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Memory of the World

State Records listed in Memory of the World register

Documents of world significance - 2007

We are pleased to announce that the Convict Records held by State Records NSW, the Archives Office of Tasmania and the State Records Office of Western Australia have been accepted for inscription on the Memory of the World International Register. This is a great honour for Australia and archives in general and for State Records NSW in particular.

Unesco Certificate

The inclusion of the Convict Records in the Memory of the World Register took place in Pretoria, Republic of South Africa in June 2007.

The inclusion of this documentary heritage in the Memory of the World Register reflects its exceptional value and signifies that it should be protected for the benefit of humanity
- Excerpt from the letter sent by UNESCO

Listing on the Australian UNESCO Register - 2006

The Convict records held by State Records were inscribed on the Australian UNESCO Memory of the World Project Register at a ceremony at the Sydney Records Centre on Monday 20 February 2006. Chris Puplick (former Liberal Senator and NSW Privacy Commissioner) presided over the proceedings.

These records, covering the period 1788–1842, constitute a unique resource that over the years has been used extensively by researchers to produce a wide range of books, publications and web resources on convicts and convict life in New South Wales. It is one of the most important and extensive penology archives in the world.

The records of the Tasmanian Convict Department 1803–93 were also inscribed in the same ceremony. Other important key Australian historical documents already on the register include Captain Cook's Endeavour Journal and the Eddie Mabo papers both from the National Library of Australia.

Memory of the World Certificate

Acceptance speech by Shirley Fitzgerald

The foundations of Sydney's society were laid through a vast social experiment. An attempt was made to create a whole new society using forced labour. Convicts: - with obligations to serve the state, but also with clearly defined rights and, eventually, freedom.

The transportation of convicts to places distant from home was nothing new. England had been sending offenders to North America and the West Indies for years. Other European governments would also come to deal with unwanted citizens in this way. What was different about the establishment of Sydney, and hence what is truly important about these records, was the idea that punishment could be turned to gain by establishing a new society.

The experiment, we like to think, was a success. Who were they, these people who were transported to Sydney? This unique collection of records, created by both the British Government and the Colonial administration, covering the period 1788-1842 (plus the 'convict exiles' from the later 1840s and 1850s) documents the 'convict careers' of over 80 000 men and women who were transported to NSW.

The Convict Indents, the key records in this collection, give us information about individuals - their age, where they lived, birthplace, trial dates, sentences. Later Indents often include annotations which lead to other important records within the 'convict collection' … records of tickets of leave, pardons, certificates of freedom and the court records for convicts who committed crimes in the colony.

These records also document the ways in which the administration evolved to manage an ever more complex society that this great experiment in punishment was creating.

So, … at one level these records are an invaluable resource for historians whether they are family historians or students of the larger questions of the economic, social, legal and political history of the origins of this place. But more than this, they contribute to our understanding of a larger question still. What will men and women make of their lives if they are given the opportunity to grow? Most of the convicts were young. Some had committed political offences, especially if they happened to be Irish. Some were murderers. But many were convicted of crimes bourn of desperation in people who were uprooted in the cruel social upheaval associated with the emergence of capitalist industrial society in Britain. The brutality of life in the late 18th Century and the outcomes of the social experiment of establishing new societies in new places contain a profound debate about the nature of humanity.

That is why these records, however valuable they are to our local and national historical understanding, contain within them the raw material to address some of the largest questions of all.