14 January 2011

Snapshots of convict life as found in the Bigge Report

Report of the Commissioner of inquiry into the state of the colony of New South Wales 1822.

 If your ancestor was a convict then one good primary source of information about the conditions that existed for convicts in the colonies is the 'Bigge Report'. Commissioner John Thomas Bigge was sent from London, tasked by Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, with the role of observing and reporting conditions in the Australian colonies in order to assess whether or not they were achieving their original objectives as a place of punishment. The three Bigge reports were: The State of the Colony of New South Wales (1822); The Judicial Establishments of New South Wales and of Van Diemen's Land (1823);  and The State of Agriculture and Trade in the Colony of New South Wales (1823).
  The life of a convict in the penal colony of New South Wales has always had a well deserved reputation for having been harsh and rigorous. Much historical evidence certainly exists of brutal punishments, hard labour and terrible deprivations experienced by prisoners, particularly in the colony’s secondary punishment settlements such as Norfolk Island, Van Dieman's Land, and Newcastle. In these settlements accounts of daily life have survived in the report Commissioner Bigge published after his enquiry. The report details the inadequacies of convicts diets, clothing, and accommodations. It describes the health of the convicts, the tasks they performed, and the punishments they received for misbehaviour. There are transcripts of interviews with convicts their gaolers and government officials. There are also descriptions of the daily routines of convicts and the ever-present problem of escapees, who were most often retrieved by local indigenous tribes. While it paints a picture of the convicts’ powerlessness and servitude, there is further evidence that prisoners throughout the colony were able to use the system to affect protests and assert their own power over their masters. 

Commissioner Bigge found that governor Macquarie treated convicts with  too much leniency, but whatever opinion he presented to the House of Commons, his report left us with a window into life in colonial Australia. The Bigge report gives us just one version of convict life in New South Wales, but it has accounts of convicts and their masters and settlers that help paint a contemporary picture of life, useful to genealogists who want to understand the nature of their ancestors experience in the colonies. 

To access copies of the Bigge Report speak to your librarian, or contact the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.