Martyr and Conviction Politics

Two major projects, Martyr and Conviction Politics, will shed new light on the activism by thousands of political prisoners and ordinary convicts sent to Australia in the 18th and 19th century. The projects examine how these middle and working class political activists shaped rights for freedom of speech, universal suffrage and the reform of the electoral system workers’ rights in the UK, Australia and the USA.


Thomas Muir by David Martin, 1790, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland


Martyr is a new documentary underway that draws on a range of original sources and archives – letters, pamphlets, court and parliamentary transcripts, journalism, poetry and songs – to extend research on Scottish hero Thomas Muir in Associate Professor Tony Moore’s book, Death or Liberty: Rebels & Radicals transported to Australia 1788-1868. Muir was the first political prisoner transported to Australia in 1794, for the ‘sedition’ of advocating in public speeches the democratisation of the British constitution and distributing Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Associate Professor Moore, a producer and researcher on the documentary film, is currently in the UK where he is working on the Martyr Treatment with co-producers Roar Film (Australia), MacTV (Scotland) and Tile Films (Ireland). Their Martyr  workshop is taking place at the world-leading international documentary festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest (9-14 June).



Commissioned bust of Thomas Muir by celebrated Scottish artist Alexander Stoddart. On permanent exhibition at Bishopbriggs library. Replica made for the Museum of Australian Democracy.

Coincidentally, as Scotland gears up for their second referendum for independence, which has been requested by the Scottish Chief Minister as a consequence of Brexit, a fresh appreciation is mounting, commemorating Muir as the ‘father of Scottish democracy’, for principled martyrdom 250 years ago.

A prodigy who commenced university studies at age 12, Muir graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Law and practiced at the Scottish Bar. A charismatic reform advocate inspired by both the American and French Revolutions, he was known to draw crowds with his gift of oratory, and reach many more through his engagement with the new media of the day, especially pamphleteering.

Sentenced to 14 years transportation in 1793, Muir was the first of five Scottish Martyrs, whose example inspired the democratic reform movement in Britain in the next century, and ensured the seeds of radical liberalism were planted early in the new colony of NSW. At his trial, Muir claimed loyalty to parliament in his fight for the rights of Britons, asserting his crime was: ‘having dared to be … a strenuous and active advocate for an equal presentation of the People–in the House of the people. It is a good cause–it shall ultimately prevail–it shall finally triumph.


Thomas Muir, The Scottish fighter for the rights of the poor and the oppressed Thomas Muir (1765-1799)

His defence of media freedom still resonates today, as does his excitement at the impact of new media networks to liberate politics, asking the jury whether suppression of literature was even possible in an age where ‘the works of Mr Burke and Thomas Paine, flew with a rapidity to every corner of the land, hitherto unexampled in the history of political science.’

Complimentary to Martyr is the digital humanities ARC Linkage project in development, Conviction Politics, which maps coded digitised data sets from the convict records and colonial newspapers to investigate the emergence of collective resistance to exploitation of the 160,000 ordinary convicts and their connections with the 3,600 political prisoners brought to Australia in 1788-1868. The project will communicate the convict contribution to political and social democratic rights through a transmedia hub visualising the data findings, linking annotated archives, collections and featuring 100 smart-phone accessible micro-documentaries revealing the stories of these individuals and movements that advanced workers and citizens’ rights in their homelands and colonial Australia.

Courtesy Roar Film

Led by the School of Media, Film & Journalism’s Associate Professor Moore, Conviction Politicsis a collaboration between history, media studies and digital scholars drawn from the Faculty of Arts and IT and Monash University, and the University of Tasmania, Australian Catholic University and Griffith University. Major industry partners for Conviction Politics are Roar Film (Australia), trade unions, and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka, that will be curating a travelling digital exhibition.

‘Why do men who have bullets and silver, fear those who want no more than ballots and bread?’

Whilst in the UK, Associate Professor Tony Moore will also meet with potential partners for Conviction Politics, including the UK Trades Union Congress, the People’s History Museum Manchester, the Gwent Archive Wales, and the Bentham project, University College London.

Conviction Politics brings together Australian and international partners to reveal those who took a stand against exploitation, colonisation and political oppression in the old world and enforced labour on stolen Aboriginal land in Australia, and fought for many of the rights we take for granted today.


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