Australia’s documented history of sexual diversity predates the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay. Indeed, the Australian LGBTIQ history timeline begins with a 1727 shipwreck, the details recorded in a journal written by a ship’s officer.
There is no record of LGBTIQ people in First Nations communities of the pre-colonial era.
Early Australian colonists took little more than a superficial interest in First Nations peoples and their culture. The annexation of other people’s lands by the British Empire required a mindset of racial superiority. The colonists regarded Australia’s First Nations peoples as inferior. So much so, for over 200 years, few disputed the legal fiction of James Cook claiming the land for the Crown ‘terra nullius’ or uninhabited.
Additionally, First Nations peoples endured enormous social upheaval after the arrival of the First Fleet. Between smallpox and other diseases, and violence, researchers estimate that anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent of Aboriginal people in the Sydney area died within two years of the British arrival. Smallpox spread across the continent in advance of white expansion. Those who survived the epidemic then needed to contend with the well-documented frontier violence.
Later, the colonists imposed Eurocentric religious doctrine and cultural norms on the subjugated peoples in a deliberate attempt to erase supposedly inferior cultural traditions.
Australian LGBTIQ history timeline: the 1700s
After the wreck of the Zeewijk off Western Australia, the surviving crew focussed on survival and building a new boat to continue their journey to Indonesia. However, on the afternoon of 30 November 1727, crew members observed teenage sailors Adriaen Spoor and Pieter Engels engaged in “abominable and God-forsaken deeds.” A council convened by the ship’s captain condemned the two lads to a cruel death.
1787: Arthur Phillip lays down the law
In 1787, Arthur Phillip prepared to command the First Fleet on its voyage to the continent then known as New Holland. Once there, he would rule with absolute authority over the eastern half of the continent as the representative of the British Crown.
At the time, hundreds of offences carried the death penalty in Britain. However, Phillip resolved that, in the new colony, only two crimes should result in the forfeiture of the perpetrator’s life – murder and sodomy.
“For either of these crimes, I would wish to confine the criminal until an opportunity offered of delivering him to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.”
As it turned out, no charges for sodomy arose during Phillip’s tenure.
1796: Australia’s first trial for ‘that most horrid, detestable and sodomitic crime’
The Court of Criminal Jurisdiction in Sydney tried Francis Wilkinson on 23 April 1796 for “that most horrid, detestable and sodomitic crime (among Christians not to be named) called Buggery.”
Absurdly, the wording of the charge first demands Christians not name the crime… then names it. However, it is doubtful that poor Francis Wilkinson paused to ponder the absurdity. Thankfully, the Judge Advocates found him not guilty.
Australian LGBTIQ history timeline: the 1800s
1822: 30 female prisoners moved to the male prison farm at Emu Plains to offer the male prisoners an alternative to ‘unnatural crimes’.
Executions for homosexuality
Although the law decreed death by hanging for those men convicted of sodomy, relatively few actually suffered execution. Usually, the judge passed sentence and the Governor then granted a reprieve. Most ended up imprisoned with hard labour for the term of their natural life.
Historians estimate Australian colonies hung about 20 men for sodomy, usually for non-consensual acts. The last execution for the crime took place in Hobart in 1863.
Alexander Brown worked as chief mate on the British whaling ship Royal Sovereign. The ship’s steward occupied a cabin facing Brown’s. He became suspicious about the passing parade of young sailors visiting Brown in his cabin. Peering through a crack in the door, he twice saw Brown on top of other sailors. The crack did not allow him a view of the actual sex act. However, he saw the upper body of one sailor lying under Alexander and another on his hands and knees.
Once ashore in Sydney, the Attorney-General charged Alexander and three other young sailors with various counts of buggery. However, the court found all four not guilty on one charge and the Attorney-General declined to proceed with another.
That left one charge of buggery against Alexander Brown and a young sailor named variously as Richard or William Lister, Lyster or Lester.
Found guilty and sentenced to hang, the Chief Justice nevertheless pardoned the younger lad on condition he left the colony.
Alexander Brown went to his death at 9.30 am Monday 22 December 1828 for a consensual sex act.
1838: Sodom of the South
The Very Reverend Dr William Ullathorne, Catholic Vicar-General of the colonies, described New South Wales to a British inquiry into the transportation of convicts as a veritable Sodom of the South.
Ullathorne said homosexuality was very common on both Norfolk Island and at Moreton Bay. He claimed up to two-thirds of Norfolk Island’s population were implicated in homosexual ‘crimes’.
“There is another class of crimes too frightful even for the imagination of other lands; which St Paul, in detailing the vices of the heathens, had not contemplated; which were unknown to the savage, until taught by the convict. Crimes which are notorious. Crimes that, dare I describe them, would make your blood to freeze and your hair to rise erect in horror upon the pale flesh.”
There is only slight documentary evidence of lesbian activity in colonial Australia. Despite lesbians suffering the same discrimination and prejudice as gay men, actual lesbian sex acts attracted no criminal penalty. Therefore, there are few criminal records to shed light on their lives and loves.
However, during the 1840s, newspapers and government officials made copious records of the lesbian ‘flash mobs’ in Tasmania’s female factories.
1840: The female factories functioned as workhouses for female convicts. An article in a newspaper in 1840 exposed the Hobart prison as a hotbed of lesbianism. Apparently, an ‘unholy sisterhood’ ran the prison and initiated new inmates into their ‘frightful abominations’.
Over the next few years, numerous newspaper and government reports documented the lesbian loves and lusts of the female convicts.
Although both writers and officials focused on the lustful nature of the inmates, their reporting inadvertently documented the obviously devoted relationships of numerous female couples.
1846: Norfolk Island
Robert Pringle Stuart burst unannounced into the prisoner’s barracks on Norfolk Island in his investigation into the goings-on there. The acceptance of homosexual behaviour and couplings on the notorious penal island shocked him. His investigation showed up to half the population of prisoners comprised of same-sex couples.
“It is my painful duty to state… that unnatural crime is indulged in, to excess… I am told, and I believe, that upwards of 100 – I have heard that as many as 150 – couples can be pointed out… They are said to be ‘married’, ‘man and wife’ etc.
As a result of the deprivations suffered by convicts on Norfolk Island, the prisoners eventually rioted. Among the records of that riot and the ensuing judicial retribution is Australia’s earliest known gay love letter, written by one of the ring-leaders of the riot to the man he loved.
1848: Tassie’s Coal Mines, sinkholes of vice & infamy
Opened in 1833 as a place of punishment for the ‘worst of the worst’, Tassie’s convict Coal Mines quickly gained notoriety for the high level of hot, sweaty man-on-man action.
Despairing at the level of sexual activity, authorities built numerous isolation cells. They increased surprise nighttime visits to the convict accommodation. Wardens bored peepholes in the doors and shutters of the sleeping quarters so they could spy out copulating convicts. But they worried most about the dark underground passages in the Coal Mines, describing them as ‘sinkholes of vice and infamy’. So, the bureaucrats ordered additional lighting installed in the mines.
But nothing worked. Convicts are still having sex, proclaimed one report after another. In 1848, the Governor of Tasmania gave up and ordered the Coal Mines closed.
Read more: Tassie’s sinkholes of vice and infamy.
In 1859, Robert Herbert arrived in Queensland as the private secretary to the first Governor of the new colony. In one of his first acts, the Governor appointed Herbert Colonial Secretary and soon after John Bramston arrived from England and took over the role of private secretary. Herbert and Bramston met at Oxford where they shared rooms. They continued to live together when they left university. In Queensland, they bought land out of town and built a house there which they called Herston, an amalgam of their surnames. The pair spent almost twenty years together before going their separate ways, though remaining lifelong friends.
Largely unnoticed until over a century after his death, younger brother Henry followed John Bramston and Robert Herbert to Queensland. However, he stayed following their departures and made his bachelor life in the colonial city of Brisbane.
1865: Queensland removes the death penalty for sodomy.
In 1865, Queensland passed legislation removing the death penalty from the crime of anal intercourse with a human or animal. This followed the British Parliament passing similar legislation in 1861. The colony enacted three new laws as ‘Unnatural Offences’, all basically intended to target homosexual acts. The new crimes were the ‘abominable crime of buggery’ (anal sex with either human or animal), any ‘attempt to commit the said abominable crime’ and ‘indecent assault’.
1880: The execution of Captain Moonlite
Andrew George Scott once entertained the idea of following his father into the Anglican priesthood but settled on bushranging instead. Styling himself Captain Moonlite, he led a gang of young men on a crime spree across Victoria and into New South Wales. Eventually captured in a shootout, Scott was hung for his crimes on 20 January 1880. When he went to the gallows, he wore a ring woven from a lock of a gang member’s hair. Young James Nesbitt died attempting to lead police away from Scott during the shootout.
Letters later discovered by historian Garry Wotherspoon indicate he and the young gang member were lovers. In 1995, authorities finally granted Scott his final wish, denied at the time of his death. They allowed the exhumation of his remains and reburial beside those of his James Nesbitt.
1885: The introduction of the Criminal Amendment Act sees the maximum punishment for homosexual offences reduced from death to life imprisonment.
Dr Lilian Cooper and lifelong companion Miss Josephine Bedford arrived in Brisbane in 1891. The two women took a leading role in the social, medical and philanthropic life of the Queensland capital for decades. Lilian and Jo spent about six decades together. But that wasn’t enough for the two lovebirds. They decided to spend eternity in each other’s company and share a grave in Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery.
William Lygon, the 7th Earl of Beauchamp, seemed destined for a life of greatness when an aging Queen Victoria appointed him Governor of New South Wales at the age of just 27.
However, the earl’s tenure in that vice-regal office was mainly remembered for the Governor’s gaffes and his rosy-cheeked footmen.
In 1931, disgrace fell upon him. Disgrace so great, Victoria’s grandson George V said of him, “I thought men like that shot themselves.”
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