Australian Convict Sites: World Heritage

Submitting Institution

University of Leicester

Unit of Assessment


Summary Impact Type


Research Subject Area(s)

History and Archaeology: Historical Studies

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Summary of the impact

In August 2010 the UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed 11 Australian Convict Sites onto its World Heritage list. Anderson was a member of the Australian Government's small expert reference and nomination groups; her unique knowledge of the global history of convict transportation and penal colonies around the world during the period 1780-1939 provided the essential comparative analysis necessary to underpin the Australian government's claim that the Australian sites were globally unique and unparalleled, and so to prepare the final nomination to UNESCO. The inscription of these new World Heritage sites paved the way for significant tourist development, as well as important social and cultural changes to the heritage sector's representation of Australia's convict history.

Underpinning research

Anderson has researched penal colonies for almost twenty years, since the start of her PhD research in 1994 and appointment to a lectureship at Leicester on 1.9.1997. She is co-founder of the International Centre for Convict Studies, based in Tasmania (1999), which brings together international scholars and partners from government, museums, and heritage, and she has been awarded numerous competitive research grants [G1, G2]. These grants have resulted in many research outputs (including [1-6]). Anderson's research and publications have together forged an entirely new area in the field of criminal justice, labour and convict history by revealing the existence of numerous penal colonies in the Indian Ocean [2, 6]. She has shown that convicts moved multi-directionally around Empire, not uni-directionally from Britain and Ireland to the Australian and American colonies only (as historians previously assumed). She has researched hitherto unknown Indian Ocean transportations in Mauritius, Burma, the Malay Archipelago and Indonesia; mapped sites and counted convicts; established convicts' economic and cultural importance [1, 2, 6]; written about the relationship between penal colonies and the making of categories of race and gender [3, 5]; uncovered the extent of convict resistance [1-6]; and shown that transportation was part of a larger colonial repertoire of un-free labour, and that it has had important cultural, social and heritage legacies [1, 2, 6].

This extensive body of published research led the Australian Government's Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts to invite Anderson in 2006 to become one of 12 international expert academic consultants (and the only UK-based scholar) on the UNESCO nomination group bidding to place a group of penal colonies onto the World Heritage List. The sites are situated across Australia, including in Western Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania and Norfolk Island. These sites received c. 166,000 British and Irish men, women and children during the period 1787-1868. The Government needed to build a case to show that the sites were globally significant as unique surviving heritage of the history of punishment and convict labour. Of key importance was the Government's desire to claim them as the best heritage examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts. It was Anderson's comparative research that was of critical importance in building this case.

The Australian government team used Anderson's research extensively in preparing its bid, and it also commissioned her to research and write two reports for the nomination team on the heritage legacies of penal colonies, indentured labour ghats, and slave forts at colonies in a variety of locations outside Australia, namely: the Indian Ocean, including India, Burma, the Straits Settlements (now Singapore and Malaysia) and Mauritius; French Guiana on the northern coast of South America; New Caledonia in the Southwest Pacific (2006, 2007; see below, section 5). The purpose of these reports was to compare sites all over the world to the Australian convict sites under consideration for nomination, and to assess in what ways the Australian sites were notable, unique or outstanding. Drawing on her existing research and knowledge of the history of punishment, penal transportation, penal colonies, and un-free labour regimes [1, 2, 5, 6], Anderson reported on the ways in which the history and material legacies of the sites as well as the experiences of convicts in them could be compared. This gave the Australian government team the essential comparative data they needed to develop the final application for its own convict sites. All this work was completed while Anderson was employed at Leicester, before she took up an academic post at the University of Warwick on 1.10.2007.

References to the research

A. Academic Publications

1. (2007, 2012) The Indian Uprising of 1857-8: prisons, prisoners and rebellion (London, Anthem), 191pp


2. (2007) `Sepoys, Servants and Settlers: convict transportation in the Indian Ocean, 1787-1945', in Frank Dikötter and Ian Brown, eds, Cultures of Confinement: a history of the prison in Africa, Asia and Latin America (London, Christopher Hurst), 185-220

3. (2007) 'Gender, Subalternity and Silence: Recovering Women's Experiences from Histories of Transportation', in Anindita Ghosh, ed., Behind the Veil: Resistance, Women and the Everyday in Colonial South Asia (Basingstoke, Palgrave), 145-66

4. (2005) "The Ferringees are Flying — the ship is ours!": the convict middle passage in colonial South and Southeast Asia, 1790-1860, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 41 (3), 143-86


5. (2004), Legible Bodies: race, criminality and colonialism in South Asia (Oxford, Berg), 245pp


6. (2000), Convicts in the Indian Ocean: transportation from South Asia to Mauritius, 1815-53 (Basingstoke, Macmillan), 192pp


B. Relevant Fellowships and Grants:

G1. Caird Fellowship, National Maritime Museum, 2006-7 (£15,000).

G2. ESRC Research Fellowship, Principal Investigator, `British penal settlements in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, 1773-1906', 2002-7 (£122,374).

Details of the impact

Granting World Heritage Site Status to the Australian Convict Sites

In 2010, eleven Australian Convict Sites were granted World Heritage Site status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) [E]. Previously, UNESCO had no inscriptions for convictism, the global phenomenon of imperial expansion through forced labour, c. 1400-1960s. The inscription of the Australian Convict Sites means they are now grouped with iconic Australian World Heritage Sites like the Great Barrier Reef (inscribed in 1981) and Sydney Opera House (2007), as well as other places of un-free labour and confinement linked to slavery and the slave trade in Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, including the only other prison-related World Heritage site at Robben Island, South Africa.

UNESCO considers the Australian Convict Sites collectively as the best surviving examples anywhere in the world of large-scale convict transportation, of modern penal regimes, and of European colonial expansion through the exploitation of convict labour [C]. At the time of the nomination, and despite the key role convict transportation played in the founding of Australia as well as other locations across the world from the 17th to 20th centuries, this historical phenomenon had remained unrecognised by UNESCO.

It was in this context that the reference group drew on Anderson's publications, citing 10 books, articles and chapters (including those listed in section 3) and her two specially commissioned reports [A, B] in the nomination. On reading her research and the key reports she prepared in 2006 and 2007 for the UNESCO-bid nomination group, the Australian Government invited Anderson to join the 10-person Convict Reference Group in October 2007. She was the only member of that group based outside Australia. She read, edited and commented on the final draft of the nomination papers, which were submitted in February 2008 during a period of employment at Warwick (1.10.2007 - 31.7.2011). Anderson returned to employment at the University of Leicester on 1.08.2011.

In sum, the Australian government was able to claim the uniqueness of the nominated convict sites because of Anderson's expert knowledge and analysis not only of Australian penal colonies, but their relationship to comparable sites in Latin America, Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Bay of Bengal and the Pacific.

Anderson's contribution allowed the 252-page nomination document to assert confidently that, "The Australian Convict Sites are unparalleled in the world today as an outstanding example of the forced migration of convicts . . . The analysis is based on extensive studies of convict sites and non-convict sites around the world undertaken by international experts in 2006 and 2007". After the nomination was published in 2008, the Australian Government's Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts wrote to Anderson to thank her for her "on-going support and assistance". The letter noted: "The wide ranging advice and information you provided were invaluable to the completion of our nomination. We very much appreciated being able to draw on your extensive knowledge and expertise in this field" [D].

Development of Tourism at the Australian Convict Sites

The World Heritage site status for the 11 convict sites has had two major effects. Firstly, it has boosted Australia's foreign tourist industry, which was in total worth A$102 billion (£60 billion) in 2012/13, and directly employs more than half a million people. Before World Heritage Status was granted, visitor numbers at many of the convict sites was comparatively small. Hyde Park Barracks, in Sydney, for example, averaged between 250 and 400 visitors per weekend. The Nomination document admitted: "There are no current major visitor pressures at any of the sites". In 2010, the year of UNESCO inscription, Hyde Park Barracks received 185,526 visitors, an average of more than 3,500 a week.

The amount of conservation money spent on many of the sites has risen significantly. For example, The Port Arthur historic site management authority in Tasmania reports a conservation expenditure of A$3.7 million in 2010/11, the year after inscription, compared with A$2.4 million in 2004/5, before the World Heritage bid began — an increase of around 46% in six years. This has led to the significant development of the interpretation galleries of the various sites. This includes the new A$374,000 yard and conservation works at the Cascades Female Factory in Tasmania, which was launched on 14 August 2013, attended by Anderson [F].

Related to the larger acknowledgement of Australian convict history as part of global convict history has been a move towards the celebration of the convict origins of the nation's colonial past. In 2010, after inscription, Australian government minister David O'Byrne said: "Obtaining World Heritage recognition of the importance of our convict past at an international level is a significant milestone ... Many Australians now seek to connect with their convict ancestors". In January 2010, shortly after the 11 Australian convict sites were inscribed, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told an Australia Day function that he had two convict ancestors himself. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that "Mr Rudd appeared proud of his convict ancestry", attesting to changing public attitudes towards this element of Australia's colonial heritage.

Sources to corroborate the impact

A. Clare Anderson, Report to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (unpublished, 2006) [pdf available on request].

B. Clare Anderson, Report to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (unpublished, 2007). [pdf available on request].

C. Australian Government, Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Nomination, Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (Canberra, 2008) (especially parts 3 and 7)

D. Letter from Assistant Secretary, Natural and Indigenous Heritage Branch, Dept. of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Australian Government, to Clare Anderson, 11 July 2008.

E. UNESCO: Inscription of Australian Convict Sites,

F. New visitor experience launched at Cascades Female Factory, Tasmania,