The courage of our convicts


When Fanny Jarvis robbed her employer, the servant from Staffordshire in Britain received a harsh sentence: lifelong deportation to a new country. Three years after arriving in Australia, she was accused of insubordination, likely unaware of the role she and others who shared her fate played in the origins of the nation’s democratization.

Today, it is still almost unknown. But Jarvis, who endured nearly four years of hard labor and long periods of solitary confinement – and whose acts of rebellion included an uprising at the infamous Cascades Female Factory and a refusal to testify in court – is one of them. of a gigantic new international center of digital history. The Conviction Politics project questions the link between the collective action taken by these prisoners to control their work, and the genesis of Australian trade unionism, as well as its political and social democracy.

Featuring data displays that place the resistance of condemned women in visual context, the project’s “transmedia” hub will eventually feature 120 documentaries, long and short reads, and original and “reimagined” songs by current artists. “It’s the Netflix of convict politics,” said its leader, Associate Professor Tony Moore, head of communications and media studies at Monash University. The Saturday newspaper at a launch hosted by the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London in July.

“We thought there were thousands of stories to research and bring to life. We’re not going to wait for the ABC, Channel 10 or Channel 9 to broadcast this to the public. We’re building our own converged post-television network, if you will, by making public our own online broadcast, our data visualizations, our interactive atlas, our own articles.

Funded by the Australian Research Council’s Liaison Projects, Conviction Politics is a collaboration based at Monash University between universities, museums and trade unions from Australia, Britain and Ireland. Family historians and “citizen researchers” have also played a crucial role, says the project’s lead researcher, Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart of the University of New England, whose work on the subject l have also led to the co-writing of a book, Unfree workers.

Conviction Politics relies on digitized recordings of a 2015 documentary death or freedom, based on Moore’s book of the same name. The film featured original songs written and performed by Billy Bragg and Lisa O’Neill, who are involved in the new collaboration. Priceless archival content that has been “trapped in various national and institutional silos” for years will also be released, Moore says, to bring life back to prisoners who refused to work and eat, escaped en masse and seized ships, among other acts of resistance.

The project will be “bigger than Ben Hur” by the end of 2024, when it will embark on an international traveling exhibition, says Moore.

Convicts may conjure up images for the average Australian of petty criminals unjustly sent halfway around the world for stealing a loaf of bread or a silk handkerchief. But there is a story of resistance to explore. More than 3,600 political prisoners were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868 for crimes including journalism, ‘seditious speech’, forming trade unions, protesting and breaking machinery, according to records compiled by the Marxist historian British George Rudé, who was a professor at the universities of Australia and North America before his death in 1993.

The draft sees their transport as “a cruel system of unfree labour, forced migration deployed by the British Empire to build the infrastructure, plantations, mines and towns of the Australian colonies, akin to slavery in the Americas” , says Moore. Digitized records – which show 12,000 acts of collective resistance involving 45,000 convicts – reveal protests in the 1830s that rival the union strikes of the 1890s. This contributed to Australia’s colonial democracy and, in late account, “may have saved Australia from the plantation route of US slave states,” Moore said.

“The convicts were our first workforce that not only was exploited, but resisted unfair treatment individually and, more importantly, collectively, even forming union-like combinations to bargain with employers.” We owe the eight-hour day, the secret ballot and universal suffrage to these people, Moore points out. And Conviction Politics is an endorsement of the growing pride among people with this ancestry in the years since the 1970s.

The project is also relevant to contemporary scandals, such as the secret ministries in which former Prime Minister Scott Morrison swore himself into it, he adds.

“Responsible and democratic government was one of the great things that generations of political prisoners transported to Australia fought for first in their home countries and then in Australia,” Moore says. He quotes the Scottish lawyer and media activist Thomas Muir, convicted of sedition, and the British Chartists who defend workers’ suffrage.

Dr Monika Schwarz, a research assistant at Monash University’s SensiLab, says the project underscores the double standard that women at the time struggled with. Women like Fanny Jarvis ‘have suffered from a certain bias for decades [as] what might have passed as heroic behavior in men was often seen only as recalcitrance in women,” says Schwarz, who worked on data analysis for Conviction Politics.

“[They] suffered the condemnation system and fought back, and they were part of the history of [Australia’s] democratization from the start,” she says.

Jarvis eventually married and was conditionally pardoned, about a decade after being sentenced to life.

There is also a more sinister implication in this story of punishment and resistance. Moore adds that locking people up is “deep in Australia’s DNA”.

“Look at what we’re doing with the refugees – we’re relearning Britain to do it,” he says. “They are going to do offshore detention in Rwanda. Look at our acquiescence to the imprisonment of [Julian] Assange.

The archive also explores Indigenous peoples’ punishment and resistance, which Professor Greg Lehman – the pro vice-chancellor, Aboriginal leadership, at the University of Tasmania – says is crucial to a full understanding of the colonial history of Australia.

“In many cases, Aboriginal people have been co-opted into roles otherwise played by convicts,” Lehman said. The Saturday newspaper. “The indentured labor system in Western Australia assigned Aboriginal people to grantees of land, with decisions about their lives entirely controlled by individuals with judicial powers. In this comparison, convicts were in a far superior position, as they enjoyed protection as subjects of the Crown and could obtain permission to leave. In contrast, the full civil rights of indigenous peoples were not properly recognized until the 1967 referendum.

“One of the biggest problems with Australian colonial history, particularly as it exists in the popular imagination, is that the story is all about explorers, bushrangers, convicts and settlers. is that the Indigenous experience includes all of that,” says Lehman.

The project’s short documentaries, produced by Tasmania’s Roar Film, and data visualizations will include a touring exhibition beginning at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in early 2024. It will include walking tours designed for Hobart and Sydney. In central Hobart, a ‘convict memorial’ funded by the Tasmanian government and the state’s National Trust is already under construction. Visitors will be able to use a smart device to find content about a specific person, to display on a monolith made up of LED screens, says Maxwell-Stewart.

“The memorial will also be a place where you can book a ceremony to recognize a convict and get your own personal message about that individual loaded into the dataset,” he says. “This will be marked with a blue flower – a numerical forget-me-not – to indicate that a convict has been recalled.”

The exhibition will then travel to Sydney, hosted by the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation. Currently, there are several places in NSW primary and secondary school curricula where the role of convicts in early Australian society is taught, said Margaret Vos, deputy director of the NSWTF Center for Vocational Learning.

“Among those convicted were powerful political activists who were prepared to fight for labor rights and social change,” she says. “The Conviction Politics Hub is an extremely valuable resource for teachers and should make it easier to incorporate its content into their classroom work.”

London, regions of Britain and Dublin will also host the exhibition in 2024 and 2025. In Britain, where mass strikes have brought the country to a standstill, the government’s current attitude towards trade unions is hostile. But the new general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Paul Nowak, said the organization was proud to be on board.

“It is important not only to remember our history – including the Tolpuddle martyrs transported to Australia for organizing a union – but also to connect the struggles of 200 years ago with the struggle of workers in ‘today against declining living standards and for rights at work,” he said The Saturday newspaper.

Eventually, Moore would like to see the creation of a British museum devoted to the transport of convicts. He said Britons needed to understand that more than 160,000 people were being sent halfway around the world for petty crimes.

“They became the unfree working class of the Australian colonies. [They] suffered, but in many cases also triumphed and stayed to build a new society,” he says. “There is a ‘Don’t mention the Empire’ amnesia about the transport of convicts in modern Britain.

“Such a museum will give visiting Australians, with or without convict ancestors, a place to remember this part of our origin story.”

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 under the headline “Courage of Our Convicts”.

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