How religious reformers justified, but ultimately overthrew, the ‘empire of hell’ of penal colonies

’Cessation of transportation celebrations, Launceston’, watercolour

’Cessation of transportation celebrations, Launceston’, watercolour by Susan Fereday Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office. Used with permission.

A fascinating new book which explores, for the first time, how religion was used to justify the creation of penal colonies, attempt reforms and ultimately overthrow the transportation of British and Irish prisoners is published next month.

Empire of Hell by Professor Hilary Carey from the University of Bristol’s Department of History , also examines the West Country’s links with convict transportation, particularly the role played by the noted reformer Matthew Blagdon Hale (1811-1895) - the first Bishop of Perth in Western Australia - who was born in Gloucestershire and spent his retirement in Bristol.

Approximately 380,000 convicts were transported across the British Empire, with 160,000 British and Irish prisoners transported from the UK and Ireland - most famously to Australia and Van Diemen’s land, modern day Tasmania.

Bishop Hale was a notable figure in the anti-transportation campaign. Besides his attempts to reform convict transportation, Hale campaigned for Aboriginal education and autonomy.

Before heading to Perth, he argued that penal colonies were only justified if they reformed prisoners and brought prosperity to all. He was soon convinced that neither was likely in Western Australia.

During her research for the book, Professor Carey made use of Hale’s personal papers which are held by the University of Bristol’s Special Collections Library to study the way religious arguments were used to challenge government policy.

Hale was not soft on crime and believed that penitents should acknowledge their faults. He notes in his journal, now in the Bristol library, that when he preached to 393 prisoners in the Fremantle Penitentiary on 2 September 1860, his text was ‘Guilty before God’.

Bristol has strong connections with the earlier history of transportation.

Following the Transportation Act of 1717, about 30,000 convicts were transported to the American colonies where their labour augmented that of slaves and indentured servants.

According to Bristol historian Kenneth Morgan, Bristol merchants shipped about a third of the convicts sent to Maryland before the trade was halted by the American War of Independence.

University of Bristol students are studying the convict trade as part of a third-year history unit on Convicts and the Colonies using the papers and research of Hale and Morgan.

Professor Carey said: “British convict transportation was part of a global trade in convict labour practised by many European powers.

“British and Irish convicts endured brutal conditions, but contemporaries observed that discipline was no worse than that inflicted in the army and navy.

“While the Irish political prisoner, John Mitchel, called the system an ‘Empire of Hell’, it was not the living death endured by slaves.

“Religious reformers and anti-convict transportation campaigners finally brought it to an end, partly because it was not seen as tough enough and served to demoralise rather than reform prisoners.”