Australia Really Was Colonized by a Bunch of Criminals—Here Are Five of Them

Back in 1788, stealing a roll of lace would get you sent over to Australia.
September 27, 2017, 11:57pm
Illustrations by Apollonia Saintclair

If you did something wrong in England between 1788 and 1868, your punishment was probably transportation. If you're part of the majority who ride peak hour public transport to work everyday, it's not hard to recognize that this retribution is torture. These transported folk weren't rapists or murderers. Those guys were killed right off the bat.

Instead, the crimes punishable by transportation were petty. Things that got you shoved onto a cramped, scurvy-ridden boat included: stealing fish from ponds or rivers (fishing?); taking someone's handkerchief or hairbrush; theft of bacon; throwing fireworks; burning clothes; or being a 10-year-old fit for slavery. You know, the small stuff.


Between 1788 to 1868, around 162,000 lightweight crims were banished to Australia. Before this, the destination was America, but then the Revolution happened and they closed the gates. The landing spot was usually New South Wales, a recently 'discovered' territory yet to be populated by British colonists (but which had, of course, been populated by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years). Serendipity at its finest.

These petty thieves, vagrants, military prisoners, and political insurgents were put to work. Their backbreaking labour lead to the creation of a colonised nation, followed by a fable in which Australian larrikinism and binge drinking could be dated back to and excused via.

The legacy left by these convict criminals has shaped Australia's sense of lawlessness. This part of the country's history has also provided a national appreciation for the underdog and a spirited reception to being dealt a shit hand in life—the origin of the 'she'll be right' mentality.

We look at five criminals who were transported to Australia.

John O'Reilly

John O'Reilly (above) was a supporter of the Irish independence movement and was one of 62 Irish Republican Brotherhood members transported to Western Australia. His charge was treason—a crime that should've earned him death, but resulted in 20 years penal servitude due to his young age of 22.

O'Reilly was crucial in the Catalpa rescue, one of Australia's most infamous prison-breaks—but more on that later. It was him who weighed in heavily on the idea of purchasing the ship, even though he actually ended up escaping on the Gazelle with the help of a catholic priest and some local farmers.


Along with the whole prison-break thing, he also seduced his prison warden's daughter.

An exceptional writer, O'Reilly settled in America and eventually became the editor of Boston newspaper, The Pilot. He was celebrated for his civil rights work and his books of poetry.

Michael Harrington

A fellow Fenian, Michael Harrington is also known for his part in the Catalpa rescue. After pardons were issued to most of the imprisoned Fenians, the remaining inmates planned an escape using their connections on the outside.

John Devoy, a Fenian who had been released and was now settled in New York basically project-managed the operation. Devoy received funding from Irish republican organisation Clan na Gael to purchase a ship, the Catalpa.

On 29 April 1875 it sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts to Western Australia with a crew who were mostly unaware that they were going a voyage aid a prison-break.

Meanwhile, men on the ground in Western Australia were fronting as businessmen and getting acquainted with the state's governor, and hiring other men to cut telegraph lines. It was a huge operation.

The ship anchored in international waters off the Western Australia's coast, and dispatched a whaleboat to shore. Harrington and his five cohorts were working outside the prison, and were picked up by their connections in horse-drawn carriages. They travelled 20 kilometres to the whaleboat and then headed to the Catalpa.


Despite a severe storm and being followed by a colonial police boat, they made it to the ship. A night passed before they saw the cops again, who returned with a warning shot from a 12 pound cannon. In response, the Catalpa crew raised a US flag to let them know that an attack on the ship would be considered an act of war against the USA. And then they cruised away into the Indian Ocean.

Esther Abrahams

Esther Abraham was one of only 1,000 Jewish convicts. Her life was turned upside down and she was sent to Australia for stealing a roll of lace. On board her ship, she hooked up with George Johnston, the first lieutenant of the New South Wales Marine Corps. You could say it was pretty serious: they had a seven kids together.

Johnston went on to lead the Rum Rebellion, the only successful armed takeover of government in Australian history.

Because of Johnston's rank, he received mega land grants, and Abraham eventually got them in her own right too. Before she died, her son tried to declare her as insane so he could take control of her property, and although she put up a mighty fight, he ended up winning.

Joseph Lycett

Joseph Lycett was an artist convicted and transported for forging bank notes. In Sydney, he was set to work (and punishment) illustrating the 'emerging colony' in a way to encourage voluntary migration and agricultural interest. A career con artist, if you will.

But his efforts were considered efficacious—he was basically responsible for developing townships and drawing up plans for building such as the local church where he produced the three-light window which still survives in the Newcastle Cathedral.


Very importantly, he also kept an incredible record of indigenous life, documenting Newcastle's Awabakal people, which is something invaluable at this point in Australia's history.

Not happy with working for the man, he returned to a life of forgery. The story goes that he was caught once again and on arrest slit his own throat. He didn't die, though, not yet.

He was recovering in hospital when he took to his throat once more—this time with his bare hands, tearing open the wound, and killing himself for good.

Charlotte Badger

Charlotte Badger is known as Australia's first female pirate, a reputation that came about after her and her accomplice Catherine Hagerty coordinated a mutiny. On the way to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), she convinced all the dudes on The Venus to seize the ship while the captain was ashore. He would routinely flog female passengers with a whip, so safe to say he deserved it.

She's also recognised as one of the first white women to settle in New Zealand. She could speak Māori fluently and could communicate to an extent in Tongan.

The crimes that lead to seven years' penal servitude in New South Wales? Stealing several guineas (worth about £1 each) and a silk handkerchief in hopes of supporting her family at the grand old age of 18.

You can see more of illustrator Apollonia Saintclair