The capture of Australia’s most wanted man last week made international headlines. Australian readers of an article in the Canadian publication Oye! Times* may have been startled to see the prisoner described as a ‘long lost convict’.
A reference in the Australian media to a ‘long lost convict’ might lead us to expect something on the discovery of information or artefacts relating to someone’s convict ancestor, or perhaps an item on William Buckley, the convict who escaped from custody in Port Phillip in 1803 and reappeared thirty-two years later. But we would not expect a story about a twenty-first century prisoner. For Australians the word convict only ever means a prisoner transported to Australia’s penal colonies between 1788 and 1868.
Convict has generated many compound words in Australian English, such as convict colony, convict labour, convict gang, convict servant, convict constabulary, and convict settler, to name a few. Today these are largely historical words: when we use them they refer to something in the past that no longer exists. So it can be a surprise for many of us to find that elsewhere in the English-speaking world a convict is a common term for a criminal convicted of an offence and serving time for it.
Why the difference? For a long time Australia’s convict heritage was a source of shame. The convict taint was anathema to polite society, and social distinctions were drawn between free settlers and freed convicts. This quotation from a novel of the 1890s encapsulates the social anxiety of a young man in love with the wrong kind of girl: ‘Love her! my God, I do love her! but if there is this convict stain, what am I to do?’
Perhaps the uneasy history of convictism in Australia meant that, following the end of transportation, our forbears just wanted to forget about it. Certainly during the convict era the word itself was often replaced by euphemisms. Bond labour, bondsman, bond population, assigned servant, government man, crown prisoner, servant of the crown, government servant – all avoid the ‘c’ word. Not until well into the twentieth century did it become common for people to acknowledge convict ancestry with pride, and by that time prisoner was long established in Australia as the common word to describe incarcerated criminals.
*With thanks to Amy McNeilage/SMH for alerting me to this article.