matthew fitzpatrick on convicts and germany


Matthew Fitzpatrick, ‘New South Wales in Africa? The Convict Colonialism Debate in Imperial Germany’, Itinerario 37, 1 (2013).

In 1852, the naturalist and writer Louisa Meredith observed in her book My Home in Tasmania: “I know of no place where greater order and decorum is observed by the motley crowds assembled on any public occasion than in this most shamefully slandered country: not even in an English country village can a lady walk alone with less fear of harm or insult than in this capital of Van Diemen’s Land, commonly believed at home to be a pest-house, where every crime that can disgrace and degrade humanity stalks abroad with unblushing front.”

Meredith’s paean to life in the notorious Australian penal colony of Hobart was in stark contrast to her earlier, highly unfavourable account of colonial Sydney. It papered over the years of personal hardship she had endured in Australia, as well as avoiding mention of the racial warfare against Tasmania’s Aborigines that had afforded her such a genteel European existence.

Such intra-Australian complexities, however, were lost when Meredith’s account was superimposed onto German debates about the desirability of penal colonies for Germany. Instead, Meredith’s portrait of a cultivated city emerging from the most notorious penal colony in Australia was presented as proof that the deportation of criminals was an important dimension of the civilising mission of Europe in the extra-European world. It was also presented as a vindication of those in Germany who wished to rid Germany of its lumpen criminal class through deportation. The exact paragraph of Meredith’s account cited above was quoted in German debates on deportation for almost half a century; first in 1859 by the jurist Franz von Holtzendorff, and thereafter by Friedrich Freund when advocating the establishment of a penal colony in the Preußische Jahrbücher in September 1895.

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