine whether it should “be abandoned as an expensive and insufficient deterrent. . . or be substantially stiffened and made ‘a real terror’ to its target group” (Evans 51). In 1819, John Thomas Bigge, a former Chief Justice in map iconTrinidad, was appointed to lead the study and was “instructed on the anticipated outcome”: that transportation should, in fact, become an even more horrifying ordeal in order to terrify and thus deter potential criminals (51). His 1822 report recommended many changes that were implemented immediately, including the restriction of rights for both convicts and emancipist convicts, cessation of land grants to the latter in favor of men with much more capital, a reduction in the quantity and quality of food supplied to the convicts, and the expansion of the assignment system. Bigge also recommended “the efficacy of a culture of terror to counter resistance and insurgency,” which resulted in dramatically increased instances and severity of floggings, the use of pillories and treadmills, and more frequent public executions (59). The Molesworth Committee would criticize the effects of these “improvements” 16 years later when comparing transportation to slavery, and ultimately denounced the entire system.

Beginning in the early 1830s, longer accounts of life in Australia were transported back to Great Britain, many with decidedly more negative portrayals of the horrors and dangers of convict life in the colony than were previously disseminated.[5] In addition, the mid-1830s witnessed a significant increase in the number of free emigrants arriving in the Australian colonies, especially New South Wales and the island of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and many of these colonists wanted transportation halted immediately. They were concerned not only about the “convict stain” on their new home, but also complained that freed convicts produced too much competition for available jobs in the colonies. In his seminal text The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes writes: “By the late 1830s, a strong current of opinion, fed by anti-slavery sentiment, was running against Botany Bay. English liberals were hearing more about the System and were shocked by what they heard,” especially in the Molesworth Report (162).

Transportation’s ultimate dissolution began with the release of this report in August of 1838. Sir William Molesworth was the leader of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transportation that convened in 1837 to analyze the state of convict transportation and recommend whether to continue, modify, or abolish the process. They studied the moral and economic effects of the system on both Britain and Australia, including whether the threat of transportation was an effective deterrent to crime on the domestic front. Although supposedly objective, the committee “had been hand-picked for its antagonism towards assignment and transportation and its support of free colonisation” and “the hearing was a show trial” (McKenzie 127). Even the twenty-three witnesses who testified were mainly anti-transportationists who already supported the objectives of the committee and were all too ready to deliver their testimonies: these included descriptions of rape, sodomy, child molestation, flagellations, and many other horrific vices, crimes, and punishments. Molesworth and the committee argued that the convict trade to America had been successful in the early to mid 1700s because the convicts were merely “dropped in by driblets” (Molesworth 8) into an already-existing population of moral and ethical citizens. In Australia, however, because criminals were responsible for building the settlements from the ground up, the colony was “composed of the very dregs of society,” the consequences of which included “vice, immorality, frightful disease, hunger” and “dreadful mortality” (8).

After the first two decades of settlement in Australia, colonists and ex-convicts had begun employing convicts through the assignment system, which the committee highlighted as the most problematic element of the entire system, due in large part to its connections with slavery. The committee characterized this system as unfair and compared it to a lottery system, since, as mentioned above, there was no control over whether a convict was assigned to a strict and brutal master or a fair and benevolent one. In other words, the nature of the crime committed in Britain had no impact upon the treatment a convict received in Australia. This could (and often did) result in the worst criminals being treated better than the pettiest of thieves based simply on random assignment. Another problem was that highly skilled convicts were often treated better than their unskilled counterparts; the latter were often assigned to the much more brutal tasks of hard labor such as working in road gangs. In addition, following recommendations from the Bigge Report, emancipist convicts were no longer treated as equal to free settlers under the law. These problems together led to outright comparisons with slavery, since, as Raymond Evans writes, “[t]he more convicts fell under the capriciousness of private control and profit making, and the more ex-convicts were constrained under a caste-like legal and socio-economic ceiling, then, it might be logically suggested, the more their condition and status approached that of slaves (or, after expiration of sentences, that of emancipated ex-slaves)” (Evans 54). The Molesworth Committee argued that the transportation system often had the same corrupting influence upon both slave and master as the slavery system that was abolished just a few years earlier; it does not seem to be accidental that the report was published the same year that emancipation of slaves began.[6] (On the Slavery Abolition Act, see Elsie B. Michie, “On the Sacramental Test Act, the Catholic Relief Act, the Slavery Abolition Act, and the Factory Act.”)

According to the Molesworth Report, another problem with the system was that, in spite of the increased severity of treatment in the wake of the Bigge Report, the potential punishment of transportation was not a significant enough threat to deter crime back home in England, since most criminals knew very little about the brutal nature of a convict’s life in Australia. Although more details of horrible punishments and harsh masters were making their way into Britain by the 1820s and 30s, many lower-class criminals would have had limited access to these accounts. In addition, the report claimed that convicts sent to Australia were not redeemed by their time there, but instead were hardened even further in their criminal ways: by forcing even petty offenders to live and communicate with the most callous criminals, “[t]ransportation is not merely inefficient in producing the moral reformation of an offender; it is efficient in demoralizing those whom accidental circumstances, more than a really vicious nature, have seduced into crime” (23). The committee claimed that convicts entering the system were very likely to exit it more corrupt and villainous than ever before. A representative example of this public opinion was the Reverend Sydney Smith’s article published in an 1819 issue of the Edinburgh Review, which called the penal colony of New South Wales “a sink of wickedness, in which the great majority of convicts of both sexes become infinitely more depraved than at the period of their arrival” (qtd. in Hughes 355).

The Molesworth Report openly compared Australia to a slave colony, which anti-transportationists had already noted years before and which generated some sympathy for the convicts in the immediate aftermath of the abolition movement. It stated that transportation was “inefficient, cruel, and demoralizing” (iv) and compared the colony to Sodom and Gomorrah. Molesworth wrote that the convicts’ condition was “one of unmitigated wretchedness” involving “suffering such as to render death desirable” (16). Although chairman Molesworth wanted to recommend that the entire system of transportation be abolished as soon as possible, he was persuaded to alter his recommendation: “transportation could be continued so long as convicts were not assigned to private masters. . . . With assignment discredited, convicts were now worked in gangs on public works,” which “was not a success” (Hirst 211). Although based at least partially on exaggerated tales of abuse, the report “caused a sensation in the English press” (Hughes 494) and, as a direct result of the numerous political concerns raised in this report and disseminated via the press, transportation to the colony of New South Wales was officially halted in 1840. Convict ships continued arriving only at the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and Queensland, along with Norfolk Island off the eastern coast.

But the Molesworth Report also led to an interesting shift for the free settlers trying to build lives in Australia. The committee’s words had decimated the reputation of the colony by focusing on the wickedness, sexual immorality, and vice it claimed was disseminated throughout society by the convicts, which outraged the settlers living there; even though they fervently believed the reports were mainly fabricated, the claim led them to take action in order to “save” their colony from the economic and moral consequences of this reputation. One important way to do this, many came to believe, was to halt the transportation of convicts to every single colony within Australia. Although there was some anti-transportation sentiment already in place before its release, the Molesworth Report of 1838 helped fan the flames of the colonial anti-transportation movement because it led some settlers to believe that ending transportation was the only way to save and begin repairing their reputation. Events of the 1840s would provoke even greater anti-transportation furor directed towards the government in Britain.

In the wake of the report, transportation ceased to New South Wales in 1840 but continued to Van Diemen’s Land under a “new” system called probation, whereby convicts worked in gangs for a set time frame before they were hired (and paid wages) by free settlers. This system angered the colonists because it involved many of the same problems as the assignment system but was more expensive; in addition, because convicts were no longer assigned to New South Wales, settlers in Van Diemen’s Land “complain[ed] that the free population was being swamped and that the colony was being turned into a giant gaol” (Reid 212). The Australasian Anti-Transportation League was founded in 1849 by an ever-increasing number of emigrants in Van Diemen’s Land who demanded that the British government stop infesting their new home with its criminal classes. The League quickly gathered steam in other colonies as well, arguing that convicts were no longer necessary to build the colony and that the criminals were destroying the reputation and potential of the new colony.

But it was not until the 1851 discovery of gold in New South Wales that the final nail was driven into the coffin of convict transportation. This and subsequent gold rushes brought in thousands of new colonists who hoped for better economic opportunities than they could find in Britain. The British government began to realize that the gold rushes in Australia would be seen as an incentive to commit crimes and thereby gain a “free” trip to a rich, gold-infused colony where one could behave, earn a ticket-of-leave, and head for the gold fields within a few short years. Under pressure from new emigrants and from the growing anti-transportation sentiment within Britain itself, the government halted transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in 1853. After this date, transportation continued solely to the much younger colony of map iconWestern Australia.

In 1829 a settlement had been established on the Swan River in Western Australia and christened map iconPerth. In 1846, six years after transportation ended to New South Wales, the colony in Western Australia asked the British government for convict labor to aid in the expansion of their settlement, and the first ship arrived there in 1850, just one year before the first gold rush began on the opposite side of Australia. The eastern colonies, with their strong desire to rid the continent entirely of convicts, did not approve of this new development. Opposition exploded once again, and back in Britain, further accounts were published recognizing the brutality and costliness (in financial and moral terms) of the transportation system. In 1864, for instance, Mary Carpenter, a well-known social reformer, published a two-volume book entitled Our Convicts, in which she urged every Briton to have compassion on their criminals and take responsibility for their treatment. Her opening lines speak volumes:

‘Our Convicts’! They are a part of our society! They belong to ourselves! They are not only subjects with us of the same great British empire on which the sun never sets, but they belong to the same British Isles, the same small centre of civilization, the same heart of the world’s life, the same Island, small in geographical extent, infinitely great in its influence on the nations, – whence must go forth laws, principles, examples, which will guide for better or worse the whole world! (1)

Her words represent more than support for one side of a contemporary political debate. These words offer many insights into the beliefs of the British concerning their status as a world power, colonizer of nations, and transporter of ideology around the globe. Carpenter suggests that if the British continue to mistreat their convicts, they will negatively influence multiple nations to do the same, an idea which led British citizens to ponder the far-ranging repercussions of their laws. She later argues that society must learn the causes behind the transformation of a fellow citizen into a convict before his or her problems can be fully addressed, which encouraged both the development of sympathy for the poor and underprivileged, as well as an increased awareness of how this supposedly sympathetic nation treats its own citizens.

Her text added fuel to the already-raging fires that demanded a final stop to all forms of transportation. Britain, knowing that the colonies “had the population, the money, the resources, the trade—everything, in fact, that made a colony worth having,” announced in 1865 that transportation would be halted to all Australian colonies, and the transport of criminals was officially ended when the last ship arrived in Western Australia in 1868 (Hughes 579-80). All told, over 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia over a period of eight decades, including nearly 25,000 women. However, the last ship’s arrival did not mean that the convict system ended; only the transportation component was halted. Convicts already toiling in Australia still had to complete their sentences before earning tickets-of-leave. Although the last transports disembarked in 1868, it was not until 1886 that the last components of the convict system were completely dismantled.

The Molesworth Report of 1838 permanently altered the reputation of convict transportation and the entire colony of Australia, and was a major factor in the ultimate demise of the system. Although it took years for the aftereffects to reverberate throughout the colony and mother nation, the Molesworth Report ignited public sympathy and sparked debates, judgments, and opinions that helped lead to transportation’s final dissolution, and even more broadly, it led to improved public awareness about national and global systems of punishment.

Julie M. Barst is an assistant professor of English at Siena Heights University, where she specializes in nineteenth-century British literature and also teaches classes in postcolonial and gothic literature, literary theory, and gender, sexuality and literature. She has published articles on the varied and complex connections between Great Britain and the colony of Australia in European Romantic Review, Prose Studies, and The Australasian Victorian Studies Journal, and is currently working on a book project entitled Everyday Exotica: The Transformative Power of Australia on Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Thought.


published August 2012BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Carpenter, Mary. Our Convicts. 1864.  Vol. 1.  Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1969. Print.

Evans, Raymond. “19 June 1822: Creating ‘an Object of Real Terror’: The Tabling of the First Bigge Report.” Turning Points in Australian History. Ed. Martin Crotty and David Andrew Roberts. Sydney: U of New South Wales P, 2009. Print.

Hirst, J. B. Convict Society and Its Enemies: A History of Early New South Wales. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983. Print.

Holt, Joseph. Memoirs of Joseph Holt, General of the Irish Rebels, in 1798. London: H. Colburn, 1838. Print.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. London: The Harvill P, 1996. Print.

Karskens, Grace. The Colony: A History of Early Sydney. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2009. Print.

McKenzie, Kirsten. Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1820-1850.  Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 2004. Print.

Molesworth, Sir William. Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Transportation, Together With a Letter From the Archbishop of Dublin on the Same Subject, and Notes. London: Henry Hooper, 1838. Print.

“Phillip’s Views on the Conduct of the Expedition and the Treatment of Convicts.”Historical Records of New South Wales. Ed. F. M. Bladen et al. Vol. 1. Sydney: Government Printer, 1892-1901. Print.

Reid, Kirsty. Gender, Crime and Empire: Convicts, Settlers and the State in Early Colonial Australia. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007. Print.


[1] From 1788 to 1824, the entire continent of Australia, along with map iconNew Zealand and Norfolk Island, were collectively referred to as New South Wales (NSW). In 1825, Van Diemen’s Land separated from NSW and was renamed Tasmania in 1856. In 1829, the Swan River Settlement was founded (the present-day city of Perth) in Western Australia. These and several other separate colonies, including Victoria and Queensland, were not united into a single federal government until 1901. For simplicity, I will refer to the entire continent as Australia even though that name did not become officially adopted until 1824.

[2] Conditions improved and death rates declined after reforms were passed in the early nineteenth century.

[3] See, for example, Grace Karsken’s 2009 work The Colony: A History of Early Sydney.

[4] For further information, see Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore. In chapter 9, “The Government Stroke,” he discusses the definition of slavery and states that “none of these conditions applied to the convicts in Britain exiled to Australia” (283). He does go on to make some connections between the two institutions, including the economic advantages created in colonial Australia through the use of convict labor and in the American South via slavery.

[5] See, for example, Joseph Holt’s Memoirs, published in London in 1838. Although it has since been proven to contain inaccuracies and exaggerations (due in part to editorial interference), the Victorians accepted as fact his brutal account of life in the colonies.

[6] Although the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833 and all slaves were technically emancipated in 1834, they were freed from their masters over a period of time beginning in 1838 based on a system of indentured servitude.