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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Australian Expo

I took a sabbatical leave at the University of Queensland in Brisbane in 1988. That just happened to be the year of Australia's bicentennial when Brisbane was hosting the World Expo. That meant it proved to be educational for me not just academically but sociologically as well. The celebrations occasioned a time when the Aussies went back to their beginnings and took a look at what characterized them as a people. This meant openly facing their origins as a British penal colony in poetry and song.
What I didn't realize at the time was that as early as 1610, the British, like other colonial empires, had been sending their prison inmates, criminals as well as the destitute, to their colonies in the Americas, often in the guise of indentured servitude. Since its discovery, there have been many emigrants to America and because their early thriving settlements always required hired help, the indentured prison inmates were easily assimilated into the population and rarely mentioned in historical accounts. This forced emigration continued for over 170 years until the Americans won the Revolutionary War against Britain in 1783 and ended the practice.

With America now closed to them, the overcrowding of British prisons again became an issue, and they soon turned to Australia to alleviate the problem. That huge continent had been claimed for Britain in 1770 when the famous Captain Cook had discovered it. The aboriginals who had survived there for over 40,000 years before the white man, offered little resistance so a British fleet of 11 ships was assembled to carry some 759 prison inmates, male and female, along with 348 officers, crew and their wives on the 8 month journey to far off Australia. The fleet's landing in 1788 marked the first arrival of Europeans in Australia and, over the next 80 years more than 165,000 convicts were transported to the continent. Although their numbers were soon equaled and greatly overwhelmed by other settlers [by 1871 the total population was 1.7 million] unlike Americans, the Australians have never forgotten those early convict beginnings.

On our way to Australia, we had spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand and found the character and outlook of the New Zealanders very British. In comparison, we generally found most Australians we met more laid back, quick to tease and always ready for a good time. They seemed, however, especially intolerant to anyone with a ‘better-than-thou attitude’ and even then, anyone from Britain was automatically called a ‘Pommy’, a derogatory nickname from days long past.

My musings about our stay in Australia have caused me to realize the possible effects of British penal exports on early American beginnings and even on the British themselves and I hope my new found knowledge has been worth sharing. Rie


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