Legends of convict heroism and bushranging have covered up the truth of the convict experience - but a realistic view could help rehabilitate modern criminals, international criminal historian Barry Godfrey believes.
"If we keep on reimagining these myths," Professor Godfrey said, "we don't allow the reality of offenders' lives today to come through."
Professor Godfrey, from the University of Liverpool, will deliver the annual Russel Ward Lecture at UNE tonight, honouring one of the university's greatest historians.
His free public lecture explores violence and redemption in Australia's colonial past. He will talk about how Ward, deputy chancellor in the 1980s, contributed to Australia's national story, and how convicts played a part in developing the Australian character. He will then present data from colonial era criminal records and court processes to show how people transitioned from being convicts to useful members of society.
The talk will be held in Lecture Theatre 3, Arts Building E11, UNE, from 5.30 to 6.30pm.
Convict heroism stories imagined Australia as a kind of washing machine, Professor Godfrey explained. People came here with criminal convictions, criminal records, and criminal characters - and something miraculous about Australian society laundered them into good and useful people immediately.
In actual fact, Professor Godfrey explained, the data doesn't show that at all.
Most convicts had a tough time. They struggled to make a living, and to establish themselves. Many committed low-level public order offences - drunkenness, vagrancy, and petty theft.
"Lots of people failed on the way; were recommitted; and went into Australian prisons that they built madly to take in this recidivist population," Professor Godfrey said.
"If Australian society recognised that, it might be able to think differently about offenders today."
The problem, Professor Godfrey believes, is that many people reimagine the convict experience - getting into trouble, and out of it quickly - for modern offenders today. They believe convicts should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, stop offending, and get on.
"That's not the reality today," Professor Godfrey said.
Offenders struggling with coming out of prison today need the very things convicts used to succeed: chances of employment, residential stability, largesse, and generosity of spirit - the famous Australian 'fair go'.
Professor Godfrey is a partner on a UNE-led project looking at convicts in Port Arthur. "Landscapes of Production and Punishment" - a collaboration between archaeologists, criminologists, and historians - examines how labour was used in the penal colony. It ties together archaeological remains and buildings with documents to put convicts back into real places.
The data for Australian convicts, Professor Godfrey said, is better than anywhere else in the world, thanks to colonial bureaucracy. 'Fantastic' criminal records in each state allow historians to research almost a convict's whole life, from their arrival in Australia to their death.
With Tasmanian and British colleagues, Professor Godfrey has created a Digital Panopticon (https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/), an online database of 50 million convicts in Australia and the UK between 1750 and 1925.
Now, he is working with UNE academics to create online resources so that the public can chart their ancestors' histories, or academics can study convicts' experience. He estimates 12 million people will use the website.
Professor Godfrey said it was terrific to work with UNE's archaeologists and historians, and to be in New England at this time of year. "Your winter's better than an English summer!"