January 9th marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the last convict ship at the port of Fremantle in Western Australia.
The Swan River Settlement in Western Australia was established by the British in 1829. The conditions – both climate and terrain – proved very challenging and progress was slow. By 1832 the population was a mere 1,500 and by 1850 was still less than 6,000. The emerging colony then requested help from the British Government, thereby changing its status to a Penal Colony, like other parts of Australia, notably New South Wales and Tasmania.
The Scindian was the first ship to arrive in June 1850 with a cargo of 75 male convicts who would work the land. They also had to set about building their own jail, as there was no building suitable for them. Over the next seventeen and a half years, 9,925 convicts were transported in 43 shipments to Western Australia, and many of these were Irish. It was thanks to these, the workers who accompanied them and later immigrants, that the colony was developed.
The gates and many of the landings in the jail are made from iron from many of these ships.
Conditions inside The Establishment were horrendous and must have been unbearable in the burning heat of summer. There are no bars on the windows in the chapel and interestingly the 6th of the Ten commandments reads ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ instead of the usual ‘Thou shalt not kill’. The former jail is now a World Heritage Site and well worth a visit.
Many convicts were free to work outside the walls and many stayed in the area when they won their freedom, having served their time. The development of the area is due in no small part to their hard labour. The town has some wonderful period buildings..one of my favourite being the Town Hall. although I am not certain if it is the result of convict labour .
The town of Fremantle has some lovely street art dedicated to arriving immigrants, such as these two pieces. I particularly like the man being confronted by a dingo – an indication of the hardships new immigrants had to face perhaps.
In recent years lists of immigrants who arrived at the port have been transcribed onto ‘Welcome Walls’. The list of names makes for poignant reading and of course includes many Irish.
Crowds of young children were also landed here and very often their little lives turned out to be desperately sad and cruel.
When that last convict ship slipped into Fremantle on that January day 150 years ago,on board were a number of Fenian Prisoners. Their presence on the Hougoumont has kept the name of the ship alive, even though it deserves to be remembered by being associated with an end to a particular chapter in history. These Fenians, among them John Boyle O’Reilly, kept a journal during their voyage to Australia. Their writings, are on a series of plaques, some of which you can see here, at Rockingham Wild Geese Memorial, which marks the point at which they made a daring break for freedom on the coast of Western Australia.
There is a very strong and proud Irish community in Perth and Fremantle who organize events on a regular basis. Their latest Fenians, Fremantle & Freedom Festival is a 10-day cultural festival celebrating Irish culture and influence in Australia as well as a commemorative event to honour the Fenians and others transported to Fremantle on the last convict ship sent to Australia, the Hougoumont. Barbecues, concerts and even a street celií have been planned and events continue through this weekend. In these troubled times with great displacement of peoples across the globe, it is refreshing to see immigrants being honoured in the way that Fremantle does so well.
I have written about the arrival of the Fenians in Western Australia at these links
and the story of their escape at
There is a fascinating ‘passenger list’ for that final voyage of the Hougoumont here. It gives names, nature of offence of the convicts- these include pickpocketing, rape, insubordination, treason, murder and possession of a coin mould. – place and date of trial. It also includes names of other passengers, pensioner guards and their families and warders and their families.