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The founding fathers of Australia

This week archives revealed two million of us are descended from the convicts deported to Australia. Here we tell the shocking stories of depravity and despair on the very first convoy that took them to the new world
Poor Elizabeth Beckford. She was 70 years old and her crime was stealing 12lb of Gloucester cheese.

For that she could have hanged. Hundreds did in those violent, vengeful days, dancing "the Tyburn frisk" in the words of those who crammed around the gallows to watch this favourite spectator sport of the 18th century. But the state, in its mercy, saved her life - and gave her a punishment that some would see as worse than death.

She was an unwilling passenger on a fleet of 11 ships that set out from England in 1787, the first of the convoys of the criminal underclass - as the ruling elite of Georgian England saw them - sent in chains to colonise new and dangerous shores on the other side of the world.

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Those 736 sad souls on that pioneering voyage would establish a new world. Though she didn't know it - and the thought would have given her no consolation as she lay crammed with others in cell-like spaces below decks - Elizabeth was a founder member of a new country, Australia.

On Thursday, more than 200 years later, those who made those dreadful voyages - 163,000 in all over the years to come - are feted. Twenty-first century Australians celebrate their convict past, taking their lead from premier John Howard, a descendant of transported folk on both sides of his family.

The shipping and court registers of the banished have long lain in the National Archive in London. Now, in the knowledge that two million of us in Britain probably have blood links with Australia's criminal forebears, they have been put online for the hundreds of thousands of amateur genealogists in this country, eager to find out more about their roots.

The history they hide may not be pleasant. Elizabeth, incredibly, was not the oldest on that first ark of despair. Dorothy Handland, a dealer in rags and old clothes, was 82. How she was expected to contribute to empire-building in a virgin land whose hardships could only be guessed at is a mystery as great as the place she was being sent to.

But nonetheless she was among the waggon-loads of prisoners dragged down to the docks in Portsmouth from the sunless ship hulks at Woolwich where they had been held because the prisons were all full. They were dressed in rags, their faces pale from imprisonment, louse-ridden and thin as rakes from the slops they had been forced to live on.

Alongside the grannies were 120 other women, mostly young, like 22-year-old Elizabeth Powley. Penniless at home in Norfolk she had raided someone's kitchen for a few shillings' worth of bacon, flour and raisins and "24 ounces weight of butter valued 12d".

The death sentence on this starving girl was commuted and, as Robert Hughes, historian of the transportations, notes wryly in his book, The Fatal Shore, "she was sent to Australia, never to eat butter again".

At least the youngest of the "passengers", John Hudson, would never be pushed up another chimney. The nine-year-old sweep was condemned to seven years' exile for theft.

All on board were small-time criminals whose punishment, by the standards of later generations, in no degree fitted the crime. James Grace, 11, had taken some ribbon and a pair of silk stockings. John Wisehammer, 15, snatched some snuff from a shop counter in Gloucester.

For that, they would never see home again. The most extraordinary crime was that of William Francis, who stole a book about 'the flourishing state of the island of Tobago' from a gentleman in London. If he had had time to read it before he was caught, perhaps he had an inkling of what now lay ahead of him in a British colony far rawer than the West Indies.

There were no political prisoners, however, no rabble rousing, hay stackburning activists or trades unionists sentenced for their subversive activities, as some of today's anti-Pom Australians like to think. Nor, contrary to another common belief, were there any prostitutes as such - because prostitution was not a transportable offence at the time.

The women, however, were treated as whores. They arrived at the gangplank of their vessel, the Lady Penrhyn, almost naked and filthy, "in a situation that stamps them with infamy", according to the officer in command of the expedition, Captain Arthur Phillip.

He was appalled at their treatment by the magistrates who had sentenced them and the jailers who had held them. Whether he could guarantee them better lives at the end of their nine-month voyage was yet to be seen.

What they were about to embark on was the longest journey ever attempted by such a large group of people. Where they were going might as well have been the moon. Crewmen, let alone convicts, believed they would never see home or their loved ones again. "Oh my God," wrote one officer of Marines in his journal, "all my hopes are over of seeing my beloved wife and son."

As for the country they were going to, almost nothing was known except for the promise of Captain James Cook, its discoverer, that this 'New South Wales' as he chose to call it, was now British. But, to some observers of the hang 'em tendency, the thought that the felons might be better off than if they had languished in jail provoked bitter reproach. They were getting a new life, courtesy of the state, some argued. One balladeer wrote: They go to an island to take special charge Much warmer than Britain, and ten times as large.

No customs-house duty, no freightage to pay, And tax-free they'll live when in

Botany Bay.

Judging by the behaviour of some of the prisoners on that first voyage, the balladeer may have had a point. In truth, some of those on board acted in a way we associate with holidaying in Ibiza.

As they crossed into the tropics, and the hatches were taken off at night to let the prisoners breathe in some cool air, sex was rampant. The women prisoners were like stoats, according to the surgeon on one of the ships. They threw themselves at the sailors and Royal Marines in "promiscuous intercourse", he declared.

"Their desire to be with the men was so uncontrollable that neither shame - but, indeed, of this they had long lost sight - nor punishment could deter them."

Some were put in irons and others flogged, but the going-price for a quickie was just a tot of rum from a sailor's ration. Not surprisingly, the next problem for the captain was drunkenness among the same women.

The voyage rolled on seemingly endlessly with stops at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. The last leg was into the swells and troughs of almost uncharted waters of the Southern Seas.

The convicts were more crowded than ever because room had to be made for cows, horses, pigs and sheep for the future colony. Still the lechery continued. "There was never a more abandoned set of wretches collected in one place at any period than are now to be met within this ship," said the surgeon on the Lady Penrhyn.

Violent thunder squalls dumped tons of freezing water on the halfclothed convicts and dampened some of their ardour. The ladies fell on their knees praying.

And, finally, 252 days after leaving England they had made it to dry land as the ships anchored in Botany Bay. Forty-eight people had died - 40 of them convicts, five convicts' children. It was a tiny death rate compared with what they had achieved in that voyage.

"The sea had spared them," wrote Hughes. "Now they must survive on the unknown land."

It was a fortnight before enough tents and huts could be made ready and the female convicts could be disembarked. Sailors and women went mad with lust again.

That night a storm blew down the tents and rain lashed the camp. Male convicts pursued the women intent on raping them. Sailors from the ships, fuelled by rum, joined in.

"It is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night," wrote the surgeon.

There was swearing, quarrelling, singing - "it was the first bush party in Australia," wrote Hughes, "and as the couples rutted between the rocks, their clothes slimy with red clay, the sexual history of colonial Australia may fairly said to have begun".

The next day the new governor harangued the convicts. He would stand no repetition of last night's orgy. Prisoners who tried to get into the women's tents would be shot. There was back-breaking work to do just to survive and if they did not work they would not eat, he told them.

The convicts had come to a hard country, as tough as any prison back home. They looked out on a territory that appeared fertile and lovely but was in fact arid. Beyond the landing grounds was bush, mile upon mile of it. There were Aborigines out there, too. Try to escape and they would spear you.

Even the Marine officers who ran the colony despaired. One wrote, that 'in the whole world there is not a worse country. All is so very barren and forbidding that it may with truth be said that here nature is reversed and is nearly worn out'. Surely, he added, the government would not think of sending any more people here.

But it did. The colony survived for its first year largely on rations it had brought with it, a diet of salt meat and leathery cakes baked on a shovel. Crops failed, illness struck down dozens of the convicts. But then supply ships arrived, and after that more convicts.

For some life was too harsh to continue. Dorothy Handland, now 84, who had endured so much already since her conviction back in England, hanged herself from a gum tree. She was Australia's first recorded suicide.

The convict colony clung on - just. There is no point in romanticising those days. Hughes's book makes clear that many of the convicts behaved badly, stealing each others' rations, and acting generally in the same dog-eat-dog fashion of the English slums they had come from.

On the other hand, they had little to cheer them. They worked on the land, hard, gruelling labour, often yoked together to haul timber in the absence of draught animals. Some preferred punishment to work.

The batch of women in the first fleet was not enough. More of marriageable age were needed and the next transport brought a boatload. The women convicts on the Lady Juliana had paired off with the crew as soon as they set sail from England. When she stopped in Tenerife and other ports along the way, a constant stream of male visitors came aboard, earning her a reputation as 'The Floating Brothel'.

On arrival in Australia they had money in their pockets, some a small fortune, for the half-starved convicts and sailors they were then married off to. Here was the "breeding stock", as one official in London put it, from which Australia would proudly grow.

Then land was granted to convicts who had served their time. There was an incentive at last. After 1792, four years after the first fleet first sailed into Botany Bay, the convict colony of New South Wales was self-supporting.

Back in England, the government hailed a victory. A worrying crime wave had been addressed. The criminal classes had been exiled and at no real cost.

That a whole continent would be conquered too was the unexpected bonus from those convict ships and their sorry cargoes.

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