Admiral Phillip/Chapter 11

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It is, or was until a few years ago, the common belief in England that Australians were very easily offended by any reference to the convict times. This is quite a mistake, convict transportation ceased half a century ago, a man who is an 'old lag' is as much a curiosity to Australians nowadays as he would be to Englishmen, and it is quite safe to talk of the subject in any of the colonies.

The penal establishments undeniably earned for themselves a very evil reputation, and the novel For the Term of His Natural Life has done more than anything else to spread abroad and perpetuate an exaggerated notion of the 'horrors of the system.' The system was undoubtedly brutal and degrading, but no more brutal and degrading than the prison administration of the time in England—perhaps not so bad.

When Marcus Clarke published his book, naturally enough scores of imitators followed, and the sufferings of poor, unjustly-convicted prisoners done to death by heartless gaolers has ever since formed stock material for writers of 'short stories.'

Neither writers nor readers troubled themselves about the amount of truth to be found in these stories, or were concerned with such details as the time or place of the alleged acts of injustice, and so no inconsiderable number of otherwise sensible people picture Governor Phillip as a man who hanged half a dozen convicts every morning before breakfast, and spent the rest of the day in flogging prisoners to death.

It is also often asserted that the British Government had no higher motive in the despatch of the First Fleet than that of clearing the English gaols, sending shiploads of prisoners to the other side of the world, depositing them on shore and leaving them to starve or die, or anything else, so long as the old country was rid of them.

There is ample evidence to the contrary of this, and Phillip's instructions, without going any further into the matter, are proof enough that the Government was really animated by a sincere desire to convert criminals into colonists. Their mistake was a too great confidence in the possibility of reform, which gave some ground for the charge of exiling these people to a far-off country, and leaving them to starve. It was too much to expect from Phillip that he could turn a few hundred idle rascals, landed in a desert, into a self-supporting community in less than half a dozen years.

Some particulars of Phillip's methods of punishing the idle and vicious, and of rewarding the industrious, will best answer the charges against his administration, and this chapter of his work, notwithstanding its hanging and flogging details, provides, in its account of the state of society at Sydney Cove, some lighter touches of comedy to relieve the gloom.

Whether it is or ever was right to hang and flog men, although there are still plenty of people who believe in such punishments, is no concern of these writers—but (and this is the point to be remembered) neither was it any concern of Governor Phillip's.

There was law in the land then as now, and Phillip's sole duty was to administer it as he found it. Courts of justice tried prisoners and sentenced them in Sydney in 1788 to punishments which a hundred years ago were generally less severe than judges were at every session passing at the Old Bailey, for in the year of the colony's foundation about 160 crimes were punishable by the death penalty, women were whipped through London streets at the cart-tail, and 500 lashes was a not uncommon punishment for breaches of discipline in the Army and Navy. It is a fact that a woman, for the crime of coining, was strangled and afterwards burnt in public in front of Newgate gaol in the very year that Phillip landed in Sydney, and about a hundred executions was the annual average for England at this time. Of course, twelve 'good men and true' did not in Sydney try their fellow-citizens when they 'got into trouble,' but then the country was at this time a gaol, and the most sanguine philanthropist has scarcely ventured to argue that gaol discipline can be maintained by trial by jury.

It is asserted that Phillip was severe—that granted he had to flog, he flogged unmercifully. Phillip was a naval officer, and in the Navy of those days flogging was almost the only punishment. A century ago such men as Phillip punished with a few lashes, if sailors, would have either been hanged or flogged round the fleet, and the number of strokes with the cat would have been measured by the hundred. A naval officer thus educated in punishing could scarcely be expected to be gentle in his methods, and if he showed in the least degree that he had got the better of such a training, posterity might well deal kindly with his memory.

It is difficult for readers at this end of the century to realise the shocking character of the English prison system, or rather utter absence of system, that prevailed until comparatively recent times. Mrs Fry, the prison reformer, thirty years after the establishment of Phillip's penal settlement, described the women's ward in Newgate as such a scene of 'begging, swearing, gaming, fighting, singing, dancing, dressing up in men's clothes, and such an awful place as only to be described as hell above ground, and too dreadful for us to take young persons with us on our visits.'

Years after Phillip was in his grave, Buxton gave an account of the prison system in London. He said that after the commitment of a prisoner was made out, he was handcuffed to a file of perhaps a dozen wretched persons in a similar situation, and marched through the streets, sometimes a considerable distance, followed by a crowd of impudent and insulting gazers, exposed to the stare of every passenger; the moment he entered prison, irons were hammered on to him; then he was cast into the midst of a compound of all that was disgusting and depraved. At night he was locked up in a narrow cell, with perhaps half a dozen of the worst thieves in London, or as many vagrants, whose rags were alive, and in actual motion with filth. He might find himself in bed, and in bodily contact, between a robber and a murderer; or between a man with a foul disease on one side, and one with an infectious disorder on the other. He might spend his days deprived of free air and wholesome exercise. He might be prohibited from following the handicraft on which the subsistence of his family depended. He might be half starved for want of food and clothing and fuel. He might be compelled to mingle with the vilest of mankind, and, in self-defence, to adopt their habits, their language and their sentiments; he might become a villain by actual compulsion. His health might be impaired or ruined by filth and contagion; and as for his morals, purity itself could not continue pure, if exposed for any length of time to the society with which he must associate. His trial might be long protracted; he might be imprisoned on suspicion, and pine in jail while his family was starving out of it, without any opportunity of removing that suspicion, and this for a whole year; if acquitted, he might be dismissed from jail without a shilling in his pocket, and without the means of returning home; if convicted, beyond the sentence awarded by the law, he might be exposed to the most intolerable hardships, and these might amount to no less than the destruction of his life now, and his soul for ever.

Contrast this condition of prisoners in London—many of them accused persons only—with the life of convicted felons in the 'Botany Bay penal settlement,' where all that was asked from the criminal was that he should make a fresh start, work, and refrain from thieving.

Unfortunately, however, among the convicts were men so sadly ignorant, so hideously vicious, so brutally low, that only those who know the crimes of great cities can picture to themselves what these criminals were like.

When the lives of all depended on the security of the public stores, to judge the man who was responsible by the number of thieves he hanged, or the amount of flogging he ordered them, is absurd. The true test of the man's character is to be sought, not in his manner of dealing with the idle and vicious, but in his treatment of the few who were men enough to deserve sympathy and encouragement.

In an old churchyard at Campbelltown, about thirty-five miles from Sydney, there is a tombstone erected to the memory of James Ruse, who died in 1837. Collins describes him as 'the first settler in this country, who, when he had been upon his ground for fifteen months, having got in his crop of corn, declared himself as relinquishing his claim to any further provisions from the store, and said that he was able to support himself by the produce of his farm. He had shown himself an industrious man; and the Governor, being satisfied that he could do without any further aid from the stores, consented to his proposal, and informed him that he should be forthwith put in possession of an allotment of thirty acres of ground in the situation he then occupied.'

Tench tells us that Ruse, a convict, 'was cast for seven years at Bodmin assizes in August 1782; he lay five years in prison and on board the Dunkirk hulk at Plymouth, and then was sent to this country. When his term of punishment expired in August 1789, he claimed his freedom, and was permitted by the Governor, on promising to settle in the country, to take, in December following, an uncleared piece of ground, with an assurance that if he would cultivate it, it should not be taken from him. Some assistance was given him to fell the timber, and he accordingly began.'

The labour of clearing his ground for cultivation was very arduous, but Ruse was fortunate in having an industrious woman for his wife; he had married her in the colony. As time went on, the Governor granted him the labour of one man, but only for a short time, and then Ruse's wife was his only helper. His greatest check, he told Tench, was the persistent manner in which his garden was robbed almost nightly by convicts, in spite of all his vigilance. This man was the first successful 'experiment' among the convicts, and Phillip, one can imagine, signed the first land grant of thirty acres with a great deal of satisfaction.

Against the industrious Ruse there was a set-off of many failures, and among the rascals were some whose rogueries were amusing. For example. Tench tells us of one Daly, who was hanged for breaking into the public stores, but previous to this crime he 'was the author of a discovery of a gold mine a few months before. He produced a composition resembling ore mingled with earth, which he pretended to have brought from it. After a number of attendant circumstances, too ludicrous and contemptible to relate, which befel a party who were sent under his guidance to explore this second Peru, he at last confessed that he had broken up an old pair of buckles and mixed the pieces with sand and stone; and on assaying the composition, the brass was detected. The fate of this fellow I should not deem worth recording did it not lead to the following observation: that the utmost circumspection is necessary to prevent imposition in those who give accounts of what they see in unknown countries. We found the convicts particularly happy in fertility of invention and exaggerated descriptions. Hence large fresh water rivers, valuable ores, and quarries of limestone, chalk and marble were daily proclaimed soon after we had landed. At first we hearkened with avidity to such accounts; but perpetual disappointments taught us to listen with caution, and to believe from demonstration only.'

Captain Tench testifies to the surprising ingenuity of one prisoner.

'Frazer was an iron manufacturer, bred at Sheffield, of whose abilities as a workman we have witnessed many proofs. The Governor had written to England for a set of locks to be sent out for the security of the public stores, which were to be so constructed as to be incapable of being picked. On their arrival His Excellency sent for Frazer, and bade him examine them, telling him at the same time that they could not be picked. Frazer laughed, and asked for a crooked nail only to open them all. A nail was brought, and in an instant he verified his assertion. Astonished at his dexterity, a gentleman present determined to put it to farther proof. He was sent for in a hurry, some days after, to the hospital, where a lock of still superior intricacy and expence to the others had been provided. He was told that the key was lost, and that the lock must be immediately picked. He examined it attentively, remarked that it was the production of a workman, and demanded ten minutes to make an instrument, and open flew the lock. But it was not only in this part of his business that he excelled; he executed every branch of it in superior style. Had not his villainy been still more notorious than his skill, he would have proved an invaluable possession to a new country. He had passed through innumerable scenes in life, and had played many parts. When too lazy to work at his trade, he had turned thief in fifty different shapes; was a receiver of stolen goods, a soldier, and a travelling conjurer. He once confessed to me that he had made a set of tools for a gang of coiners, every man of whom was hanged.'

Forgers, however, do not seem to have been so successful as the locksmith, for we learn that 'several convicts brought recommendatory letters from different friends. Of these some were genuine, and many owed their birth to the ingenuity of the bearers. But these last were all such bungling performances as to produce only instant detection and succeeding contempt. One of them addressed to the Governor, with the name of Baron Hotham affixed to it, began "Honored Sir."

Phillip's simple code of regulations for dealing with his people are worth reprinting, as the first police system in the colony:—

'1. A night-watch, consisting of twelve persons, divided into four parties, is appointed, and fully authorised to patrol at all hours in the night, and to visit such places as may be deemed necessary for the discovery of any felony, trespass or misdemeanour; and for the apprehending and securing for examination any person or persons that may appear to them concerned therein, either by entrance into any suspected hut or dwelling, or by such other manner as may appear expedient.

'2. Those parts in which the convicts reside are to be divided, and numbered in the following manner: The convicts' huts and the public farm on the east side of the cove to be the first division. Those at the brick-kilns and the detached parties at the different farms in that district the second division. Those on the western side, as far as the line that separates the district of the women from the men, the third division. The huts occupied from that line to the hospital, and from thence to the Observatory, to be the fourth division.

'3. These districts or divisions each to be of them under the particular inspection of one person, who shall be judged qualified to inform himself of the actual residence of each individual in his district; as well as of his business connections and acquaintance.

'4. Cognizance is to be taken of such convicts as may sell or barter their slops or provisions, and also of such as game for either of the aforesaid articles, and report is to be made of them to the Judge-Advocate.

'5. Any soldier or seaman found stragling after the taptoo has beat, or who may be found in the convicts' huts, is to be detained, and information to be immediately given to the nearest guardhouse.

'6. On any person's being robbed during the night, he is to give immediate information thereof to the watch of his district, who, on the instant of application being made, shall use the most effectual means to trace out the offender or offenders, so that he or they may be brought to justice.

'7. The watch of each district is to be under the direction of one person, who will be named for that purpose, and all the patrols to be immediately under the inspection of Herbert Keeling. They are never to receive any fee, gratuity or reward from any individual to engage their exertions in the execution of the above trust; nor are they to receive any stipulated encouragement for the conviction of any offender; but their diligence and good behaviour will be rewarded by the Governor, and for which purpose their conduct will be strictly attended to by those who are in authority over them.

'8. The night-watch to go out as soon as the taptoo has done beating; to return to their huts when the working-drum beats in the morning; and reports to be made at twelve o'clock to the Judge-Advocate, of all robberies and misdemeanours, by Herbert Keeling. Any assistance the patrols may require will be given them on applying to the officer of the the nearest guard, and by the civil power if necessary; for which application is to be made to the provost-martial.

'9. Any negligence on the part of those who may be employed on this duty will be punished with the utmost rigor of the law.

'10. The night-watch is to consist of the following [twelve persons].'

Soon after the inauguration of the colony, the question of what to do with convicts whose time had expired became a problem. When Phillip sailed, the Home Office had neglected to supply him with particulars of the prisoners' sentences, and convicts were continually asserting that as they had served their time, the Governor had no further power over them. However, this problem was settled by the position of the settlement—its isolation kept all alike prisoners, and in due course the necessary papers arrived.

A much more serious difficulty arose out of the legal interpretation of Phillip's power to emancipate any of his subjects. He had, before leaving, asked for that power, and the Government, without passing a special Act of Parliament, could only grant him authority to pardon persons whose offences were committed within the colony. The fleet sailed before the Act could be passed, and it was not until the arrival of the Gorgon late in 1791 that Phillip received the power to emancipate convicts.

He was not, however, the man to shirk responsibility. The need of power to give men their freedom whose conduct was highly meritorious was apparent, and the Governor of his own motion emancipated two men, one of whom, says Collins, had done such service in the building line that 'there was not a house or building in the settlement that did not owe something to him.' The other man was Ascott, who behaved so well when the Sirius went ashore.

Phillip, in a despatch dated 5th November 1791, says:—

'Of those convicts whose sentences are expired, some who are seamen or carpenters will be carried away by the transports; but by far the greatest part of those people must remain, discontented and desirous of seizing the first opportunity which offers of escaping. Amongst the many great advantages which would attend settlers coming out who had some property of their own, their finding employment for this class of people would be one, for such settlers would separate them from the convicts, which cannot well be done while they are employed by the Crown, and probably most of them would soon be reconciled to remain in the country.

'Of the convicts whose terms of transportation are expired, or who, from their very meritorious behaviour, have been emancipated, there is one whose time is expired, and whom, in consideration of his remaining here a few months longer, I have promised to send home by the next ships. He is the only carpenter at this place who is capable of acting as a master carpenter, and while he remains here I have promised to allow him one shilling per diem.

'The first convict who was emancipated had been bred to surgery, and merited from his exemplary conduct what has been done for him; he acts as an assistant to the surgeons, who find him a very useful man. He is inclined to remain in the country. For him some allowance will be necessary, and for which he was recommended when the inconveniences which the superintendents and others laboured under, from there not being any money in the colony, was represented to your Lordship.

'The second convict who was emancipated had well earned his emancipation by his good conduct, and the pains he had taken to teach others the business of a bricklayer; this man has likewise my promise to be sent home before I leave the country; and as he continues to carry on the public works with great diligence, will expect some little allowance. The time for which he was sentenced will be expired before he returns to England.

'The third convict was emancipated on the recommendation of the Lieutenant-Governor, for extinguishing the fire on board the Sirius after that ship went on shore. This man went to Calcutta in the Atlantic, and it now appears that his term of transportation had expired prior to his emancipation.

'One woman has been emancipated on her marrying a superintendent. The distinction directed to be made with regard to those convicts who have behaved well before they became settlers has been attended to; and I hope the necessity there has been of deviating from the royal instructions respecting settlers will appear to have been sufficient to justify what I have done on that head. My letter to Mr Nepean undoubtedly gave little reason to suppose that many of the marines would be inclined to remain when the relief took place, and the opinion I formed when that letter was written was drawn from the great anxiety so many expressed of quitting a country which was said to be incapable of furnishing even the common necessaries of life; the people who were to become settlers were men who had not been in the habit of judging for themselves, and the fears and apprehensions of some to whom they had been accustomed to look up with respect, had their effect, and there was some difficulty in persuading any man on whose judgment some dependence might be placed to think for himself; but I have now the pleasure of informing your Lordship that most of those fears and apprehensions are done away, and that we have now eighty-six settlers here and at Norfolk Island—that is, thirty-one from the marines, eleven seamen, and forty-four from those convicts whose sentences have expired; there are, likewise, more marines who have desired to be received as settlers when the detachment is to be embarked. No man of bad character has been received as a settler.'

The additional instructions which enabled Phillip to grant these emancipations enforced the condition that prisoners should not return to England until the expiration of the time for which they were sentenced. This was natural enough, considering the anxiety of the Home Government to settle the new colony. But most of the time-expired prisoners desired to go back, and Grenville wrote to Phillip pointing out that such men could not legally be detained, but that every indulgence should be offered to induce them to remain. Numbers of them, however, did return, working their passages home in returning transports, for the Government did not recognise any obligation on its part to provide them with a return passage.

Another source of trouble with the prisoners, which, however, brought with it its own punishment, was their constant attempts to escape across country. Those who did not get 'bushed' and starved to death were generally murdered by the natives. Some, after undergoing dreadful hardships, returned to the settlement. A party once tried to walk to China. Tench saw them after their experiences. He says:—

'When at the hospital I saw and conversed with some of the Chinese travellers; four of them lay here, wounded by the natives. I asked these men if they really supposed it possible to reach China; they answered, that they were certainly made to believe (they knew not how) that at a considerable distance to the northward existed a large river, which separated this country from the back part of China; and that when it should be crossed (which was practicable) they would find themselves among a copper-coloured people, who would receive and treat them kindly. They added, that on the third day of their elopement one of the party died of fatigue; another they saw butchered by the natives, who, finding them unarmed, attacked them and put them to flight. This happened near Broken Bay, which harbour stopped their progress to the northward, and forced them to turn to the right hand, by which means they soon after found themselves on the sea shore, where they wandered about, in a destitute condition, picking up shell-fish to allay hunger. Deeming the farther prosecution of their scheme impracticable, several of them agreed to return to Rose Hill, which with difficulty they accomplished, arriving almost famished. On their road back they met six fresh adventurers sallying forth to join them, to whom they related what had passed, and persuaded them to relinquish their intention. There are at this time not less than thirty-eight convict men missing, who live in the woods by day, and at night enter the different farms and plunder for subsistence.'

There were several attempts to get away by sea, but as there were nothing but ship's boats to be stolen for the purpose, these endeavours generally ended in the same way as the China expedition. There was one noteworthy exception — that of the escape of William Bryant and ten others, including his wife and her two young children, who, in a small boat, succeeded in reaching the island of Timor, where those who survived were recaptured. This attempt was no doubt suggested to its daring projectors by the success of Bligh's boat voyage, the news of which had by this time reached the settlement, and the voyage of the convicts was not less remarkable than that of Bligh and his companions.

Tench relates how, in March 1789, sixteen convicts left their work at the brick-kilns without leave, and marched to Botany Bay with a design to attack the natives, and to plunder them of their fishing-tackle and spears. They had armed themselves with their working tools and large clubs. When they arrived near the bay, 'a body of Indians,' who had probably seen them set out, and had penetrated their intention from experience, suddenly fell upon them. 'Our heroes were immediately routed, and separately endeavoured to effect their escape by any means which were left. In their flight one was killed, and seven were wounded, for the most part very severely. Those who had the good fortune to outstrip their comrades and arrive in camp, first gave the alarm; and a detachment of marines, under an officer, was ordered to march to their relief. The officer arrived too late to repel the Indians; but he brought in the body of the man that was killed, and put an end to the pursuit. The Governor was justly incensed at what had happened, and instituted a most rigorous scrutiny into the cause which had produced it. At first the convicts were unanimous in affirming that they were quietly picking sweet-tea, when they were, without provocation, assaulted by the natives, with whom they had no wish to quarrel. Some of them, however, more irresolute than the rest, at last disclosed the purpose for which the expedition had been undertaken; and the whole were ordered to be severely flogged. Arabanoo was present at the infliction of the punishment, and was made to comprehend the cause and the necessity of it; but he displayed on the occasion symptoms of disgust and terror only.'

The blacks looked upon the spectacle of a man being flogged with feelings which does them honour, for on another occasion Tench says:—

'But toil cannot be long supported without adequate refreshment. The first step in every community, which wishes to preserve honesty, should be to set the people above want. The throes of hunger will ever prove too powerful for integrity to withstand. Hence arose a repetition of petty delinquencies, which no vigilance could detect, and no justice reach. Gardens were plundered; provisions pilfered; and the Indian corn stolen from the fields, where it grew for public use. Various were the measures adopted to check this depredatory spirit. Criminal courts, either from the tediousness of their process, or from the frequent escape of culprits from their decision, were seldomer convened than formerly. The Governor ordered convict-offenders either to be chained together, or to wear singly a large iron collar, with two spikes projecting from it, which effectually hindered the party from concealing it under his shirt; and thus shackled, they were compelled to perform their quota of work.

'Had their marauding career terminated here, humanity would have been anxious to plead in their defence; but the natives continued to complain of being robbed of spears and fishing-tackle. A convict was at length taken in the act of stealing fishing-tackle from Daringa, the wife of Colbee (Coleby). The Governor ordered that he should be severely flogged, in the presence of as many natives as could be assembled, to whom the cause of punishment should be explained. Many of them, of both sexes, accordingly attended. Arabanoo's aversion to a similar sight has been noticed; and if the behaviour of those now collected be found to correspond with it, it is, I think, fair to conclude that these people are not of a sanguinary and implacable temper. Quick indeed of resentment, but not unforgiving of injury. There was not one of them that did not testify strong abhorrence of the punishment, and equal sympathy with the sufferer. The women were particularly affected; Daringa shed tears; and Barangaroo, kindling into anger, snatched a stick and menaced the executioner. The conduct of these women on this occasion was exactly descriptive of their characters. The former was meek and feminine; the latter fierce and unsubmissive.'

Phillip, before leaving England, wrote a memorandum to the Home Office in which he outlined his views on the treatment of prisoners. This document certainly of itself shows that he was no ardent believer in hanging.

For instance, he says:—

'Rewarding and punishing the convicts must be left to the Governor; he will be answerable for his conduct, and death, I should think, will never be necessary—in fact, I doubt if the fear of death ever prevented a man of no principle from committing a bad action. There are two crimes that would merit death—murder and another. For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal till the opportunity offered of delivering him as a prisoner to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.'

The alternative of landing men in New Zealand to be eaten by the natives is certainly not a very amiable suggestion, but it ought not to be judged too harshly. A hundred years ago, sailors who had committed awful crimes which put them outside the pale of nautical society, were often punished by the masters of their ships marooning them on some desert island or place supposed to be inhabited by savages, and Phillip no doubt meant something of this kind by his proposal.

Collins describes how a desperate rascal was dealt with, and Phillip's humanity on this occasion is stated by the historian:—

'Caesar, being closely attended to, was at length apprehended and secured. This man was always reputed the hardest working convict in the country; his frame was muscular and well calculated for hard labor; but in his intellects he did not very widely differ from a brute; his appetite was ravenous, for he could in any one day devour the full ration for two days. To gratify his appetite he was compelled to steal from others, and all his thefts were directed to that purpose. He was such a wretch, and so indifferent about meeting death, that he declared while in confinement that if he should be hanged he would create a laugh before he was sent off by playing off some trick upon the executioner. Holding up such a mere animal as an example was not expected to have the proper or intended effect; the Governor, therefore, with the humanity that was always conspicuous in the exercise of the authority vested in him, directed that he should be sent to Garden Island, there to work in fetters; and in addition to his ration of provisions he was to be supplied with vegetables from the garden.'

Phillip, writing to Grenville in July 1790, says, in illustration of the class of men he had to deal with:—

'Experience, Sir, has taught me how difficult it is to make men industrious who have passed their lives in habits of vice and indolence. In some cases it has been found impossible; neither kindness nor severity have had any effect; and tho' I can say that the convicts in general behave well, there are many who dread punishment less than they fear labour; and those who have not been brought up to hard work, which are by far the greatest part, bear it badly. They shrink from it the moment the eye of the overseer is turned from them.'

With such men in such a situation it was not wonderful that recourse was frequently had to what were practically the only punishments of that time—the gallows and the triangles.