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Then & now: absent minded

The transportation of convicts overseas was a practice adopted by the British colony of Hong Kong as well as its motherland, writes Jason Wordie

 

The joke about how the Australian population must all be winners - because they were originally selected by England's best judges - has been doing the rounds in the world's bars for two centuries. From 1788 until 1868, Britain exported more than 165,000 convicts to Australia, which (oversimplifying matters, admittedly) was originally settled as an enormous dumping ground for such unfortunates. Overwhelmingly, their crimes were against property; hungry individuals were sent to the other side of the world for rolling someone for a few coppers or stealing a loaf of bread.

Convict transportation was not a new policy: British criminals had been sent to the West Indies for decades before Australia was first utilised.

Partly, the rationale was to remove what was regarded as human refuse from Britain. Another reason was more practical - transportation allowed some eventual economic benefit to be derived from their labours, helping to mitigate the economic costs of incarceration.

Chinese connections with Australian penal settlements existed long before the establishment of Hong Kong. As tea production and excise costs dropped throughout the late 18th century, prices fell too. By the 1820s, tea freighters from Canton regularly sailed to Sydney and Hobart, Tasmania, and the drink "that cheers but does not inebriate" was standard ration issue to convicts on road gangs.

Newly established Hong Kong provided more than tea, however: convicted felons here were also sent to Australia. No doubt some contemporary local judges would like to be able to send a few convicted criminals as far away as possible.

In the mid-19th century, they could - and they did. According to court records, six Chinese men convicted of robbery in Hong Kong in 1844 were dispatched to one of the worst penal hell-holes in the world - Tasmania.

The remote island off the southern coast of Australia was established explicitly as a penal settlement in 1803 for the worst convicts - those considered too dangerous and intractable to go anywhere else. What the lives of those Chinese convicts must have been like - discarded at the far end of the world among people completely different to them in every respect - is almost impossible to imagine.

But only some Hong Kong convicts were sent to Australia; others went to Sindh (now part of Pakistan) but most went to Labuan. This small island just off the coast of northern Borneo had been acquired from the Sultanate of Brunei by Britain in 1846, and became a separate crown colony in 1848. But its connections with early Hong Kong were more wide-ranging than might otherwise be supposed. Administrators sometimes served in both territories: for instance, governor Sir John Pope Hennessy, in office in Hong Kong from 1877 to 1882, had previously served as governor of Labuan, from 1867 to 1872. Labuan was also connected to Hong Kong via the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company's submarine cables, which linked the British colony with the wider world.

Labuan also had extensive coal deposits, which were parti-ally worked by Chinese convict labour. Until greater fuel effici-ency was developed in the 1860s, early steamships required large quantities of coal and frequent bunkering stops. Accordingly, the island was a regular stopping-off point on the Hong Kong-Singapore route - convicts were offloaded and replaced on board with coal.

 

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