Convicts - (Part Three) - From Punishment to Pardon
More Background Details
In previous articles Captain Arthur Phillip had brought the First Fleet to Australia and gone on to become Governor of the new colony. Phillip governed from 1788 until 1794 when he was replaced by Frances Grose as acting governor. Grose had been the commander of the New South Wales Corps who were formed in 1792 to replace the marines (who had accompanied Phillip from England) as administrators. The colony then saw a quick turn over of governors including Patterson, Hunter, King and Bligh.
The New South Wales Corps established an economic monopoly in the colony and became very powerful. They would buy the cargo of any ship that sailed into Sydney and then sell the goods to the free colonists and to the government for huge profits. Grose and Patterson between them granted more than 6000 hectares of land to officers of the corps as well as assigning them convict labour.
Under the corps' administration, spirits (particularly rum) became the colony's currency. It was used pay wages and buy goods with instead of money. The corp had full control over importing and distilling of spirits due to their monopoly. They were ruthless in suppressing any attempted distilling not under their control, and soon earned the name the Rum Corp.
The Rum Rebellion
In an attempt to curb the rum trade and the monopoly of the corps William Bligh was appointed the new governor in 1806. Bligh was already famous as captaining and surviving a mutiny on his ship the Bounty. He was a stern disciplinarian with a quick temper. Immediately on becoming governor, Bligh launched an attack on the rum trade, trying to stop it being used as the means of currency, and also to crack down on the distilling of spirits. This made him an enemy of the corps officers, large landholders, and merchants.
On January 26, 1808, one of the most influential members of the corp, Lieutenant John Macarthur, encouraged the commander of the NSW Corps Captain George Johnston to lead a revolt and arrest Bligh. This became known as the Rum Rebellion. Johnston proclaimed himself lieutenant governor of the colony, but this was short lived, as only one year later, Lachlan Macquarie was sent from Britain with his own regiment of troops to overthrow the New South Wales Corp. Johnson was subsequently found guilty of mutiny and sent to London for court martial.
Governor Macquarie soon destroyed the trading monopoly held by the NSW Corp and its allies. During his administration he built new buildings, including the first hospital, and significantly improved the appearance of Sydney. Roads and bridges were constructed, and a new currency was introduced. He established the Bank Of New South Wales, and set up charity schools where poor people could get an education.
But Macquarie had a convict policy that had him at odds with both the free settlers and NSW and the British government. he believed that you could encourage reform by rewarding good behaviour. He issued tickets of leave and pardons to convicts, granted land to some and provided government assistance to start off their farms.
The government in Britain was concerned about the cost of public works Macquarie was overseeing and in 1819, sent Commissioner John Thomas Bigge to investigate the colony. With the encouragement of the wealthy land owner John Macarthur,( who had been instrumental in governor Bligh's overthrow) Bigge recommending the overturning of most of governor Macquarie's reforms, and recommended the extension of assignment, the practice of assigning convicts to work for free settlers As a result public works slowed down, and harsher punishments were introduced.
The Convict System
New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land were were classed as penal colonies, however the majority of convicts served the greater part of their sentences outside of prison under a system known as assignment.
The Assignment System
Assignment was introduced as a way of utilizing surplus convict labour, and by the 1820's had become the major system of convict control and management. Convicts were assigned to the wealthier free settlers who put them to work in their farms and businesses. In return the settlers provided food, clothing, and shelter. As well as providing the land and business owners with cheap labour, assignment also saved the British government substantially in the cost of maintaining the colony.
The conditions of assigned convicts varied dramatically depending on the character of the master they worked for, and the nature of his business.Some were treated well and good behaviour encouraged with gifts of tobacco or extra rations. Many more, however, were taken advantage of by cruel masters only intent on getting as much work as possible for as little cost. Convicts had no say in who they were assigned to.
Discipline was at the sole discretion of the masters, who could have their convicts hauled before the courts for the most trivial of offences. In many case the magistrates had assigned convicts themselves, so rarely decided a case against a master.
Throughout the 1830's there had been such an increasing amount of criticism of the assignment system that it was finally abolished in 1839.
A new form of convict management was introduced by the British government in 1842 to replace assignment. The new system was called probation and introduced first into Van Diemen's Land, closely followed by New South Wales. On arrival in the colonies, all male convicts were assigned to probation gangs which were used to build public works such as buildings, roads, and bridges. After two years of good behaviour, convicts could be issued with probation passes, with which they could seek employment with private employers for wages. A percentage of their wages would be withheld and saved for them.
If they continued to display good behaviour, they would be further rewarded by a ticket of leave which allowed them even more freedom. Both the pass and ticket could be withdrawn at any time for misdemeanors, however with continued good behaviour, convicts could finally earn a pardon.
Britain had given the governors of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land the power to pardon convicts, if they saw fit, before their full sentences were served. There were two types of pardons:
Absolute pardons restored the convict's full right as a British citizen and allowed them to return home to Britain.
Conditional pardons came with the condition that the convict receiving the pardon could not return to Britain until the expiry of the time handed down in their original sentence.
Pardons could be issued for things like good behaviour, or services rendered to the government. The convict, turned famous architect, Francis Greenway earned his pardon this way. Governors also offered pardons as bargains with convicts to persuade them to inform on their fellows in an effort to stop bushranging. Convicts who were given pardons were then called emancipists.
Transportation was finally abolished in New South Wales in 1850, and in Van Diemen's Land in 1852.
Punishments in the colonies included flogging, iron gangs, the treadmill, penal jail, or hanging.
Flogging was an inhumane form of punishment, but the most widely used. It was usually administered with a whip called a cat-o-nine-tails (made of nine pieces of knotted cord). Sentences of 200 lashes were common, but in rare circumstances could be as high as 2000.
Records show that between March 1815 and November 1817, Parramatta magistrates ordered 11321 lashes over 200 offenders. In the one month of September 1833, 247 convicts received a total of 9909 lashes.
An added cruelty that was sometimes added, was that sentences could be spread over a period of time so that the convicts didn't completely lose their capacity to work. Although male convicts received most of the floggings, women also received this punishment.
Male convicts who had committed major offences were forced to work in iron gangs, where they were chained at the ankles and then to each other. These gangs worked building roads between Sydney and the surrounding settlements, as well as most of the roads in Van Diemen's Land. This work was hard and exhausting, and rations mostly inadequate.
The convicts working in these gangs wore uniforms of yellow and grey patches, and that along with the chains and harsh discipline made them easily distinguishable from the ordinary convict road gangs also operating at the time.
Almost immediately after the first fleet settled in Sydney Cove, it became apparent that other places of secondary punishment would have to be built to punish convicts who committed further crimes after arriving in the colony.
These establishments would have to be situated away from the main settlement, and have punishments so severe that it would act as a deterrent to further misdemeanors. Hobart and Newcastle, where convicts were made to mine coal were the first two penal settlements (or jails) to be set up in 1804. Others soon followed at Macquarie Harbour, Wellington, Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay, Maria Island, Port Arthur, and Norfolk Island.
Tales of cruelty and brutality abounded from these establishments. The worst however, was from Macquarie Harbour, where some escapees turned to eating their companions to survive in the inhospitable environment.
Hanging was the most extreme form of punishment, and was reserved for serious crimes such as murder and bushranging. however, in the first few years of settlement in Sydney, when food supplies were short, hanging was used to discourage the theft of food. Records show five men were hanged in 1788, while eight men and one woman were hanged in 1789.
Escape and Rebellion
There were many attempts by convicts to escape, but almost every attempt failed. The main reasons for this were the rugged terrain, dense bush, and the isolation of Australia from other countries. Aboriginals, hostile to the white invasion may also have been to blame for a number of deaths of escaped convicts.
The convicts sense of geography was often very wrong. There was one instance where a group of 53 convicts escaped from Sydney, heading west, convinced that China lay beyond the Blue Mountains. They were never seen or heard from again.
Some convicts did manage to escape, including William Buckley, who was fortunate to be accepted by aboriginals and allowed to live with them for some years. A few others stowed away on whaling and sealing boats, and some turned to bushranging to survive, especially in Van Diemen's Land. The majority of runaways, however, were soon captured and either hanged or sent to penal settlements.
An uprising occurred at Castle Hill near Sydney in 1804 when convicts seized weapons and rose in revolt. This was short lived however with the soldiers easily and mercilessly overcoming the rioters. In Van Diemen's Land at one stage, bushranger convicts posed such a threat that the colony was temporarily placed under military rule.
The Convict Legacy
How can we calculate the ultimate human cost of transportation? it's an impossible task. of the 160,000 people transported from Britain to Australia only a few got their names into the history books, and most of those were bushrangers. In general, the convict's life was a miserable time of pain and hardship.
It has been argued by some that being transported to Australia offered criminals a better life than if they had remained in Britain, with the chance to create a new beginning. But others argue that the cruelty of the convict system, more concerned with punishment than reform, meant any chance of a new life, for most, was unlikely.
There is no doubt however that convicts did play a significant role in establishing settlement in New South Wales and Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land) and that their economies were built on cheap convict labour. This established various industries, built the roads and bridges and worked the river boats that transported wool, grain and other products to the ports.
It has also been said Australia's convict origins probably helped shape the country's character, and that the concept of mateship, and the "she'll be right" attitude, chiefly associated with Australians, stem from that early period.
(© Deborah Norris, 2012)
Too afraid to reveal their past for fear of denying themselves a future
From London’s sewer filled streets to Millbank’s damp cells
From Tipperary to transportation
They arrived in Van Diemen’s Land where all would bear the convict stain.
Prostitutes, the colonials exclaimed
And on the town the records revealed
But no, I am a housemaid replied many a soul.
And like in some sadistic game of double jeopardy,
They served their masters
From a past of desolate poverty and deprivation,
To the surreal world of serving the well-heeled
To the female factory they were told
If they absconded from duty or were expecting a child
So here is the twist, was the master the father or was he just not impressed
The stories are real
Of heartbreak and loss
Away from family
Dead babies in the nursery
They had come to a land
Free of smog laden skies and crowded slums
To fresh air and sunshine
And room for all
Desperate, resourceful and determined
Many moved on, to be founding mothers
Raising families and working hard to be free
We will never hear their voices or be able to empathise
But through the strength of the human spirit to survive
Many rose above those unfortunate times
Bearing the scars of their past
Of lost love that can never be replaced
Our nation is all the richer as we remember these pages of our past,
Of the Convict Women who strived and succeeded
May our memories of them never fade.
More by this Author
A concise history of convict transportation from Great Britain to Australia. this is the first installment of a series 'The Convicts'.
This is the second part of the series and details the setting up of the new colony in Australia and the life of the convicts in this new land.
"The Dreamtime" is actually the story of creation as believed and told by the Australian Aboriginals. The unlikely inspiration for this article was the name of Ursula Le Guin's "The Beginning Place"