A claim was made by Margaret Atwood on the Stranger Than Fiction podcast that the British had a strategy to colonise Australia via the penal system. That is, their motivation for sending criminals to the Australian penal colony in order to force a large number of people to move to a yet-to-be established colony. When the male-to-female balance became problematic, they simply lowered to bar for women to be sent.

This question asks if Australia was established as a penal colony. My question is whether the penitentiary system was simply part of a larger scheme to force early colonists to come.

Given that one of my ancestors was sent to Australia for the crime of stealing buttons, it seems that there may be some truth to it. The cost of punishing this crime seems discordant with its petty nature.

  • 1
    Heh - one of mine stole a couple of apples:-)
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 22:16
  • The penal system predated the settling of Australia: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15681/…
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 22:23
  • @RoryAlsop - I had another that attacked a priest with a scythe - but the pinishment seemed a bit more reasonable in that case.
    – dave
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 22:53
  • This is awfully close to an off-topic motivation question, except it is of (potentially) a large group. It sounds unanswerable. What sort of evidence would you accept, in each direction, as a valid answer?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented May 15, 2013 at 0:23
  • 4
    @Oddthinking - If one is to believe the claim, then it would be a matter of government policy. If there was no such policy, offical or unoffical, then I'd consider the claim rejected.
    – dave
    Commented May 15, 2013 at 0:34

1 Answer 1


In the 1700's English cities faced overpopulation, increased crime, increased poverty, and no where to hold criminals who had only committed petty theft. The basis of the British penal colonies/transportation of criminals to colonies stems from the transportation act of 1717. Looking at sources about this document increased colonial population was not a concern at the time. However this specifically related to north american colonies. Now from the early 1700's till the American Revolution the majority of petty theft criminals where shipped off to NA. At the time of the Revolution this ceased as the Americans no longer were accepting British criminals. The British then had to resort to using left over ships or "hulk"s to house the 10's of thousands of criminals. Looking for a new place to ship these criminals they set their eyes on Australia. Again from all accounts this was not about colonization , this was about removing overpopulated peoples, petty theft, out of their over crowded jails, once in the new world prisoners were given similar treatment as those transported to the NA colonies by the transportation act. Essentially they worked like slaves for the "real" settlers for part if not all of their sentence till released on good behavior or the end of their sentence and then would join the population as free citizens since the option to go back to England was typically far to expensive. Its very clear they were never meant to be the "colony" nor was their an intentional shift to send more women convicts, the influx of women conflicts comes from the easing up of the "bloody code" and other laws to lessons the amounts of hangings for relativity petty crimes.

source 1 source 2 source 3 transportation act 1717 bloody code


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