The Convict System in the Settlement of Australia.


The Convict System in the Settlement of Australia.

The north and west coasts of Australia figure in the maps of Spanish and Portuguese navigators as far back as about the year 1530. But it was the War of American Independence that led to the settling of the white man on the shores of the great lone continent. At that time, and until the nineteenth century was well advanced, the maxim of Paley and of others of his school, that crime is most effectually prevented by a dread of capital punishment, held almost complete control of the legislative mind in Great Britain. "By 1809", says a legal authority in the "National History of England" (IV, 309), "more than six hundred different offenses had been made capital—a state of law unexampled in the worst periods of Roman or Oriental despotism". Transportation was the ordinary commutation of, or substitute for, the slip-knot of the hangman.

From 1718 to 1776 British convicts had been sent in considerable numbers annually, under contractors, into servitude on the American mainland. The traffic was stopped by the War of Independence. At the close of the struggle the British prisons and, later on, the prison-hulks overflowed. The colony of New South Wales (till 1826 synonymous with the whole Australian mainland) was established as a convict settlement by an Order in Council dated December 6, 1785. On May 13, 1787, "the first fleet", provisioned for two years, left England, with 1,030 souls on board, of whom 696 were convicts. They reached Botany Bay on January 20, 1788. They abandoned it after a few days because of its shallow waters, and laid the foundations of Sydney on the shores of the noble and spacious harbour to which they gave the name of Port Jackson. The men who founded Sydney and the Commonwealth of Australia "may have been convicts", says Davitt, "but they were not necessarily `criminals', such as we are familiar with today. Some account must be taken of what constituted a crime in those transportation days and of the hideously unjust sentences which were inflicted for comparatively trivial offenses" (Life and Progress in Australasia, 193-194).

Within the next decade, the ranks of the original convict population were swelled by a goodly percentage of the 1,300 unoffending Catholic peasants from the North and West of Ireland who were seized and deported by "Satanides" Carhampton and the Ulster magistrates during the Orange reign of terror in 1795-96, "without sentence", as Lecky says, "without trial, without even the colour of legality" (Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, III, 419; England in the Eighteenth Century, VIII, 250).

After the insurrection of 1798, "a stream of Irish political prisoners was poured into the penal settlement of Botany Bay, and they played some part in the early history of the Australian colonies, and especially of Australian Catholicism" (Lecky, England in the Eighteenth Century, VIII, 250). In his "Catholic Mission in Australia" (1836), Dr. Ullathorne says of those early Irish political convicts: "Ignorance or violation of religious principle, the knowledge or habits of a criminal life, were scarcely to any extent recognizable features in this unhappy class of Irish political prison. On the contrary, the deepest and purest sentiments of piety, a thorough comprehension of religious responsibility, and an almost impregnable simplicity of manner, were their distinctive virtues on their first consignment to the guardianship of the law. In many illustrious cases, a long and dangerous residence in the most depraved penal settlements was unable to extinguish these noble characteristics."

During the first three decades of the nineteenth century the convict population was notably increased by the addition of many who had taken part in the agitations in connection with tithes, the Charter and Reform movements, the Combination Laws, and the Corn Laws. During the first fifty years and more of the Australian penal settlements, convictions and sentences of deportation were matters of fearful facility. For no provision was made for the defence of prisoners unable to procure it for themselves; the right of defence throughout the entire trial was not recognized till 1837; jurors were allowed to act as witnesses; and, belonging, as they generally did, to "the classes", they were too prone to convict, and judges to transport, especially during periods of popular ferment, on weak or worthless evidence, or on the mere presumption of guilt (See National History of England, IV, 310).

Convictism endured in New South Wales from its first foundation in 1788 till 1840.
Tasmania remained a penal colony till 1853.
Transportation to Norfolk Island ceased in 1855.
Moreton Bay (in the present State of Queensland) became a convict station in 1824 and remained one till 1839.
Western Australia began as a penal settlement in 1826. It continued as such for only a very brief space. Owing; to the dearth of free labour, convicts (among whom was the gifted John Boyle O'Reilly, a political prisoner) were reintroduced from 1849 till 1868, when the last shadow of "the system" was lifted from Australia
Two noted Catholic ecclesiastics (Dr. Ullathorne and Dr. Willson, first Bishop of Hobart) took a prominent and honoured part in the long, slow movement which led to the abolition of the convict system in New South Wales, Tasmania, and Norfolk Island. Almost from the dawn of the colonization of New South Wales and Tasmania, voluntary settlers went thither, at first as stragglers, but in a steady stream when the advantages of the country became known, when irresponsible military rule ceased (in 1824) and when free selection and assisted immigration were planks in the policy of the young Australian colonies.

The first free settlers came to Queensland (known till its separation in 1859 as the Moreton Bay District of New South Wales) in 1824, just in advance of the convicts; to Victoria (known till its separation in 1851 as the Port Phillip District of New South Wales) in 1835 and to South Australia in 1836. The gold discoveries of the fifties brought a great inrush of population, chiefly to Victoria and New South Wales. Events have moved rapidly since then. The widened influences of religion, the influx of new blood, the development of resources, prosperity, education, and the play of free institutions have combined to rid the southern lands of the traces of a penal system which, within living memory, threatened so much permanent evil to the moral, social, and political progress of Australia. The dead past has buried its dead.

The reformation of the criminal formed no part of the convict system in Australia. "The body", says Bonwick, "rather than the soul, absorbed the attention of the governors" (First Twenty Years of Australia, 218). "Vengeance and cruelty", says Erskine May, "were its only principles; charity and reformation formed no part of its scheme" (Constitutional History of England, III, 401). For the convict, it was a beast-of-burden life, embittered by the lash, the iron ball, the punishment-cell, the prison-hulk, the chain-gang, and the "hell". "The `whipping-houses' of the Mississippi", says Dilke, "had their parallel in New South Wales; a look or word would cause the hurrying of a servant to the post or the forge, as a preliminary to a month in a chain-gang on the roads" (Greater Britain, 8th ed., 373). For idleness, for disobedience, for drunkenness, for every trivial fault, the punishment was "the lash!—the lash!—the lash!" (Dr. Ullathorne, in Cardinal Moran's History of the Catholic Church in Australasia, 156). And the "cat" was made an instrument of torture (Dilke, Greater Britain, 8th ed., 374). Matters were even worse in the convict "hells" of New Norfolk (established in 1788), and of Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania.

In 1835 Dr. Ullathorne went to New Norfolk to prepare thirty-nine supposed conspirators for an abrupt passage into eternity. Twenty-six of the condemned men were reprieved. They wept bitterly on receiving the news, "whilst those doomed to die, without exception, dropped on their knees and with dry eyes thanked God they were to be delivered from so horrid a place". They "manifested extraordinary fervour and repentance", received their sentence on their knees "as the will of God", and on the morning of their execution "they fell down in the dust and, in the warmth of their gratitude, kissed the very feet that had brought them peace" (Ullathorne in Moran, op. cit., 164).

For a long period Australian officials and ex-officials were to all intents and purposes a great "ring" of spirit-dealers. Rum became the medium of commerce, just as tobacco, and maize, and leaden bullets were in the early days of New England (History of New South Wales from the Records, II, 271-273). The cost of building the first Protestant church in Australia (at Sydney) was, as the pastor's balance sheet shows, in part paid in rum (op. cit., II, 66). "Rum-selling and rum-distilling debauched the convicts and their guards" (Jose, History of Australia, 21), and the moral depravity that grew up under the system is described by Dr. Ullathorne as "too frightful even for the imagination of other lands" (Moran, op. cit., pp. 8-11, and "Historical Records of New South Wales, II and III, passim). The Irish Catholic convicts—"most of whom", says Ullathorne (in Moran, op. cit., 152-153), "were transported for the infringement of penal laws and for agrarian offenses and minor delinquencies"—had generally (according to the same eyewitness) a lively dread of the depravity of the prison hells of the system. Irish Catholic female convicts were also saved to a notable extent by their robust faith from the profligacy which, almost as a matter of course, overtook their less fortunate sisters from other countries (McCarthy, History of Our Own Times, ed. 1887, I, 467; Ullathorne, in Moran, 157-158). Long before, similar testimony was given by John Thomas Bigge, after he had spent three years (1819-22) in Australia as Special Commissioner from the British Government to investigate the working of the transportation system. In his final report (dated May 6, 1822) he said: "The convicts embarked in Ireland generally arrive in New South Wales in a very healthy state, and are found to be more obedient and more sensible of kind treatment during the passage than any other class. Their separation from their native country is observed to make a stronger impression upon their minds, both on their departure and during the voyage."

II. PERIOD OF PERSECUTION.—The influences of religion were not allowed to remedy to any great extent the hard animalism and inhumanity of the convict system. Anglicanism was de facto, although not de jure, the established religion of the Australian penal colonies. But the Anglican chaplain, frequently a farmer, run-holder, and magistrate, was more conspicuously a civil than a religious functionary. Methodism (then a branch of the Anglican Establishment) made a feeble beginning in Australia in 1813; Presbyterianism in 1823; other Protestant denominations at later dates (Bonwick, First Twenty Years of Australia, 240). In 1836, when Dr. Ullathorne wrote his pamphlet, "The Catholic Mission in Australia", Catholic and other dissidents were still compelled to attend the more or less perfunctory services of the Anglican Church (in Moran, op. cit., 153). The penalties for refusal, provided at various times in General Orders, consisted in reduced rations, imprisonment, confinement in prison-hulks, the stocks, and the urgent pressure of the public flagellator's "cat-o'-nine-tails"—twenty-five lashes for the first offense, fifty for the second, and for the third, the road-gangs, or transportation to the "living death" of the convict hells. (See the official and other evidence in Moran, op. cit., 11-19.) As late as March 5, 1843, a convict named Bernard Trainer was sentenced to fourteen days' imprisonment in Brighton jail for refusing to attend the Protestant service (Thierry MSS., in Moran, 19).

This abuse of power continued in Tasmania till 1844 (Hogan, The Irish in Australia, 3d ed., 257-258). Both in New South Wales and Tasmania, the children of Catholic convicts and all orphans under the care of the State were brought up in the profession of the dominant creed. In 1792 there were some three hundred Catholic convicts and fifty Catholic freemen (emancipists) in New South Wales. Nine years later, in 1801, there were 5,515 inhabitants in the penal settlement (Bonwick, First Twenty Years of Australia, 175-176). About one-third of these were Catholics; but no regular statistics of religious belief were kept at the time (Kenny, The Catholic Church in Australasia to the Year 1840, 20). Among the "little flock" there were three priests who had been unjustly transported on a charge of complicity in the Irish insurrection of 1798—Fathers James Harold, James Dixon, and Peter O'Neill. The last-mentioned priest had been barbarously scourged on a suborned charge of having abetted murder—a crime of which he was afterwards proved to be wholly innocent. Father Harold was the uncle of the Rev. Dr. William Vincent Harold, O.P., famous in the Hogan Schism in Philadelphia, and en route to Ireland in 1810, from Australia, he visited Philadelphia (Moran, op. cit., 33).

These priests were strictly forbidden the exercise of their sacred ministry. After repeated representations, Father Dixon was at length, by order of the Home Government, conditionally emancipated, and permitted to celebrate Mass once a month, under galling restrictions (see Historical Records of New South Wales, V, 110). He offered the Holy Sacrifice for the first time in New South Wales, May 15, 1803. There was no altar stone; the chalice, the work of a convict, was of tin; the vestments were made of parti-coloured old damask curtains sacrificed for the occasion, and the whole surroundings of this memorable event in the history of the Church in Australia bespoke the poverty of Bethlehem and the desolation of Calvary. After little more than a year, Father Dixon's precious privilege was withdrawn, and the last state of the Catholic convicts became worse than the first. Father O'Neill had in the meantime (1803) been restored to Ireland, with his character completely vindicated. In 1808 Father Dixon, broken down in health, was permitted to return to his native diocese. Two years later he was followed to Ireland by Father Harold, and till 1817 a deep spiritual desolation brooded over the infant Church in Australia. In the last-mentioned year there were some 6,000 Catholics in and about Sydney alone. The representations of the returned priestly exiles resulted at length in the appointment of Father Jeremiah Flynn, an Irish Cistercian, as Prefect Apostolic of New Holland. Obstacles were thrown in his way by the Colonial Office. He placed the matter in the hands of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Poynter, and, relying on the known influence of his English friend, set sail in good faith for his distant field. On his arrival in Sydney, Governor Macquarie bluntly informed him that no "Popish missionary" would be allowed to intrude within the settlement, and that every person in the penal colony must be a Protestant.

Father Flynn ministered secretly to his flock wherever he could evade the watchful eyes of hostile officials. A few months after his arrival he was suddenly arrested without warrant or accusation, placed under lock and key in prison, and, without trial, shipped back to London as a prisoner by the first vessel homeward bound. Before his arrest he used secretly to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries in the house of a pious Catholic named Davis. There the Sacred Species were reserved for the sick and dying, in a cedar press, or tabernacle. Father Flynn vainly besought permission to return to the house. And there, for two years after his departure, the taper or lamp was ever kept alight, and, with pathetic devotion, the children of sorrow gathered in adoration around the Bread of Life. The "Holy House of Australia", with its small adjoining grounds and the sum of £1,000, was devoted to religion by Davis, and on its site now stands a fine church dedicated to God under the invocation of the national apostle of Ireland. Governor Macquarie's harsh and illegal treatment of Father Flynn created a stir in the British House of Commons. It opened up the whole scandalous story of the persecution of the Catholic convicts and settlers in Australia, created a healthy reaction, and led to the appointment of two Irish chaplains, Father Philip Connolly (who went to Hobart) and Father John Joseph Thierry (who remained in Sydney), each with a slender yearly salary of £100. That was in May, 1821. With that day, to use the words of Archbishop Carr of Melbourne "what may be termed the period of the Church suffering ends, and that of the Church militant begins". Source