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The Makers of Australia — The Convicts

Acts 16:16-30
26th September 2004

In the first sixty years of European settlement in Australia, Britain sent over 162,000 convicts to Australia in 806 ships. The First Fleet contained convicts and marines. The British agrarian and industrial revolutions resulted in population growth in the cities, an increase in crime and overcrowding in the jails. The American Revolution meant no more convicts could be sent there. The then recent discovery of the East Coast of Australia, the desire to claim the land before the French, and the availability in the Southern Hemisphere of great quantities of timber and flax suitable for the British navy following supplies being cut off in Europe, meant a Penal Colony would solve many problems in one.

So the British Government hired 9 ships and 2 Naval vessels, and provisioned them with supplies to keep the 759 convicts, their Marine guards and some families, and a few civil officers, until they became self-sufficient. By the time they departed, some convicts had been aboard these ships for seven months. Few convicts (23) died during the voyage compared to later convict fleets.


The First Fleet left England on 13th May 1787, 216 years ago this week. It took 8 months at sea before arriving in Port Jackson on 26 January 1788. Very few convicts knew how to farm and the soil around Sydney Cove was poor. They found a hot, dry, unfertile country unsuitable for the small farming necessary to make the settlement self-sufficient. Everyone, from the convicts to Captain Arthur Phillip, was on rationed food. The convicts were poor farmers and poor fishermen.

The early colony depended upon supplies from Britain which were slow in coming. They had little building material and inadequate tools for Australian hardwood. They had no extra clothing and, by the time the Second Fleet arrived, convicts and marines alike were dressed in rags. Only two vessels stayed after the landing so the settlement was isolated by land and sea.

Some convicts were sent to Norfolk Island to secure the timber and reduce the strain on the dwindling supplies in Sydney. Then on 19th February 1789 the “Sirius” was wrecked off Norfolk Island and the colony was left with just one ship. When the “Supply” returned in April, it was decided that she should sail to Batavia to get supplies as the situation was becoming desperate. When the Second Fleet arrived on 3rd June the “Lady Juliana”, had an additional 225 female convicts, but 278 had died on the voyage. Disease was rife and most of those who survived were barely able to walk. The Fleet was known as the ‘Death Fleet’. But provisions for the colony meant rations were immediately increased. Many convicts died after arrival, yet large areas of land near Parramatta were cultivated. Yet without transport, the moving of food to Sydney town was difficult.

History is clear: many of the convicts were serious offenders, not the innocent victims of a harsh criminal law. They were mostly repeat offenders, regarded as incorrigible, and mostly very young. The average age of the 162,000 convicts sent here in our first 60 years of European settlement was only 26 years of age. There was never a more unpromising beginning to any nation.


Some convicts not realizing the vastness and remoteness of the land escaped and perished or returned to further punishment. Mary Broad, an illiterate 21-year-old servant from Cornwall, was sentenced at the Exeter Assizes to death for stealing, but the sentence was changed to transportation. William Bryant, an experienced boatman and fisherman, was convicted for giving assistance to smugglers. Both were prisoners on the transport Charlotte, having earlier been together in the prison hulk Dunkirk, one of the old warships used as temporary gaols. Bryant was the father of baby Charlotte, born to Mary on board. Bryant became the legal father at the mass wedding ceremony held in Sydney.

Bryant, one of the few men with a real knowledge of fishing, was put in charge of the government fishing boat to help feed the hungry settlement. He and Mary had their own hut and he was officially recognised as a useful man. In the first two lean years the Bryants probably lived better than most. Mary had a son, Emanuel. They made escape plans. His intentions were suspected and he was watched, but the need for constant coming and going between shore and harbour gave him freedom of movement. In a hole dug under the floor of their hut, the Bryants hid supplies for their planned journey. From a Dutch ship’s captain in harbour William acquired a compass, quadrant, chart, musket, bedding and some food. He kept the six-oared government cutter in excellent order and had gathered seven other convicts as crew, some with knowledge of boats.

At 11pm on 28 March 1790 the Bryants (the children aged 3 and 1) and the seven other convicts set out for Koepang in Timor, a distance of 5236 Kilometres. It was an amazing, hazardous, storm-beset journey, with danger from natives when they landed along the coast and with many mishaps to the boat. Mary and the children bore their sufferings ‘with fortitude’, it was recorded. In sixty-one days they reached Timor, after a journey which would often be compared with that of Capt. Bligh of the Bounty. Their escape had been discovered at midnight, but they had a good start and pursuit was abandoned.

The tale they told in Timor of being survivors of a shipwreck was at first believed, and they were well treated. When the truth was discovered they were gaoled and were later given into the charge of Captain Edwards, RN, who was escorting the Bounty survivors back to England. Early on the voyage back the baby Emanuel died and soon after the father William Bryant. At the Cape of Good Hope they were transferred to HMS Gorgon, taking marines back to England. Then three-year-old Charlotte died and was buried at sea. Tragedies were common among those convicts who tried to escape.

Mary Bryant, widow and childless, aged 25, arrived in England alone, friendless. Her escape came to nothing. She was subject to British justice again and in July 1792 she heard a court pronounce she be sent to Newgate to complete her original sentence. Mary’s extraordinary story aroused public sympathy, and James Boswell was one who took a particular interest in her case. When she had completed her sentence on 2 May 1793, Boswell arranged for her to return to her family in Cornwall. Convict life was hard here, and in trying to be free.


Both Chaplain on the First Fleet, Rev Richard Johnson and his assistant Rev Samuel Marsden, sent out in 1794, were convinced God had given them Australia as a base for evangelism in this country and throughout the South Pacific. Richard Johnson built the first church at his own expense and by his own hands. It was a wattle and daub church he started building in 1793. A marble obelisk stands by the spot near Macquarie Square.

The first European ashore on the First Fleet, a seaman who jumped ashore to hold the boat for Captain Arthur Phillip, later used land he had been given for a church. Owen Cavanough with Thomas Arndell built a church at Ebenezer that still stands to this day — Australia’s oldest church. The headstones for Owen Cavanough and his wife are in the Ebenezer churchyard. Rev John Dunmore Lang, the great Presbyterian Minister and member of the first Legislative Council, celebrated Holy Communion at Ebenezer, which has been held there ever since.

A female convict, Mary Parker Small, gave birth to the first European born in Australia on September 22nd, 1788. Baby Rebekah Small was probably conceived in that licentious night when the women convicts first landed a week after the men. Baby Rebekah grew up to be a fine young woman. She was converted to Christ through evangelical preaching, and later married a Congregational missionary, Rev Francis Oakes. Their children and other descendants became Christian leaders in Australia. They all believed Australia was to be a Christian country.


Our own first church secretary was a converted convict. Edward Eagar was born in Ireland in 1787, given a good education and graduated as a solicitor. In 1809 he was found guilty of uttering a forged Bill of Exchange and was imprisoned for 18 months imprisonment and transported for life to Sydney Cove. A prison chaplain led him to Christ. His life radically changed. The Chaplain said, Edward “wept and in fervent prayer at the Throne of Grace we implored mercy for his poor Soul when the Heavenly pardon came with power to the afflicted suppliant. All in an instant was love, joy, peace. He has ever since continued praising and blessing that God and Saviour who dealt so graciously with him. He has really become a New Creature.”

Immediately upon arrival as a convict in Sydney, he was appointed to teach in Windsor. There he organised the first Bible Study group in Australia. In 1812 he met two newcomers, Thomas Bowden and John Hoskin and they began our church. Edward wrote to the Methodist Conference in England “Send us a minister lest we die in our sin”. 1813 he was granted a conditional pardon and set up in 103 Pitt Street as a lawyer. He was unconditionally pardoned in 1818. He provided one-tenth of the money to commence the Bank of New South Wales. He assisted founding the Sydney Benevolent Institution. He provided accommodation for homeless men and children. He helped introduce the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Australian Religious Tract Society, established the Society for the Protection and Civilisation of Distressed Islanders of the South Seas, and planned a mission to Aborigines. He was a most committed Christian.

Edward clashed bitterly with Judge Jeffrey Bent who refused to regard him as a lawyer because he had been a convict. Hence he was not allowed to become a director of the Bank of New South Wales. He became an agitator on behalf of all former convicts in the colony. In 1821 he was elected by the colonists to return to England to represent them over grievances with the government before the Crown. He argued on behalf of the emancipists in the Colony in a series of court cases for the next 21 years. He won extensive legal battles for the colonists including the right of trial by jury. He died in 1866 “a gentleman”. One son, Geoffrey Eagar, became Treasurer of New South Wales, a Cabinet Minister in three Governments, a member of the Legislative Council, a leading civil servant, and a classical scholar who helped Sydney University both as auditor and historian. Edward Eagar was converted while a convict on a prison hulk. Many others were also converted here.

Unlike other lands, the Church in Australia was not established by missionaries who came bearing the Gospel, or “Pilgrim Fathers” who came to escape persecution and found a nation dedicated to God. Our earliest settlers came unwillingly, but they brought the faith with them, and many caught the faith because of the faithful witness largely through believing lay men and women. The Lord Jesus was a prisoner, as was John the Baptist, Peter and John, the Apostle Paul and Silas. The church has always been concerned for the prisoner and convict. But no other country has seen its churches founded and built by believing convicts. What is required now, is that you have that saving faith in Jesus Christ, that so many of the makers of Australia did — both freemen and convicts. They believed. So must you.


Gordon Moyes

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