There is an old and ongoing joke told in several different ways about arriving at an immigration desk in Australia.
“Do you have a criminal record, sir?” asks one official to a British traveller.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” comes the reply. “I had no idea that was still required.”
For those not in the Ashes historic loop, ye olde Britain used to send convicts to populate one of its more far-flung colonies: today’s Australia.
“Yeah, it’s not a terrible joke,” one Aussie friend tells me. “But it does get old.”
It’s a bit of sledging banter I’d largely forgotten all about until I found myself on “The Rocks” in Sydney and read the sign “retrace your convict history” as a fun pastime for school-aged children.
“Today, Australians are proud of their convict past,” an earnest woman tells me as I step over the threshold and try to smudge over the vowels of my British-sounding accent.
“What you need to remember is that these weren’t serious criminals,” she continued. “In those days, you would be hanged if you committed murder or armed robbery.
“Some of the records we have access to reveal that people were uprooted from their homes for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread, for bearing children out of wedlock, and other similar ‘offences.’
“Once they arrived, the convicts lived in houses rather than jails. They worked hard. They helped to build the city of Sydney.”
Today, you can walk through old houses on The Rocks at Susannah Place, travelling back to 1844 when the idea of a penal colony had switched to the more “conventional” European model.
Occupied by Irish immigrants, this narrow terrace seemed better designed for the damp winds of Dublin than the blistering sun and eucalyptus haze of New South Wales. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they reminded me of the terraces visible at St Fagan’s at home in Cardiff, Old South Wales. Buildings of a similar period, built with the same level of expertise.
Yet I was surprised, somehow, as I always am when I discover the tangled web that connects so much of the world in unexpected, everyday ways in unusual places.
Elsewhere, sketch drawings and exhibits tell the stories of the peoples displaced by these newcomers: the Cadigal Aboriginal population who fished with spears and whose archaeological finds reveal a diet of rock oyster, hairy mussel and bream.
Around the corner, building work on the Sydney Harbour YMCA led to the discovery of yet more secrets about The Rocks, leading to a huge archaeological area lovingly called The Big Dig. While the Cadigal lifestyle left few remains, the practice of burying rubbish beneath houses in the 19th century has resulted in artefacts galore from this period in time.
All together, it’s the tiniest of glimpses into a complicated past.
Yet it reminds me of another “standard Aussie” joke, told to me by the local-born guide in Kakadu National Park.
“What’s the difference between Australia and a yoghurt?
“If you leave it long enough, even a yoghurt can grow a culture.”
I walk past the Opera House, listen to the squidgy sound of a street performer playing the didgeridoo, step over the plaques commemorating Sydney’s Writers’ Walk and smile.
And just like that, another joke bites the dust.
Disclosure – On this occasion, I visited Sydney as a guest of Destination New South Wales. At other times, I’ve been on my own. As ever, as always, I write what I like. Otherwise, what is the point?!