Paul Budde's History Archives

The Convicts

In May 1825 Miller relocated the increased population of 75 convicts along with officials and military to the Brisbane River site. While now on the river the site was still called the Moreton Bay Convict Settlement and Penal Colony. As mentioned, he was called back to Sydney by the governor.

In August 1825 he was replaced by Captain Peter Bishop who arrive in the Lalla Rookh with a detachment of troops and 28 convicts, all 2nd offenders while in the colony  Bishop became the second Commandant of the penal colony but only stayed a few months in the new settlement.

He in turn was replaced by the 3rd commandant Captain Patrick Logan who ruled the colony from 1825-1830.

Layout of the convict settlement - 1838

Map Queensland State Archives. The long row of buildings indicates the convict barracks. Closest to the river is the Commissariat.  Further along the river are the military barracks and the hospital. On the left towards the bottom the windmill. Further out Goal Hill (female prison). Government House all the way to the right.

Visiting botanist Allan Cunningham reported in June 1828 that there were 500 convicts , 73 military and 3 clerks. In 1831, convict numbers peaked at 947. Another 250 military and administrative staff, made the total population in 1831 around 1200. In that year there were 40 convict  women with 43 children incarcerated in the Female Factory. When sentences expired very few new convicts arrived at the settlement and the convict population fell away to 374 in 1835 and to 374 in 1835.  In 1839, transportation to Moreton Bay had totally ceased. By that time 2200 convicts had passed through the convict settlement. In all 220 convicts died in the penal settlement (10%), a comparative high number of deaths within the British penal system, especially when taking into account that the majority of prisoners was under the age of 40.

On arrival the convict lived in tents and they had the built the initial slab huts that were used for the military and their workshops. It was not after Commander Logan arrived that serious building start to happen and the convicts were of course deployed to do the basic ground work such a levelling sites as well quarrying the stones, transport them to the various sites. Convicts with specific building skills were recruited from Sydney to provide assistance.

The convicts were also used to prepare the farming grounds and gardens and maintain the sites, harvests the plants and process them. They had to carry the harvest corn to the mill. Women also worked in the gardens. Females and some male convicts were also deployed in household and maintenance work for the various military staff members and their households.

Moreton Bay  had become notorious for the harshness of its punishment regime – especial under the regime of Logan. However, his successors, James Clunie (1830-1835) surpassed him in brutality and his successor Foster Fyans (1835-1837) nicknamed ‘Flogger’ Fyans’ was not much better. They were all military men and they all had served in colonies with large number of slaves and were used to issue harsh punishment without much respect for human life. Logan in particular was hated by the convicts forcing them to work by hand from sunrise to sunset. The convicts had to sleep on board on the floor and were not provided with bedding. At its peak between 1830 and 1832 the barracks were overcrowd and rapidly became filthy. Without access to clean water dysentery and other deceases followed.

Logan was highly criticised by his superiors of ordering punishment of up to 500 lashes.  Between February and October in 1828, 11,000 lashes were inflicted on 200 convicts.  Each lash with the dreaded ‘cat o”nine’ left nine swollen marks on the back of the victim. According to the records from the convict settlement, the Book of Trial, 128 men received 50 or more lashes. In comparison the average in the rest of NSW was 41 lashes. One of them – a 23 year old convict who received 200 lashes died  a few days later in the hospital. He certainly was not the only one. At occasions lashed were continued after the victim lost consciousness. These records also mention one convict who received 300 lashes (he apparently survived this). Records from between 1835 and 1842 indicate that 70% of the prisoners received at least once a flogging, in comparison in the rest of NSW that average was 25%. What these records don’t list are the floggings that were handed out in the field, there were several trees were prisoners were tied too when being flogged for problems caused while outside the barracks.

Death was often the only escape from this regime of terror and several convicts committed crimes in the hope they would be hanged for that. Hangings could not be authorised by the Commandant. Those who committed  serious crimes such as murder would have to go to court in Sydney. It could be that the judge than ordered the hanging in Moreton Bay. There are only a few known cases that this happened. Two were hanged in front of the convict barracks and two Turrbal Aboriginals (whose prosecution could be done without the court) were hanged on the wind mill. I haven’t come across any other official executions. A significant number of convicts will have directly or indirectly died because of access flogging. However, they were not recorded as such. Most of the time they were simply listed as died in hospital.

It is therefor no wonder that many convicts tried to escape. In all there are some 700 recorded escapes (of which 98 were never captured). It is remarkably that escapes were made with those heavy  chains around their legs. Most of them returned back to the settlement because there was no way they could survive in the bush. Some received shelter from the Aboriginals, others were killed by them. As rewards were given to Aboriginals who capture escaped convicts they became actively involved in capturing them.   Amazingly some escapees made it all the way to Sydney, where they often were captured and send back to Moreton Bay. Some never showed up anywhere and were assumed to have been perished in the bush.

Tom Petrie mentioned that the Turrbal people called the convicts ‘croppies’. This is interesting as that was originally the name for Irish convicts send to Australia. Croppy was a nickname given to Irish rebels fighting for independence from Britain during the 1798 Rising [1]. They must have picked up that name at the early beginning of the penal settlement and that name stuck to them. The aboriginals called the soldiers ‘diamonds’ because of their red and white uniform.

Logan was equally hated by the Aboriginals. Just before his planned return to Sydney, Logan went out on one his many exploration trips this time to an area known as Somerset. When he didn’t return Dr Cowper lead a party of soldiers to search for him. His bludgeoned body was find by Cowper and he concluded that Logan was murdered by Aboriginals. It has been suggested that this could perhaps have happened when he forcefully tried to enter their lands. Others believe – looking the way Logan was buried in a shallow grave, face down, that soldiers murdered him.

The song Moreton Bay Song may have been composed soon after Logan’s death on 18 October 1830.

Ironically, the Scottish clan name Brisbane is derived from the anglo-french ‘brise bane’ meaning ‘break bone’ or ‘bonebreaker’.

On the positive side, at the same time however, it was under Logan’s regime that most of the early stone building were erected. He also administered the cultivation of crops of wheat and maize at the lagoon area and elsewhere in the new settlement.

Running penal colonies had become a financial burden to the British Government. There were also increasingly more voices in the British Parliament who advocated for stopping the transportation system as it didn’t really deter criminals. Britain was also worried about rebellions, such as the one in the American colonies that led to Britain losing these colonies.

Furthermore the Australian colonies the free settlers lobbied for an end to the system. As early as 1832 there were  plans to abandon the Moreton Bay penal colony. During 1839 and 1840 Britain wanted to reduce the overall transportation and instead increase the number of prison hulks on the Thames. In November 1839 NSW Governor Richard Bourke  supported the British move to  end of transportation. In that year the decision was also made to close down Moreton Bay and to reduce the number of prisoners to 300 – all short-term sentence men. Just for your information at the same time, Bourke mentioned in his report to Britain that the maize grown at Moreton Bay was valued by him at £1046, and the cost per convict head per annum at £13.

Most prisoners went back to Sydney. A small group of 39 prisoners stayed behind to look after government property. On 11 February 1842, Moreton Bay was officially declared open for free settlement.

The building of Brisbane

Convict History of Brisbane TOC

1 The name “Croppy” used in Ireland in the 1790s was a reference to the closely cropped hair associated with the anti-powdered wig (and therefore, anti-aristocratic) French revolutionaries of the period. Men with their hair cropped were automatically suspected of sympathies with the pro-French underground organisation the Society of United Irishmen, and were often seized by the British administration and its allies for interrogation