IMG_0641Sydney in winter. The brisk, bracing chill of a clear blue morning in early July (yes, northern hemisphere reader, July), which will quickly warm up to a comfy twenty degrees centigrade[1] before midday. Even so, Sydneysiders will stay bundled in their sweaters and scarves, thinking this is what winter feels like. To me it feels like an early autumn college football Saturday somewhere in the middle of the United States. Or the end of summer in South Island New Zealand.

As I wander Circular Quay—site of the First Fleet’s landing 225 years ago—two new invasions are apparent: one in the newspapers, the other in the streets. Kevin Rudd, suddenly Prime Minister again, and desperate to stay there, is talking tough about (what else) refugees from Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere seeking asylum Down Under. His Foreign Minister has labelled these asylum seekers “economic migrants” and therefore not entitled to asylum status. Meanwhile, the conservative opposition leader calls them “illegals” and wants the military actively turning back boats. It’s all a bit disheartening.

The other invasion has been welcomed by Australians. Thousands of British and Irish Lions fans have arrived in Sydney for the final test with the Wallabies. These rugby seekers, dressed in red jerseys proclaiming their love of HSBC, are arriving on boats, too: filling the ferries that transport brunch-hungry foreigners to Manly or Watsons Bay. No one seems too concerned about losing jobs because of these visitors, though one Kiwi coach should have been.

The crowds thin as I approach my destination, the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. The museum is housed in one of the few surviving buildings that date from Sydney’s days as a convict settlement. Only a few generations ago, Australians tended to keep their convict connections a secret; these days, it’s a point of pride. A fascinating photography exhibition down the road at the Museum of Sydney, “A Convict in the Family,” presents portraits of convicts’ descendants with the cause of their light-fingered ancestors’ deportation: a pair of boots, a horse, a handkerchief. It’s an evocative concept but (understandably) thin on historical details. I’m hoping that the Barracks Museum will offer a clearer sense of the life those ancestors led two centuries ago.

It began in January 1788, when the British First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson, the future site of Sydney. The journey, which included month-long stops in Rio and the Cape of Good Hope, took more than eight months. Eleven ships carried 1500 passengers, at least half of them convicts, to their new home, about as far from Britain as one can travel on this planet. The British had a long history of ‘transporting’ their unwanted citizens. Before 1775, convicts were deposited across the Atlantic, but the American Revolution put an end to that. A new location was needed and James Cook’s 1770 discovery of a large landmass in the South Pacific offered a promising option. Eighteen years later the first ships arrived. Little was known about this new land, so these first convict settlers were accompanied by a veritable Noah’s Ark of Old-World edibles: animals, birds, seeds, and trees. These other migrants transformed the Australian landscape as irrevocably as their human counterparts.

IMG_0611British ships arrived regularly over the next forty years. Most transported convicts had committed petty crimes (the worst criminals would have been hanged), and their oversized punishment—a minimum of seven years’ transportation—was intended to ward off other would-be offenders. After arrival, each was assigned work according to their skills. At the end of their sentence, they could return home; but most stayed, either by choice or because they just couldn’t afford the fare back. For the first thirty years, convicts had to find their own living quarters. The inevitable trouble caused by a growing population of convicts mixing with free settlers and emancipists led Governor Lachlan Macquarie to devise the colony’s first convict barracks in 1819. His architect, Francis Greenway, was a convict, and the barracks was built using convict labour.

From the outside, Hyde Park Barracks is an elegant if austere brick building of three stories. It has gone through many transformations since convict transportation ended in 1840: first as an immigration depot for women and girls (many of them Irish famine orphans), later as courts and government offices. In the early 1990s it reopened in its current form: a museum examining the building’s two-century history, but in particular its earliest uses. The courtyard contains the desultory museum café, but in other ways the exterior setting retains a sombre tone reflective of the building’s history.

From the inside, it’s also a building of three stories—three historical eras. Level one performs the role of contemporary museum space: a large map traces the path convict ships would follow; artifacts and implements from colonial Sydney suggest the kind of work convicts were assigned to do; and displays discuss the settlers’ relations with the Kadigal and other local Aboriginal peoples. Those inclined can try on shackles and a prisoner uniform. This is the most family-friendly part of the museum, but there are also lengthy descriptions posted along the way for those with time and patience.

Level two reproduces the appearance of the building in its twentieth-century legal phase, and the exhibitions here are more specialised: one room explores the evolving uses of the building; another poignantly narrates the stories of Irish famine girls allowed into Australia because of a shortage of women in the colony. Another space displays the remarkable quantity of objects found in excavation and renovation work since 1980, reminding visitors that this museum is its own archaeological site.

These first two levels are informative and worthwhile; indeed, almost everything I’ve written above came from the displays in the museum, or from discussions with the extremely knowledgeable staff. But the story told on the third level is the one that most stays with me. The whole floor has been returned to its earliest appearance: it resembles the sleeping quarters of the first convicts. Limewashed brick walls and bare wooden floors and ceilings give the space a stark, disciplined appearance. The largest room is filled with seventy hammocks. Visitors are encouraged to try them out, and they aren’t uncomfortable; but imagine, after an exhausting day of work, trying to be comfortable sleeping among seventy filthy, irritable men, keeping all your possessions under your blanket, knowing that officers were observing you through tiny openings in the walls. When convict numbers grew, a second set of hammocks would be installed above you, so that the room held 140 men. If these rooms come close to recreating the sombre reality of the early convicts’ lives, they also inevitably evoke later spaces of slow time and desperation: the internment camps of Japanese Americans; the detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island.

Throughout the museum, there are places that have been purposely left open and incomplete, where one can examine the layers of plaster and paint applied over two centuries, peer above to see light filter between the floorboards, or peer below to see the recently installed air conditioning system. These gestures of openness imitate the larger mission of the museum: to peel back the layers of meaning in this building, to tell its hidden or forgotten stories. In doing so, it tells the hidden stories of our society.

[1] Americans: 68 Fahrenheit


  1. […] I’ve described exhibitions on the forced migrations of enslaved Africans to the Americas and of British convicts to Australia. It’s interesting (but perhaps not surprising) that the Franciscans were transforming the Pacific […]


  2. […] The memorial is an addition to the Hyde Park Barracks, a museum I’ve discussed in a previous article. Built to home transported convicts, the barracks served as the centre to another complex story of […]


  3. […] of London) to Hobart in the colony of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) in 1841. As I noted in a previous article, the British began dispatching convicts to their colony of New South Wales in 1788. By the time the […]


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