In 1803, the British in Sydney Town, fearful of the colonial ambitions of the French and aware of the whaling and timber resources in the south – claimed Van Diemen’s Land in the name of King George III. But the British had another use in mind for this remote and untamed island – as an antipodean repository for re-offending convicts. The first ship of inmates arrived from England on the Indefatigable in 1812, however, convicts had been arriving in Van Diemen’s Land as early as 1803 when the Lady Nelson travelled from Sydney to old Hobart town with 21 convicts on board.
Convicts came from all walks of life. Most had little education but there were also educated convicts with skills that enabled them to be used as clerks or draughtsmen, or with training in professions such as medicine, architecture, printing or building – all essential in building a new colony. For the first ten years of British settlement in Van Diemen’s Land there were more convicts than free settlers. This meant that convicts, as well as doing hard labouring work such as digging new coalmines, had to fill positions of responsibility such as medical assistants or ‘trustees’ in the gaols. Many, especially the women, were assigned to settlers as servants.
In 1822 a convict settlement was established at Sarah Island on the rugged west coast of Tasmania. Located within the vast Macquarie Harbour, the island is on the brink of a vast tract of mountainous wilderness, rendering the site totally isolated from the settled south-east of the island. Such a site was considered by Lt Governor Sorrell as suitable for "the worst description of convicts".
With the "success" of the convict labour at Sarah Island, the colony expanded its penal operation to a new settlement at Port Arthur, on the south eastern peninsula, now known as Tasman Peninsula. The location was the ideal penitentiary as it is connected to mainland Tasmania by only a narrow isthmus. Eventually the British government admitted that transportation and probation, far from solving a problem, were creating one. In 1853, after about 74,000 convicts had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land, the system ended and the colony’s name was officially changed to Tasmania, a name that had been used unofficially for some time.