Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter IX

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CHAPTER IX.


Of the colonization of the convicts.


"See, say the partisans of colonization, see the flourishing report of New South Wales, it is only forty years since the English began to send convicts there, and already the country contains five cities; arts and luxury are cultivated, and printing is established. At Sydney Cove, the capital of the colony, there are philosophical and agricultural societies; a catholic and two methodist chapels. Although the greater part of the planters and under-magistrates are freed convicts, or those who have undergone their sentence, yet all conduct themselves well and become excellent citizens. Women, the disgrace and refuse of their sex in the metropolis, women already mothers, but covering with opprobrium all that pertained to them, are now, with new connexions, models of sobriety and chastity. There is another alignment to be adduced in support of this system, which has importance. The labour of the convicts in England, competing with that of a number of regular and free workmen, has a mischievous tendency in leaving the latter without work, and consequently increase the numbers thrown on the parish for support; thus, instead of being productive, their labour is injurious. In New South Wales, on the contrary, far from rivalling the English workman, the transport consumes his productions, since only English manufactures are admitted there. The importation amounts to three hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling, and the exportation of indigenous productions is calculated at a third of this sum; a decided argument in favour of colonization, and we may ask what prevents France from participating in so advantageous a system?"

This is doubtlessly very grand, but will it be permanent? Can we draw the inference that it will be equally applicable to France? To the first question, I will say that, in England, they are scarcely more unanimous on the subject than we are as to the advantages of colonizing convicts in general, and as to the results of the colonies of New South Wales, in particular. Independently of every other consideration, however, they afford to British commerce most valuable stations between India, China, the isles of Junda, and all the oriental Archipelago. Such advantages, which might perhaps have been obtained without having recourse to colonization, do not appear however to compensate for the enormous expenses which have at first occurred, and which continue still, to the detriment of the nation; the government having, for some years, had to support a number, varying from eight to ten thousand convicts, whom they are unable to employ usefully. This fact perfectly accounts for the proposition submitted to the House of Commons, to send out to New South Wales, and its auxiliary establishments, Irish emigrants; the poor's rates would proportionally decrease, and the emigrant planters would employ the transports, who by clearing away and preparations, would have paved the way for establishing themselves.

In the meantime, until the determination of government, the unemployed convicts lead, according to their own statements, a very agreeable life, since on a recent enquiry it has been found that many individuals have purposely committed an offence punishable by transportation, that they might be sent out to the colony. Humanity will certainly approve such results, if mildness soothes the manners of the convicts, but we know that idleness only increases bad inclinations, and this is proved from the return to vicious courses of those who return to England on the expiration of their sentence. Their amendment is scarcely more perceptible at the colony, for it is well known that of the three chapels, built at Sidney Cove, they have burnt two, with the intention of frustrating the order which constrains them to attend divine service.

The women, who are represented as purified by the change of hemisphere, testify for the greater part a sort of libertinism, incited in some measure by the vast numerical disproportion of the two sexes, which is as fourteen males for one female. Marriage with a convict, pardoned or freed, procuring them immediate liberty, the first thing sought by the women on their arrival at the depôt of Paramatta, is to get married to a man in these circumstances. They thus often set hold of an old man; a wretch, whom they leave after a few days, and return to Sydney, where they can freely abandon themselves to any species of excess. The result is, that surrounded by corrupt examples, the females who are born from this promiscuous connexion prostitute themselves at a very tender age.

From these facts, accidentally elicited by inquiries into the state of the country by parliamentary discussions, it results, that colonization is far from influencing, as has been unfoundedly believed, the morals of the convicts; and it is besides now decided that it would be almost impracticable for France. The first and most potent objection is, the entire want of a fitting place for transportation; for to form an establishment at Sainte-Marie de Madagascar, the only one of the French possessions at all suitable for such an object, would be sending to almost certain death, not only the convicts, but the governors and guards. The small number of those whom the climate would not have destroyed, would not fail to seize on the stationary vessels, turn pirates, as has been frequently the case at New South Wales; and, instead of a penitentiary establishment, we should find that we had only formed a new horde of buccaniers. Again, it is impossible to think of sending the convicts to any of our colonies, not even to Guyana, where the vast savannahs would not be sufficient to secure an indispensable isolation; and escapes would be soon multiplied, and the colonists would call to mind the lesson given, it is said, by Franklin to the English government, who at that period were sending the convicts to the United States. It is asserted that immediately on the arrival of a transport at Boston, he sent to the minister, Walpole, four boxes of rattlesnakes, begging him to set them free in Windsor park, "so that," he said, "the species might be propagated and become as advantageous to England as the convicts had been to North America."

Even at the present day, escapes at New South Wales are more general than may be thought; and this is proved by a passage from a narrative published in London by a liberated convict, who, without heeding how much he might compromise the reputation of the establishment, was soon apprehended for committing fresh offences.

"When the termination of my exile had arrived, I had determined on quitting the colony; I embarked as servant to a gentleman and lady, formerly convicts, who had amassed sufficient to pay their expenses to England and settle there. It may be thought that my mind was quite satisfied and at ease, but this was not the case. I was never more disturbed nor more uneasy than at the moment when I embarked on board this vessel, and for this reason: I had clandestinely brought away with me six convicts, old companions of mine, and concealed them in the hold of the ship. They were men for whom I had a particular esteem; and it is the duty of a convict who leaves the land of exile never to leave a friend behind him if he can contrive the means of aiding his escape. What incessantly disturbed me was the necessity of providing for the wants of these men; and to do this I was obliged to turn thief again; so that from one moment to another I rendered myself and them liable to detection. Every evening I was obliged to visit the provisions of each person, and carry the produce of my thefts to them.

"There were a great many passengers on board, and I made each contribute in his turn, that it might be the less sensibly felt, and be the longer time of service to me. In spite of my precautions, I often heard them say one to the other, that their provisions went fast and they could not discover how. What most embarrassed me was the raw meat, which however my comrades were compelled to devour; and sometimes I could not get any, particularly when the moon shone brightly, and then I was compelled to steal a double allowance of bread. My master having desired me to cook for him and his wife, the opportunity was of course made profitable. If I made broth or a hash I took care to retain half, which took the road to the hold. All that I could get besides went there too; for I frequented the cook's kitchen, on whom I also constantly levied contributions.

"There was on board a friend of mine, a cooper, who, having staid the time of his sentence, was returning like me to England. I had let him into my confidence, and he served me greatly in my thefts on the cook; for instance, he drew him on one side and occupied him whilst I was carrying off something of everything that came to hand. Besides the cooper, there was a sailor on board who was also in the secret, but who, as it will appear in the sequel, was a confidant too many.

"One Sunday, after we had been a month at sea, the cooper and the sailor were talking together in the forecastle, when a dispute arose about some trifle. I was at the moment trying to open a chest to get some provisions from it, when the sailor, who had left the cooper, came up to me. Deceived by the darkness of the night, for it was about nightfall, and taking me for some other person, he struck me on the shoulder, saying, 'Where is the captain?' I answered him, and on recognizing me, he ran into the captain's cabin crying with all his might, 'Murder! murder! we are all lost! The ship will be taken; there are ten men concealed in the hold, and so and so (meaning me and the cooper) are in the plot; they want to murder us and make off with the ship!'

"The captain, immediately calling his mate, went with him on deck, and ordered all hands to assemble there. When we had all met, the sailor again pointed out me and the cooper as the principals in the plot, asserting that there were ten men in the hold. They went down with lights, but returned without discovering anything, so well had my men concealed themselves. At length, the captain not liking to be defeated, determined on filling the hold with smoke, and the poor devils were compelled to come out for fear of being choked. On getting on deck they cut a most miserable figure, for since their departure from Sydney Cove they had neither been shaved nor washed, and their clothes were in rags. What made the sight still more wretched was, that the night was dark, and the deck was illuminated by a solitary lanthorn.

"The captain began by putting fetters on the new comers; then, after having questioned them, and being assured that there were only six of them, he made them lie down without food on the deck. The second act of the piece consisted in treating the cooper and myself in a similar manner. When we were all together, they threw a large sail over us, like a net, and thus we passed the night. The next day, early, we went below, one after the other, with a rope round our waists, to the bottom of the hold, and were put in a hole so dark that we could not see each other. We were left there on the bare plank, and for food we had a pint of water and a pound of biscuit daily. We received this distribution without seeing it; for the sailor who brought it to us announced his arrival by a cry to us to extend our hands; and on receiving this pittance we divided it amongst us entirely in the dark.

"We were kept in this situation for forty mortal days, that is, until the ship reached the Cape of Good Hope, where she was to touch. The captain went to the governor to announce to him that he had some fugitive convicts on board, and to ask whether he could not disembark them, and have them confined in the prison of Cape Town; but the governor said he would have nothing to do with such people, and would not allow them to be landed. However, the captain soon consoled himself for this, on learning that there was an Irish ship in the harbour laden with convicts for Botany Bay. He made an arrangement with the captain of this ship, and induced him to take my poor comrades with him. They were taken from their dungeon for this purpose, and I never saw them again."

The obstacles which I have mentioned are so serious that I shall not touch on the consequences of a naval war on the spot, intercepting all communication and all conveyances. In aid of the pursuits of science, we have seen belligerent powers afford a free passage to naturalists and mathematicians, but it may be doubted whether, for the sake of morals, the same favour would be shown to convicts, who might, after all, be only soldiers disguised.

Let us however for a moment admit that these obstacles are removed, and that transportation is possible, should it be perpetual for all convicts indifferently? Or should we go on the plan observed with the galley-slaves, by graduating the term of labour? In the first case, you would destroy all proportion between punishments and crimes; since the man who, according to this code would only have to serve a certain time at the galleys, would not see his country again any more than the man sentenced to transportation for life. In England, where the least period of sentence (seven years) is assigned as well to a robbery of twenty-four sous as for severe violence exercised against a magistrate, this disproportion exists; but it often palliates the severities of a legislation which punishes with death offences sentenced by us only to imprisonment. So, at the English assizes it is no uncommon thing to hear a prisoner, after sentence of transportation has been passed upon him, say, "Thank'ye, my lord."

If the transportation be not for life, we should fall into the delusion which the Counsels generally point out every year, by exclaiming against the mixing of the liberated convicts with the people. Our freed transports would return to society with nearly the same vices that they had contracted at the Bagne. All tends to confirm the idea that they would be more incorrigible than the transported Englishman, whom a national spirit for travelling and colonization frequently attaches to the soil where he has been transplanted.

Considering, then, colonization as nearly impossible, it only remains to ameliorate, as much as possible, the morals of the convicts; to introduce to the Bagnes reforms pointed out by experience. The first would consist in classing the convicts according to their dispositions; and for that it would be necessary to consult not only their present behaviour, but also their previous conduct and acquaintance; a point not at all considered at the Bagnes, where the only thought is how to prevent escape. Men disposed to amend might obtain those little indulgences now bestowed on the most daring thieves—on convicts sentenced for life, whom they favour that they may not think of means of escape. It would, in fact, be proper to abridge the punishments, to effect the improvement of the prisoners; for the man whom a stay of six months at the Bagne would correct, would leave it at the end of five years entirely depraved.

Another precaution taken with those convicts who have many years to labour is, that of coupling them with those who have only a short sentence to undergo. They think thus to give them watchmen, who, unaccustomed to blows of the stick, and fearing to prolong their detention by being suspected as accomplices, would tell of the least attempt at escape. It follows, that the novice, yoked with the perfect villain, would be soon corrupted. On the days of rest, when the prisoners are not chained to the benches till evening, he necessarily follows his companion into the society of other bandits, who complete his degradation by testifying whatever the passions can produce that is most atrocious and appalling. I am understood. But is it not disgraceful, to see publicly organised a prostitution which, even in the midst of great cities, shrinks from the general eye into the shades of mystery? Why are hot these disgusting excesses prevented, by shutting up in solitary confinement the young men who are usually the victims reserved to figure in these horrible Saturnalia.

It is also indispensably necessary to prevent the abuses of ardent spirits, which excite the convicts to a state contrary to the calm so necessary for them to be kept in, if we would have reflection bring on repentance. We do not mean to say that they should be entirely separated, as is the case in the United States in some instances, but this can scarcely be put in force without inconvenience with men sentenced to hard labour; we must watch that the orders and regulations of the prison be properly carried into effect by the prisoners who receive them. At the same time that we should preserve the health of those unfortunates, we should prevent serious disorders. On the days of relaxation it often happens, that a convict, desirous of a debauch, pledges his allowance for a fortnight for the present advances of some comrades. He gets drunk and disorderly, and is accordingly beaten, and then reduced to water and bean soup, when he needs more nourishing provisions to support him. There are, besides, other modes of providing for these orgies, they rob the workshops, the magazines, and in the wood-yards. Some pilfer the copper-sheathing, of which they make six liard pieces, which they sell at a much lower price to the country people; others steal the tools with which the little toys are formed which are sold to visitors; others take logs of wood, which chopped into small pieces, go to the fires of the argousins, who are thus in a measure conciliated. I am told, that at the present day, this system has been reformed, and I am happy to hear it: all that I can say is, that when I was at Brest it was as "notorious as the sun at noon day," that no argousin ever bought fire-wood.

It is in the blacksmiths' workshops that the prisoners instruct each other in the art of forging false keys and other instruments for opening doors, such as ripping-chisels (cadets), pincers (monseigneurs), picklocks (rossignols), &c. &c. This objection is perhaps irremediable, in a port where ships are to be fitted out; but why should such workshops be allowed in prisons in the interior of the country? I will add, that the labour of the convicts, of whatever kind, is far from being as productive as that of free mechanics; but it is an abuse which it is nearly hopeless to think of eradicating or reforming. The cudgel may certainly compel the convict to work, because there is a decided difference between activity and rest; but no chastisement can awaken in the breast of the convict that instinctive ardour which alone accelerates labour, and directs it to perfection. Besides, government must consider as very insignificant the produce of a convict's daily work, since it is never alluded to in the budget or receipts of the state. The total expense of the galley-slaves (chiourmes), classed under its different heads, amounts to the sum of 2,718,900 francs (113,281 l.); these are some of the expenses—

Dress of the prisoners
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
220,500
 francs
Ditto freed convicts
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
23,012
Expenses for shoes and stockings
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
72,900
Ditto for making fetters
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
11,250
Ditto of capture
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
7,000
Ditto of conveyance of chain
....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................
130,000

Then came the salaries of the clerks and officers, pay, clothing, allowance of the guard, &c.

To render these expenses really useful, and to pursue measures of amelioration, so long and loudly called for, and which can only be attained gradually, we cannot too strongly recommend to the guardians, that moderation of conduct which should not be departed from even in inflicting the severest punishment. I have seen the galley-guards goad the wretched convicts to desperation, by ill-treating them, as their humours might dictate; and as if to sport with their misery, one of these brutes would say to a new comer, "What is your name? I will wager that your name is Dust.—Well, my name is Wind, and I make the Dust fly;" and then bastinado him in a most severe manner. Many galley-guards have been assassinated for thus provoking the convict, and rousing him to revenge that nothing will make him lose sight of.

In the sequel of these Memoirs, I shall have occasion to return to this subject, when I touch on the system of surveillance, which is a new punishment for freed men.

The inconveniences and abuses that I have just adverted to existed at the prison of Brest when I was conducted thither, and were additional inducements to make my sojourn as brief as possible. In such a situation, the first thing is to assure oneself of the discretion of the comrade with whom we may be coupled. Mine was a vine-cutter from Dijon, about thirty years old, condemned to twenty-four years' labour for forcible burglary; already half an ideot, misery and brutal treatment had completely stupified him. Bowed beneath the stick, he seemed to have just preserved the instinct of a monkey or a dog, and thus answered the whistle of the galley-serjeants. He was of no use to me, and I was compelled to look out for a mate who would not fear or shrink from the perspective beatings which are always liberally bestowed on convicts suspected of favouring, or even conniving at the escape of a prisoner. To get rid of Bourguignon, I feigned indisposition, and he was yoked to another, and when I recovered, I was placed with a poor devil sentenced to eight years labour for stealing chickens from a church.

He had not entirely parted with his senses, and the first time we were alone together, said to me—"Listen, comrade; I can see you do not mean to live long at the public expense—be frank with me, and you will not lose by it." I told him that I intended to escape at the first opportunity. "Well," said he, "I advise you to bolt before the beasts of Serjeants are quite acquainted with your phiz;—but have you any cash?" I told him that I had, and he then informed me that he could procure me other habiliments, but that I must buy a few utensils like one who meant to work out his time quietly. These utensils were two wooden bowls, a wine keg, straps to support my fetters, and a small mattress stuffed with oakum. It was Thursday, the sixteenth day of my confinement at the Bagne, and on the Saturday evening I obtained sailor's clothes, which I immediately put on under my convict's frock. On paying the seller of them, I saw that he had about his wrists round cicatrices of deep burns, and I learnt, that being condemned to the gallies for life in 1776, he had been put to the torture at Rennes, without confessing the robbery of which he was accused. On the promulgation of the code of 1791, his sentence was commuted to twenty-four years' labour at the gallies.

The next day, my division went out, at the cannon's signal, to work at the pump, which was always in motion. At the wicket they examined, as usual, our manacles and clothing; knowing this practice, I had pasted over my sailor's garb a bladder painted flesh-colour. As I purposely left my frock and shirt open, none of the guards thought of examining me more closely, and I got out unsuspected. Arrived at this basin, I retired with my comrade behind a pile of planks, and my fetters having been cut the previous evening, soon yielded. Having got rid of these, I soon threw off my galley-frock and trowsers, and putting on under my leathern cap a wig which I had brought from Bicêtre, and having given my comrade the trifling recompense which I had promised him, I disappeared, cautiously gliding behind the piles of timber.