Section 17 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 17

Flogging the lags

Convictism, in Australian literature, has been mainly the prerogative of English-minded writers. “Yah, convict!” has been a form of retort to “Pommy!” In literature this emphasis upon convictism as the essential fact in our history has been an Englishman’s emphasis, an Englishman’s statement of a preconceived hypothesis of Australia. We saw, in Praed’s poem, a statement of this Englishman’s hypothesis of Australia:

Beautiful land! Within whose quiet shore
Lost spirits may forget the stain they bore —

and in Wentworth’s poem, a quite different view and a statement of the Australian’s hypothesis:

Land of my hope! soon may this early blot
Amid thy growing honours be forgot . . .

It remained for writers such as Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood, and Price Warung to see to it that the “stain” was not forgotten. Convictism and criminality (bushranging) became a dominant motif in the literature of Australia, not because in fact it was the dominant motif Australian history, or of Australian life, but because the immigrant writers, with their preconceived hypothesis, thought that it ought to have been dominant.

It is remarkable, too, that the prime works of convictism and criminality in Australia, For the Term of His Natural Life and Robbery Under Arms, should be the acknowledged “classics” of Australian literature amongst English readers in England, almost to this day. The Englishman who stays at home does not easily lose his preconceived, or traditional, idea of Australia as a convict colony. Anything which demonstrates to a man what he already knows is likely to be considered profound. It fortifies a man in his own wisdom. New truths, new areas of knowledge, are perceived more slowly. A mental effort, to clear the old illusion out of the mind, is almost beyond the capacity of the average man, particularly the average reader of fiction. If Australia is, indeed, not merely a convict colony, but a new Nation, a new fact in human experience, the average English reader will be called upon to make a mental effort to grasp that new fact, a mental effort which may be beyond him. He will have a tendency to prefer the old, familiar, conventional and traditional view.

Thus, the Cambridge professors gave Praed’s fantasy the prize over Wentworth’s realism, and thus the English reading public have since preferred Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood to Lawson, Paterson, and Steele Rudd.

The theme of convictism and flogging is one which would naturally appeal to English people, for the convicts and floggers who came here were English, and the penal settlement here was a direct part of the English penal system. “Botany Bay” was like Dartmoor, a bleak and inaccessible English prison. More convicts were imprisoned and flogged in England at Newgate and Dartmoor and Ipswich and Maidstone gaols than ever were transported to Australia. Convicts indeed are imprisoned and flogged in English gaols to this day. Soldiers were flogged in the English armies under Wellington in France and under Clive in India. Sailors were flogged in the English navy under Nelson and Blake. Captain Cook and Lieutenant Bligh, and all the other English sea-dogs, flogged their English sailors, or had them flogged, most vilely. The barbarities of the convict system, the floggings and cruelties, were the barbarities of the English nation at that time, the persecutors and the persecuted alike were English, not Australian. In the saner atmosphere of Australia, and in the wave of humanitarianism which spread throughout the world in the nineteenth century, these barbarities and severities came to be modified and to cease.

I am not one to advocate the falsification of history, or the sentimental glossing of harsh facts. But history does not consist of harsh facts only. If it did, English history would be a monstrous tale.

While the oft described horrors of the convict system were proceeding sadistically in Australia, what was happening in England? The gaols there remained full of criminals; Australia merely took off a surplusage. In the textile factories of England, children of eleven and twelve years of age were working at the looms for periods of from twelve to eighteen hours a day! These child slaves were beaten and preached at and sent straight from work on shift to a bed still warm from the previous child-slave occupant. In the mines of England, women and children, stripped to the waist, were pulling skips of coal along underground tunnels so narrow that the human beasts of burden had to crawl on all fours in an absolute darkness. In the cities, small children of nine or ten years of age, frequently orphans, were apprenticed to chimney sweeps, and were used as human brooms, made to climb up narrow, stifling, sooty chimneys in factories and the houses of the rich. It was in English ships that cargoes of Negro slaves were being carried to America, to be sold in the markets there, starved and beaten and in chains.

So horrible were these cruelties of Eighteenth-century England that at last a giant protest of outraged humanitarianism went up, led by Lord Shaftesbury, and after a time the worst horrors abated. But flogging in the English army and navy persisted, and flogging and sadism in the English prisons persisted, long after these horrors had been ended in Australia.

“England!” says the legendary old Australian lady who won Tattersall’s sweep. “No, I don’t want to take a trip to England. That’s where the convicts come from!

She expressed, at any rate, an Australian point of view which the litterateurs of convictism have had a tendency to overlook. Australia quickly abolished convictism, an imported English institution: that is a national achievement to be proud of.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 59-63

[Editor: Corrected “Shaftsbury” to “Shaftesbury”.]

Speak Your Mind