Our part in shaping Australia

The penitentiary and hospital at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Photo: Getty Images
The penitentiary and hospital at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Photo: Getty Images

Jim Sullivan reviews Cleansing the Colony: Transporting Convicts From New Zealand To Van Diemen’s Land, by Kristyn Harman. Published by Otago University Press.

Just when you thought there was no aspect of New Zealand history yet to be uncovered, up pops a new topic that is so intriguing you wonder how it could have been overlooked for so long.

The story of New Zealand criminals being transported to Van Diemen’s Land is one of these neglected treasures and Kristyn Harman has squeezed out just about all there is to be known about the handful of miscreants who crossed the Tasman to serve their sentences.

The author notes that at least 110 people underwent the journey and an appendix provides details of them all.

New Zealand courts handed down sentences of transportation from 1841 and it was only the closing of Van Diemen’s Land as a convict dumping ground in 1853 that forced us to keep our criminals at home.

Some of the story covers New Zealand’s determination not to become another Van Diemen’s Land itself and our one experience of being a dumping ground for undesirables.

The arrival of the "Parkhouse Boys" from their prison on the Isle of Wight in 1842, confirms that the colony shrank from being convict-tainted.

Of those who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land from New Zealand, almost half were soldiers from the British regiments serving in New Zealand, a group whose misdemeanours could perhaps be accepted by the settlers as only what was to be expected from the soldiery.

It is the other 50-odd cases  that are the most intriguing.

The one woman transported was convicted of perjury, and among the males were several ex-convicts who had failed to make a success of living a crime-free life in New Zealand.

Perhaps most distressing are the stories of Maori warriors transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

The legal niceties of sending men who could be regarded as prisoners of war to a distant exile are well-covered in the book, as is the effect of confinement on Maori for whom imprisonment was a foreign concept.

The recent repatriation of the body of a Maori who died in Tasmania is movingly portrayed.

That a 244-page book can emerge from the stories of such a small group is a tribute to the author’s assiduous mining of the documents available in Tasmania and New Zealand, especially the discovery at Archives New Zealand of a weighty volume entitled, Register of indents for convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land, 25 Nov 1847 - 22 Feb 1853.

Convicts’ details were recorded here in great detail and the value of the newspaper websites, Papers Past, in New Zealand, and Trove, in Australia, is evident.

In fact, with such resources, historians are now faced with the dilemma of how much to leave out but, thankfully, Cleansing the Colony plumps for more detail rather than less.

That this fine history had its beginnings while the author was a visiting scholar at the Centre for Research on Colonial Culture, at the University of Otago, and that it has been neatly produced by Otago University Press is surely a feather in the cap of the under threat Division of Humanities.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.

Add a Comment