Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia



"For a country devoid of possessions, deprived of family, stripped of identity and sentenced to hard labour in an unfamiliar land, a tattoo provided a link with what had been lost."
Tattoos were once the mark of crims and the navy, and indeed it is interesting to learn that in colonial Australia, convicts viewed their tattoos as a kind of link to their old world.
A new book to come into Auckland Libraries is this intriguing background on the tattoos of convicts in Australia - Convict Tattoos by Simon Barnard.
Many convicts came from the UK tattooed, and these were recorded as they arrived in Australia, as a way of identifying the individual.
Names and dates were popular, but also initials, symbolic images of religious belief and patriotism, along with good old decoration. Both men and women were tattooed and one of the most popular images was the anchor, often used to signify hope, and, with the added cross, hope in salvation.  Convict Sydney Harris had the word 'hope', an anchor, his initials, and the year of his conviction tattooed.
Indeed, those who didn't possess tattoos posed more of a challenge for those in authority, who would list physical details in the register of convicts in the Black Books.
One prisoner, Isaac Comer, had his tattoos written about in The Mercury (Hobart) July 5 1871 as follows:
"Yesterday a prisoner named Isaac Comer, who has a string of convictions against his name quite appalling, but who after a long prison life has been at liberty since 1857, has his body nearly covered with marks indelibly tatooed into the skin. The following almost incredible list of such marks should, we imagine, leave no doubt as to his identity should he at any future time be required; - on his right arm - man smoking a pistol; SC; woman with glass; Jane Bell; woman and man smoking a pipe (etc)
It is possible, according to the author, that once in the colonies, because of the surveillance on the convicts via tattoo, getting tattooed wasn't as popular as it was back home.
This is a fascinating and easy read, and puts a whole new perspective on the significance of tattoos in the past. There are heaps of images, although the images of pieces of tattooed skin may, for the squeamish of us, be best skipped over - especially those pieces not attached to an actual body(!)
Note that there are borrowable copies within Auckland Libraries.
Joanne
Central Research

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