The Convicts of Newfoundland
Centuries after Newfoundland was settled as a fishery, islands a world away were being settled as European penal colonies. In the late 1700s, the lands of Australia (known first as New Holland, later as New South Wales) and Tasmania (settled as Van Diemen’s Land) went through tumultuous times as penal colonies and “free provinces” were settled - primarily at the hands of the English.
During the height of convict shipment in the 1800s, Newfoundland was already primarily an Irish Catholic population, so it is no wonder there are records of its residents being sent down under to serve time. These residents would have been tried and convicted in Ireland (or even England). Two young brothers in particular, Lawrence and Thomas Baldwin, were convicted of separate thefts and shipped to the colonies on the Java and Hero, in 1833 and 1835 respectively, along with hundreds of other men and women. Other incarcerated Newfoundlanders include John Woods (Southworth, 1822), John Watson (Prince Regent I, 1824), and Edward Shaw (Nautilus, 1840).
Further, the transportation of convicts created larger problems for Newfoundland in July 1789 when a ship of Irish prisoners destined for Botany Bay (Australia) instead landed in Bay Bulls after provisions ran out and a contagious fever was rampant. The prisoners made their way into St. John’s, where most of the males were kept in a makeshift plantation-style prison. After the “jail fever” spread and took the lives of over 200 inhabitants, and after violent incidents such as attempted arson (with the intention of burning down the town), the residents of St. John’s were in fear and looked to authorities for a solution. Though it took months, the majority of remaining prisoners were sent back to England, then finally to Ireland. This event can be considered the beginning of a series of reforms to the judiciary system in Newfoundland, though the powers that be considered the handling of the situation a success.
There exists a database of all Irish convicts who were shipped to New South Wales from 1788 to 1849. For each prisoner, it lists their name and their ship, hometown, date of birth, and their crimes.
For a detailed account of the events of July 1789, see here.
Contributed by Justin Oakey