the health of the unhappy offenders, to inure them to habits of industry, to guard them from pernicious company, to accustom them to serious reflection and to teach them both the principles and practice of every Christian and moral duty.” The experience of succeeding years has added little to these the true principles of penal discipline; they form the basis of every species of prison system carried out since the passing of an act of 1779.
No immediate action was taken by the committee appointed. Its members were not in accord as to the choice of site. One was for Islington, another for Limehouse; Howard only stipulated for some healthy place well supplied with water and conveniently situated for supervision. He was strongly of opinion that the penitentiary should be built by convict labour. Howard withdrew from the commission, and new members were appointed, who were on the eve of beginning the first penitentiary when the discoveries of Captain Cook in the South Seas turned the attention of the government towards these new lands. The vast territories Australian penal settlements. of Australasia promised an unlimited field for convict colonization, and for the moment the scheme for penitentiary houses fell to the ground. Public opinion generally preferred the idea of establishing penal settlements at a distance from home. “There was general confidence,” says Merivale in his work on colonization, “in the favourite theory that the best mode of punishing offenders was that which removed them from the scene of offence and temptation, cut them off by a great gulf of space from all their former connexions, and gave them the opportunity of redeeming past crimes by becoming useful members of society.” These views so far prevailed that an expedition consisting of nine transports and two men-of-war, the “first fleet” of Australian annals, sailed in March 1787 for New South Wales. This first fleet reached Botany Bay in January 1788, but passed on and landed at Port Jackson, where it entered and occupied Sydney harbour. From that time forward convicts were sent in constantly increasing numbers from England to the Antipodes. Yet the early settlement at Sydney had not greatly prospered. The infant colony had had a bitter struggle for existence. It had been hoped that the community would raise its own produce and speedily become self-supporting. But the soil was unfruitful; the convicts knew nothing of farming. All lived upon rations sent out from home; and when convoys with relief lingered by the way famine stared all in the face. The colony was long a penal settlement and nothing more, peopled only by two classes, convicts and their masters; criminal bondsmen on the one hand who had forfeited their independence and were bound to labour without wages for the state, on the other officials to guard and exact the due performance of tasks. A few free families were encouraged to emigrate, but they were lost in the mass they were intended to leaven, swamped and outnumbered by the convicts, shiploads of whom continued to pour in year after year. When the influx increased, difficulties as to their employment arose. Free settlers were too few to give work to more than a small proportion. Moreover, a new policy was in the ascendant, initiated by Governor Macquarie, who considered the convicts and their rehabilitation his chief care, and steadily discouraged the immigration of any but those who “came out for their country’s good.” The great bulk of the convict labour thus remained in government hands.
This period marked the first phase in the history of transportation. The penal colony, having triumphed over early dangers and difficulties, was crowded with convicts in a state of semi-freedom, maintained at the public expense and utilized in the development of the latent resources of the country. The methods employed by Governor Macquarie were not, perhaps, invariably the best; the time was hardly ripe as yet for the erection of palatial buildings in Sydney, while the congregation of the workmen in large bodies tended greatly to their demoralization. But some of the works undertaken and carried out were of incalculable service to the young colony; and its early advance in wealth and prosperity was greatly due to the magnificent roads, bridges and other facilities of inter-communication for which it was indebted to Governor Macquarie. As time passed the criminal sewage flowing from the Old World to the New greatly increased in volume under milder and more humane laws. Many now escaped the gallows, and much of the overcrowding of the gaols at home was caused by the gangs of convicts awaiting transhipment to the Antipodes. They were packed off, however, with all convenient despatch, and the numbers on government hands in the colonies multiplied exceedingly, causing increasing embarrassment as to their disposal. Moreover, the expense of the Australian convict establishments was enormous.
Some change in system was inevitable, and the plan of “assignment” was introduced; in other words, that of freely lending the convicts to any who would relieve the authorities of the burdensome Assignment system. charge. By this time free settlers were arriving in greater number, invited by a different and more liberal policy than that of Governor Macquarie. Inducements were especially offered to persons possessed of capital to assist in the development of the country. Assignment developed rapidly; soon eager competition arose for the convict hands that had been at first so reluctantly taken. Great facilities existed for utilizing them on the wide areas of grazing land and on the new stations in the interior. A pastoral life, without temptations and contaminating influences, was well suited for convicts. As the colony grew richer and more populous, other than agricultural employers became assignees, and numerous enterprises were set on foot. The trades and callings which minister to the needs of all civilized communities were more and more largely pursued. There was plenty of work for skilled convicts in the towns, and the services of the more intelligent were highly prized. It was a great boon to secure gratis the assistance of men specially trained as clerks, book-keepers or handicraftsmen. Hence all manner of intrigues and manœuvres were afoot on the arrival of drafts and there was a scramble for the best hands. Here at once was a palpable flaw in the system of assignment. The lot of the convict was altogether unequal. Some, the dull, unlettered and unskilled, were drafted up country to heavy manual labour at which they remained, while clever expert rogues found pleasant, congenial and often profitable employment in the towns. The contrast was very marked from the first, but it became the more apparent when in due course it was seen that some were still engaged in irksome toil, while others who had come out by the same ship had already attained to affluence and ease. For the latter transportation was no punishment, but often the reverse. It meant too often transfer to a new world under conditions more favourable to success, removed from the keener competition of the old. By adroit management, too, convicts often obtained the command of funds, the product of nefarious transactions at home, which wives or near relatives or unconvicted accomplices presently brought out to them. It was easy for the free new-comers to secure the assignment of their convict friends; and the latter, although still nominally servants and in the background, at once assumed the real control. Another system productive of much evil was the employment of convict clerks in positions of trust in various government offices; convicts did much of the legal work of the colony; a convict was clerk to the attorney general; others were schoolmasters and were entrusted with the education of youth.
Under a system so anomalous and uncertain the main object of transportation as a method of penal discipline and repression was in danger of being quite overlooked. Yet the state Evils of convict system. could not entirely abdicate its functions, although it surrendered to a great extent the care of criminals to private persons. It had established a code of penalties for the coercion of the ill-conducted, while it kept the worst perforce in its own hands. The master was always at liberty to appeal to the strong arm of the law. A message carried to a neighbouring magistrate, often by the culprit himself, brought down the prompt retribution of the lash. Convicts might be flogged for petty offences, for idleness, drunkenness, turbulence, absconding and so forth. At the out-stations some show of decorum and regularity was observed, although the work done was generally scanty and the convicts were secretly given to all manner of evil courses. The town convicts were worse, because they were far less controlled. They were nominally under the