R4171 Convict chain gang at Hobart, 1833



This is a 22 cm x 34 cm black-and-white print from a steel engraving made by Edward Backhouse. It shows a convict chain gang going to work at Sullivans Cove in Hobart in 1833. About 21 convicts carrying picks or spades, of different racial groups, walk with chains attached to their ankles and at least one wrist. On each side of the gang are six uniformed soldiers, who carry rifles with bayonets attached. A well-dressed man with a walking stick leads the group.

Acknowledgements: Reproduced courtesy of Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania. Artwork by Edward Backhouse.

Educational value
This asset depicts a convict chain gang on its way to work in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in the 1830s.
It shows some of the hundreds of convicts who were housed in hulks at Hobart's New Wharf at the southern end of Sullivans Cove - the picks and spades suggest that these convicts may have been engaged in quarrying stone from the cliffs behind the area that is now Salamanca Place to build the row of sandstone warehouses that still lines the Wharf today.
It features uniformed soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets attached.
It shows a gentleman apparently leading the group - he may be a magistrate with authority over the gang; another class of official attached to chain gangs was the 'scourger', whose job was to flog recalcitrant convicts.
It is a print from an 1842 engraving by Edward Backhouse - it is based on an 1842 sketch by James Backhouse that, in turn, was probably based on a scene Backhouse witnessed in 1833 when he was in Van Diemen's Land; James Backhouse was a minister in the Society of Friends who spent six years as a missionary in Australia; on his return to England, he wrote 'A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies'; published in 1843 with engravings by his brother Edward, it includes information about Indigenous Australians, the convicts, the social conditions of the time and the botany of Australia.
It demonstrates how a misprint can lead to mistakes in cataloguing historic material - the image was printed in 'A Narrative of a Visit to the Australian Colonies' with the caption 'A chain gang. Convicts going to work nr. Sidney N.S.Wales'; however, elsewhere in Backhouse's book it was noted that the engraver had made a mistake in the title, which should have read 'A Chain Gang going to work at Hobart Town, Van Diemens Land [sic]'; this erratum was overlooked in cataloguing and the State Library of Tasmania incorrectly describes the image as relating to New South Wales.
It is an example of an illustration produced by engraving or etching, a skill that coexisted with woodblock printing - a mixture of wax and pitch was rubbed onto a heated plate of copper or steel, then blackened using a candle flame; the picture was copied with lead pencil onto tracing paper, which was placed face down on the treated plate and passed through a rolling press to transfer the image; the image appeared as silvery lines against a black background and these were engraved into the plate using steel needles; copper plates could produce 4,000 good impressions, but steel was more durable.
Convict labour
Military uniforms
© Curriculum Corporation, 2008, except where indicated under Acknowledgements