The trouble with convicts: From transportation to penal servitude, 1840-67

Philip Harling

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11 Scopus citations


This article makes three points about the death throes of convict transportation. First, the quarrel over transportation shows the double-edged nature of the moral critique of empire in the early Victorian era. Metropolitan criticism of transportation had its roots in the same effort to moralize the empire that was seen in the almost contemporaneous assault on slavery. But transportation was deemed too convenient a means of getting rid of criminals for Britons safely to do without it. Second, the Whig government of 1846-52 sought to save transportation by moralizing the convict before shipping him off. By this point, however, the moral objections to transportation in eastern Australia had become so strong as to make the plan untenable. Third, colonial opposition to transportation ultimately left the British government with no choice but to replace it with penal servitude at home, and the debate over crime and punishment that played out over the next decade revealed a waning of faith in convict rehabilitation that manifested itself in a harsher prison regime. In necessitating the rise of penal servitude, the end of transportation makes it clear that the empire mattered very much indeed to the reshaping of British penal policy in the mid-Victorian era.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-110
Number of pages31
JournalThe Journal of British Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History


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