“Reforming the Guilty": Legacies of Sectarianism and the Convict Past in Australia

Hilary M. Carey*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


From 1788 to 1868, when the last political prisoners were sent to Fremantle, about 160,000 men, women, and children were transported from Great Britain and Ireland to penal colonies in Australia. Many others were consigned to floating prisons in hulks moored on rivers and ports in the United Kingdom and in the overseas naval bases of Bermuda in the West Indies and Gibraltar in the Mediterranean. The legacy of this global forced migration of convicted felons—reputedly the largest in human history—is highly visible in the Australian landscape, with hundreds of convict sites, large and small, scattered throughout the eastern states, island fortresses, Norfolk Island, and Western Australia. Curiously, unlike in other Western democracies, where there is shame about ancestors with criminal convictions, many Australians embrace the convict past and berate the officers, respectable settlers, and Anglican Evangelical establishment who were responsible for maintaining the moral order in the penal colonies. What Roberts (2004) notes as the typical work of attempting the “reformation of the guilty” is not regarded in the popular estimation as having a place in the Australian national story. This essay considers the sectarian basis for this sympathy for the convict, suggesting its importance for understanding the development of Australia’s secular political culture and its sectarian undercurrent.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReligion after Secularization in Australia
EditorsTimothy Stanley
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781137551382
ISBN (Print)9781349571017
Publication statusPublished - 2 Sept 2015


  • sectarianism
  • Secularism
  • convict colonies
  • Australia
  • religious history


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