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Diversifying a Digital Dataset? Cockatoo Island Convicts

Image credit: Philip Doyne Vigors, ‘Convicts Letter writing at Cockatoo Island N.S.W. “Canary Birds”!’, 1849, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

In Sydney’s famous harbour stands a rocky sandstone island, barren and pockmarked by strikes of countless pickaxes. Wareamah is Wangal country, and its British name, Cockatoo Island, came from the birds who flocked to the red gums that used to cover the island. From 1839, several thousand convicts deforested the island, blasted out its cliffs, and carved out a dock to repair large vessels that crossed the oceans that connected Britain’s empire.

When the island was first used as a prison in 1839, it was for the secondary punishment of convicts who had re-offended or misconducted themselves after being transported to the colony. The founding population of Cockatoo Island had been transferred from the middle of the Pacific Ocean – the remote “hell-on-earth” Norfolk Island – to the middle of Sydney Harbour. But being in the midst of a bustling city, in full view of its residents, was a new kind of purgatory.

By the mid-1840s, most transportees under secondary punishment had finished serving their sentences. As the flow of new convicts to New South Wales had slowed to a trickle, and as free migrants began arriving en masse, the island acted more as a local prison. Of the prisoners arriving between 1847-69, around 42% of inmates were European convicts who were ‘free’ but only conditionally - their ticket of leave disallowed them from leaving a certain district, carrying firearms, boarding a boat and skipping Sunday sermons. In the same period, a slightly higher number, 44%, were “free” men, this included Indigenous people and Europeans born in the colony (usually descendants of convicts) and those who migrated to the colony from Britain and across the world.

Cockatoo Island’s UNESCO World Heritage status is tied to its role as a convict site- referring to transported Europeans- rather than its local, more diverse inmate population. This population included Aboriginal prisoners convicted of breaking invaders’ laws, Chinese migrants convicted on the goldfields trying to pay off the costs of their journey, and the multi-ethnic crews of vessels (African American, Indian and Pacific Islanders) who committed crimes while on shore leave. On 21 June 1861, local newspaper Empire described the island as comprising the ‘scum and dregs of colonial society’.

As part of a fellowship funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, I used the detailed colonial-carceral records to build a database of more than 2500 prisoners incarcerated on Cockatoo Island. By performing broad statistical analysis, I hoped to rescue their reputation as the ‘worst’ kind of convicts, and by researching several cases in more detail, I hoped to showcase the diversity of the prisoners there. From the outset these goals were in tension - I used statistics to show the majority of prisoners were non-violent, reformed convicts, while also wanting to highlight the presence of just 39 prisoners of colour identified in the database (14 Chinese, five Aboriginal, nine African Americans, four from the Caribbean, two from India, two from Chile, one from Hawaii, one from Samoa, one from Oman). On the website alongside the database, I included a blog series “Convict Lives” with collective biographies of groups of convicts (e.g. Chinese convicts, or Black and Indian sailors), which contextualised their experiences within a settler-colonial society and racially-biased criminal justice system.

I decided for reasons of access and transparency to publish the database in full. That way, genealogists with criminal ancestors or academics could download the data and use it how they wanted. The dataset offered valuable information arranged by individuals’ names, including details of their colonial conviction, their entry into and release from custody, personal details (place of birth, ship of arrival, occupation), biometric data (height, weight, age) and physical description (eye, hair and skin colour, tattoos and scars).

On the other hand, I was aware that there were gaps in the database, which recreated in digital form the silences in the original colonial-carceral archives. These gaps were not self-explanatory to untrained users, and they were strongly racialised. Prisoners of colour had anglicised, misspelt names (which were not consistently recorded across datasets), their ship of arrival was rarely recorded (unlike for European migrants and British convicts) replaced with just their race. Non-white prisoners were also less likely to have their biometric data (height, weight, age) recorded. Where people of colours’ physical descriptions were provided, it was racialised into abstraction. The myriad shades of whiteness recorded for British and Irish prisoners were replaced with binaries: either “Black” or “Copper”. A white prisoner’s scar would be recorded in detail (a mark or burn on the right thumb, for example) whereas an Aboriginal prisoner was just be described as having ‘usual scars on torso’.

I tried to identify some of these racialised inequalities, inherent within the archival material on which the database was based, within the ‘Convict Lives’ blog series. It contains prisoners known by anglicised names Tsin Soon (also written ‘Tsim soon’) and Hin Sick (also written as ‘Hin Tic’). In the database, they appear as serious offenders, some of the tiny minority of those convicted of murder. But delve into their case, and it's apparent they killed a drunken abusive employer who hired Chinese people specifically because he could get away with these beatings. With widespread racism in colonial society against an influx of Chinese migrants, Sick and Soon were unable to seek redress for their mistreatment through official channels. Doubt is also cast on their “guilt” when we discover that the key witness in court, the sole white employee at the farm, admitted he could not differentiate between the six Chinese men who lived and worked there. Despite the fact that Hin Sick stood 10 cm taller than Tsin Soon and was almost a decade older.

Another prisoner on Cockatoo Island was known as ‘Neville’s Billy’ - an anglicisation framed around ‘ownership’ by a European. At the Supreme Court, Billy was accused of spearing a hut keeper, John Dillon, at Uuablong, at the frontier of European settlement. Its remoteness was described in court as ‘beyond the boundaries of location’. The only evidence against Billy was the dying testimony of the victim, heard by two White men with no direct knowledge of Billy or what he looked like (it could have been any Aboriginal man in the area). Judge Dowling reminded the all-white jury that the case didn’t meet standards of evidence under British law, which colonial courts operated under, calling it a ‘one-sided trial’. Just thirty minutes later the jury returned a guilty verdict which carried a death sentence. Though the Governor commuted Billy’s sentence to three years on Cockatoo Island, like many Aboriginal prisoners, Billy died in custody two short months later from the effects of hard labour, separation from his country and exposure to European diseases.

These are just a few examples of the ways in the colonial context that undermined ‘justice’ for non-Europeans. Unfortunately, user statistics for the website show the vast majority of users just download the database without visiting the blog pages. As a result, my website has failed to challenge whiteness inherent to much convict history as practised by family historians, whose demand has driven the digitisation of large colonial-convict datasets. The narrative of white convicts being exiled from their homes as victims of British government policies can obscure their subsequent involvement in the dispossession of Indigenous people from their country, whether as active participants or passive recipients of the benefits of settler colonialism. When genealogy is the entry point into these histories, it often obscures the criminological context that one’s ancestor was a particularly ‘successful’ convict, having reformed themselves and started a family, which was by no means the norm. A decontextualised criminal archive made easily accessible through digitisation but replicating the racialized gaps of the colonial era risks obscuring the multi-generational accrual of the privilege of white convict ancestors. This public history is important because it will inevitably have a bearing on attitudes today. Consider how this view of crime and race would shape perceptions towards Indigenous offenders who, as of 2015, were 15.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people.

The challenge for me and other academic and family historians is to directly link these histories of coerced migration, punishment and Indigenous dispossession. The Digital Panopticon demonstrates the power of record-linkage by generating convict ‘life courses’ - i.e. personal timelines - for those convicted at London’s Old Bailey and transported to Australia. Though racialised gaps in record linkage preclude this approach for most BIPOC convicts, a simple act of dual-naming in the existing dataset could help redress the erasure of Indigeneity inherent to colonization. To say someone was transported to land Gadigal, Cammeraygal, and Wangal, not just “Port Jackson” indicates how forced migration of one group enabled dispossession of another. If this data could be linked spatially with violence against Indigenous people mapped in the Frontier Massacres, Australia Project, this would be even more powerful. Meanwhile, digital newspaper archive Trove, including records from lower-level courts where the bulk of indictable crime was tried, offers valuable information about a persistent minority of defendants of colour that could be the subject of a separate digital resource. For me, it will involve reconfiguring the website to put text about the settler-colonial context that the prison operated within upfront, above the button to download on the database. Small steps can make a difference.


Further Reading:

Dr Katy Roscoe is a historical criminologist at the University of Liverpool with research interests centred on global mobilities, unfree labour and racial inequalities, with a particular focus on mid-nineteenth century crime and punishment in Britain and its former empire.

Twitter: @katyaroscoe


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