A Bridge over Troubled Waters

In the late 1700s, Britain faced a few problems.

I say this with all the authority of someone who was born in the colonies, mind you. Consider that a disclaimer about my relationship to Britain, if you like.

Due to the industrial revolution, population in the cities had increased, poverty was rife, leading to crime, and as a result, there was severe overcrowding in prisons. With many families struggling to have enough food, incidences of petty theft were high. Harsh sentencing laws made it common practice to jail people for crimes that, these days, would not considered worthy of a jail sentence. In 1786, a first-time thief could be locked up for stealing a few parsnips. (Serious offences like rape or murder warranted death by hanging back in Britain.)

At this time it was not seen as the role of a government to tackle social problems, so for some time the solution to the cycle of poverty and overflowing jails had been to send convicts to the American colonies, but, inconveniently, America was moving towards independence by this time, and it seemed unlikely that this plan could continue.

As it happened, Joseph Banks had recently returned from a far-flung expedition across the seas, and declared that a newly discovered land in the south was remarkably suitable to housing the overflow of prisoners.  So this enormous land mass to the south, now dubbed by the British as Australia (much as you might claim a stray kitten as your own and name her) had its dubious beginnings in Western, or modern, history, as a penal colony.

11 convict ships sailed in the First Fleet, from England to Botany Bay, arriving in January 1788. Convicts were banished to the colony of Australia for crimes ranging from misdemeanours to political activism. A glance at records meticulously collected at a site called First Fleet Fellowship shows that the most common crime committed by those hapless prisoners was larcency, the crime of non-violent theft. Some of the perpetrators were as young as 15 years old.

Different penal colonies were set up, notably at Sydney Cove, and in Van Diemens Land, later renamed Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state. Between 1788 and 1868, it’s estimated that approximately 162,000 convicts were transported from Britain to Australia’s penal colonies, and approximately 73,500 of these were sent to Tasmania.

Wandering around Hobart (the capital city of Tasmania) in the present day, and along the convict trail outside of Hobart, you will find plenty of buildings and landmarks that were built, back then, by gangs of convict labourers. One of these is the charming old Richmond Bridge, in Richmond Village, about a 20 minute drive outside of Hobart.

Richmond village is a tourist destination in Australia, because western-style architecture that dates all the way back to 1820 seems to us to be very old indeed. That’s because, within Australia, it is very old. What’s more, the use of handcut sandstone, and even the tiny size of buildings that were built back in the early part of the 19th Century, are an exotic novelty for people like myself, a Melburnian, who sees a lot of skyscrapers being erected where old buildings have been torn down, and only sees sandstone architecture when she visits areas that were old penal colonies.

The Richmond Bridge is Australia’s oldest stone arch bridge, completed in 1825.

richmond-bridge-tasmania

Photo: © Blathering 2016

Convicts formed gangs of unpaid labourers that basically built buildings and infrastructure in the first decades of Australia’s new identity as a British colony.  According to the State Library of New South Wales:

Convicts were a source of labour to build roads, bridges, courthouses, hospitals and other public buildings, or to work on government farms……..Just as dreadful as the cat o’ nine tails was a long stint on a chain gang, where convicts were employed to build roads in the colony. The work was backbreaking, and was made difficult and painful as convicts were shackled together around their ankles with irons or chains weighing 4.5kg or more.

It seems incredible, standing near this bridge on a sunny morning in 2016, to realise that a little less than 200 years ago – a relatively short time in the history of western civilisation; merely a few generations of great-grandparents ago – people were working as forced labour in chain gangs in this country, to build a utilitarian piece of infrastructure, that we are now stopping our tour bus to take photos of. How quaint, we say, look at the charming stonework! Look at the plaque that says 1825! How ancient! 

Of course, as a white Australian, my history, if one assumes that my history is contained only within my family lineage, can be traced back through the stories of various white people who emigrated from England and Ireland, as well as at least one relative who was transported here as a convict. (such pride!) It’s possible that the history of my family line could include someone who worked as a labourer in such a gang, or, someone who oversaw the gang (although that is less likely as the earliest of my emigrant relatives were Irish.)

But I’ve come to realise that as an Australian, my history is inextricably intertwined with the history of this land where I live, and the people who lived in these places before me, whether that was in this house, in this suburb, or across this continent. Prior to 1788, that history is not contained in buildings and landmarks that remain for us to admire, because the indigenous peoples who had lived here for many thousands of years were largely nomadic or semi-nomadic, moving with the seasons. They comprised of 250 different nations with differing ways of life, but mostly they did not build permanent dwellings, so we do not have the stone castles and old ruins scattered across the landscape that one finds in Europe, those constant visual reminders of lives lived 100s of years earlier.

The history of Australian lives on this land prior to 1788 might encompass 40,000 years or anything up to 125,000 years, according to differing studies. Those lives largely took place in caves and impermanent, sustainably built structures, in bushland, and desert, and by the sides of rivers, creeks, and lakes. Therefore, there are few visual reminders found today in the urbanised landscapes that I inhabit, unless you happen to take the time to learn the history of a local area, where a feature such as a river might have had huge significance to the lives of tribes living nearby, right up to the period in history that I’ve been talking about.

Rivers like the Coal River, in Tasmania, over which Richmond Bridge is built. Lives that were largely wiped out in Tasmania, within about 80 years of the arrival of white Australians.

So the Richmond Bridge is charming, certainly. I like it as much as anyone, and took about 12 photos of it from differing angles. But if we are to dwell on Australia’s colonial history for any amount of time, this bridge can also serve as an important reminder of harsher times, when some groups of people were treated almost like slaves, and other groups of people were not even accorded that status.

 

via Daily Prompt: Bridge

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Quite a few sites were consulted for information in this post. If not already linked to within the text above, they can be found below:

australia.gov.au – Convicts and the British colonies

First Fleet Fellowship Victoria

Discover Tasmania – Convict Trail

environment.gov.au – National Heritage Places – Richmond Bridge 

State Library of NSW – The Convict Experience

wikipedia – Kulin Nation

 

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting! These days of course many people in Britain are trying to get into Australia to live, lured by the scenes of sun, BBQs and beaches as depicted in “Neighbours” and “Home and Away”.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • They’d be very disappointed with how Spring has been going so far then. I’ve not been to a single barbecue yet! One thing they never dared to cover on Neighbors or Home And Away: Aussies going stir-crazy when the weather is bad!!

      Liked by 1 person

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  2. It is one of the ironies of life that many of our most beautiful and interesting buildings have a dark history to them as does your bridge. Our response to them will always be ambiguous, enjoying their beauty while deploring their origins.

    The suffering of the convicts sent to Australia should not be glossed over. There is no doubt that the regime treated them harshly and abusively and we should rightly condemn this and the justice system on which it was based. There were also some happier outcomes, however, because, as you say, many modern Australian families can trace their ancestry back to convicts shipped over from Britain. This means that those ancestral convicts eventually emerged from the penal system and made a life for themselves in Australia when, had they remained in Britain, it is far more likely that they would have died young in miserable circumstances, leaving no progeny to remember their names.

    The fate of the aborigines is another dark story. It is a rule of history that when a more technologically advanced people comes into contact with a less technologically advanced people, the latter are overrun and their culture (and often themselves) wiped out. Homo sapiens is a selfish, violent and cruel species which, though capable of dreams of humanity and brotherly love, never manages to live up to them. We who would criticize the treatment of native peoples have to remember that we can do so only because we live stable lives within the socio-economic system erected on these people’s ruin.

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