University of Tasmania
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The machine breaker convicts from the Proteus and the Eliza

posted on 2023-05-27, 00:38 authored by Brown, BW
This thesis analyses the lives of the 332 Swing rioters from the southern counties of England who were transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1831 for crimes of machine breaking. Along with the much smaller number of rioters transported to New South Wales, they represented one of the largest groups transported to the Australian colonies for a common crime and were certainly the largest group ever transported from England to the Australian colonies for a crime of social or political protest. This thesis explores a number of themes. First, it considers the causes of the Swing riots and the significant impact that the disturbances had on the newly elected Whig Government. In particular, it considers the impetus those considerations gave to the development of a colonial policy that would encourage the assisted emigration of many of the unemployed rural workers of southern England to the colonies. Second, despite their involvement in the Swing riots, the machine breakers (as they were commonly called) were not driven by a political agenda. They were overwhelmingly conservative by nature and poverty was the primary driver behind their actions. Their collective actions in the machine breaking episodes owed more to custom and tradition than to social revolution. 'Although this non-political conservatism was demonstrated by their post - emancipation lack of interest in political issues, their willingness to engage in collective action and other means of protest during their time as convicts demonstrated a continuation of the attitudes and values that they developed as rural workers in traditional England. Third, it analyses the impact of Transportation and Assignment on a group of men who ordinarily would never have been subject to those systems and concludes that the process did not brutalise them. This finding is subject to a proviso that the machine breakers were such valuable workers in the colony that they were probably better treated than the typical convict who would have been assigned to a rural master at that time. Fourth, it analyses the impact that the injection of this relatively large group of skilled agricultural workers and tradesmen had on the colony of Van Diemen's Land itself, and in particular on relations between the Van Diemen's Land Company and Lieutenant Governor Arthur. Fifth, where possible, it traces the subsequent lives of the machine breakers after they received their freedom from 1836 onwards. The accepted orthodoxy is that most of the machine breakers remained in the colony as farm workers and small tenant farmers. In fact, possibly up to fifty returned to England, and possibly as many as another hundred and fifty left the island colony, many of whom started new lives in the recently established colony of Port Phillip. Some became quite wealthy by the standards of the time, and many others became small landowners or successful business operators. Another interesting thread is that many of the machine breakers were eventually joined in the colonies by members of their family or by close relatives or fellow villagers. This is primarily due to the machine breakers sending back written reports about life in the colonies and as a phenomenon is known as chain migration. Finally, the thesis analyses the place of the machine breakers in convict history. During the nineteenth century, they unwittingly played a part in the debate about the merits of Transportation, and their experiences were relied upon heavily by Arthur in his support of the system. During the twentieth century, they were held up as evidence that many transported convicts were not petty criminals but in fact were social protesters. This view was common until more rigorous historical work established otherwise, and it is now clear that the machine breakers form a discrete group. They now appear as a relatively conservative, law abiding group of men whose offences nevertheless were a form of social protest.


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  • Unpublished

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Copyright 2004 the author Thesis (MA)--University of Tasmania, 2004. Includes bibliographical references

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