Path dependency: the convict and the pauper system of Tasmania

Dr Emma Watkins1

1University Of Birmingham

Path dependence characterizes historical sequences in which contingent events set into motion institutional patterns that have deterministic properties. This article will explore the case for path dependence in the Tasmanian institutional context. Despite alternative paths, the decision to transport convicts to Australia was taken. As such, this will be taken was the contingent starting point. Sassen (2006) describes how the development of capabilities within one social order can jump tracks to other configurations, as the initial order is deinstitutionalized (cited in Clements 2007). In line with this, the question is, can path dependence be used to understand the continuation of convict system functioning, within the inefficient pauper system? It will be argued that with the ending of transportation, the convict system continued under the facade of the pauper system (where paupers were treated like convicts, were held in convict buildings, and were presided over by those who were former convict superintendents). Indeed, many of the pauper residents were former convicts. This article will explore the influence of feedback loops, co-ordination effects and vested interests that operated through the convict institutional arrangements, which were adapted to the ‘new’ purpose of pauper ‘care’. The effects of agency, and alternative paths, will be considered. The contemporary shadow of the carceral state is argued to be enlarging non-criminal pathways to punishment. Similarly, it will be argued that in nineteenth-century Tasmania, the shadow of the penal colony acted to keep pauper-emancipists institutionalised. This article will show how reactive sequences were set in motion by the decision to transport convicts to Tasmania, and how this ultimately led to the inefficient Tasmanian pauper system (until it was swamped by exogenous shocks).


Emma is a Lecturer in Criminology and a fellow of higher education, she was awarded her PhD at University of Liverpool. That thesis led to the monograph: Life Courses of Young Convicts Transported to Van Diemen’s Land . Emma is an historical criminologist who uses digital technologies with historical documentation and criminological methodologies. An elected member of the Royal Historical Society, Emma’s current project of pauper-emancipists can be heard here.


Dec 08 2021