Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Stain

I had a really interesting day at work yesterday, sitting in a meeting beside historian Hamish Maxwell-Stuart. He has been working on a massive project called Founders and Survivors which we are now joining. If you are interested in convict history and genealogy, it's worth a look.

The records of the 73,000 convicts that came to Tasmania are so thorough, and so dense, that they are actually one of the best sources in the world for doing comparative research about populations. Although it is from a time before photography, the convicts’ appearance was noted in detail, together with any scars and tattoos. All of this is fascinating to dig through.

One of the things that had never occurred to me before is that any convict story found by tracing back from the descendants, is going to be an atypically happy story. Generally only successful convicts lived long enough to have children, so if there are defendants living today, they will usually be able to trace back to a convict who served their sentence, got some land and kept out of trouble.

Hamish spoke a lot about "The Stain" - the stigma of having convicts in the family, which only started to fade in the 1970s. It was a perception reinforced by the colonial government - that the convicts were here primarily because they were wicked people. The fact that they were an essential labour force for getting the new colony off the ground meant that emancipation and rehabilitation could only be allowed to go so far - it was necessary to maintain a workforce in servitude. Before 1822 freed convicts and especially their children were given land grants. After that it was realised that with their own land these people would not be a pliable and controllable workforce. Wide-ranging limitations were imposed on ticket-of-leavers. Hamish says that you can argue the thesis that today's Tasmanian working class is essentially made up of the descendants of the convicts. While people now have a different attitude to their ancestors, the effects of 150 years of shame and silence are still felt today. To quote Hamish "The stain is real. It does its job and keeps people in place".

Despite this, some families made the climb out of the despised and feared convict class astonishingly quickly. Tasmania's first premier, Sir Richard Dry, was the son of a convict. Another surprise is the density of convict ancestors. It is not unusual for a current 6th generation Tasmanian to have 30 or more convict ancestors. One of the key things Founders & Survivors is doing is relating the convict records to the data from enlistment in Tasmania at the start of World War One. One bit of research has found that of the 100 men with memorials in Soldier's Walk, Hobart, 52 had convict ancestors - mostly great grandparents.

I didn't get a chance to buttonhole Hamish about our ancestor Beni Griffiths but hopefully over the duration of the project I might be able to winkle out of him some insights into how he managed to be transported for murder - usually a straightforward hanging offence. It's interesting that although I am pretty sure this is him in the Probation Book below, his crime is listed as housebreaking.

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