The coastline of Southern Queensland is adored for its pristine beaches, tropical hiking, and numerous theme-parks. For anybody exploring Brisbane and the nearby town of Redcliffe today, it would be understandably difficult to imagine that this landscape was the site of one of Australia’s most notorious penal colonies.
The Moreton Bay penal colony operated from 1824 until its closure in 1839. It has been described as a settlement designed to alienate and punish the worst description of convicts; meaning, those who had been transported to New South Wales for serious offences, or those who had re-offended during the course of their sentence.
The settlement was amongst a new breed of penal colonies in early nineteenth century New South Wales intended to act as secondary centres of convict-punishment. Their aim was to alleviate the burden of punishing unruly prisoners from other under equipped settlements. Over the course of 15 years, this colony housed approximately 2259 convict men, and 144 convict women, in addition to (where applicable) their families. Through a brief investigation into Moreton Bay’s colonial history, we will explore these tumultuous origins of modern Queensland.
Establishing the Settlement
In 1817 a series of letters between Colonial Secretary Earl Bathurst and Home Secretary Viscount Sidmouth convey a growing concern surrounding the suitability of transportation to New South Wales as an effective deterrent and punishment for criminals. In fact, as New South Wales expanded and developed into a successful colony, it was believed the opportunity for work and acquisition of resources within the young nation might be alluring to criminals. This sentiment was reinforced through statements made by Commissioner J. T. Bigge, who between the years of 1819 and 1821 described convict discipline in New South Wales as lacking in deterrence, reformation, and terror. Thus, the stricter enforcement and more purposeful punishment of convicts became the apparent solution to this dilemma. In 1823, under the instruction of Governor Thomas Brisbane, Surveyor-General John Oxley embarked on a journey to investigate the site of Moreton Bay for a potential penal colony that would serve this function.
Following the completion of this voyage, two significant conclusions had been reached by Oxley. The first was Redcliffe Point’s desirable characteristics for a penal colony, and second was the proximity of the Brisbane River. The existence of this significant waterway had been relayed to Oxley by two castaways who had travelled along it in their journey back to British civilization. With the assurance of resources and suitability of the landscape, on 12 September 1824, the Amity led by Lieutenant Henry Miller of the 40th Regiment would land at Redcliffe delivering 56 passengers comprised of convicts, soldiers, and the latter’s families.
Evolution of the Colony
While the settlement would initially be established at Redcliffe in 1824, in early 1825 it would be moved to the permanent site of modern-day Brisbane due to concern surrounding resources. Since its establishment along the Brisbane River the colony would witness many ebbs and flows in relation to settlement size and population. However, the colony would notably expand in 1829 through the establishment of Eagle Farm; a district founded for the purpose of animal husbandry and cultivation, and known as a female prison with approximately 40 female prisoners housed there by the year 1836.
The history of disease at Moreton Bay can be categorized into two eras. The first era spans from the beginning of the settlement until 1830 and is characterised by rampant disease and unsustainable population growth, leading to significant deaths and incredibly low standards of living. This can be particularly observed through the summer of 1828-1829, in which 220 convicts died. However, the second period, spanning from 1830 until the end of the settlement is commonly characterized by an improvement in living conditions and a plateau in population growth.
To further consider population distribution at Moreton Bay, in total approximately 2259 male and 144 female convicts were sent to the settlement. However, the largest number of convicts at any given time was approximately 1288 in September 1831. The majority of female convicts arrived after 1830. Their numbers averaged between 30–50 at the beginning of the decade, but this number grew to 60–70 within a few years. However, the late 1830s saw an overall decline in the colony’s stability and subsequently its population and productivity. This change was likely encouraged by a combination of growing social objects to transportation as a form of punishment and the settlement’s economic complications, with overall expenses outweighing income. Thus, by 1839 the penal colony would officially close and by February 1842 Moreton Bay would be declared open for free settlement.
A study of the Directions and Regulations for the Conduct of the New Settlements (in the Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales), and The Medical Journal of Australia (Vol. II.1963) describes the theoretical intended function of the colony, and the reality of hygiene and dietary standards.
In terms of housing, temporary dormitories were provided for convicts until they were able to construct their own huts. These huts would house two prisoners; however, married convicts were able to live separately with their families. According to regulations, no furniture was to be allowed, except for bedding and two stools. The barracks and commandant quarters were expected to be placed above convict housing to allow for adequate observation. However, soldiers were discouraged from any unnecessary communication and interaction with the convicts. It is important to note here that the colony was completely removed from civilian settlement, with no civilians permitted within 50 miles of the penal colony and no individual able to leave without direct permission from the Governor of New South Wales, except for extreme circumstances. In
this way, the colony was designed to reinforce these elements of exile and punishment to convict management.
Furthermore, the convicts were only allowed to wear the uniform supplied to them, which was: two cotton striped shirts, one duck frock, two duck trousers, one straw hat, two pairs of shoes. All other belongings would be registered upon arrival at Moreton Bay and most items were recommended to be housed with the superintendent for safe keeping.
Punishment of convicts could take a range of forms; for petty offences such as neglect of work or indecent language, punishments such as reduction of food, chains, solitary confinement, or the treadmill could be implemented. The treadmill was particularly notorious. It involved continuously stepping on a rotating wheel, which would power the mill to grind grain, maybe with breaks of 20 minutes every hour. For more serious offences corporal punishment, in the form of flogging, would be implemented. According to guidelines, a commandant was not to inflict corporal punishment of more than 50 lashes but could have the power to issue 100 lashes through the assistance of military or civil officers in the settlement. However, in reality punishment at Moreton Bay didn’t always follow the guidebook.
Captain Patrick Logan had a reputation for extreme cruelty. He is infamous for increasing corporal punishment for the crime of absconding from 50 to 200 lashes and is known for turning these displays of punishment into bizarre spectacles. For example, in April 1830 some 26 convicts would be punished in an event that began at 9 a.m. and ended at sundown. An incredible 3,300 lashes would be inflicted. He was known for laughing and talking throughout floggings, ensuring that both right and left-handed floggers were present so that full-coverage of a prisoner’s back would be reached.
In regard to labour, convicts were to be mustered into gangs at daylight every morning except for Sundays, when divine service would be held. A typical work-schedule for a convict at Moreton Bay would be work from daylight until approximately 8 o’clock in the morning, then they were allowed one and a half hours to wash and eat breakfast. At 9:30am work would resume until 12 noon when dinner was held for one hour. Work would continue from 1 o’clock until sunset.
The labour of convicts was to be primarily focused upon the construction of necessary buildings, then secondly to the cutting and sawing of wood, and thirdly to the cultivation of plants. However, regulations for the colony’s management dictates that these tasks should be distributed based off of individual character, and maintains that difficult, labour-intensive tasks such as lifting and loading should be allocated to those “worst description of men”, while men of good character should be assigned lighter tasks such as the driving of carts, care of cattle, or agriculture.
A convict’s life in Moreton Bay was incredibly labour intensive, but did their diet adequately support this lifestyle? Provisions were issued to convicts twice weekly and were supposed to consist of the following: five pounds of maize flour, five pounds of wheaten flour, seven pounds of salt beef, or four pounds of salt pork. And depending on the animals available, one pound of fresh meat per day may be allowed instead of salted meat. Increases in these rations were only supposed to be made to flour for those convicts who conducted themselves well. Additionally, gardens were to be supplied for the cultivation of vegetables such as pumpkins, potatoes, cabbages, and herbs. In theory this appears to be a balanced diet, however, as we will see the convict medical records convey a different narrative. Under Logan’s governance, we can see that convicts were often denied access to water during workdays, severely risking their health and lives.
This is further supplanted through evidence of disease and health in the colony. Three main epidemics ravaged Moreton Bay: dysentery, ophthalmia, and intermittent fever. The former two will be focused on in this overview as diseases commonly caused by poor hygiene and standards of living. Dysentery, an inflammation of the intestines which results in serve and bloody diarrhea, was prominent in early years of settlement and was particularly catastrophic during the summer of 1828-1829. Overall, there were 152 dysentery related deaths from 1828-1830 in the settlement due to the malnutrition and dehydration caused by the disease.
Ophthalmia, on the other hand, was an inflammation of the eye. This disease saw a shorter epidemic in 1828 with 231 hospital admissions. Additionally, records note relatively high numbers of deaths related to malnutrition and morbidity relating to scurvy. Indicating that this proclaimed balanced diet was not a reality for much of the population. In fact, a report from John Bowman, head of medical services in Sydney, who visited the colony in 1829 blamed the majority of the colony’s health problems to overcrowding, a deficient water supply, and a diet which encouraged scurvy. However, after the 1830s, living conditions can be seen to improve with a crude death rate decreasing from 115 per 1000 in 1829 to 5-1 per 1000 in 1833.
Queensland’s modern foundations rest upon a tumultuous and harsh colonial past. However, although you’ll find that many people now find pride in their convict ancestors and the tribulations of the past, people of the distant and near past did not revel in the same knowledge. By 1859 efforts to dismantle associations with convict culture were well underway, and in 1959 a publication for Queensland Daughter of the Sun would refer to the Moreton Bay penal settlement and a brief and inconsequential event in the social and economic history of Queensland. While the history may be dark, they are full of events and people that have shaped regional and individual social identities and deserve to be studied rather than shunned as an insignificant blip of Australia’s colonial years. I hope this overview encourages you to delve further into this topic, and to learn more about Moreton Bay and colonial New South Wales make sure to check out the further reading provided below.
Australasian Medical Publishing (1963), The Medical Journal of Australia July-December 1963, Vol. II.
Directions and Regulations for the Conduct of the New Settlements (in the Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales).
National Museum Australia, Canberra (unknown date), Founding of Brisbane, viewed 23 November 2023, <https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/founding-of-brisbane>.
O’Conner, T. (1997), “A Zone of Silence: Queensland’s convicts and the historiography of Moreton Bay”, in I Duffield & J Bradley (eds.), representing Convicts: new perspectives of forced labour migration, Leicester, pp. 124-141.
Ryan, S. (2022), “The Moreton Bay Convict Settlement: Origins of Queensland,” on the State Library of Queensland, viewed 23 November 2023, <https://www.slq.qld.gov.au/blog/moreton-bay-convict-settlement-origins-queensland>.