The convict system
The New South Wales Corps — Grose and Paterson — Hunter Governor of New South Wales — Trading monopolies — System of transportation — The assignment system — Tickets of leave — Political prisoners — Irish rebels.
In the year after the establishment of Sydney a military force was raised in England especially for the new colony. It was called the New South Wales Corps. The First Fleet had been accompanied by marines, and the intention had been that a detachment of this regiment should be stationed permanently at Sydney. But the officers and men disliked the service, and the Government therefore determined to organize a special corps of infantry. The policy was to encourage the members of the corps to settle in New South Wales, and land grants were promised to them as an inducement. A very prominent and occasionally turbulent part was henceforth played by this military force, which, though designed to aid the Government, strove to become its master. Every Governor after Phillip until the corps ceased to exist in 1810 (when the practice of stationing detachments of regular troops in Australia was commenced) had trouble with it. It flouted Governor Hunter, who had to complain that it violated peace and order and defied the law; it insulted Governor King; and it deposed Governor Bligh.
The second Governor of New South Wales, Captain John Hunter, who had commanded the Sirius with the First Fleet, was not appointed till more than a year after the departure of Phillip, and did not arrive in Sydney till September 1795. During the interval of nearly three years the government was administered first by Major Francis Grose, and in the last nine months by Captain William Paterson, both officers of the New South Wales Corps. It was a great misfortune that this period of military rule occurred; because in the course of it the colony was brought to degradation by drink, corruption, and general iniquity, which required years to mitigate. Phillip had imposed restrictions on the distribution of spirituous liquors, recognizing the evils which would inevitably follow from the common use of them among a morally weak population. But Grose permitted large quantities of spirits to be imported and to come into the possession of officers and settlers, who freely used them for rewarding the convicts who worked for them. Rum, as spirits of all kinds were called, was a curse and a calamity in Sydney for years to come. Officers profited from the distillation, importation, and sale of it, soldiers and convicts alike consumed large quantities of it; and it bore an evil fruit of disease, crime, outrage, and rebellion.
Grose was particularly tender towards his brother officers, in permitting them to acquire landed estates and to have the services of convict labourers. When Hunter took charge he found that no land had been cleared for public purposes and no public works carried out since Phillip left, nearly the whole of the convict labour having been utilized for the profit of the officers. The Government fed and clothed the convicts, the officers had their labour for nothing, and the Government purchased the commodities produced by it at prices fixed by the same officers.
The officers were also permitted to enjoy a monopoly in the purchase of spirits and other commodities imported for general sale, and pocketed large gains from them. Their military duties and the honour of their uniform were subordinated to sordid avarice, and the entire community was debauched in order that they might grow rich. Maurice Margarot, a political prisoner, was examined before the House of Commons Committee on Transportation on his return to England in 1812. He was asked, ‘Do the majority of the officers to whom the Government of the colony is entrusted embark in trade? ‘All, to a man,’ he replied. ‘What is that trade? ‘It consists first of all of monopoly, then of extortion; it includes all the necessaries of life which are brought to the colony.’ In 1797, said Margarot, a ‘combination bond’ was entered into by the officers, ‘by which they were neither to underbuy nor undersell the one from the other.’ It was the first example of a ‘trust’ in Australia. The same witness spoke of spirits which had cost 7s. 6d. being sold in this way for £8 per gallon. A letter written by Mrs. John Macarthur explains how the monopoly was managed. ‘The officers in the colony, with a few others possessed of money or credit in England, unite together and purchase the cargoes of such vessels as repair to this country from various quarters. Two or more are chosen from the number to bargain for the cargo offered for sale, which is then divided amongst them in proportion to the amount of their subscriptions.’
At the same time as he allowed this trading system to be commenced, Grose suppressed the civil magistracy and placed the entire administration of justice in the hands of the military men. When Governor Hunter insisted on restoring the justices to their functions, they were subjected to annoyance by the soldiers, and he felt compelled to report to the Secretary of State that ‘for these shameful and unpardonable purposes the most improper means which a mischievously fertile imagination, a malicious, restless, and vindictive disposition could invent,’ had been used. Grose frankly disliked all in the community whom he could not pamper as soldiers or control as convicts. He spoke testily of having been ‘much plagued with the people who become settlers.’
The corrupt military autocracy established under the administration of Grose and Paterson had to be broken down during the governorships of Hunter (1795-1800), King (1800-1806), and Bligh (1806-1808), all of whom found the officers tenacious of their profits and privileges, and determined to fight for them by all means available. Inasmuch as a Governor had no force to back up his administration except such as was commanded by these officers, and as they commonly worked against him, it was very difficult for him to maintain respect for his office, much less rightful authority and obedience.
The foundation of society in these early years in New South Wales was the convict system. For that the colony was established, for that it was maintained. No country in Europe had a harsher criminal code than England at this time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century over two hundred offences were punishable with death; and public executions, performed amid the revolting ribaldry of gaping crowds, were amongst the common spectacles of London. But in many cases it lay within the option of the judges to impose sentences of transportation for terms of seven or fourteen years, or for life; whilst in years of war many convicts were permitted to enlist in the Army and Navy. As late as 1837, the year of the accession of Queen Victoria, an official list of offences for which sentences of transportation might be inflicted contained over two hundred items. Many were very serious, but others were offences for which sentences so harsh would be deemed barbarous nowadays, such as slaughtering butcher’s meat without a licence, damaging trees and saplings to an extent exceeding £5, stealing oysters from an oyster-bed, defacing marks on government property, poaching, or being upon any land armed by night for the purpose of taking or destroying game or rabbits. Not all convicts who were transported had committed offences even of this kind. An Irish knight was sent out for abducting the wealthy heiress of a Quaker banker, and an officer of the Indian army for killing his opponent in a duel.
Convicts were conveyed from England to New South Wales in hired transports, the owners of which as well as the captains and officers entered into bonds for the safe custody of those placed on board. The earliest transports carried military guards, but when England became deeply involved in war with France, and could ill spare troops, they carried extra numbers of seamen to act as guards. Contractors received between £20 and £30 per head; and, as their profit depended upon the number of convicts carried, there was an inducement to cram as many on board as the ships would hold. Consequently the death-rate on the passage was very high. On the ship Neptune in 1790, 158 died on the passage out of 502 who were put on board, and those who did arrive in Sydney were all pitiably ill. Out of 300 on board the Hilsborough in 1799, 95 died on the passage, and those who arrived were ‘in the most sickly and wretched state.’ The prison authorities in England did not always see that those embarked were properly clad. Governor Hunter reported the arrival of a shipload who were embarked with only the clothes in which they stood, and who ‘consequently arrived here naked.’
The horrors of the passage were, however, mitigated after 1802, when the Government adopted the system of sending out convicts twice a year in ships fitted up for the purpose, under the direction of a Transport Board, and commanded by officers of the Navy.
Phillip commenced the plan of ‘assigning’ convicts to settlers for work on farms, and assignment remained an essential feature of the system as long as transportation endured. A convict upon arrival might never be placed in confinement. The whole colony was the jail. It is true that log prisons were erected both in Sydney and Parramatta, but these were intended rather for those who broke the law after transportation there than as places of punishment for offences committed in England. Very refractory cases were sent to Norfolk Island.
Legally the Governor was endowed with a ‘property in the services’ of a convict for the term of his transportation; and when he was assigned to a settler or an officer the property in his services was transferred to the assignee. After the abolition of negro slavery within the British Empire the question was sometimes put whether the transportation system was not another form of the evil thing which had been suppressed. Lord John Russell did not hesitate to affirm in the House of Commons that it was ‘pure slavery.’ Earl Grey in his book on Colonial Policy, wrote that ‘the assigned servants were in fact slaves, and there is only too painful proof that in many instances the evils inseparable from slavery were experienced.’ Lawyers insisted on the distinction between property in the person, as in slavery, and ‘property in the services,’ as in transportation. Inasmuch, however, as the ‘services’ could not be rendered without the ‘person,’ the difference was somewhat subtle.
Merely nominal wages were required to be paid to the assigned servants, and these were usually paid not in money but in such goods as tea, sugar, and tobacco, which were not included in the regulation rations. The assigned servants had to be fed, clothed, and housed to the satisfaction of the authorities. Some masters were undoubtedly cruel, and express orders had to be issued forbidding ‘beating or horse-whipping any prisoner whose labour has been assigned.’ Any person proved to have beaten assigned servants instead of having recourse to the magistrates when punishment was deemed to be deserved, was liable to be deprived of the labour. Good masters gave their well-behaved assigned servants a more liberal diet than the government regulations required. A Sydney merchant who employed large numbers on his country properties recorded that he rarely experienced trouble with them, though he managed them chiefly by ‘moral influences.’ One of his men was a Trafalgar hero transported for striking an officer when in a state of intoxication; and this man remained forty years in the merchant’s service. The letter of a convict lad to his mother in England contains the pathetic passage: ‘I am doing a great deal better than ever I was at home, only for wanting you with me; all my uncomfortableness is in being away from you.’
There is excellent reason for accepting the statements of contemporaries who knew the conditions prevailing in rural England and could compare with conditions in New South Wales, that the convict assigned to a farmer was better clothed and better fed than the honest English labourer, and at least as comfortably housed.
But the discipline imposed was often ferociously harsh. The lash and the noose swung ever ready, and were freely employed. After a rebellion of Irish convicts, fifteen ringleaders were summarily hanged in one batch, and others received sentences of two hundred, five hundred, and even a thousand lashes with the cat-o’nine-tails. As soon as a wretch had recovered from the prostration caused by one portion of his sentence, he was taken out and given another.
Convicts were allowed to marry, and were in some instances assigned as servants to their own wives. In one notorious instance a convict transported for forgery was followed out from England by his own wife, who brought with her a considerable sum of money which the authorities had reason to believe represented the proceeds of robberies. She opened a shop in Sydney, and secured her own husband as her assigned servant. She managed the business, and he lived a luxurious life on the profits derived from it. In one of the official reports there is a quaint letter from a convict asking his sweetheart to come to him from England. ‘I can get a petition drawn up to marry her,’ he wrote; ‘she can take me of Government free from all expense.’ The practice of assigning convicts to their own wives was afterwards discontinued, on the ground that ‘it tends to do away with the punishment’ — which says something for the amiability of the wives.
A convict who, because of good conduct or commendable service, was liberated from servitude was called an emancipist. The word was often applied also to those whose term of sentence had expired and who continued to reside in the colony, but more usually these were called expirees. An emancipist was free to engage in any industry for his own profit, instead of as a servant of another. There were emancipist clergymen, merchants, bank directors, attorneys, surgeons, and schoolmasters. Not a few emancipated convicts became wealthy men. There is record of several who lived at the rate of £3,000 a year, and one was stated on high authority in 1837 to draw £40,000 a year, principally from Sydney property.
Except in the case of political prisoners concerning whom special instructions were given, it was not difficult to win emancipation, and those to whom it was granted could easily obtain grants of land, upon which they might prosper. The rendering of useful service was encouraged by this inducement. Thus, when Captain Flinders required additional seamen for a voyage of exploration, he was allowed to select nine convicts, who were promised conditional or absolute pardons according to his recommendation. Officers of the French scientific expedition which visited Port Jackson in 1802 formed a highly favourable opinion of the means adopted for reforming the convicts and converting them into useful and dependable citizens.
Convicts who were employed on Government work were encouraged to win their release from hard labour by their own good conduct. Thus, when Governor Macquarie founded a settlement at Newcastle in 1810 for working the deposits of coal, he ordered that convicts were to be informed that they could procure relief from that service, which was not popular among them, by diligence and creditable behaviour. He was strict to enjoin that they should be treated justly. If they were called upon to work overtime, they were to be allotted extra rations, and they were to be persuaded to rear poultry and pigs and to cultivate gardens ‘for their own use and comfort.’ The commandant was enjoined to administer justice with clemency; and ‘you are at all times rather to forgo punishment than to inflict it where the evidence of guilt is not perfectly clear and satisfactory.’
During the first thirty years tickets of leave — that is, certificates of permission to convicts to work for their own benefit instead of being consigned to a master — were granted without any regular system, at the discretion of the Governor. But Governor Brisbane established a regular scale, under which a convict sentenced to seven years’ transportation could obtain his ticket after four years of good conduct; a convict sentenced to fourteen years could obtain one after six years; and one sentenced to transportation for life could secure this measure of prescribed freedom after eight years. There were many instances of masters who had especially valuable servants assigned to them — clever mechanics, for instance — and not desiring to lose them, concocting charges against them in order that the grant of their tickets of leave might be withheld for a few years.
The capacity of the colony to absorb labour sent from England depended of course upon the number of settlers, farms, and industries. In the earlier years there were more convicts than the administration could conveniently place, and to relieve itself of the cost of maintaining them it granted special indulgences to settlers and officers to induce them to receive more labourers than they actually needed. But with the extension of settlement the case was reversed. For about twenty years from the beginning of the nineteenth century the whole number transported could easily be assigned, and from about the year 1823 the demand for labour generally exceeded the supply. Sometimes, however, there would be a temporary glut of labour; at other times a pressing demand for it. Once, when a Governor had more men on his hands than he could place, he made a contract with a wealthy merchant to grant to him 10,000 acres of very rich land at Shoalhaven in return for his taking a hundred convicts. The merchant profited exceedingly from the bargain, because the full number was never supplied, their services being required elsewhere. At another time (1826) there were applications for 2,000 more convict servants than the Superintendent could furnish. At length another highly interesting phase developed. When the number of free settlers became large, there arose a repugnance to receive any more convicts, however profitable their labour might be.
Political agitations in Great Britain which were obnoxious to the Government, and rebellions in Ireland, brought to New South Wales a class of convicts who were wholly different from the ordinary criminals supplied from English jails. The case of the ‘Scottish martyrs’ is one of outstanding interest. Societies for the promotion of parliamentary reform had been formed in Scotland, and at their meetings speeches had been made which reflected such advanced opinions as had become widely current under the influence of the French Revolution. The Government was alarmed at the dissemination of these sentiments among the working classes, and determined to lay some of the ringleaders by the heels. In 1793 they arrested Thomas Muir, an eloquent advocate who had attained some distinction as a political leader; the Rev. T. F. Palmer, Unitarian minister at Dundee; William Skirving, secretary of the Edinburgh Friends of the People society; Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald. These men were tried for sedition before the notorious Lord Justice Clerk, Braxfield, in Edinburgh, and were sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, although it was doubtful whether the Acts in force in England enabling prisoners to be transported applied to Scotland. Braxfield’s brutal conduct at the trials and the illegality of the sentences were denounced in the House of Commons, where Charles James Fox exclaimed, ‘God help the people who have such judges!’
Muir managed to make his escape from Sydney in an American ship, and died in France. Palmer served his sentence and died on his way home to England. Skirving, an eminently high-minded and honourable man, died in Sydney, as also did Gerrald. Margaret was the only one of the five ‘martyrs’ who on personal grounds does not command a full measure of respect, and he was the only one of them who saw his native land again. The others were victims of official and judicial vindictiveness, if not of positively illegal treatment, as well as of the nervous fear of necessary and long-delayed reform to which Wordsworth referred when he wrote, ‘In Britain rules a panic dread of change.’
The Irish rebellion of 1798, and the seditious risings which preceded it, resulted in the pouring of a turbulent stream of convicts into Sydney. Inasmuch as their rebellion sprang from feelings of bitter discontent, it was but natural that they should bring their sourness towards British rule oversea with them; and though many of the Irish prisoners were on personal grounds reputable men, they contributed to the life of the colony elements of violent hatred and conspiracy which had to be stamped out by vigorously exemplary means. It is a remarkable fact that though the convict colony was filled with people who had broken the law in a variety of ways, and many of whom had done desperate things, there never was any serious danger of disruption except from these Irish political prisoners. The gallows and the cat demanded a heavy toll for the mutinies of 1803 and 1804. But Governor King could not afford to treat them lightly, for if there had been a general rising among the thousands of convicts whom he controlled, the whole settlement would have been reduced to the wildest anarchy, and the slender forces at his command might have been annihilated. He may not have known then, but there is the clearest evidence now, that the French were secretly informed that if an attack were made on Sydney the assailants might count upon the assistance of the Irish rebels. We must remember the extraordinary circumstances which had to be dealt with when we find so arbitrary a decree as that of King, that if any two persons were found conferring together, and did not disperse within half an hour of being ordered to do so by any free person, official or otherwise, they should suffer death.
One of the worst features of the treatment of these people was that very many of them were transported without any papers to show the term of their sentences. Governor Hunter, though he thought them ‘turbulent and worthless characters,’ admitted that many had a serious grievance in that they did not know, nor did he, for what periods they had been transported; and Governor King, who admitted that many of them were ‘real deserving characters,’ notwithstanding that he found a ‘restless and diabolical spirit’ working amongst them, had the same complaint to make. Indeed, when reference was made to the Government in Ireland for particulars, it was acknowledged that many convicts had been transported without trial by legally constituted courts, and that a record of convictions had not been kept. Soldiers in regiments which had shown signs of disaffection were clapped on board ship and transported by the simple order of a commanding officer, without even a list of their names being sent with them.
Rebels by life-long disposition, bitter enemies of the authority which had exiled and now held them, with a feeling of injustice rankling in their hearts, these Irish exiles, who numbered about two thousand, were a continual cause of unrest. They were far more troublesome than all the forgers, burglars, and thieves with whom the Governors had to deal. Many attempts to escape were made by groups of them. Some seized boats and got away to sea, generally perishing in the attempt. Wild imagination, heightened perhaps by the despair which grasps at shadows, spread amongst them the idea that somewhere to the north of the settlement, right away across the mountains which looked so blue in the distance, lay other communities of white people; that China might be reached by tramping; that it was possible by flight into the interior to get away from the restraints which maddened them. They thought, reported Governor Hunter, that they could escape ‘to this fancied paradise or to China.’ Few who made the attempt in this manner ever returned. Their bones were left to bleach in the deep, rocky hollows of the mountains.
The little colony upon the shores of Port Jackson, a few square miles shut in between the hills and the sea, contained during the half-century after its foundation as queer a community as has ever been gathered together. There were rogues with the incomes of millionaires jostling persons born to rank who had encountered the fate of the man who once ‘went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.’ A visiting ship’s captain who wrote his memoirs described how he met in a Sydney shop a pretty young woman who, though dressed as a servant, appeared from her manner and speech to be of gentle birth and good education. He learnt her story, and at her request sought out her brother in England, a man of position, to tell him that she still lived. On another day the same visitor met a fine, handsome man dressed in ‘a new blue coat with black velvet collar, like a gentleman should be, which he was every inch of him’; he was Joseph Holt, who had been a leader of the Irish rebels in Wexford. A former sheriff of a county might have been seen upon the footpath alongside a clever French forger who had essayed to help his own country by ruining the Bank of England. A high-minded political idealist like Skirving rubbed shoulders with a boisterous ruffian like Sir Henry Brown Hayes. Men who sought relief in adversity by reading the dialogues of Plato and the poetry of Lucretius, lived cheek by jowl with those who could not read anything. A talented artist who ‘was always distinguished by his skill in the arts of imitation,’ was sent out for forgery, and, as an official report quaintly said, secured a mitigation of punishment ‘in consideration of his having painted an altarpiece for the church.’ The penal laws of Great Britain tossed them all down together in one of the most beautiful situations in the world, now suffused with an atmosphere of rum and rascality — a jumble of thieves, cut-throats, swindlers, forgers, rebels, poachers, ruined gamblers and fraudulent debtors. The lines wrongly attributed to the pickpocket Barrington — who at Sydney became a religious convert and preached sermons on Sunday — covered the whole of them:
True patriots we, for, be it understood,
We left our country for our country’s good.
No private views disgraced our generous zeal,
What urged our travels was our country’s weal.
Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 50-62
[Editor: Replaced the double quotation mark after “who become settlers.” with a single quotation mark.]