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The machine breaker convicts from the Proteus and the Eliza


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Brown, Bruce W (2004) The machine breaker convicts from the Proteus and the Eliza. Research Master thesis, University of Tasmania.

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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
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
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.

Item Type: Thesis (Research Master)
Keywords: Convict labor, Penal transportation
Copyright Holders: The Author
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2004 the Author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright
owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We
would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

Additional Information:

Thesis (M.A.)--University of Tasmania, 2004. Includes bibliographical references

Date Deposited: 25 Nov 2014 00:53
Last Modified: 11 Mar 2016 05:54
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