Convicted sailors on Cockatoo Island

Sydney Harbour was a bustling port city, full of British and international ships laden with cargos. After the First Opium War forced China to trade ports in 1842, Sydney became an important port in triangular voyages from Europe or America to Australia, then onto China, before returning home.[1]

The onset of the gold rush in 1849 swept away the lingering effects of the depression. In the following decade gold exports continued to eclipse wool, and Sydney’s population grew from 45,000 in 1851 to more than 60,000 in 1861.

Enticed by the promise of riches, many crewmen deserted at Sydney to seek their fortunes on the goldfields. Others settled in foreshore suburbs like the Rocks and Darling Harbour, dividing their time between seafaring and working on harbour crafts or on the wharves.

Mrs Harriot Anley, Sydney Cove, after 1845, Mitchell Library.

In Cockatoo Island’s colonial prisoners’ registers, there are sixteen prisoners listed as seamen, sailors, ship’s cooks, shipwrights and sailmakers. Some settled in Sydney, giving up former maritime trades, making it hard to estimate their numbers with accuracy.

New Yorker Edward Power worked on board American whaler Champion making casks to store valuable whale oil. Between 1820 and 1855, Sydney whalers made 558 deep sea voyages from Port Jackson. Like many other crew members, it seems Power left service to try his luck on the goldfields. He was convicted at Bathurst Circuit Court on 24 September 1858 of burglary, and sentenced to 5 years hard labour on Cockatoo Island.

As you might expect these former seamen incarcerated at Cockatoo Island came from all over the world, and many of them were Black or Asian, reflecting the global movement of ships, people and produce which flowed into Sydney Harbour.

American Whaler George Henry in 1860, Wikimedia Commons

Many still-serving sailors were convicted of disobedience or violence towards senior officers. Existing tensions over shipboard hierarchies were exacerbated when in port. The freedoms of shore-leave, often including drinking, only highlighted the strictures of shipboard life, resulting in anger and even violence towards superior officers.

William Washington was ‘a coloured American seaman’ serving on the Moses Wheeler steamer. He was convicted at Sydney’s Central Criminal Court on 7 December 1857 of stabbing the chief mate officer James Whitman, while attempting to dash over the gang-plank to shore while the Moses was hauling away.

In his defence, Washington alleged that he had been ill-treated on the voyage and claimed that the chief mate had sworn at and attacked him first. He was found guilty of wounding with intent and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour on Cockatoo Island, to serve the first year in irons. He was discharged on pass in December 1861.

Lascars at Royal Albert Dock in London (1936), Wikimedia Commons.

Khanassee, a 30 year old man from Calcutta, was an Indian lascar on board the Stately. On 24 February 1859, he rowed rowing Captain Wycherley to a steamer near Manly Beach, and stayed ashore with his fellow boatmen to drink. He was beaten with a rope for inoslence when he refused to follow the orders of his direct superior officer (his tindal), Bricca Ali.

Angered and humiliated, Khanassee took out a clasp knife and gestured towards the steamer where the Captain was having his dinner, saying in Hindi:“I am going to strike him with this knife”’. With this gesture, Khanassee was directing his anger at both authority figures onboard: the European Captain and his Indian superior officer.

Ali, fought Khanassee for control of the knife and was stabbed in his thigh. After the drunken frivolities, no one paid attention to the crew’s shouts for help and Ali died.

At his trial at Sydney Supreme Court on 4 April 1849, Khanassee stated in his defence that: ‘he had been drinking and knew nothing of what had occurred’. The jury recommended him to mercy. After serving just over 2 years, Khanassee was released on 22 July 1861, on condition of ‘exiling himself to Calcutta’.

While imprisoned on Cockatoo Island, these convict-sailors continued to use their skills in maritime work. The prisoners built and manned a dry dock for repairing sail- and steam-vessels.[3] The island’s location in Sydney Harbour, brought these former-sailors tantalisingly close to their former lives of seafaring, highlighting their confinement even more forcefully.

[1] Robert Lee, Linking a Nation: Australia’s transport and communications, 1788-1970 (Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 2003) Ch. 2.

[2] NSW State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence Main Series, NRS 905, 4/3467, 62/1280.

[3] Sue Castrique, Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and convicts on Cockatoo Island, 1839-1869 (Sydney: Anchor Books, 2014).

Cover image: William Hetzer, Looking south from Dawes Point past ships at Campbell’s wharf to Circular Quay, c.1857, State Library of New South Wales via Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading

Ian Hoskins, Sydney Harbour: A History (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009)

Mark Howard, ‘Sydney’s whaling fleet’, Dictionary of Sydney (2011)

Jerry W. Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)

Aaron Jaffer, Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring: Shipboard Life, Unrest and Mutiny, 1760-1860 (Woodbridge, 2015)

Online Resources

New South Wales State Archives & Records’ have shipping lists between 1854-1922 including names of crew members, their position on board and nationality. There are few records relating to crew prior to this period. See their guide to the records here.

To research seafaring ancestors, see the Australian National Maritime’s museum guide here. Or the UK National Archives guide here.

The National Maritime Museum’s in Greenwich also has a guide for finding black and asian (lascar) sailors in the Royal Museum Greenwich’s collections here.


The two Fredericks: Homosexuality on Cockatoo Island

In 1845, two Cockatoo inmates, both named Frederick, were caught in the act of sexual intercourse, probably by a guard. The two prisoners were examined by the resident medical dispenser, an intimate form of surveillance to re-assert control as soon as possible after the moment of transgression.[1] Moncrieffe’s examination was not only invasive but included investigation of rectal inflammation and secretions.[2] The primary function of the inspection was to establish with medical certainty that the act of sexual intercourse had taken place.

Most cases of sexual activity were prosecuted by a witness to the act. Though the court records state that the prisoners were ‘detected in the act of sodomy’, the witness is not named nor is his testimony produced. Historian Harry Cocks notes that the ‘unspeakable’ nature of the crime led to the destruction of much of the court records of these cases in England.[3]

Despite having had their bodies rendered as objects for medical examination – first in the prison, and then in the court room – one of the Fredericks’ voices emerges towards the end of the court document. While escorting the prisoners to the solitary cells (to punish and isolate them from each other), James C.* testified that Frederick B.* said to Frederick W. ‘This is a purty [pretty] job you have led me into I shall get lagged now’.[5]

There is evidence that particularly young inmates on Cockatoo Island took on effeminate roles within the prison hierarchy, going by names like ‘Kitty’ and ‘Nanny’. Romantic relationships with certain inmates often offered protection from physical violence, as well as gifts and tokens of affection. Cockatoo’s prisoners described these prisoners as ‘sprigs of Fashion’, or (more pejoratively) as ‘bleeding Nuns’ and ‘Whores of Pentridge’.[6] The performance of queer effeminacy is apparent in Frederick B*’s use of the slang word ‘purty’.

Frederick W.* may have taken on this role as a necessary strategy for survival within the prison system. He was considerably shorter than Frederick B*, standing at the 162 centimetres tall compared with 174 cm. He was also 14 years younger, aged just 18. The medical dispenser’s examination also indicated that Frederick B. was in the dominant position during intercourse.[7]

The two Fredericks were both removed to Darlinghurst Gaol, which had the physical infrastructure to keep them separate in a bid to prevent further sexual acts; whether this succeeded is unclear from the records. The archival silences surrounding sex acts within the prison make it difficult to gauge the emotional dynamic that existed beyond social categories of age and physical stature, stature and ‘gendered’ performance.

Unfortunately, not all sexual relationships on Cockatoo Island were consensual. In an 1861 Commission of inquiry, allegations were made that convict warders were forcing sex on sleeping inmates while making their rounds through the unsegregated barracks at night. These convict-warders allegedly targeted young men in their wards, dubbing them ‘soldier boys’ and ‘sailor boys’.[8]

One convict, William C.* claimed that convict-warder, Michael M.*, had attempted to rape him during his midnight patrol of the barracks.[9] William had leapt out of the bed and stabbed Michael in the head with a knife. It is impossible to determine for certain whether the threat of rape was real, or William was cannily using fears about homosexual acts in prisons that were circulating at the time to mitigate his crime.

Once again, the silences in the historical record make it difficult to assess the full extent of sexual abuse within the prison. In the 1861 inquiry, the names of victims and perpetrators were all expunged from the printed record and most of the inmates who testified claimed that they had heard rumours, rather than directly witnessed, these events (at a time when even consensual homosexual acts were considered both criminal and ‘unspeakable’). As a result, the lived experiences of men engaged in consensual homosexual acts remain shrouded in secrecy and shame.

*Please note that since it is unclear whether sexual acts were consensual or not, surnames have been indicated by initial only. Full names are given in the records of NSW State Archives that are referenced below.\

An earlier version of this blogpost appeared on Carceral Archipelago blog , reposted with permission.

[1] J. Sim, Medical Power in Prisons: The prison medical service in England, 1774-1989 (Milton Keynes: Open University Press 1990) p. 149.

[2] SRNSW, 9/6332, Clerk of the Peace Depositions, Cockatoo Island, nos. 12-13, 13 Nov. 1845.

[3] H.G. Cocks, Nameless Offences: Homosexual desire in nineteenth-century England (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), p. 20-1.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 1853, p. 2.

[5] NSW State Archives, 9/6332, Clerk of the Peace Depositions, nos. 12-13, 13 Nov. 1845 Cockatoo Island.

[6] Select Committee on Public Prisons (Sydney, 1861).

[7] NSW State Archives, NRS 2523, 4/6302, Description books, Sydney Gaol and Darlinghurst Gaol, April 1848-1898.

[8] Select Committee on Public Prisons (Sydney, 1861).

[9] NSW State Archives, 9/4632, Clerk of the Peace Depositions, Sydney Criminal Sessions, [n.d] Jan. 1859. no. 13.


Chinese Prisoners

Using my database of Cockatoo Island Prisoners, I have identified 37 prisoners listed as ‘Chinese’ in Cockatoo Island’s registers, arriving between 1853-7. [1]

Only a third of the prisoners have a place of origin listed. All – bar one – came from Amoy (Xiamen) in Fujian province. Amoy was one of five treaty-ports forcibly opened to trade by the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 and was a key harbour for emigration of Chinese indentured labourers.

The gold rush in New South Wales in the late-1840s attracted waves of Chinese indentured emigrants. Their passages were paid upfront by brokers to be paid off by digging. Sydney was the main port of entry for those hoping to make their fortunes on the goldfields of New South Wales, particularly after taxes on entering Chinese immigrants were introduced in Victoria in 1855 and South Australia in 1857. Between 1858 and 1860, around 20,000 Chinese people arrived in New South Wales. [2]

Many of the Chinese prisoners on Cockatoo Island were working on goldfields when they committed offences. While the courts adapted their practices for Chinese defendants, racism shaped their pathways through the criminal justice system. Their stories can offer insight into living and working conditions on the goldfields and, on occasion, the xenophobia and racism Chinese immigrants faced.

‘Washing Tailings’, c. 1870s, National Library of Australia

A typical case involved six Chinese prisoners – Devan, Dick, Tommy, Tain, May and Harry – who arrived on Cockatoo Island in May 1858. They were convicted of ‘violent robbery’ on the goldfields of Bingarra at the Maitland Quarter Sessions.[3] The prosecution asserted that the prisoners had held another Chinese digger named Tom at knifepoint and robbed him of all his possessions.

Based on testimony by a digger named Shang Hoe, the defence argued that Tom had forfeited his possessions during a game of ‘Chinese cards’. There were fears about the ‘lawless’ goldfields, which concentrated large numbers of single men with easy access to money, leading to drinking, gambling and theft. Added xenophobia rendered Chinese cards a potent symbol of foreign immorality for the general public.

 On the basis of two Chinese witnesses’ testimony (relayed through an interpreter), the all-white jury returned a guilty verdict without retiring to discuss. All six of the accused who shared a tent were found guilty, because Tom’s possessions were spread across their berths in their cramped living quarters.

This case demonstrates that Chinese men on the goldfields lived and socialised together, with easy access to money, alcohol and cards. As a result, it was common for groups of Chinese diggers to be convicted and arrive on Cockatoo Island together, where they would continue to live as part of a tight-knit community. These convicts’ tickets-of-leave tended also specified regions with enclaves of Chinese diggers, like Ipswich or Goulburn, as places were they were released to.

‘Interior of a Chinese Gambling House’, 1871, State Library of Victoria

Another instance when several Chinese defendants were sent to Cockatoo Island was the case of Tsin Soon, Tah Sick, Hin Sick and Ly Sick. On 11 July 1853, three of them were convicted for murder of their employer, Richard Granger, at Tooloon on the Castlereagh River  in July 1853. [4] 

Granger was an abusive man, who had employed six Chinese prisoners as stockmen and hut-keepers on his farm. Granger would often drink heavily and then ‘kick and beat’ his foreign workers which they usually did not resist ‘except [to] talk very loud among themselves’. Even this act was perceived through a xenophobic lens as a threatening one. in 1858, the Goulburn Herald claimed that Chinese immigrants speaking their own language allowed them to plot against Europeans like ‘so many members of one vast secret society’.[5] In this context, the Chinese prisoners probably felt unable to access justice through formal means.

At court, the Chinese witnesses cut off a cockerel’s head (a common practice in British colonies at Singapore and Hong Kong) rather than swearing upon the bible. [6] Sin Sin testified that one morning ‘master beat Sing Soon with a stick and on the following morning threatened them all with pistols, to make them go out to work’. When Hin Tic tried to restrain Granger, he fired his pistol over Sin Soon’s head. In fear of his friend’s life or simply enraged by many months of racist abuse, Hin Tic grabbed a knife and cut his master’s throat.

The group of prisoners worked together to hide Granger’s body in a hole in the ‘sheep yard’ and left the farm before any Europeans returned. However, Sin Sin turned informant, revealing the location of body and testifying against his fellow countrymen in court. When Sin Sin’s testimony was relayed to the defendants through an interpreter, an ‘altercation’ broke out that ‘produced a scene of confusion not ever witnessed in a court of justice’.

The jury brought a verdict of manslaughter against three of the prisoners, excluding Ly Sick who had been mistakenly identified. The European Henry Lee admitted that he could not differentiate between the Chinese men and did not know their names. Though the colonial justice system made attempts to integrate the Chinese defendants, racism shaped their pathways through the criminal justice system from identification to prosecution.

R. Daintree, ‘Chinese gold digger, with his mining tools suspended from a yoke across his shoulders, starting for work in the 1860s’, John Oxley Library, image no. 60526.

Once incarcerated on Cockatoo Island there is evidence that Chinese prisoners worked and socialised together.  Chinese prisoners were likely to be chosen to work as convict servants, and share certain benefits as a result. In June 1865, for example, four out of sixteen servants were Chinese.[7] It seems likely that racial stereotypes were at play about Chinese people as subservient.

In fact, several Chinese prisoners actively resisted their imprisonment. Loy spent a full month out of his first two on the island in solitary confinement as punishment for refusing to work; he was eventually committed to the lunatic asylum at Parramatta in March 1860.[8]

Another prisoner named Tan refused to work as a way of protesting the validity of his sentence. Tan would regularly throw down his tools and demand an interpreter, to whom he would assert his innocence and claim his former master owed him money. As the chief warder, Mr. Brown testified in 1857:

“I remember Tan refusing to work…when other Chinamen where leaving the island, with whom he wished to go. He asked for an interpreter, and he went to work. On the third occasion he declined to work, because he was not allowed to go with four other Chinamen who had been sent on the island with him”[9]

Mr Brown (Chief Warder) to the 1857 Board of Inquiry

Tan clearly felt kinship with other Chinese people on the island, but also struggled with language skills needed to make a formal written ‘petition’ to the governor. Chinese people were often disadvantaged from their lives as indentured labourers, through trial and into their imprisonment. 

Further Reading

Kate Bagnall, The Tiger’s Mouth: Thoughts on the History and Heritage of Chinese Australia,

‘Chinese on the Goldfields’, Sydney Living Museums

‘Australia in the 1850s: Anti-Chinese Sentiment’, My Place for Teachers,

[1] Compiled from numerous Colonial Secretary’s Inward Letters located using Vera Little’s index, ‘The Chinese in Australia’ (2014), numerous ‘Return[s] of Prisoners on Cockatoo Island’ in NSW State Archives 4/6501, 4/6508, and Colonial , and Cockatoo Island Prison Registers in NSW State Archives, 4/6572, 4/6573,4/6574.

[2] Ann Curthoys, ‘ “Men of All Nations, except Chinamen”: Europeans and Chinese on the Goldfields of New South Wales’, Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia, ed. by Iain McCalman, Alexander Cook and Andrew Reeves (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) pp. 104-106.

[3] Northern Times, 15 May 1858, p.2; NSW State ARchives, 4/6574, pp. 119-124.

[4] Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 16 Sept 1854, p. 1

[5] Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser, 14 April 1858, p. 2

[6] Paul R. Katz, ‘Ritual? What Ritual? Secularization in the Study of Chinese Legal History from Colonial Encounters to Modern Scholarship’, Social Compass, 56:3 (2009), pp. 328-344

[7]  ‘A Return of Prisoners on Cockatoo Island employed as servants by the Civil Officers on the [island]’, Goether Kerr Mann to Under-Secretary, 1 August 1865, Cockatoo Island, Colonial Secretary Inward Letter, NSW State Archives, 65/3574.

[8] NSW State Archives, 4/6574, Transportation Register Colonial, p. 229.

[8] Col. Sec. Charles Cowper to Hon. Sir W.W. Burton, 12 October 1857, Sydney, no. 75, p. 251.

An earlier version of blogpost this appeared on the Carceral Archipelago blog. Reposted with kind permission.



A convict on Cockatoo Island, was involved in surveying parties on the mainland. It seems strange that prisoners that were ‘marooned’ on the prison island were crucial to European exploration of the interior.

John Fahey, was a former-member of the Irish 27th regiment of foot, was stationed at the Cape Colony (South Africa) fighting wars against the Xhosa in the 1830s. On 27 July 1837, Fahey was court-martialled for desertion and sentenced to transportation for life. He awaited sentence in prison on Robben Island, before embarking on the Clyde in 1838, bound for New South Wales.[1] Fahey was one of many convicts who were transported between different British colonies, not just from London out. [2]

Dutch map of Robben Island in 1731. Robben Island Museum,

Fahey arrived in the colony aboard the Clyde in 1838. [3]  He absconded two years later from where he was working at Grose’s farm, in Monaro, on 6 March 1840.

In Australia, he worked as part of the New England road-gang building ‘Major’s Line’, a road from Port Macquarie to the wool-producing Walcha region. Fahey took the opportunity to escape in this remote area, attempting first in November 1841 and succeeding in April 1842, hightailing it as far as the Bunja Mountains (Blackall range).[4]

Fahey evaded the authorities for more than decade, living amongst an Aboriginal community in the Bunja Mountains he called the “Gilberri”. He was finally recaptured by Lieutenant Blighin December 1854.[5] It took him a few days to be able to speak English, but on 2 January 1855 he was sentenced at the Police Magistrate’s Court to 12 months’ hard labour in  chains. This brought him to Cockatoo Island on 2 January 1855, though his irons were struck off  just two weeks later.[6]

Fahey refused to give the government information about the Bunja mountains. However, his wife (who was still living in Ireland) petitioned for a remission of his sentence, citing his usefulness as guide and bushmen for the planned North Australian Exploration Expedition, and the money this might bring to his family back home.[7]

The North Australian Expedition crossing the Wickham River, a tributary of the Victoria River, Northern Territory, ca. 1856, by Thomas Baines. National Library of Australia.

At the behest of the Royal Geographical Society, the Colonial Office financed an exploration of the Northern  region, to see if there was an ‘inland’ sea’ in the middle of Australia, and to also attempt to find Ludwig Leichardt, an explorer who had gone missing after setting out on an exploratory mission from Darling Downs, in south Queensland, in 1848.

Fahey was released early and joined the eighteen-man strong expedition, led by Augustus Gregory, the surveyor general of New South Wales. They spent six months exploring the region around Victoria River and south of the Gulf of Carpentaria.[8] In recognition of his services – and despite his repeat offending – Fahey received a conditional pardon from governor William Denison on 11 April 1857.

In the same year, 1857, another Cockatoo Island prisoner, John Garbut, became involved in the search for the missing Leichardt. Garbut, confessed to a clergyman that he had seen Leichardt alive while he and his family had been driving stolen cattle.[9] Garbut claimed that a community of runaway convicts were living in the area, along with their Indigenous ‘wives’. He claimed that they had kidnapped Leichardt and his family, with the former teaching the settlement’s children to read and write.

Ludwig Leichardt, engraving by Samuel Calvert (1862), State Library of Victoria

The government and public were still highly invested in the search for Leichardt, so the governor of New South Wales William Denison visited Cockatoo Island to question Garbut personally about his claims. [11] Denison was not sure if this Cockatoo Islander was telling the truth. He swiftly formed a board of inquiry of those familiar with the area to assess the veracity of his story.

The Board included Hovendon Hely, who led the 1852 expedition in search of Leichhardt, and John Snowden Calvert, a botanist who was part of Leichardt’s 1844 expedition in Australia’s northeast region. [12] They concluded that Garbut’s story was ‘a mere fabrication, made with a view to obtain his liberty’.[13]  The Sydney Morning Herald placed more faith in Garbut’s account, claiming he was backed up by Indigenous Australian convicts on Cockatoo Island who had heard it from their country-men.[14]

The European ‘exploration’ of the Australian continent was as much an imaginative, as a practical, endeavour. The ingenuity of prisoners and their wives them reach across the waters, connecting their isolated island prison to surveying parties deep into the continent.

[1] H. Deacon, ‘Patterns of exclusion on Robben Island, 1654-1992’, in A. Bashford and C. Strange (eds), Isolation:Place and Practices of Exclusion (London: Routledge, 2003) p.134.

[2] C. Anderson, ‘Convicts, Carcerality and Cape Colony Connections’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42:3 (2016), p.435.

[3] State Archives of NSW, NRS 12189, Annotated Printed Idents for 1838, pp.140-1.

[4] Sydney Morning Herald, 30 December 1854, p.5.

[5] E. Rosemary Brown, Cooloola Coast: Noosa to Fraser Island –  the Aboriginal and settler histories of a unique environment (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2000), p.130; R. Cilento and C.L.  Lack, ‘“Wild White Men” in Queensland’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 6:1 (1959), pp.83-4. R.J. Warren, ‘The Moreton Bay Colony, convict colonies and “The Joining”

[6] NSW State Archives, 4/6509, ‘Transportation Register (imperial), Cockatoo Island, p.225.

[7] UK National Archives (London), HO 17/52/100, Criminal Petitions, ser. 1, 29 December 1837 -26 December 1855.

[8] A. Day, The A to Z of the Discovery and Exploration of Australia (Lanham, Scarecrow Press, 2009)pp.93-4.

[9] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 1857, p.6.

[10] R. Erdos, ‘Leichhardt, Friederich Wilhelm Ludwig (1813-1848), ADB, 1967 <;

[11] Sydney Morning Herald 5 May 1857, p.5.

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1857, p.9.


Aboriginal Prisoners on Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island was one of several convict sites which received around 60 Aboriginal people transported for colonial crimes. More than a 1/3 of them, numbering 22 Aboriginal men, were sent to Cockatoo Island. These prisoners were not segregated from the white convict population, so they were subjected to racist bullying and made to do hard labour.

‘an objection we have often heard made against the practice of mingling the races at Cockatoo’

Maitland Mercury, 10 November 1857, p. 3.

Resisting colonisation

Most of the Aboriginal prisoners were convicted for resisting European colonisation. First Eora people were convicted from the Sydney area. As the frontier advanced inland, and north and south from Sydney, Aboriginal prisoners began arriving from Maitland and Port Phillip (mid-1830s & 40s) and from Queensland (1850s-60s).

From 1842-44, hundreds of Aboriginal people co-ordinated attacks – raiding stations and seizing thousands of cattle – against European settlers at the frontier in the Hunter Valley and Liverpool plains, north of Sydney.[1]

Royal Mercy?

Most Aboriginal prisoners on Cockatoo Island had their death sentences commuted by the governor to transportation. This royal mercy was awarded partly in recognition that Aboriginal men were not fairly treated in the courtroom, as they were tried by all-white juries under a foreign set of laws.

In 1840, Governor George Gipps requested permission from London to commute Neville’s Billy sentence of death, for murdering a stockman, to 3 years on Cockatoo Island. Gipps reminded them that Billy was tried in ‘tribunal wholly foreign to him’ and that it was an opportunity for ‘civilising and instructing’ him in European ways of life.

Carrying out death sentences risked strengthening Aboriginal resistance to colonisation. Bestowing the mercy of imprisonment offered an opportunity to spread European culture back to home communities, via the released prisoner.

‘by returning them, at the expiration of their sentence, amongst their own people, the example made of  them would produce a salutary effect on their fellow countrymen’.

The Colonist, 21 Dec. 1839, p. 2

Deaths in Custody

However, commutation of death sentence proved no real mercy. Three of the first five Aboriginal men sent to Cockatoo Island died of dysentery just a few weeks after sentencing.

In colonial Australia, like today, Aboriginal prisoners suffered disproportionately high rates of deaths in custody. On Cockatoo Island, 14 of 22 Aboriginal prisoners died there or in nearby Darlinghurst Gaol hospital while receiving treatment. 

“Confinement of Aboriginal blacks in the ordinary Penal Establishments seriously affects their Health and Constitution and leads ultimately to disease and death.”

Dr Patrick Hill to Edward Deas Thomson, 22 Feb 1851.

Governor George Gipps ordered an official investigation in December 1850. A board of medical officers concluded that it was ‘neither the climate nor situation of the island’ that was to blame but the ‘fact of their being confined’.[3] Europeans believed that the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to imprisonment was too extreme, causing Aboriginal people to sicken and die. It reaffirmed their social-darwinist belief that Aboriginal people were ‘inherently’ inferior to Europeans.

The board recommend that judges award short sentences and that visiting surgeons should recommend early release if they felt Aboriginal prisoners health was in danger. However, this measure was only used sporadically.

Contemporary Legacies

In 1991, A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was formed to investigate 99 deaths between 1980-89. The Commission found that Aboriginal people suffered high rates of death in custody due to their over-representation in the criminal justice system generally. In 1991, Indigenous people made up 14% of the prison population, which rose to 27% in 2016. Indigenous overrepresentation in prison results from prejudicial policing, police tendency to arrest rather than issue warnings to Indigenous people, and courts sentencing Indigenous people to prison rather than non-custodial sentences.


[1] Maitland Mercury, 10 Nov. 1857, p. 3.

[1] Harman, Aboriginal Convicts (2012), pp. 76-77

[2] Harman, Aboriginal Convicts (2012), p. 3

[3] Dr Patrick Hill, Medical Adviser to the Government, to Thomson, 22 Feb. 1851, Sydney. From: NSW State Archives Colonial Secretary Inwards Letter, 4/3379, 51/2048. Quoted in Harman and Maxwell-Stewart, ‘Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’.

Further Reading

Kristyn Harman, Aboriginal Convicts: Australia, Khoisan and Māori Exiles (Crows Nest: UNSW Press, 2012)

Kristyn Harman, Aboriginal Convicts: race, law and transportation in colonial New South Wales (PhD thesis, University of Tasmania).

Kristyn Harman and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, ‘Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in Colonial Australia’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 13:2 (2012) – download here.

Thalia Anthony, ‘Deaths in Custody: 25 years after the royal commission, we’ve gone backwards’, The Conversation (13 April 2016)