Scottish Convicts in Nineteenth-Century Australia

convictsAustralia was first put on the Scottish diaspora map not as a migrant destination of choice, but as a convict settlement. The overall number of convict Scots was, however, low. Of the estimated total of nearly 155,000 convicts sent to the Australian mainland and Van Diemen’s land, only about 8,200 were Scots. A slightly larger proportion of Scots, possibly up to 700, were among the nearly 10,000 male convicts sent to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868. But even these numbers pale compared to those of convicts who arrived from England. As Prentis explains, ‘the Scottish transportation rate was consistently about 20 to 25 per cent’ of that of England. The reason for the relatively small number of Scottish convicts can be found in Scotland’s legal system. Preserved in its own right as an integral pillar of Scottish civil society after the Union of 1707, the Scottish legal system was more moderate than the English one in terms of the penalties for what one might call ‘smaller crimes’. In Scotland a sentence for transportation was a punishment almost exclusively reserved for more serious crimes and repeat offenders. As much was noted by a mid-nineteenth century observer, A. Majoribanks, in 1847:

Both in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, Scotch convicts are considered the worst, and English the best. This seems to arise not so much from the laws of the two countries being so essentially different, as their being differently administred; the punishment for minor crimes in particular, being infinitely more severe in England than in Scotland. Hence, hundreds are transported annually from England for offences which, in Scotland, would be punished by sixty days confinement in jail at Bridewell … In Soctland … they are mostly old offenders before they are transported.

Yet while there were fewer Scottish convicts when measured in absolute numbers, what this meant was that the Scots who were transported were among the worst offenders in terms of the crime committed, with women convicts allegedly even worse than their male counterparts.

The proportion of Scottish women convicts was actually higher than that of Scottish males, particularly among the post-1840 convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Of these, nearly 14 per cent were Scottish women. Among the arrivals in Van Diemen’s Land in 1846 were Jean Watson, Catherine Hill and Christine Nish, all three of whom arrived on the Emma Eugenia together with another 167 women, with at least 20 per cent of them being Scottish. Jean Watson had been found guilty of theft in October 1845 by the Perth Court of Justiciary—a verdict also reached for her accomplice, Isabella Watson. While the relationship between the two women is not entirely clear, they committed the robbery together and both were sentenced to seven years’ transportation. As was reported in the Dundee Courier in August 1845, the pair ‘were charged with carrying off a quantity of wearing apparel from a house in Scouringburn, the latter [Jean Watson] having been twice previously convicted of theft.’ Prior conviction also played its part in the 10-year sentence given to Catherine Hill. While she was also convicted for theft, the crime was ‘aggravated by being a habit’. Convict Transportation Registers reveal that the majority of sentences for the women convicts on the Emma Eugenia was seven years, making Christine Nish stand out: she had been sentenced to a term of life on 23 September 1842 by the Glasgow Court of Justiciary.

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