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The effect of transportation on Jewish convicts in Van Diemen's Land


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Kelly, NR 1995 , 'The effect of transportation on Jewish convicts in Van Diemen's Land', Honours thesis, University of Tasmania.

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The history of the Jewish convicts in Van Diemen's Land is one that provides the researcher with a wide area to consider. The most important question however would be, what effect did transportation have on the Jewish convict? Was their sense of identity overwhelmed by the artificial Christian emphasis 'offered' by colonial penal society? The evidence perhaps in most cases would suggest that assimilation, induced by environmental factors was the end result of transportation.

There were at least two hundred convicts transported to Van Diemens Land who can be easily identified as been Jewish, with a further one hundred possessing the 'characteristics' of the Jewish convicts (that is , names, aliases, places of birth and trades.) The majority were under thirty, unmarried and from the poorer districts of London. Their exposure to their religion would have been limited (having no wives and children of their own) even though the majority were from an Ashkenazi / Orthodox - traditional background. They were exiled mostly for non-violent crimes. Receiving stolen goods, picking pockets and housebreaking/shop stealing were common crimes amongst the Jewish convicts.

The unusual crimes included a courtmartial for desertion (Levy Frankland), wilfully setting fire to premises (Harris Rosenberg), forging Russian banknotes (Jacob Friedeberg) and a highway robbery in Christchurch, Middlesex (Solomon Lyons). Several convicts were re-sentenced to death for a second crime in Van· Diemens Land whilst many were sent to Norfolk Island, Macquarie Island, Port Arthur, New South Wales and other places of secondary punishment. Jewish convicts were stationed on the remote probation stations, such as Wedge Bay as well as the major towns. This displacement helped to contribute to their sense of isolation. The Majority of convicts if they married, married out of the faith and several converted to Christianity. Many children born to convict women (and men) were inevitably baptised.

Those convicts lucky to have family in Van Diemen's Land or whom were married to Jewish women before being transported were the convicts most likely to survive as Jews, religiously and ethnically. It was this vital connection to their identity that most Jewish convicts lacked. Those that intermarried usually became less involved with the community perhaps because of the guilt felt by marrying out of the faith, a practise rarely pursued in Jewish life. The Christianity of their spouses was often more acceptable to the mainstream than their own religion. All these factors combined to draw the Jewish convict unconsciously away from Judaism and to create a system of 'passive' genocide, a genocide initiated by government policy and the unique social environment of Van Diemen's Land.

The Jewish community that convicts encountered in Van Diemens Land from 1803 to the 1830's was very different from the one which they had left behind. What remained familiar were the attitudes of the Government and the public which resembled those of their counterparts in England, the only differences being the concentration and the focus on the perceived problems in such a small environment. The Jewish community, initially made up of convicts and emancipists did not possess the necessary framework to counter anti -semitic claims of the public or request what were seen as neccesary freedoms from the colonial government.

It was not until the arrival of free Jewish settlers in the 1830's that the community became viable in Van Diemen's Land. Before this important development, the direction that the Jewish convict took would not neccesarily reflect his ethnic and religious past. To understand the response to transportation up to this point then, it is neccesary to look at the society which the Jewish convicts had come from and the society they entered. Without this knowledge we cannot possibility understand the psyche of the Jewish convict.

Item Type: Thesis - Honours
Authors/Creators:Kelly, NR
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Copyright 1994 the author

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