Chapter 17 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XVII

The end of convictism

Sir William Molesworth’s committee on transportation — Effect of the committee’s report — Order in Council discontinuing transportation to Australia — Effect of new policy — The new prison system — ‘Pentonvillains’ — Convicts shipped to Port Phillip — Growth of anti-transportation feeling — Gladstone’s policy — The Randolph in Hobson’s Bay — Resistance to landing of ‘exiles’ — Lord Grey and the colonies.

The whole policy of transportation was elaborately reviewed by a committee of the House of Commons which sat in 1837-8, and which presented two very large reports. For some years previously there had been brisk controversy in England on the subject. Archbishop Whately of Dublin in particular assailed the system with remarkable vigour, on three grounds chiefly: first, that it did not diminish crime in Great Britain, secondly that it did not conduce to the reformation of criminals, and thirdly that it produced a disgraceful state of depravity in the colonies into which the convicts were poured. The system was costing Great Britain between £400,000 and £500,000 per annum. Was she obtaining an adequate advantage from this expenditure? Nay, more, was she not actually doing evil?

The agitation induced Sir William Molesworth to move for a committee of inquiry. The debates upon his motion were very instructive; and the evidence and reports printed by the committee were startling. Few official blue-books have contained such an exposure of raw and bleeding human interest. Novelists have drawn from these papers the colour and substance of many romances, as Charles Reade did for It is Never Too Late to Mend, and Marcus Clarke when he wrote that classic story of convictism, For the Term of his Natural Life. Here were over a thousand folio pages reeking with crime and cruelty. They could not be read without shuddering revulsion.

One ex-magistrate who gave evidence boasted that he took a personal pride in superintending the flogging of prisoners, and that ‘twenty-five lashes under my surveillance had the same effect as a thousand under any other person’s hand.’ So far from there being any general reform of prisoners, the evidence showed that many assigned servants were wont to prowl about at night like beasts of prey, robbing. ‘I suppose,’ remarked one of the members of Parliament, ‘being selected from the whole of England, they are the most skilful thieves in the world?’ ‘Perfect masters,’ replied the witness. Young men employed their leisure in cockfighting and similar amusements, and the ‘young ladies’ looked on. Colonel Arthur testified that the dreariness and hard labour imposed at Port Arthur were so depressing that he knew of instances of convicts who had committed crimes for the purpose of getting themselves hanged. ‘They were weary of their lives.’ Perhaps the worst feature revealed by the evidence was that decent immigrants tended to become demoralised by living in a convict colony. ‘I think it is impossible that such a class of persons can be residents in any such community without the most polluting consequences,’ said Colonel Arthur; and others testified to a like effect.

The committee recommended that transportation to New South Wales and the settled portions of Van Diemen’s Land should be discontinued as soon as practicable, and made several valuable suggestions for improving the prison system of Great Britain. Accordingly, in May 1840, an Order in Council was passed by the Imperial Government, revoking the Order already in operation as to the sending of convicts to Australia, but still permitting them to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land and Norfolk Island. Thus, after an experiment of fifty-two years, was transportation suspended as far as concerned the mainland.

The system had been responsible, down to 1836, for depositing 75,000 offenders in New South Wales and 27,757 in Van Diemen’s Land, a total of over 100,000. At the date mentioned there were actually 44,799 convicts in the two colonies. Very many of these had been transported under a penal law which was extraordinarily harsh in comparison with the criminal codes of other civilized countries, and the sentences inflicted upon them would by a milder age be considered excessively severe. How many were the victims of poverty it is impossible to calculate. Political offenders were not very numerous. Many belonged to the class quaintly denominated ‘gentlemen convicts,’ or ‘specials,’ who were educated people, but usually of undependable character. The mass were rascals and ruffians, a large proportion of whom were of desperately bad types, whom no terrors could tame, no system reform. The country which bred them might well be happy to be rid of them, but no other land could rejoice to receive them.

Yet Australia benefited from the transportation system both politically and industrially. But for the problem of disposing of prisoners which confronted Pitt’s Government in the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century, it is not probable that ministers would have been induced to form colonies in this country. A use having been found for it, though an ignoble one, and the discovery being made that Great Britain had, as it were, stumbled upon an exceedingly valuable territory, the determination to hold it was inevitable, and the capacity to do so was a consequence of the omnipotent sea power won during the Napoleonic wars. When the initial stages of development were entered upon the abundance of convict labour was a valuable factor. The radically vicious, it is true, made poor labourers, but not all belonged to that category. There were amongst them worthy men, branded by the law, but not inherently bad; and these rendered good service to their masters in order to win their own freedom. Letters and reminiscences written by landowners of the assignment era frequently contain testimony to the fidelity and reliableness of their servants; and there are some written by convicts wherein a genuine spirit of contrition and even gratitude is breathed. ‘We have as much to eat as we like,’ wrote one of these, ‘as some masters are a great deal better than others. All a man has got to mind is to keep a still tongue in his head; but if he don’t he may as well be hung at once, for they would take you to the magistrates and get you 100 lashes.’ Of course, the country could have been opened up without convict labour if free service had been available; but systematic colonization did not become a political expedient till it had been shown that there was so large a field for it in Australia. Wakefield did not arouse interest in his Principle in order to show that there was scope for colonization; it was the fact of that scope which generated the Principle. The convict system, therefore, served an important purpose. It gave a start to occupation which, times and circumstances being what they were, would hardly have been commenced otherwise.

The cessation of transportation to Australia after 1840 had two disturbing effects. Great Britain was not ready with an improved prison system of her own, and she did not immediately repeal the laws under which offenders were sentenced to be carried oversea. Consequently, during ensuing years nearly the whole number of her transported felons, about 4,000 per annum, were poured into Van Diemen’s Land. Sir John Franklin was the Governor at the time when this avalanche of human frailty commenced to roll upon the island with such disconcerting volume. Upon him fell the heavy task of regulating it. Franklin’s fame rests upon his achievements as an arctic discoverer, and his biographers have found no satisfaction in dwelling upon his experience as Governor of the island jail in the south seas. It was, indeed, an unhappy one, for, as well as being one of the bravest of men, he was also the soul of gentleness and scholarly refinement, and his work cannot have been congenial to his nature.

The new system was disastrous. It not only completely stopped the inflow of free immigration, but, by creating a glut of convict labour, it drove free workmen and labourers out of the colony. Whole districts became depopulated; streets of houses became vacant; tradespeople were ruined; industry was paralysed. The convicts were domineering in their preponderance. They had a newspaper of their own, with a convict editor, who wrote that it would be a good thing to ‘kick out of the colony the free settlers,’ who were denounced as ‘puritan moralists.’ Dilke, in his Greater Britain (1868, vol ii, p. 97), said that ‘the old free settlers will tell you that the deadly shade of slave labour has not blighted Jamaica more thoroughly than that of convict labour has Van Diemen’s Land’; and that blight was flung upon the country during the years following 1840, when convictism drenched it and submerged the virile energies of its free population.

The second effect of the order of 1840 was that it suddenly deprived the landowners of the mainland of the source whence they had derived their cheap and plentiful labour. Many would have preferred free labour, but it could not be obtained at so low a price as the labour of assigned servants had been; and the drying up of the supply was attended with much inconvenience and loss. An agitation was commenced among the landowners north and south of the Murray. Some argued that the evils of convictism outweighed the advantages, but not a few shared the view crisply expressed by a wealthy wool-grower at a public meeting, ‘I do not care to be ruined for virtue’s sake.’

The Imperial Government sought to remedy both troubles by reintroducing convictism to Australia under a new name and on a fresh basis. The English Prison Commissioners had in 1840 commenced an experiment in reformatory punishment. Prisoners who had been sentenced to transportation were first placed in Millbank jail, whence after a period of discipline they were drafted to Pentonville, a prison specially built as a place where the guilty might be passed through ‘a species of crucible of discomfort.’ Prisoners were kept in separate cells, were not permitted to hold converse with each other, were subjected to periods of solitary confinement for breaches of discipline, were taught useful trades, and were brought as much as possible under moralising influences.

These methods were a salutary advance upon the savagery, corruption, and unsanitariness of the prison life of the past, and were due very greatly to the labours of such noble reformers as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, and to the influence and writings of Jeremy Bentham, Archbishop Whately, and the reforming school which they led. But transportation was an essential feature of the ‘Probation,’ or Pentonville system. The design was to keep the prisoners in the new model jail for eighteen months or two years, when the Prison Commissioners would select such as seemed to have profited by the treatment, and ship them to the British colonies. They were to receive ‘conditional pardons.’ The holder of a conditional pardon was, immediately on landing, perfectly free to go where he pleased, on condition that he did not return to Great Britain during the currency of the sentence inflicted upon him. That is to say, if a prisoner received a sentence of fifteen years for robbery with violence, and he served a probationary period of two years in Millbank and Pentonville, he would then, if the Prison Commissioners were satisfied that he was a reformed character, receive his conditional pardon, would be landed in a British colony, and would be free to roam about as he pleased as long as he did not return to Great Britain for thirteen more years. Thus he would have a larger measure of freedom than an ordinary ticket-of-leave man, who was kept under official surveillance, or than an assigned servant under the old system, who was subject to discipline. The new method consequently meant the turning loose of a large number of convicted felons on the colonies to which they were despatched.

In 1844 Pentonville had its first batch of 370 convicts ready for export, and they were placed on board a ship. But the Prison Commissioners, knowing that Van Diemen’s Land was congested with convicts, and wishing to give the new system a trial under the most favourable conditions, secured from the Government permission to land about half of them at Port Phillip, a wealthy landowner of that province having undertaken to find employment for them there. Whether the majority of the people of the Port Phillip District wished to receive convict labour of this class the Government had not taken the trouble to ascertain. But they were not left long in doubt.

Melbourne, the centre of the Port Phillip District, had by this time left far behind the rude beginnings of the Batman era, and had grown into a vigorous and thriving town, with a Mayor and Corporation, spreading suburbs, three newspapers, and a population rapidly rising to the 10,000 level. The people of this town heard with indignation on Monday, November 8, 1844, that on the previous Saturday the ship Royal George from London had brought a consignment of prisoners. The Port Phillip Patriot denounced the attempt to resume the transportation system ‘without its discipline, with all its evils and none of its benefits.’ ‘We should,’ wrote the furious editor at the conclusion of his article, ‘duck the scoundrels if they attempt to set foot in a country of free men, and send them back as they came to the greater scoundrels who dared to send them hither.’

There was a sharp division of opinion between the landowning interests and the townspeople over the expediency of receiving these conditional pardon men. A meeting of landowners decided to ask the British Government to send more of them. ‘Labour we must have,’ said one of the speakers, ‘and if we don’t get it from Pentonville we shall have it from Van Diemen’s Land.’ But angry meetings were held on the other side. The introduction to the province of ‘expatriated villains,’ declared one of the resolutions passed by a public meeting over which the Mayor of Melbourne presided, was ‘an act of wanton injustice to three-fourths of the entire population.’ Nevertheless, the British Government ignored the protests, and continued to send cargoes of ‘Pentonvillains,’ as the Port Phillip people called them, for five years after 1844. Within that period 1,727 were received.

But the anti-transportation feeling was growing very strongly not only in Melbourne, but also in Sydney. Van Diemen’s Land added its cry of protest. The Anti-transportation League was not formed till 1851, but the policy which it promoted was being vigorously supported before that date, and had active adherents in all the colonies. The entire population of New South Wales, including the Port Phillip District, was at the census of 1841 over 130,000. The number of the convict class at that date probably did not exceed 25,000. Amongst the people as a whole, apart from those whose business interests were involved in the continuation of the supply of convict labour, the antipathy became intense. But the landowners had more direct means of bringing their wishes under the notice of the governing authorities in England than had the mass of the population, and they made use of their opportunities.

It happened that the Colonial Secretary, during part of the time when these troubles were disturbing both New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (i.e. in 1846), was W. E. Gladstone — then, as Macaulay said of him, ‘the rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories.’ Gladstone was a partner in a Port Phillip sheep station, and he had private as well as official sources of information concerning the situation in both colonies. He thought that the grave condition of glut in the one might be relieved, and the shortage of labour in the other overcome, by diverting a few thousand convicts per annum from Van Diemen’s Land to New South Wales. He therefore requested the Governor to consult his Legislative Council as to whether they would not accept in part supply of the labour market the renewal of ‘a modified and carefully regulated introduction of convict labourers.’

In response to this invitation the Council appointed a committee, which reported in favour of a given number of convicts per annum being sent out, provided that ‘such transportation be accompanied with an equal importation of free immigrants as nearly as possible in equal proportions as to sexes.’ The Legislative Council rejected the report of the committee, notwithstanding the condition, which would have secured the dilution of the evil. But, despite the rejection of the committee’s report, Earl Grey, who became Secretary of State for the Colonies in succession to Gladstone, determined to ignore the public feeling of the colonists, and to resume the transportation system.

By the year 1848 it was admitted that the conditional pardon system had not been a success. It had simply meant flooding the colonies with shiploads of criminals, many of whom had shammed reformation in order to secure freedom for the exercise of their proclivities in countries where there were wider opportunities and fewer police than in England. It had manufactured bushrangers and made highway robbery a flourishing industry. Lord Grey therefore determined to abandon the issue of conditional pardons, and to send out convicts with tickets of leave. That meant that, instead of the convicts being at liberty to wander where they pleased when landed in the chosen colony, they would have to report themselves to the police at stated intervals.

But Lord Grey found, to his great surprise, that there was now a vigorous public opinion which was determined to rebel rather than to receive any more convicts. No Secretary of State was ever more taken aback than was this respectable Whig peer at the reception of his new policy.

On August 8, 1849, the ship Randolph entered Port Phillip with convicts on board. But the citizens of Melbourne had been warned from London that she was coming, and several excited meetings had been held to organize resistance. The tone was stern and menacing. One influential speaker declared, amidst great cheering, that ‘he should be one for resisting, even to the death, the landing of such cargoes.’ Edward Wilson, the editor of the Argus — which was established in 1846 — wrote in his newspaper that a resort to force was ‘warranted alike by the laws of God and man,’ and he urged a union of colonists ‘to repel by physical force any other attempt to land convicts on our shores.’

Latrobe, the Superintendent of Port Phillip, recognized that the feeling of the population was dangerous, and he therefore directed the captain of the Randolph to take the convicts round to Sydney. He did the same when a second vessel with ‘Pentonvillains’ on board, the Hashemy, arrived in May. Thus did the Melbourne people, by the menace of rebellion, free their province from an infliction which they loathed.

In Sydney the Governor, Sir Charles Fitzroy, found himself confronted with an antipathy hardly less violent. The Legislative Council had already passed a resolution protesting against New South Wales being ‘again made a place to which British offenders may be transported,’ and public meetings had expressed the same feeling. The Sydney Herald (founded 1831) had as far back as 1834 urged that the convict system involved ‘an abominable system of misrule and total depravity,’ and that only by its abolition could this country ‘gain a standing among the British colonies.’ This journal had steadily worked for the abolition of the system, and a strong body of public opinion had been formed to support that policy. Fitzroy, perceiving that the landing of the convicts from the Randolph and the Hashemy would probably lead to trouble, sent them on to Moreton Bay.

Lord Grey quite failed to understand the change that had come over Australia after over half a century’s experience of convictism. He never realized the difference that was made by the free settlers far out-numbering the malefactors. He could not appreciate that the time had come when there was a large population whose native land was Australia, and who nourished an affectionate care for its future well-being. When he wrote his book on Colonial Policy in 1853, he advanced the proposition that England was ‘perfectly justified in continuing the practice of transportation to Australia, the colonies being only entitled to ask that in the arrangements for conducting it their interests and welfare should be consulted as far as possible.’ He had not moved from that vicious attitude of English statesmen towards the colonies which was largely responsible for the American Revolution. The colonies, in this view, existed primarily for the benefit of the mother-country, and their own wishes and interests must be kept subordinate. Lord Grey commented on the ‘great advantage of not allowing men who have been guilty of serious crimes to return to their former homes,’ and asked what the consequence to England would be if several thousand men ‘who under the existing system would be permanently removed from the United Kingdom, are to be annually turned loose on society.’ That they had been turned loose on society in the colonies, with deplorable results, did not trouble this unimaginative Whig politician. The same view was expressed in a House of Commons debate. ‘The country had a right to look to our colonies to receive our convicts without complaint,’ babbled an indignant member.

These incidents of the revolt from convictism in the country which had been colonized by the British for that very purpose, represented the death-struggle of the system in New South Wales. It was continued in Van Diemen’s Land till 1853, and in Norfolk Island till 1855. From first to last — 1788 to 1868 — the total number of convicts transported to Australia was 160,663.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 187-198

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