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Australian Legend, Australian Lives

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The early nineteenth century saw both the onset of Great Britain’s industrial revolution and a substantial wave of emigration to Britain’s colonies. In the Australian colony of New South Wales, the population of free immigrants grew significantly for the first time with the advent of government-assisted emigration in 1831, a time when the colony continued to receive transported convicts from Great Britain. Why did these free emigrants take the bold risk of leaving behind their homes and, furthermore, choose a penal colony for their destination? An examination of information available about the colony in the British popular press and of immigrants’ self-disclosed motivations (as recorded in diaries, reminiscences, and letters home) revealed an image of New South Wales as a place where immigrants could achieve financial stability, self-sufficiency, and access to the land. Following those personal documents through the immigrants’ early years in New South Wales uncovered the depths of the adjustment immigrants faced. Expectations set by the popular press were not always realized and immigrants found themselves living among unfamiliar types of people, including convicts. These frustrated and confounded expectations endured by some of the earliest free immigrants to the colony shaped the set of cultural values the young society embraced. As the colonies in Australia matured, a literary representation – a self-image – developed. Russel Ward christened this definitively masculine archetype the “Australian legend” and argued it evolved based on the experiences of the convicts. Yet, this thesis argues that the archetype would not have become such a recognizable embodiment of what it meant to be “Australian” had it not contained elements that also rang true to the experiences of free immigrants. The struggles they overcame, the  characteristics they naturally possessed, and the value systems they developed also aligned with the archetype, revering personal independence, perseverance, egalitarianism, and a willingness to try anything. Thus, when examining free emigration to New South Wales, representation impacted experience, but the reverse was also true.

Burkett, Melanie L. Australian Legend, Australian Lives: The Interplay Between Representations of Early Nineteenth-Century New South Wales and the Experiences of Free Immigrants. (Under the Direction of Professor Brent Sirota.)

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