[From Parliamentary Papers 1837-38, Vol. 22, pp. 5-21.]
In 1717, an Act for the further preventing Robbery, Burglary, and other Felonies, and for the more effectual Transportation of Felons was passed for Great Britain. This provided for the transportation of criminals to the American colonies where there was a shortage of servants and work-people. It was thought that by sending criminals to the colonies, those new territories would become more useful to Great Britain. The practise continued until the War of Independence; after that, a new destination was needed.
In 1770 an expedition from England lead by Captain James Cook sailed to the south Pacific in the Endeavour with a crew of 94 men, where they were to make astronomical observations. However, Cook also had secret orders from the British Admiralty to find the southern continent. They landed on the east coast of Australia on the 29 April 1770 and Cook first called the place Stingray Bay. Later he changed it to Botanist Bay and finally called it Botany Bay because of all the strange and unusual plants there. After the loss of the American colonies it was decided that Botany Bay would be an ideal place to which to send the 'undesirable' members of British society.
On 13 May 1787 the first complement of convicts sailed from Portsmouth, arriving in Botany Bay on 26 January 1788. Convicts were given sentences of seven years, fourteen years or life. However, none of them was allowed to return to Britain, on pain of death. Transportation to Tasmania effectively came to an end on 30 August 1853, the Phoebe Dunbar being the last ship to carry convicts there although convicts were transported to Western Australia until 1868.
Extracts from the Molesworth Report of 1838 describing conditions for the convicts
After sentence of transportation has been passed, convicts are sent to the hulks [decommissioned ships] or gaols, where they remain till the period of their departure arrives. On board convict vessels the convicts are under the sole control of the surgeon-superintendent, who is furnished with instructions, as to his conduct, from the Admiralty. The precautions, which have been taken against disease, and the better discipline now preserved in these ships, have applied an effectual remedy to the physical evils of the long voyage to Australia, and prevented the mortality amongst the prisoners, which prevailed to a fearful extent during the earlier periods of transportation. Little diminution, however, has taken place in those moral evils, which seem to be the necessary consequences of the close contact and communication between so many criminals, both during the period of confinement previous to embarkation, and during the weariness of a long voyage.
As soon as a convict vessel reaches its place of destination, a report is made by the surgeon-superintendent to the governor. A day is then appointed for the colonial secretary, or for his deputy, to go on board, to muster the convicts, and to hear their Complaints if they have any to make. The male convicts are, subsequently, removed to the convict barracks; the females to the penitentiaries. In New South Wales, however, regulations have lately been established, by which, in Most cases, female convicts are enabled to proceed at once from the ship to private service. It is the duty of an officer, called the principal superintendent of convicts, to classify the newly-arrived convicts; the greater portion of whom are distributed amongst the settlers as assigned servants; the remainder are either retained in the employment of the government, or some few of them are sent to the penal settlements.
In 1836 the number of assigned convicts in Van Diemen's Land was 6,475; in New South Wales in 1835 the number was 20,207. In the earlier periods of the colony of New South Wales the supply of convicts so much exceeded the demand for their services by the settlers, that the Government used to grant certain indulgences to those settlers, who were willing to maintain convicts. More recently, the demand has exceeded the supply; the obtaining convict labourers has become, therefore, to a certain degree a matter of favour, which has given rise to complaints of abuse in the distribution, especially of the more valuable convicts. All applications for convicts are now made to an officer, called the commissioner for the assignment of convict servants, who is guided in his distribution of them by certain Government regulations. Settlers, to whom convicts are assigned, are bound to send for them within a certain period of time, and to pay the sum of £1 a head for the clothing and bedding of each assigned convict. An assigned convict is entitled to a fixed amount of food and clothing, consisting, in New South Wales, of 12 lbs. of wheat, or of an equivalent in flour and maize meal, 7 lbs. of mutton or beef, or 4½ lbs. of salt pork, 2oz. of salt, and 2 oz. of soap weekly; two frocks or jackets, three shirts, two pair of trousers, three pair of shoes, and a hat or cap, annually. Each man is likewise supplied with one good blanket, and a paliasse or wool mattress, which are considered the property of the master. Any articles, which the master may supply beyond these, are voluntary indulgences. The allowance in Van Diemen's Land [Tasmania] differs in some particulars, and on the whole is more liberal.
Male assigned convicts may be classed under the various heads of field labourers, domestic servants, and mechanics: the services of the last class being of more value than those of the two former, are estimated in assignment as equal to those of two or more field labourers. In the assignment of convicts scarcely any distinction is made either on account of the period of the sentence, or on account of the age, the character, or the nature of the offence of the convict. The previous occupation of a convict in this country mainly determines his condition in the penal colonies. For instance, domestic servants, transported for any offence, are assigned as domestic servants in Australia: for the greater portion of such servants in those colonies, even in the establishments of the wealthiest classes, have hitherto been transported felons. They are well fed, well clothed, and receive wages from £10 to £15 a year, and are as well treated in respectable families, as similar descriptions of servants are in this country. In many instances, masters have even carried to an illegal extent their indulgences to their convict servants.
Convicts, who are mechanics, are as well, if not better, treated, than those, who are domestic servants; for as every kind of skilled labour is very scarce in New South Wales, a convict, who has been a blacksmith, carpenter, mason, cooper, wheelwright, or gardener, is a most valuable servant, worth three or four ordinary convicts; he is eagerly sought after, and great interest is made to obtain him. As a mechanic can scarcely be compelled by punishment to exert his skill, it is for the interest of the master to conciliate his convict mechanic in order to induce him to work well; in too many cases this is effected by granting to the skilled convict various indulgences; by paying him wages; by allotting to him task work, and by permitting him, after the performance of the task, to work on his own account; and, lastly, by conniving at, or overlooking disorderly conduct; for the most skilful mechanics are generally the worst behaved, and most drunken.
The condition, however, of by far the most numerous class of convicts, those, who are employed, as shepherds or neatherds [cowherd], (of whom in 1837 there were above 8,000 in New South Wales), and in agriculture generally, is undoubtedly inferior to that of a convict, who is either a domestic servant or a mechanic; they are, however, according to most of the witnesses better fed, than the generality of agricultural labourers in this country; most masters either pay them wages in money, or give them, instead of money, tea, sugar, tobacco, spirits, and other trifling indulgences.
On the whole, therefore, Your Committee may assert that, in the families of well conducted and respectable settlers, the condition of assigned convicts is much the same, as the condition of similar descriptions of servants in this country; but this is by no means the case in the establishments of all settlers. As the lot of a slave depends upon the character of his master, so the condition of a convict depends upon the temper and disposition of the settler, to whom he is assigned. On this account Sir George Arthur, late Governor of Van Diemen's Land, likened the convict to a slave, and described him "as deprived of liberty, exposed to all the caprice of the family, to whose service he may happen to be assigned, and subject to the most summary laws;" "his condition (said Sir George) in no respect differs from that of the slave, except that his master cannot apply corporal punishment by his own hands, or those of his overseer, and has a property in him for a limited period. Idleness and insolence of expression, or of looks, anything betraying the insurgent spirit, subject him to the chaingang or the triangle, or hard labour on the roads." Sir R. Bourke, the late Governor of New South Wales, has designated as a slave code, the law which, in that colony, enables a magistrate, generally himself a master of convicts, to inflict 50 lashes on a convict for drunkenness, disobedience of orders, neglect of work, absconding, abusive language to his master or overseer, or any other disorderly or dishonest conduct." For these offences the convict may likewise be punished by imprisonment, solitary confinement, and labour in irons on the roads. That this law is by no means inoperative, is proved by the fact that, in 1835, the number of summary convictions in New South Wales amounted to 22,000, though the number of convicts in the colony did not exceed 28,000; that in one month in 1833, 247 convicts were flogged in that colony, and 9,784 lashes inflicted, which would give for the year, 2,964 floggings, and above 108,000 lashes inflicted chiefly for insolence, insubordination, and neglect of work. In Van Diemen's Land the law, which determines the condition of a convict servant, is severer, and the number of summary convictions proportionately more numerous, than in New South Wales. In 1834 the number of convicts in Van Diemen's Land was about 15,000; the summary convictions amounted to about 15,000; and the number of lashes inflicted was about 50,000. On the other hand, a convict, if ill treated, may complain of his master; and if he substantiate his charge, the master is deprived of his services; but for this purpose the convict must go before a bench, sometimes 100 miles distant, composed of magistrates, most of whom are owners of convict labour. Legal redress is therefore rarely sought for, and still more rarely obtained by the injured convict.
With regard to the general conduct of assigned convicts, Your Committee would observe, that the misconduct and licentiousness of convict mechanics, and of convict domestic servants in the towns were complained of by every witness connected with either penal colony. Mr. Burton, judge of the Supreme Court in New South Wales, in a charge delivered in 1835, attributed to convict servants the number of burglaries and robberies, which were committed in Sydney; and it was the opinion of most of the witnesses from New South Wales, that the assignment of convicts in towns should be immediately discontinued.
With regard to the general conduct of assigned agricultural labourers, there was a considerable diversity of opinion amongst the witnesses examined by Your Committee; convict labourers were said to behave ill or well, according as they were treated by their masters. The evidence, however, of Sir G. Arthur, appears to Your Committee to be conclusive on this point, with regard to which he wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in the following terms:
You cannot, my Lord, have an idea of the vexations, which accompany the employment of convicts, or of the vicissitudes attendant upon their assignment. Their crimes and misconduct involve the settlers in daily trouble, expense, and disappointment. The discipline and control of the convicts in Van Diemen's Land is carried, perhaps, to a higher degree, than could ever have been contemplated. Many of the convicts have been greatly reformed, when in the service of considerate and judicious masters; but, with all this abatement, there is so much peculation, so much insubordination, insolence, disobedience of lawful orders, and so much drunkenness, that reference to the magisterial authority is constant, and always attended with loss of time and expense to the settlers. There can be no doubt, things appear better in the colony than they really are; for, in numberless instances, masters are known to submit to peculation rather than incur the additional expense of prosecuting their servants. Two hundred felons, after having been for a long time under confinement in the gaols or hulks of England, and subsequently pent up on board a transport, are placed in charge of the masters or their agents, to whom they have been assigned. The master has then to take the convict to his home (either to the other extremity of the island, a distance of 140 miles, or nearer, as the case may be); and well would it be, if he could get him quietly there, but the contrary is of too frequent occurrence. Whether with some money the convict has secreted, or from the bounty of some old acquaintance, the assigned servant, now relieved for the first time for some months from personal restraint, eludes the vigilance of his new master, finds his way into a public house, and the first notice the settler has of his servant, for whom he has travelled to Hobart Town, for whose clothing he has paid the Government, for whose comfort he has, perhaps, made other little advances, is, that he is lodged in the watch house with the loss of half his clothing, or committed to gaol for felony.
This is not in the slightest degree, an overdrawn picture, but a plain matter of every day occurrence. A settler, newly arrived, thinks it a vexation not to be endured; but he soon falls into compliance with difficulties, which are visited alike upon all; and, finding there is no escape from them, he is forced to participate in the common mischief, which he cannot avert.
From the preceding description of the condition of assigned convicts, the great inequality of that punishment must have been apparent; but on this subject Your Committee would now wish to direct the attention of the House to the written opinions of some of the highest authorities in the penal colonies. Amongst others to that of the late Governor of New South Wales, Sir R. Bourke, who stated that;
It is one of the most apparent and necessary results of the system of assignment to render the condition of convicts, so placed, extremely unequal, depending, as it must, on a variety of circumstances, over which the Government cannot possibly exercise any control. It would be quite impracticable to lay down regulations, sufficient to remedy this inequality. The temper, character, station in society of the master, the occupation in which it might be found convenient to employ their servant, and the degree of connexion or variance, that might happen to subsist between this and his previous habits, have an immeasurable influence over his condition, both physical and mental, which no regulations whatever can anticipate or control.
Assignment is the punishment for female, as well as for male convicts; the proportion of the former to the latter is about one to ten. In respectable families the condition of convict women, as respects their food, clothing, and indulgences, is much the same as that of women servants in this country. Their general conduct, according to the testimony of every witness, examined before Your Committee, is (to use the words of Sir E. Parry) "as bad as anything could well be;" he could "hardly conceive anything worse." At times they are excessively ferocious, and the tendency of assignment is to render them still more profligate; they are all of them, with scarcely an exception, drunken and abandoned prostitutes; and even were any of them inclined to be well conducted, the disproportion of sexes in the penal colonies is so great, that they are exposed to irresistible temptations; for instance, in a private family, in the interior of either colony, a convict woman, frequently the only one in the service, perhaps in the neighbourhood, is surrounded by a number of depraved characters, to whom she becomes an object of constant pursuit and solicitation; she is generally obliged to select one man, as a paramour, to defend her from the importunities of the rest; she seldom remains long in the same place; she either commits some offence, for which she is returned to the Government; or she becomes pregnant, in which case she is sent to the factory, to be there confined at the expense of the Government; at the expiration of the period of confinement or punishment, she is reassigned, and again goes through the same course; such is too generally the career of convict women, even in respectable families. It can be easily imagined, what a pernicious effect must be produced upon the character of the rising generation of the Australian colonies, in consequence of the children of settlers being, too frequently, in their tenderest years, under the charge of such persons. Many respectable settlers are, however, unwilling to receive convict women as assigned servants, when they can possibly dispense with the services of females; and in many instances convict men servants are preferred for those domestic occupations, which are performed in this country by women only. A considerable portion, therefore, of the female convicts are retained in the service of the lower description of settlers, by whom, it is notorious, that they are not uncommonly employed as public prostitutes.
Female convicts are allowed to marry free men, but they remain under the surveillance of the police, and are liable to be sent back to the factory in case of misconduct; marriages between female convicts and persons who have been convicts are encouraged; and the Government even permits the marriage of convicts in assigned service, provided that the permission of the master is obtained, and a security given by the master to the Government, that the offspring will not become chargeable to the state. From the female factory at Paramatta, most of the convicts, who are permitted to marry, obtain their wives. Such marriages among convicts rarely however turn out well; for the woman not unfrequently becomes the common property of the convict servants on the establishment; and gives rise to innumerable quarrels among the men, who purchase her favours generally by petty larcenies upon their masters.
In delineating the characteristic features and effects of the assignment system Your Committee have abstained from dwelling upon the enormous and complicated abuses, which at times have existed, and which perhaps even now, in spite of the utmost efforts of the colonial authorities, exist in various parts of that system; those abuses may chiefly be summed up under the following heads. First, the assignment of convicts to their wives or other relations, that have followed them to the colony, with the proceeds of the offences, for which they were transported, and upon which they have set up a profitable business, have become wealthy, and thus have held out to their acquaintances in this country strong temptations to pursue a similar career of crime; second the employment of convicts as clerks in the various departments of Government, where they have had means of acquiring knowledge, of which the most corrupt and dangerous use has been made; third, the employment of convicts, as clerks to attornies, with free access to the gaols, which has given rise in the colony to an unparalleled system of bribery and connivance at crime; at one time even the clerk of the Attorney general was a convict, and performed all the legal business of his master; and lastly, the entrusting to convicts of the education of youth in the various public seminaries; the connexion of convicts with the press; these and other abuses, of which mention is to be found in every page of the evidence, appear, to a greater or less degree, to be inherent in the system of assignment.
The convicts under the immediate charge of the Government in the Australian colonies, may be divided into those who are retained in the service of the Government merely because they are required as labourers, those who are returned by their masters as unfit for service, those who having suffered for some offence committed in the colony, are retained for a certain period of probation in the employment of the Government, and those who, for crimes committed in the colonies, are worked on the roads generally in irons, or are sent to the penal settlements.
To commence with a description of the first class of convicts, those who are retained in the service of the Government, not as an additional punishment. On the arrival of a convict vessel in the penal colonies of Australia, an application is made to the assignment commissioner from the proper authorities for the number of the convicts who are required for the service of the Government. These convicts are selected without reference to their past conduct, except that prisoners who are described to be of very depraved character are not usually assigned to settlers, and remain under the charge of the Government; in some few cases directions to this effect are sent out from England. In Van Diemen's Land all mechanics are retained in the service of the Government, and placed either in the engineer department or in the loan-gang; a few convicts likewise are selected out of every ship for the police. In the year 1835, out of 14,903 convicts in Van Diemen's Land there were in the road department, 1,687; engineer ditto, 516; miscellaneous, including marine survey, &c., 716; constables and field police, 338; total, 3,257. There are no returns of a similar description with regard to New South Wales. It appears, however, that the number of convicts retained (not as punishment) on the public works in the latter colony, has, of late years considerably decreased; and most of those works are now performed by contract.
Convicts in the employment of Government are generally worse off than those assigned as servants; they are employed chiefly on the public works of the colony; some of them are, however, in situations of comparative ease, such as clerks, messengers, constables in the police and so forth, in which services (Sir George Arthur says) it is a necessary evil to employ convicts. That it must be an enormous evil to employ convicts, or persons that have been convicts, in the police, especially in such communities as New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, seems to Your Committee to be a self evident proposition. Many of the convicts so employed appear to have been of the worse possible character; willing to take bribes; conniving at the offences of the convict population; when employed as scourgers, defeating the sentence of the law; sometimes bringing false accusations against innocent persons, other times screening the guilty from justice; committing outrages on female prisoners committed to their charge; and, in short, frequently defeating all the efforts of the Government to prevent crime. In the present state of Van Diemen's Land, Sir George Arthur thought it impossible to obtain a police of free emigrants: some three or four years ago he said that he took into the police a number of Chelsea pensioners and of free emigrants, but they proved worse than the convicts.
Large parties of convicts, called road parties, are employed in making roads in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land; these parties consist mostly of convicts who have been returned to Government by their masters as being unfit for service, and of convicts who, having been convicted of some offence in the colony, have been sent on the expiration of their sentence, to work for a certain period on the roads before they were re-assigned. The conduct of this description of convicts is described in the charge, already referred to, of Judge Burton:
Judge Burton said, that "he had been induced, by what had been proved before him in that court, gravely to consider the subject of convicts working in gangs out of irons; it was, he felt convinced, one of the most fruitful sources of crime in the colony. He had before him a return, from which it appeared that the number of convicts at this time employed upon the roads is 2,240, of whom 1, 104 are out of irons; and when the jury considered who these latter men were, and what they had been; placed under the guardianship of a convict overseer; that they left their huts in any number, armed or unarmed, as they pleased; in short, from the evidence he had upon his notes respecting the conduct of the road parties of the colony, it would appear that those establishments were like bee-hives, the inhabitants busily pouring in and out, but with this difference, the one works by day, the other by night; the one goes forth to industry, the other to plunder. To the carelessness or worse conduct of overseers he did attribute a vast proportion of the burglaries and robberies that were committed in country districts."
As the charge of Judge Burton must of itself be considered the best possible evidence which can be adduced upon this subject, it is unnecessary, in order to confirm the facts therein stated, to refer in detail to the unanimous testimony of every witness who has been examined. Every one of those witnesses spoke in the strongest terms of the disorders, crimes, and demoralization which were occasioned in the colony of New South Wales by the road parties. Composed entirely of criminals, some of them of the very worst character (all of them ultimately degraded and demoralized by associating together), these parties were dispersed over a wide extent of country, under a most incomplete and inefficient system of superintendence, with overseers most of whom had been convicts, and in many cases with convicts for the deputy overseers, to whose sole charge the road parties were sometimes left for many days. Prisoners in the road parties were sometimes in league with the convict servants of the neighbouring settlers, upon whose property they committed every description of depredation, the fruits of which were consumed in intoxication and other debauchery. The condition of convicts in the road parties on the whole appears to have been a more disagreeable one than that of assigned servants; the former are subjected to a greater degree of restraint than assigned convicts. The nature of the work of convicts in road parties, particularly that of breaking stones under a hot sun, was irksome, though the quantity of work which they performed was very slight. Nevertheless, the example of these parties had so demoralizing an effect upon convicts in private establishments, that an idle and worthless convict often preferred being in a road party; and convicts, who disliked the masters to whom they were assigned, sometimes endeavoured to get themselves sent to a road party, in hopes that, after the expiration of their punishment, they might be assigned to a better situation. Road parties out of irons have been nearly discontinued in New South Wales; and the few, which have been kept up since January 1837, are placed under such regulations, as it is hoped will diminish, to a certain extent, some of the above mentioned abuses. Many persons connected with that colony consider that, in its present state, the road parties are a necessary evil, because, in their opinion, it would be impossible to obtain a sufficient supply of free labour to repair the roads, and free labourers would consider themselves degraded by an occupation that had been a punishment for convicts. Moreover, free labourers would not submit to the same degree of superintendence and discipline as convicts; and it is said they would probably, therefore, commit outrages as great, if not greater than those committed by convicts. General Bourke likewise observed, "that, great as the complaints are which are made by a certain portion of the colonists on account of the crimes committed by the road parties, still greater is the demand for good roads; and if those parties were broken up, they would probably be regretted in the colony."
Convicts, it has already been observed, are subjected to a particular code of laws, for neglect of convict discipline and other offences. Female convicts are punished by being sent to the penitentiaries, where, according to the nature of their offence, they are either placed in solitary confinement with bread and water, or employed in picking wool or in breaking stones; some few are sent to the penal settlements of Moreton Bay. The labour imposed on women in the factory at Paramatta in New South Wales is said to be very slight, and many convicts prefer being sent there to being assigned. Assigned convict women, who are with child, are generally returned to the factory when near their period of confinement; they are placed in a separate class, intermediate between the punishment class and that of the women who are waiting to be assigned. This class appears to be a very numerous one, as, out of 590 females in the factory at Paramatta in 1836, 108 were nursing children; what portion of the remainder were pregnant women is not stated; at the same time there were in the factory 136 children between the ages of one and three years, the illegitimate children of convicts. The factory at Paramatta is, therefore, in reality, a lying in hospital; it appears to have been, up to a very late period, under very inefficient superintendence; but this has recently been changed. In the penitentiaries at Hobart Town and Launceston, in Van Diemen's Land, the female convicts are employed in spinning, picking wool, and needlework; the punishment is said to be somewhat severe.
Your Committee will now proceed to examine the nature of the punishments inflicted, which, says Captain Maconochie, "are severe, even, to excessive cruelty. Besides corporal punishment to the extent of 50 to 75 lashes, and even, in some rare instances, 100 lashes, solitary confinement, and months, or even years, of hard labour in chains (on the roads or at a penal settlement) are lightly ordered for crimes in themselves of no deep dye; petty thefts (chiefly in order to obtain liquor), drunkenness, insolence, disobedience, desertion, quarrelling among themselves, and so forth."
Most convicts have a greater dread of flagellation than of hard work in the road-parties or in the chain gangs. Settlers generally prefer flagellation as a punishment for their convict servants; for though it excites revengeful feelings in offenders, it occasions less interruption of work ... ample proofs are to be found of the severity with which this punishment is inflicted in New South Wales. The condition of the road parties has already been described. In 1834 the number of convicts in the chain gangs of New South Wales was about 1,000, and in those of Van Diemen's Land in 1837 about 700; this description of punishment is a very severe one. Sir G. Arthur said, "as severe a one as could be inflicted on man." Sir R. Bourke stated, "that the condition of the convicts in the chain gangs was one of great privation and unhappiness." They are locked up from sunset to sunrise in the caravans or boxes used for this description of persons, which hold from 20 to 28 men, but in which the whole number can neither stand upright nor sit down at the same time (except with their legs at right angles to their bodies), and which, in some instances, do not allow more than 18 inches in width for each individual to lie down upon on the bare boards; they are kept to work under a strict military guard during the day, and liable to suffer flagellation for trifling offences, such as an exhibition of obstinacy, insolence, and the like; being in chains, discipline is more easily preserved amongst them, and escape more easily prevented than among the road parties out of chains. This description of punishment belongs to a barbarous age, and merely tends to increase the desperation of the character of an offender. The nature of the duty imposed upon the military in guarding the chaingangs has the worst effects upon the character and discipline of the soldiers. Colonel Breton, who commanded a regiment in New South Wales, stated that it produced the greatest demoralization among the troops, and the men became reckless; the demoralization arose, he said, partly from drunkenness, of which there was much amongst the troops in that country; he had no less than 16 soldiers transported to Norfolk Island, all of them from being drunk on sentry; demoralization was likewise produced amongst the troops by their intercourse with the prison population, which could not be prevented, because many of the men found their fathers, brothers, and other relations, amongst the convicts. The same gentleman stated that a convict assigned to a good master is quite as well off as any servant in England, and better off than a soldier; and that two of the men in his regiment deserted in order to be transported.
For crimes of greater magnitude convicts are re-transported. The penal settlements of New South Wales are Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay; at the former, the number of convicts in 1837 were about 1,200; in the same year the number at Moreton Bay did not exceed 300, as the establishment there has been considerably diminished, and only offenders under short sentences were sent there. Moreton Bay is likewise a place of punishment for convict females, who are re-transported for offences committed in the colony. The number of convicts at the penal settlement of Van Diemen's Land, Port Arthur, was in 1835, 1,172. Norfolk Island is a small and most beautiful volcanic island, situated in the midst of the ocean, 1,000 miles from the eastern shores of Australia, and inaccessible, except in one place, to boats. Port Arthur is on a small and sterile peninsula, of about, 100,000 acres, connected with Van Diemen's Land by a narrow neck of land, which is guarded, day and night, by soldiers, and by a line of fierce dogs. All communications, except of an official nature, between these places and the settled districts are strictly forbidden; the penal settlements of Norfolk Island and Port Arthur are inhabited solely by the convicts and their keepers. "The work appointed for the convicts," to use the expression of the chief superintendent of convicts in Van Diemen's Land, "is of the most incessant and galling description the settlement can produce; and any disobedience of orders, turbulence or other mis-conduct is instantaneously punished by the lash."
The condition of the convicts in these settlements has been shown to be one of unmitigated wretchedness. Sir Francis Forbes, chief justice of Australia, stated, in a letter to Mr. Amos on the subject of transportation, that "The experience furnished by these penal settlements has proved that transportation is capable of being carried to an extent of suffering such as to render death desirable, and to induce many prisoners to seek it under its most appalling aspects." And the same gentleman, in his evidence said, "that he had known many cases in which it appeared that convicts at Norfolk Island had committed crimes which subjected them to execution, for the mere purpose of being sent up to Sydney; and the cause of their desiring to be so sent was to avoid the state of endurance under which they were placed in Norfolk Island; that he thought, from the expressions they employed, that they contemplated the certainty of execution; that he believed they deliberately preferred death, because there was no chance of escape, and they stated they were weary of life, and would rather go to Sydney and be hanged." Sir Francis Forbes likewise mentioned the case of several men at Norfolk Island cutting the heads of their fellow prisoners with a hoe while at work, with a certainty of being detected, and with a certainty of being executed; and, according to him, they acted in this manner apparently without malice, and with very slight excitement, stating they knew they should be hanged, but it was better than being where they were. A similar case was mentioned by the Rev. Henry Stiles, in his report to Sir Richard Bourke on the state of Norfolk Island. And Sir George Arthur assured Your Committee that similar cases had recently occurred at Port Arthur. Sir Francis Forbes was then asked, "What good do you think is produced by the infliction of so horrible a punishment in Norfolk Island; and upon whom do you think it produces good?" His answer was, "That he thought that it did not produce any good;" and that, " If it were to be put to himself, he should not hesitate to prefer death, under any form that it could be presented to him, rather than such a state of endurance as that of the convict at Norfolk Island."
In order to complete the description of the various conditions, in which persons, who have been transported, are to be found in the penal colonies, Your Committee must mention those who have obtained a conditional or absolute pardon, or have become free by the expiration of their sentences: they are termed emancipists or expirees. In this class are to be found some individuals who are very wealthy, and have accumulated immense fortunes; one is said to have possessed as much as £40,000 a year. Every witness examined gave the same account of the mode in which these fortunes have been made. The emancipist who acquires wealth, in most cases commences his career by keeping a public house, then lending money on mortgage; he then obtains landed property and large flocks, the latter frequently consisting of stolen cattle which he has purchased. As a case in point, Dr. Lang and Mr. Mudie mentioned that of the individual whom they stated to be in possession of £40,000 a year. This individual was transported, about the end of the last century, for stealing geese on the commons of Yorkshire. He began his career as a prisoner in the employment of Government, in building the gaol at Paramatta; at that time rum was occasionally allowed to convicts; he was, however, a very temperate man, and sold his rations of spirits; he thus accumulated some money, and was enabled, when he became free, to set up a public house, and to keep a gig and horse for hire. On one occasion he was hired to drive to Paramatta, a female emancipist, who was likewise in possession of some property. This led to an acquaintance between them; he subsequently married her, and was enabled to increase his business considerably. At the period referred to, there was no regular market at Sydney. The farmers brought their loads of wheat and other produce to the town, and made exchanges with persons who paid them partly in money, partly in the commodities which they required. The farmers were chiefly emancipists, who, at the expiration of their sentence, had obtained grants of land near Windsor: an ignorant and dissolute set of people, totally unreformed by their punishment, and unable to resist any temptation. They mostly frequented the house of the emancipist above mentioned; there they would remain drunk for days, unconscious of what they had consumed or what they had given away. When recovered from the stupor of intoxication, they were frequently charged by their host for a sum far exceeding their means of payment. Credit was always given, on condition of signing warrants of attorney, which were at hand ready filled up. The instruments were drawn up by convicts, for in those days amongst that class only could persons be found qualified to perform the duties of the legal profession. When the farmers were once under the control of the individual, whose career Your Committee are describing, they were obliged to return to his house, till the amount of debt was such, that he feared lest it might surpass the value of their property. He then dispossessed them of their estates, and by this system of measures he had at one time obtained possession of a great proportion of the cultivated land in the colony of New South Wales. Such were the means, according to Dr. Lang, by which both the emancipist in question, and many others, have acquired great wealth. The greater portion, however, of this class are labourers and small shopkeepers; and if industrious, they have every facility for making an honest livelihood, but as, on the expiration of their sentence, they are exposed to every description of temptation, the greater portion of them retain the habits of profligacy which first led them into crime, and become still more worthless and dissipated. Of the numerous crimes committed in the colony, the greater portion are perpetrated by this class. Among the emancipists and ticket of leave men are to be found the cattle stealers, receivers of stolen goods, keepers of illicit spirit shops and squatters, of the number and extent of whose offences every witness spoke in the strongest terms. In Van Diemen's Land the number of expirees or emancipists probably does not exceed 3,000. Sir George Arthur described them as the worst class in the colony.
Last modified 9 July 2002