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The Australian National University

The convict era

Between 1788 and 1852 some 150,000 convicts were transported from Britain to eastern Australia, with New South Wales and Tasmania established as penal colonies. About 25,000 of these were women. With the impending cessation of transportation to the eastern colonies, the British government commenced transportation to Western Australia in 1850, and this continued until 1868. About 10,000 convicts were sent to Western Australia.

Many writers make comments about the early language of the convict class. In 1793 Watkin Tench, in A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, wrote of the ‘flash language’ of the convicts: ‘In some of our early courts of justice, an interpreter was frequently necessary to translate the deposition of the witness, and the defence of the prisoner. This language has many dialects. The sly dexterity of the pickpocket; the brutal ferocity of the footpad; the more elevated career of the highwayman; and the deadly purpose of the midnight ruffian, is each strictly appropriate in the terms which distinguish and characterize it’. Tench is referring to underworld language, but while this language was no doubt commonly used, it is understandably not well represented in the early written records. One exception to this is the work of the convict James Hardy Vaux, who wrote his New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language in 1812, and dedicated the work to Thomas Skottowe, the commandant at the penal settlement at Newcastle. The dictionary was published in 1819 when it was appended to Vaux’sMemoirs. While the dictionary was produced in Australia, it is largely a collection of early nineteenth-century London underworld slang.

A few of these underworld terms, often with transferred meanings, became part of Australian English. Plant in the sense ‘to hide (articles, animals, etc.) frequently stolen goods’ belonged to thieves’ slang from the seventeenth century. But soon after settlement we find it being used as part of the general language of the colony. In the early examples the sense is often labelled as belonging to thieves, as in this example:

1793 Some villains dug up every one of the potatoes … A very strict search was made, in order to find out the offender, but to no purpose, as the potatoes were (in the cant phrase) All planted; viz. buried in the ground, so as to be taken out as they were wanted. J Hunter (Governor of NSW in 1794)

The term swag similarly has its origin in thieves’ slang. It originally referred to a thief’s booty or plunder, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it was used to describe the collection of personal belongings wrapped up in a bedroll, as carried by a bush traveller. This is the beginning of the swagman tradition.

Most of the recorded terminology has to do with the organisation and administration of the convict system, and disappeared with the demise of that system. Many of these, however, are included in the Australian Oxford Dictionary because of their importance to Australian history. They include:

(sense 1c)
assignment (sense 4)
bolter (sense 2)
Botany Bay (senses 2 & 3)
canary (sense 2)
chain gang
on the chain
conditional emancipation (or pardon)
convict colony
convict constable
convict overseer
convict settler
convict station
convict system

educated (sense 5)
emancipate (sense 4)
emancipation (sense 2b)
(sense 2)
Female Factory
(sense 2)
free settler
gentleman convict
government gang
government man
government servant
government station

indent (noun 2)
iron gang
lag3 (noun 1)
legitimate (noun)
muster book

overseer (sense 1b)
parramatta (sense 2)
pass (noun 11)
penal colony
penal servitude
Prisoner of the Crown
(sense 1b)
road gang
servant of the Crown
(verb 2; noun 4)
triangle (sense 8)

In addition to plant and swag, some other convict terms have found their way into general Australian English. Most Australians are unaware of the fact that the term public servant (it is civil servant in Britain) had its origin in the convict system. Many writers comment on the fact that there was some unease in the early colony about using the word convict, and various euphemisms were created. In 1826 P Cunningham noted that convicts were ‘spoken of under the loyal designation of government-men, the term convict being erased by a sort of general tacit compact from our Botany Bay dictionary as a word too ticklish to be pronounced in these sensitive latitudes’. In 1843 Charles Rowcroft, in Tales of the Colonies, wrote: ‘I must warn you that we never speak of the convicts in this country by that term; we always call them ‘government men’; or on some occasions, prisoners; but we never use the term ‘convict’, which is considered by them as an insulting term’. And so a convict was often called a public servant, and this was later applied to anyone who worked for the government. The word muster was used in Standard English to refer to ‘an assembly of soldiers, sailors, etc., for inspection, ascertainment or verification of numbers, exercise, display, etc’. In the Australian convict colony the term was applied to a similar assembly of convicts, and by the mid-nineteenth century it was being used to refer to the gathering together of livestock for counting and branding.

The development of bushranging in Australia is an off-shoot of the convict system. The first bushrangers were convicts, escaping either from imprisonment or from bad masters when in assigned service. To them, we owe the terms bail-up and stick-up. The bushrangers of the post-goldrush are the more familiar ‘Ned Kelly’ kind. To them we owe the development of such terms as bush telegraph, cattle duffing, gully raking, and poddy dodging.

Updated: 18 October 2010/ Responsible Officer:  Centre Director / Page Contact:  Web Publisher