Radicals, martyrs, and Scottish convicts in colonial Australia

Britain transported around 162,000 convicts to Australia between 1787 and 1868. More than 80,000 convicts and over 1000 exiles were transported to New South Wales, Moreton Bay, Norfolk Island, and Port Phillip between 1787 and 1840. Between 1803 and 1852, Van Diemen’s Land received just under 70,000 convicts. Transportation continued to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868, and around 9790 convicts arrived there between those years.

There were very few Scots. Between 1791 and 1817, during the first waves of settlement, approximately 266 Scottish convicts came to Australia. By 1823, only 855 Scottish convicts had arrived, accounting for a mere 3.5 per cent of the total. In some years, there were no Scots among the convict arrivals.

Overall, about 8200 of the convicts in Australia’s eastern colonies, and between 570 and 700 in Western Australia, were born in Scotland, which recorded about a quarter of England’s transportation rate.

The small number of Scots among Australia’s convict population had much to do with Scotland’s legal system: the Scottish penal code contained fewer capital offences than that of England, the accused were often able to plead mitigating circumstances, and only moderate punishments were handed down for petty crimes that, in England, would result in death or transportation.

Most Scottish convicts were petty thieves or otherwise guilty of minor offences. They were, for the most part, drawn from Scotland’s industrialised urban centres and many had lived in poverty and squalor. The majority were young, single men in their twenties; a notable proportion were literate, and most were skilled or semi-skilled.

Scottish workers who had arrived as convicts were eventually found utilising the abilities recorded on their indents; they were even able to appeal to authorities if their assigned work was not appropriate to their occupational background. Those who had fulfilled their sentence became known as ‘emancipists’, and many stayed in Australia, settling across the colonies and becoming landowners, labourers, tradesmen, artisans, businesspeople, and even public servants.

Though there were very few Scottish convicts, a number of lively stories have emerged from their ranks. Perhaps most interesting are two groups of Scottish political prisoners – quite unlike the majority of convicts – transported to Australia in the late 1700s and the early 1800s: the ‘Scottish Martyrs’, and the ‘Scottish Radicals’.

The five Scottish Martyrs were Thomas Muir, political leader and lawyer; Thomas Palmer, a Unitarian minister; William Skirving, the secretary of the Edinburgh Friends of the People Society; Joseph Gerrald; and Maurice Margarot. They were arrested in 1793 as a result of their advocacy for political and economic reforms that were ostensibly inspired by the French Revolution.

Muir was notoriously radical. Idealistic and well educated, he associated himself with proponents of parliamentary and constitutional reform in the wake of the revolution in France. Muir was vice-president of the Glasgow Associated Friends of the Constitution and of the People, and at a 1792 convention of the Scottish Societies of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh, he read an inflammatory address from the United Irishmen of Dublin and allegedly distributed a subversive pamphlet by the revolutionary political activist, Thomas Paine.

Arrested in January 1793 but released on bail, Muir then travelled to Paris with the lofty goal of saving the life of Louis XVI, who was awaiting execution. When Muir failed to return for his trial in Edinburgh he was declared an outlaw.

The Martyrs were eventually tried for sedition in Edinburgh and handed a sentence of transportation to New South Wales for fourteen years. The severity of the sentence provoked outcry among sympathisers, and a number of influential parliamentarians attempted to intervene. Nevertheless, Henry Dundas, the Home Secretary, was determined to make an example of the group who became known as the Scottish Martyrs.

Four of the political prisoners died as an indirect result of their punishment. Muir escaped on an American ship but died later in France, Palmer died on the voyage back to England, while Skirving and Gerrald died in Sydney. Margarot returned to Scotland. The Scottish Martyrs were immortalised quite covertly by Robert Burns, who wrote his famous ‘Scots Wha Hae’ in response to the trial of Thomas Muir.

Lesser known than the Martyrs are the convicts transported to Australia in the aftermath of Scotland’s so-called ‘Radical War’. During a week of industrial strikes and unrest in 1820, Scottish radicals, inspired by the French and American Revolutions, advocated for reform along the same lines advocated for by Thomas Muir, the other Martyrs, and the Friends Of The People societies that formed in Scotland during the 1790s.

On the background of the social and economic disruptions of the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, and in the wake of even more social upheaval at the end of the Napoleonic wars, workers marched in various parts of Scotland in April of 1820. Business and landowners recruited militia to protect their interests, while the government attempted to infiltrate unions and other organisations with it spies and agents.

The uprising was quickly put down; actual fighting between radicals and soldiers was brief and sporadic. Nonetheless, some 88 men across Scotland were charged with treason. James Wilson, Andrew Hardie, and John Baird – prominent leaders in the radical moment – were publically executed. Nineteen others were transported to Australia, and would become known as the Scottish Radicals.

One transportee, James Clelland, would have been executed if it were not for the intervention of the Reverend George Wright, a relative. Another radical was Allan Murchie, whose father successfully requested that Allan’s fiancée, a chest of tools, and a collection of books accompany him. John Ebenezer acted as a schoolmaster in New South Wales until his death in 1865, while Thomas McCulloch and John McMillan both made modest contributions to the colonies as businessmen and craftsmen.

Around half of the Radicals transported were weavers, who were also well represented in the uprising in Scotland. Most were skilled workers, literate, and Presbyterian. The Scottish Radicals of 1820 were considered respectable settlers, unlike most other Scottish convicts. They received a full pardon in August 1835.

While most Scottish convicts were transported for petty crimes, driven by poverty and destitution, they also formed a remarkable pool of skilled and semi-skilled workers. There were very few of them in comparison with English and Irish convicts, but some colourful and exciting stories have emerged, including those of the Scottish Martyrs and the Scottish Radicals.


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