Founders and Survivors: Australian Life Courses in Historical Context; 1803-1920


Founders and Survivors: Australian Life Courses in Historical Context; 1803-1920

Project report. Dr Craig Bellamy, VeRSI, June 2010

I recently attended a project workshop for the ARC funded Founders and Survivors project: Led by Professor Janet McCalman from the University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart from the University of Tasmania, and an interdisciplary team of genealogists, demographers, and population health researchers; the project seeks to link the most important records about the convict system in Tasmania to uncover new knowledge about the system and the lives of the people within it.

The project — at a reasonably early stage—presented many of the interim results of digitising and parsing the data about the 72,500 convicts that were transported to Tasmania in the first half of the 19th Century. The convict records in Tasmania are some of the most significant and detailed records of the lives, socio-economic position, bodies, and health of any group in the 19th Century.  The project has the bold ambition of not only linking and analysing the convict records, but also linking other detailed institutional records; such as Australian military records, to gain a rich, intergenerational perspective of the health and lives of Australians.  No other settler society has such intimate details of its founding population.

In one of the earlier presentations, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart explained that the records are being digitised, analysed, and presented according to significant life events. These events include birthplace, upbringing, and trial, the voyage to Australia, the convict’s behaviour under sentence and their cause of death. Many convict records and registers have already been digitised and made available through the State Library of Tasmania and other institutions, but many hours are also being spent painstakingly transcribing muster records, pardon records, departures, absconders, apprehensions, certificates of freedom, and other records that ‘fill the gaps’ to assist in reconstructing the chain of events that make up the lives of the largely working class people who were transported to Tasmania. There are 456, 663 records recorded in the system so far.

Associate Professor John Bass, who is mainly responsible for liking the data, explained to me in a coffee shop in Salamanca Place in Hobart, how the records are linked, the decisions that are made in matching, linking, and the eventual historical analysis of the data. John has been involved in record linking projects for many years; primarily in the health sector (to such a degree that he was awarded an Order of Australia for his work). He explained how he searchers for a ‘linkage key’ (name, date of birth, etc.) from say, the records from a particular convict voyage and then matches this to other records of ‘arrival’ or ‘leave of pardon’ or ‘marriage’. It is not a purely scientific endeavour and the raw data is later used by the historian who will formulate this evidence into their broader historical arguments (and the data is held in separate databases and links stored separately). As Hamish Maxwell-Stewart explained in one of his presentations, matching rates are generally high at above 50% but some; as in matching ‘arrival’ with ‘death’ or ‘departure’ has been higher. Only about 20% of ‘arrival’ and ‘death’ records have been matched so far, but the samples have produced some remarkable results.

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart discovered some interim results from analysis of the surgeons’ sick-list on the very long, 4-6 month voyage the convict ships took to get to Tasmania. He graphed what diseases where prevalent at what stage of the voyage (scurvy, digestive system, fever etc.) and speculated upon the broader policy arrangements or period of the voyage that may have contributed to the disease.  An argument repeatedly made by many of the historians at the meeting was that as long as the convict survived the voyage, transportation may have extended their life expectancy as life in a penal colony in Tasmania may have been healthier than working-class life  in 19th Century Britain.  However, Janet McCalman did stress the need to see results from the whole population first so that the sub-studies could be contextualised (and it isn’t good research practice to release results too soon as later results may contradict earlier results).

In 1834 at the age of 20, my great grandfather, Francis Fitzmaurice, was transported to Tasmania for stealing clothes. After a long history of well-documented recalcitrance in the convict system in Tasmania; being freed, having children, imprisoned, and freed again, he died of exposure to the elements on June 10, 1883.  I wonder if this is why I wear such large woolly jackets in the winter.

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