Yoked to the Plough; Male Convict Labour, Culture and Resistance in Rural Van Diemen's Land, 1820-40.
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This thesis is a study of assigned male convict labour in rural Van Diemen’s Land in the period 1820-40. Throughout this period agriculture and pastoralism were centxal to the colonial economy, and this sector was the largest private employer of convict labour, yet there has been no prior sustained investigation of the nature and experience of rural convict employment in Van Diemen’s Land. Research has involved use of records of convict transportation, the records of the convict department, colonial court records, and the correspondence of the colonial secretary’s office. Extensive use has also been made of the colonial press, published contemporary accounts, and unpublished journals of colonists. The thesis begins with a discussion of two oppositional representations of rural convict labour: John Glover’s painting ‘My Harvest Home’, and the ballad ‘Van Diemen’s Land’. These representations demonstrate the polarised debate on the nature of convict labour. Rural convicts have been largely neglected in the recent historiography of convict transportation; this thesis argues that this neglect is unwarranted, and that rural convict labour resists reductionist understanding of convict labour. Chapter 1 examines farming in the colony, demonstrating the importance and vitality of this sector of the economy. Chapters 2-4 discuss convict assignment, management, and convict responses. It is argued that assignment effectively placed those with experience of farm work with rural employers. Convicts’ skills are seen to have been relevant and useful to the rural economy. The management of convict servants operated both formally at the level of the Convict Department regulations and the magistrates bench, and informally on individual properties. Informal management best utilised incentives rather than force. Thus convicts were able to negotiate the authority of their employers through various means, including resistance. Chapters 5-7 discuss the convict experience of rural labour. Material conditions of diet, housing and clothing are examined in chapter 5. Convict recreational culture is investigated in chapter 6; it is argued that convicts created an important site of autonomy in this form. The intimate lives of convict men are discussed in chapter 7. Often seen as brutal and brutalising, it is argued that these relationships were important and meaningful sites in male convict experience.