A Convict’s Lament
This internet work is featured on the National Museum of Australia website. It can be found at nma
Prison is designed to revoke one’s liberties as both a punishment and a deterrent. Prisoner uniforms symbolise a loss of freedom and individuality. In a country such as Australia where nearly 20 per cent of the population is descended from convicts, it is therefore important to try and unmask these men and women to better understand their lives.
My work aims to let the convict uniform tell the story of its wearer. I was able to bring a sense of authenticity to the piece by using the medium of embroidery and letting the needle and thread illustrate the narrative. I chose to work with the events described in the Australian folk song Moreton Bay by Francis MacNamara (Frank the Poet) in order to broaden my message and help people empathise with stories of their own ancestors.
During renovations to the Commandant’s Cottage in Granton, Tasmania, a number of artefacts were uncovered. Among them was a handmade convict shirt, worn by one of the 200 convicts tasked with building the Commandant’s Cottage in the 1830s.
The reasons I was drawn to this object and its story was because of the mysteries surrounding its origin. The identity of the wearer is unknown and there is even uncertainty over the exact meaning of the acronym ‘BPC.’ printed on the front.
These missing details made me both curious about the life of the original wearer, and frustrated that his story will perhaps forever go untold. There is also an irony in realising that the only reason we are interested in the identity of this unknown character is thanks to the convict garb, which was designed to make him anonymous and lessen his individuality.