Narrating New Zealand’s colonial past through convict micro-histories

Kristyn Harman shares stories from her latest book about the forgotten convicts transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land.

Tasmania’s world-heritage listed convict records provide extensive access to accounts of the lives of largely working-class nineteenth-century individuals. As well as containing rich physical descriptions of these individuals, they reveal narratives of a person’s life leading up to conviction (including family connections) as well as lists of additional offences, punishments, and indulgences received while under sentence. Read in conjunction with related record sets such as criminal trials, this documentation can be repurposed from its original intent and used to narrate micro-histories of convict lives.

Taken together, micro-histories of people with a common place of trial, for example, illuminate the wider socio-economic, political, and legal contexts within which they were sentenced. New Zealand is a case in point.

New Zealand was administered from New South Wales until 3 May 1841. Following separation, New Zealand began to build its own legislative framework based on the English-derived colonial laws that applied in New South Wales and, by extension, in New Zealand prior to separation. But when in November 1841 Governor William Hobson proclaimed a site to which prisoners sentenced to transportation in New Zealand could be sent, it was to England that he turned for authority. He found this in ‘An Act for punishing offences committed by Transports kept to labour in the colonies, and better regulating the powers of Justices of the Peace in New South Wales’ and a subsequent Order in Council issued on 11 November 1825. Hobson claimed that these legal instruments empowered him to ‘appoint that any Offender convicted in the said Colony [of New Zealand], and being under sentence or order of transportation, shall be transported by the first convenient opportunity to the Colony of Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania]’.

Between 1843 and 1853 (when transportation to Van Diemen’s Land ceased) at least 110 convicts arrived in Hobart from New Zealand. A handful of these prisoners were sentenced at a court of quarter sessions or county court. The vast majority, though, were sentenced at Supreme Court sittings at Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, or Lyttelton, or at courts martial. New Zealand prisoners were held in flimsy colonial gaols awaiting passage on inter-colonial trading vessels to the penal island. Because of the deplorable state of these early gaols, break outs were common. On one occasion in April 1843, six prisoners sentenced to transportation broke out of gaol in Wellington and rowed away across the harbour in a stolen whale boat. The frustrated authorities failed to retake them. Within days, the absconders were captured by Māori from Wairarapa who were each rewarded with £5. Not everyone sentenced to transportation ended up in Van Diemen’s Land. Some absconders, such as Thomas Larkins who escaped from custody in December 1848, were simply never seen again.

Almost all of those transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land were men. Just one woman, Margaret Reardon, was sent across the Tasman Sea after perjuring herself during a murder trial. This striking statistic can be explained through the ways that women’s and men’s actions were criminalised differently in colonial society. As Megan Simpson has observed, ‘women were indicted for fewer serious crimes than men’ in the early years of the colony. Only seven female defendants were brought before the Supreme Court in New Zealand in the 1840s, following ‘a trend that can be observed in other jurisdictions in the British Empire’. The Supreme Court heard cases of a more serious nature such as murder, fraud and so on, while ‘cases which were more generally associated with female defendants, such as small theft, prostitution and drunkenness, were heard by the Resident Magistrate’s Court’. These types of crime were far less likely to result in a sentence to transportation.

Tellingly, 46 per cent of those transported from New Zealand were imperial soldiers. These redcoats were from four British regiments of foot, the 58th, 65th, 96th, and 99th that formed part of the strong British military presence in Australasia between 1788 and 1870. Their crimes included: desertion; larceny, burglary, stealing and highway robbery; striking superior officers or shooting at fellow foot soldiers; insubordination; and robbery or forgery while in a position of trust and responsibility. Many of these crimes were committed by soldiers desperate to escape theatres of war, even if that meant undergoing the punishment of transportation.

Hōhepa Te Umuroa, circa 1846, watercolour by John Skinner Prout. Image via the British Museum.

On the other side of the frontier, some Māori fighting men were transported to Van Diemen’s Land. During a period of armed conflict in the Hutt Valley near Wellington in 1846, Governor George Grey extended martial law over the region. This facilitated Māori prisoners being subject to courts martial. After being found guilty of charges that included being in open rebellion against Queen and country at a court martial on 12 October 1846, Hōhepa Te Umuroa, Te Kūmete, Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiahi, Te Rāhui arrived in Hobart just over a month later. Grey wanted these men to be sent to Port Arthur or Norfolk Island and to be encouraged to write letters telling other Māori about the severity of their punishment to dissuade others from taking up arms. Instead, after an outcry from Hobartians, the men were sent to a probation station at Maria Island where they were housed separately from other convicts until permission was received from London to repatriate the men to New Zealand.

The 58 male civilians transported from New Zealand were at odds with the fledgling colony’s image of itself. Most of these men were young, single, and from working-class backgrounds, or were men without means. As Miles Fairburn explained, early colonists embraced an ‘idealised picture … of their new society, a New Zealand with all kinds of marvellous features originating from naturally abundant resources and a minimal framework of associations’. Idle, dishonest, or violent men were unwelcome, feared and censured least their unwelcome behaviours infected wider society.

Cleansing the colony by means of transportation was one response. Resisting the transportation of imperial convicts to New Zealand was a related measure. Quietly dropping all associations with convictism from the national story was yet another approach, and has perhaps been the most lasting.


Kristyn Harman is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Tasmania who specialises in cross-cultural encounters across Britain’s nineteenth-century colonies, and twentieth-century Australasia. Author of Cleansing the Colony: Transporting Convicts from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land (2017) and winner of the 2014 Australian Historical Association Kay Daniels award for her first book Aboriginal Convicts, Kristyn’s work is represented in top tier journals including the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, and the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.

Follow Kristyn on Twitter @DrKrissyH.

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