American Religious Nuts Versus Australian Convicts

According to a meme circulating on social media, "England sent its religious nuts to America and its criminals to Australia. The Aussies got the better deal." A version of the statement has appeared in various places, including on a church marque in front of the Toledo building of the "First Church of Polydeism." (See http://firstchurchofpolydeism.tumblr.com/)

This quick contrast encapsulates popular--and erroneous--understandings of early American and Australian history. According to a widely-held view, the United States was settled originally by people seeking freedom to pursue their own religious vision, while Australia began as a penal colony populated by British convicts. While the contrast well encapsulates how the two nations remember their early histories, it misrepresents more than it explains.

As with Australia's first European residents, most individuals who crossed the Atlantic to the British colonies in North America did so involuntarily. Some came as indentured servants, so poor or deeply in debt that they had to sell their labor for four to seven years in exchange for passage. Many others came to British North America either as enslaved Africans or as criminals sentenced to transportation. Long before the British used Australia as a dumping ground for felons, America was their prime destination. British imperial officials intended Georgia (the last colony founded before the American Revolution) primarily as a repository for the poor and for convicts. Other colonies, starting with Virginia, received numerous men and women transported as punishment for a crime. A few had committed religious misdeeds--Quakers and others were transported for attending religions meetings--but most were convicted of theft and similar crimes. Virginians later remembered their colonial past very differently, avoiding all reference to the transported criminals who made up a notable part of their colony's early population.

Australia, in other words, was not the first or only possession that the British Empire used to dispose of criminals; long before Australia was settled in 1788, the North American colonies served that purpose. In fact Britain moved to colonize Australia when it did in large part because it lost North America and had nowhere to send miscreants. Without Georgia to receive its felons, Britain sought another repository, and Australia became that place. Before it sent the first ships of convicts Down Under, in fact, it held hundreds of felons in fetid prison ships, which sat in the Thames River holding convicts with nowhere to go.

British officials saw criminal transportation as a win-win and as a humanitarian replacement for the widespread use of the death penalty. Shipping convicts to distant colonies allowed the authorities to spare their lives (at least until disease or brutal labor conditions ended them); at the same time it provided bodies to populate the empire. The policy, far from dividing the two British imperial outposts, linked the Atlantic colonies to Australia. Both North America and Australia represented, at best, a second chance.

The bigger difference between the Unites States and Australia is not that the one received religious nuts while the other received convicts. The difference lies in the fact that while the first historians of the U.S. suppressed the knowledge that its founding generation included many convicts and other unfree migrants, Australia celebrated the criminals who made up much of its earliest European population.