The convicts who made Australia

They weren't the first Australians. But they were the first permanent white, English-speaking settlers, the people who gave the country much of the character it still has today. Between 1788 and 1869 over 162,000 convicts were sent out to the empty continent. This was cheaper than keeping them in prisons in Britain or Ireland. Who were they? Some were indeed dangerous criminals. Many, however, had done nothing worse than steal a lamb or some food for their families. Almost all of them had experienced terrible poverty. There were some who had fought against British power in Ireland. The first 11 convict ships that arrived in Sydney Harbour in 1788 brought 776 men, women and even children. They had to try to produce enough food in the bush to feed themselves. A few escaped into the outback. The natives were usually friendly to them, but a number of escaped convicts were killed by frightened Aboriginals.

The convicts were used all over Australia to build the roads into the interior, to work in mining or on private sheep stations.

Some colonies, like Western Australia, tried to manage without convicts, but there were never enough immigrants to do the work - until 1851, when the discovery of gold caused immigration from Europe to increase. In 1868 the convict ships stopped coming. For some years, many Australians had been feeling bad about the system.

But today, no Australians would be embarrassed to tell you their great-great-grandparents were convicts. They would even be proud of them. The importance of the convicts in making modern Australia has been recognized.