Australian Convicts Did Our Kitchen
The 19th Century was a tough time for Australian convicts. Sent mostly from England, they endured months at sea in squalid conditions to arrive Downunder. Then, many were forced under threat of the lash to work as slave labor, and sometimes endure the deprivations of torture. Which is a sobering thought when I sit in the kitchen.
Hobart, Tasmania, had the strange reputation of having a church built specifically for Australian convicts, with torture cells built immediately beneath. To my knowledge there is no other church in the world constructed like that.
With the smallest cells a mere 27” high, the hapless prisoners were unable to sit let alone stand for up to 21 days at a time. To make matters worse, they lay on a cold dusty brick floor in total darkness. So it’s no wonder some went mad in the process. But back in the early 1800s, it was considered a reasonable means of treatment.
Convicts had all sorts of tasks of varying degrees of difficulty. Those making bricks, for instance, had daily quotas and whole work gangs got the lash if they failed to make enough (think of that next time you fail to reach your monthly target). Cruelty, injustice, and ignorance played out a grueling history of hardship that few of us can imagine. But, Australian convicts were a tough lot and the majority survived these harrowing conditions to eventually earn their freedom.
More incredibly, despite their torments, many an Australian convict actually fared better than they did back home. Transported for crimes ranging from:
- “Wearing clothes beyond their station”
- Stealing a handkerchief or loaf of bread
- Forgery, or
criminals had one positive option. If they obeyed and worked well there was a chance to start a new life (which is what many of them eventually did).
In Tasmania, where some 72,000 male and female convicts were sent (including political prisoners from Ireland, rebels from Canada, a Maori leader of two, and the odd American), life was a continual battle for survival. Yet eventually, after the mid 1800s, things started improving and finally transportation ceased. Gradually, Australian convicts integrated into local life and the shame of a tainted past, began fading.
But with so much left over from these bygone times, it was a difficult image to shake. So much so that, aside from it’s magnificent natural beauty, Tasmania remains an icon of Australian convict history.
Which leads me to the convicts who helped build our kitchen. A few of those bricks, I mentioned, were used to build the internal walls around our table. So, a constant reminder of their toil faces us daily. As tough as it was for Australian convicts, their legacy ended up enriching Australia’s character, helping to make it irreverent, wary of authority, hardworking, and happy-go-lucky. It was a high price to pay, but those carving a life out of a rough and ready frontier certainly set the stage for that unique Aussie outlook.
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