What are the similarities and differences between slaves of the Americas and convicts sent to Australia?

Some similarities that slaves in America and convicts in Australia faced were being forced from their homelands, enduring dangerous ocean, crossings, and being subjected to forced labor. Their experiences were different in that Australian convicts kept up their cultural practices while African slaves had their cultures taken away from them. Africans became slaves through no action of their own while convicts were exiled in response to a crime. Once in Australia, convicts could become free. Slaves were enslaved for life.

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Slaves of the Americas could, in rare cases, be granted their freedom, but this was entirely at the discretion of their owners. Convicts shipped to Australia, on the other hand, would automatically be freed on the expiration of their prison sentence.

Sending convicts abroad was a punishment imposed by the...

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Slaves of the Americas could, in rare cases, be granted their freedom, but this was entirely at the discretion of their owners. Convicts shipped to Australia, on the other hand, would automatically be freed on the expiration of their prison sentence.

Sending convicts abroad was a punishment imposed by the British criminal justice system on certain classes of criminal. Once the punishment had been served, ex-convicts were free to make something of their lives. Many chose to stay in Australia and settle down rather than return to the mother country.

As conditions for convicts were often unspeakably bad, many of them never lived to see the end of their punishments. Like slaves in the Americas, they were treated abominably; unlike slaves, this was because they were criminals, not because of the color of their skin. It was easier, therefore, for a convict to move on with his or her life once their sentence had been served. For slaves, save in exceptional circumstances, slavery was a life sentence from which there was no escape.

The institution of slavery underpinned much of the economic life of the Americas, most notably in the Southern states of America. Convict labor in Australia was also economically important, providing a relatively young nation with a steady stream of much-needed labor. However, convict labor was much more diverse than slave labor, and many convicts performed highly-skilled work.

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There are some parallels as well as stark differences between British convicts exiled to Australia and African slaves in the Americas. Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported to Australian penal colonies. From the sixteenth century to the early-nineteenth century, over twelve million Africans were forcibly sent to the Americas.

Both these populations experienced a forced migration. Through no choice of their own, they left behind family and the familiarity of their own landscape.

Both groups experienced dangerous ocean crossings. While convicts on the way to Australia had somewhat better conditions than Africans packed onto slave ships, disease, thirst, shipwreck, and starvation claimed numerous lives.

African slaves became enslaved for no other reason than their race and ability to perform labor. Convicts sent to Australia had been convicted of a crime in a court of law.

Once in their new destinations, life was very different for these two groups. African slaves were forced to labor their whole life. They had no freedom. their names, culture, and religion were stripped away from them. They had no rights to anything. Many died under these harsh conditions.

Australian convicts, on the other hand, had much more freedom. Some, usually serious offenders, were required to serve a limited amount of time as indentured servants for free settlers. Like African slaves, they could be beaten without consequence and forced to perform very hard labor. However, most were mostly free to do as they wanted in Australia. They kept many elements of their old culture intact when in Australia. At least at first, this deracination did not remove their identity as Englishmen and Englishwomen. Some even moved up in society to become influential founders of their new nation.

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In both cases, the British Empire shipped thousands of people across the ocean by force and without their consent, where they ended up establishing a new population on a new continent. In both cases, the process was violent, oppressive, and dangerous to the people being transported.

But there are some vital differences between the two.

Perhaps the most important is how the people were selected.

Africans who were sold into slavery were chosen first of all for their race and skin color, and only secondarily as convicted criminals or prisoners of war (as these were the Africans that were most likely to be sold into slavery by the existing African societies).

Prisoners sent to Australia were all convicted criminals, most of them as far as we can tell given legally-valid trials in the British courts of law. (Whether these trials were fair or the laws they were based on were just is a more difficult question.) The Africans who were sold as slaves could have otherwise been free individuals; the Brits who were transported to Australia would have otherwise been imprisoned or executed in Britain.

Another key difference is what happened to them once they arrived.

Africans sold into slavery were immediately put to work, predominantly on plantations, given only the barest minimum of food and housing, and offered no pay and no chance of quitting or working anywhere else. Many were beaten. Families were forced apart and people were "bred"---that is to say, raped and their children sold---as if they were livestock animals.

Prisoners sent to Australia, on the other hand, were given surprisingly free rein; the British government apparently reasoned that once they were so far away, they could do no harm, so it was easier to simply leave them alone under minimal guard and supervision.

Many prisoners were made to work under poor conditions for low wages, but this was not so different from free workers at the time, and other prisoners even became wealthy and powerful in Australian society as business owners or political leaders. Most of the prisoners were separated from their families (as prisoners typically are), but not all; and the prisoners included both men and women, and many started new families upon arrival. Likewise, many of the soldiers sent to provide supervision brought their families along and started a new life in Australia.

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