Gender, crime and empire

Convicts, settlers and the state in early colonial Australia

Author: Kirsty Reid

Between 1803 and 1853, some 80,000 convicts were transported to settle in Van Diemen's Land, today's Tasmania, Australia. The book explores the attempts to construct a hierarchical and gendered social order in the new settlements. An attachment to the patriarchal familial ideal as a model of authority, and to the notion of the male convict-turned-virtuous-yeoman-farmer which went with it, was evident in the settlements. The book examines the ways similar tensions began systematically to rework the relationships between state and society during the 1810s and early 1820s. Initially, convicts were channelled into their own households and encouraged to marry and rear families. Subsequently, convicts were systematically re-ordered as a coerced colonial labour force and redirected from their own households into the homes of free settlers, there to work without wages. The shift to greater servitude was accompanied by the forcible and fairly systematic reconfiguration of the convict private sphere. Although the population was 'entirely British', it was entirely 'un-British in social and civilised spirit and in moral feeling and character'. Convict transportation had enabled 'the English' to create 'from their own loins a nation of Cyprians and Turks'. Organic and familial visions were fundamental to the conceptual schemes of the Colonial Reformers, a group dedicated to the reform of the empire and to the restructuring of imperial relations. During the 1840s and 1850s, a home-grown abolitionist movement raised the spectre of the sexual addiction of male convicts, fostering a major moral panic about the threat of sodomy and child rape.

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