Kathrin Levitan – ‘I Expect the Ship to Sail every Day’: Convicts and the Post in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Australia


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Kathrin Levitan (College of William and Mary) – ‘I Expect the Ship to Sail every Day’: Convicts and the Post in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Australia

The rise and fall of nineteenth-century British convict transportation coincided with dramatic technological changes in communication and travel.  The railroad and the steamship quickened transportation links within Britain and between Britain and its Empire, while the 1840s postal reforms in Britain transformed the ways in which people communicated and created new opportunities for people from every kind of economic background to write and receive letters.  The increasing communication possibilities within Britain changed the ways in which emigrants, and more specifically convicts, understood their migration, and they raise questions about what convict transportation meant for people’s sense of geographic mobility and relations with friends and family.

Many of the convicts who were sent from Britain to the Australian penal colonies in the nineteenth century assumed that they would never see their families again. Yet at least some of them did take consolation in their ability to communicate by letter.  Historians have mined convict letters in order to gather information about the convict experience.  But it is also worth examining convicts’ explicit views of the letter-writing process and its opportunities.  Did convicts, despite their imposed exile and the many barriers they faced, embrace nineteenth-century communication technologies as did others in the Empire?  Did their status as convicts limit their access to such technologies? Like nineteenth-century letter-writers in Britain, convicts and other emigrants were very aware of the technicalities of the post: how frequently it came and went, how long the walk to the post office was, and how sending and receiving mail differed in rural and urban areas.  Their letters demonstrate that letter-writing was not only an activity or a task but a self-reflexive process, and they allow us to examine the ways in which convicts were affected by, and understood, changing technologies that originated in the metropole.


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