Although transportation to New South Wales and Victoria had effectively ceased by the time gold was discovered in 1851, Van Diemen’s Land remained a penal colony and housed two notoriously brutal sites of secondary punishment – Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur. The island had a very high proportion of transportees to free settlers – in 1840 three-quarters of its inhabitants were convicts, ex-convicts or their children. In the decade leading up to the discovery of gold, more than 25,000 convicts were added to the existing population of fewer than 60,000 people.
On the mainland, those who hailed from the island colony were known as ‘Vandiemonians’ or ‘Vandemonians’. The second moniker referenced the place where they had (usually) served time but, as Bruce Moore notes, it also ‘blended with the word demon.’ These ‘demons’ flooded into Victoria in the early days of the gold rushes – in the second half of 1851 there were more recorded immigrants from Van Diemen’s Land than from New South Wales and South Australia combined. A significant proportion of these emigrated as ex-convicts, but it’s speculated that many more ex-convicts (not to mention those who had escaped) chose to cross Bass Strait unannounced. Geoffrey Serle suggests Vandemonians were largely responsible for the increase in crime recorded in the colony at this time. The majority of contemporary observers certainly considered them as a severe threat to law and order on the goldfields. Typical of this view was Mrs Clacy’s condemnation of them as ‘refuse’ and ‘men of the most depraved and abandoned characters, who have sought and gained the lowest abyss of crime …’
Efforts to stem the flow of Vandemonians led to the Convicts Prevention Act of 1852. Criticised by some at the time as ‘illiberal’ and ‘arbitrary’, this legislation attempted to stop convicts who had conditional pardons from landing in Victoria. The fear and hatred these new immigrants inspired also helped generate support for the anti-transportation movement, headed by the Australasian League. By the end of 1852, its fierce lobbying had led to a decision to end transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. Sir John Pakington suggested resistance in the colony had become so strong that a policy of transportation could only continue to be enforced if it were backed by military might. Further, given the gold rushes, Pakington pointed out that transportation might now ‘be taken as a very great boon’ rather than a punishment.