Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. -Maya Angelou
Sunday, November 28, 2010
In an attempt to understand more of the collective Aussie psyche I have immersed myself in Australian literature, and have discovered a wonderful living Australian author,Tim Winton, who writes lyrically of this part of the country and his books are a joy At times like this I long to share the experience with my girl friends in the Schoenies Skollies Book club.Try and get a copy of "Cloudstreet" girls, the definitive Australian novel, you won't be disappointed. Another compulsive read, horrifying and humorous, at times touching and at others inspiring, but thoroughly absorbing is The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. This tome is a historical account of the birth of Australia which came out of the suffering and brutality of England's infamous convict transportation system. . Hughes states his intention: "To see the System from below, through convicts' testimony—in letters, depositions, petitions and memoirs—about their own experiences.” As Hughes points out, “the post-colonial history of Australia utterly exploded the theory of genetic criminal inheritance.”
Whew well that's a relief!.........history lesson follows...........
In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Britain was changing dramatically. The population tripled between 1750 and 1850, and London's population doubled in the 20 years before Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay in what was to become Australia. It was a period of massive urbanisation, as the growth of the Enclosure system forced more and more people off the land. Armies of rats roamed the streets of London. Occupational diseases and child labour (from as young as age six) were commonplace. Gin, promoted by the gentry, was the escape (due to a surplus of corn there were no restrictions on its manufacture or sale).
Poverty, particularly in the cities, was extreme and crime was rife. England had many capital statutes (predominantly to protect property) and public hangings, which drew huge crowds, were the primary deterrent to crime. The proportion of capital convictions actually executed dropped from 69 percent in 1749 to 46 percent in 1788 (at the beginning of transportation). By 1808 it was down to 15 percent. However, there was an increasing shortage of jails. Transportation therefore answered a number of problems.
Initially the convicts were sent to the New World of America and the Caribbean, until the American Revolution. Britain then used old rotting ships (known as “hulks”), moored in the docks, as jails, believing that America could not hold out for long. The “hulks” quickly reached crisis levels. With an extra 1,000 convicts arriving per year, Britain needed a new area for transportation. Thus Australia was settled.
To understand what banishment to Australia meant, one must understand the geographical knowledge of the day. In the late eighteenth century, the world was largely unknown to Europeans. The interiors of most continents were still unexplored, and even North America had only pockets of population. Australia and Antarctica were terra incognito. Hughes points out that it could hardly have been worse if the convicts had been told they were going to the moon, “at least one could see the moon from England”.
The book tells of the enormity of the undertaking. The First Fleet, with Governor Arthur Phillip at the helm, consisted of 11 ships and nearly 1,500 passengers, of whom 736 were convicts. Some of the convicts had already been on the ships four months before the fleet set sail. It then took another eight and a half months to reach Botany Bay. Some of the convicts had died whilst still in England and about 3 percent died en route. The Second Fleet (the worst of all) lost 41 percent of the 1,006 convicts who sailed. Following reforms suggested by William Redfern (a popular surgeon of the colony and himself an ex-convict) the death rate would drop from 1:31 to 1:122.
Having decided that Botany Bay was unsuitable, the fleet established the first settlement to the north, at Port Phillip (Sydney) in January of 1788. With no skilled labour, few tools and thin soil, it was a struggle to survive the first years. The soldiers received the same rations and punishment as the convicts, which caused severe resentment. It was over two years before a relief ship arrived (with meagre supplies) .
Fully 80 percent of convicts were transported for crimes against property, compared to only 3 percent for “crimes against the person”. A further 1.5 percent were deported for “political” crimes (treason, conspiracy to riot, trade union membership, etc). There were examples of most of the working class movements of the period—Luddites, Swing rioters, Chartists. Almost 20 percent of Irish convicts could be called social or political rebels. The System treated them particularly badly “for fear of mutiny”.
The book also deals with the particular fate of women under the System. Some 24,000 women were transported, about 1 in 7 deportees. The System considered almost all of them to be prostitutes (though this was never a transportable offence). In fact, just about any woman who was not in a Protestant marriage was considered a whore. Though never policy, the practice was to send women of marriageable age, and marriage was certainly encouraged. Soldiers and officials would invariably have first pick. Since this might mean the end of their sentence or at least a reduction, most women agreed to it.
The harshest of conditions were inflicted on the convicts. These are remembered by popular history, although incorrectly, as being most representative of the System. Only a minority of convicts were ever held in the secondary detention centres, “but they were absolutely integral to the System: they provided a standard of terror by which good behaviour ... would be enforced.” The authorities needed secondary detention centres for those who committed offences whilst in Australia (“the Botany Bay of Botany Bay”). Initially they used Norfolk Island, which is some 1,000 miles east of Australia. Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, both of which are in Van Diemens Land, (Tasmania) followed later. Port Arthur is the site of the infamous "Model" Prison system which preferred to break the convicts spirit by mental rather than physical punishment. Prisoners here were kept in total isolation, no contact with other prisoners,they were masked when they went out of their cells to chapel on a Sunday. and even their foot ware was covered so that their steps made no sound..The worse offenders were deprived of light and touch in strict solitude and some went mad. A lunatic asylum was built nearby to house them. Boys as young as nine were sent here to a special boys prison, many of them threw themselves off Point Peur, suicide was preferable to living in a place "worse than death"
By the late 1820s and early 1830s there were moves toward abolition. There were three main reasons for this—growing opposition from English reformers, the development of an alternative penitentiary system and also opposition from within Australia as it became a more established and respectable colony. By 1840 transportation to New South Wales had ceased. The general tendency then, particularly from the “well-to-do”, was to collectively forget about or bury the convict past.
Following the end of transportation to New South Wales, convicts were still sent to Van Diemens Land and Norfolk Island for another 13 years. Opposition to transportation continued to grow, but it was the gold rush of 1851 that sounded its death knell.
(Note: parts of the above description were taken from a review by Brian Smith, 1999.)