South Land of the Holy Spirit
Chapter 6 Convicts

 

VI

CONVICTS

            The practice of deporting convicts was not new. From 1717 to 1776, the British government had sold convicts to shipping contractors who had transported them for resale to plantation owners in the southern colonies in America . However, following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, America refused to allow the convicts to land.

For in July of that year, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, the Americans revolted, proclaiming to the world that all men were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They claimed, too, their decision that their soil should no longer be polluted by British criminals.[1]

            The British government housed the convicts in hulks (abandoned ships), intended as a temporary measure until the British had subdued the rebel colonies. However, by 1783, the government reluctantly acknowledged the independence of the United States of America . By then the hulks were overcrowded and the gaols overflowing, so the British government began to look for a solution. As early as 1779, Sir Joseph Banks had first introduced the notion of transporting convicts to Botany Bay ,[2] but since the cost per man was six times that of shipping a convict to America , his proposal had been dismissed. In 1783, a Corsican-American Loyalist, James Mario Matra, who had also travelled with Cook on his first voyage, submitted "a proposal for establishing a settlement in New South Wales ".[3] Others submitted proposals,[4] but more pressing government business postponed a decision. In 1785, Sir Joseph Banks reintroduced to the House of Commons the idea of Botany Bay  as a suitable location for the settlement of prisoners. By 1787, the conditions of the overcrowded gaols were rapidly deteriorating and the Pitt government was forced to take action. After much debate,[5] Botany Bay  was decided on as the best choice. The Admiralty were instructed to provide the proper vessels to transport 750 convicts together with provisions, tools, farm implements, seeds and supplies necessary to start a new life in New South Wales .

            Who were the convicts? They were "men who by the faults of their country almost as much as by their own crimes had been allowed to fall into a state more pitiful than that of the heathen", according to a writer for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.[6] The majority were professional criminals; the rest were casual criminals--thieves who stole because of want for food and other necessities of life, white collar workers who had been convicted of crimes such as forgery or embezzlement, and a group from the army and navy who had committed offences breaching their codes. One third of the women were prostitutes. Most of the convicts were from the labouring classes with an average age of twenty-six years.[7] R. M. Hartwell stressed the close relationship between convictism and poverty:

There were exceptions, but what convicts had in common was their poverty; their crimes varied, the poverty was universal. Indeed much of their crime was a product of their poverty.[8]

            This humanistic interpretation, that holds that man is a product of his environment (external cause), overlooks the real (internal)[9] cause of the increase in crime--a decrease in moral standards during the latter half of the eighteenth century. This trend resulted in extreme inequality and a lack of concern for the poverty of the masses. Crime flourished. The criminal law in England , Scotland and Ireland was unjust and severe. Over 160 offences were punishable by death.

Transportation was, next to death, the most severe punishment known to the criminal law and as such was intended to serve the ends of all punishment--namely to purge, to deter, and to reform.[10]

However, the main purpose of punishment was to act as a deterrent, so the greater the terror and pain, the greater the deterrent, according to this view. Convicts also provided labour for the colonies. To the many law breakers, unused to discipline and regular labour, transportation was most dreaded. Length of transportation ranged from seven to fourteen years or life. The type of crime punished by transportation was prescribed by statute. A death sentence could also be commuted to transportation. Crimes included: the destruction of private property, the counterfeiting of money, the breaking of game laws, the disturbing of the peace, the breaking of army or navy law, and religious offences..

            The types of crimes punishable by transportation varied between England , Scotland and Ireland . Thieves predominated among the English and Scottish convicts, whereas crimes involving riot and sedition predominated among the Irish. English criminal law was more severe than the Scottish. While the English were hanging ten to twelve people a day, the Scottish were hanging only six a year. Of those transported, only three and a half per cent were Scots. While the English were more concerned with crimes protecting property and existing social order, the Calvinistic Scots had severer sanctions for religious violations such as adultery, immorality, breaking the Sabbath and denial of the existence of God.

            Political unrest in Ireland resulting from English rule led to a greater number of people being transported for political offences. For example, after 1796, a person could be transported for life if found guilty of associating with others to end English rule in Ireland . The old animosity and mutual distrust between English Protestants and Irish Roman Catholics also fed the fires of political agitation.

            Although there were professional criminals included among the convicts, many crimes for which people were sentenced to transportation would seem to us to be of a petty nature. There was the case of a man, eighteen years old, who was sentenced to transportation of seven years for stealing spoons. Another man, William Constable, in February 1788 received the same sentence for stealing "a linen frock, a printed book valued at 6d., two other printed books valued at 12d., and another printed book valued at 6d.". Francis Flexmore was transported for seven years for stealing two pairs of plated shoe buckles. These were not isolated instances nor were all convicts from the lower "criminal" classes.

            Dr Halloran, transported in 1818 for forging a franc (ten pennies), later pioneered schools for the well-to-do in Australia . An architect, Francis Howard Greenway, transported in 1813 for forging an endorsement on a contract, designed the city of Sydney . George Howe, transported in 1800 for a political offence, became the editor of New South Wales ' first newspaper. There were other professionals--lawyers, doctors, teachers, journalists and even clergymen. Between 1787 and 1823, 24,698 men and 4,399 women were transported from England and Scotland ; that is 85% men to 15% women. On the First Fleet there were 586 men to 192 women. Length of transportation varied from seven to fourteen years or life for the English and Irish; Scottish sentences were milder--for three, five or ten years.

            The faith of the founders varied according to which country they came from. On the First Fleet, two-thirds of the English and Scottish convicts classified themselves as Church of England, one-third as Roman Catholic. On English ships, Protestants outnumbered Roman Catholics by twenty to one, while on Irish ships, the reverse was true. Early life in New South Wales was dominated by the evangelicals because among their adherents were the chaplains, governors (Hunter and Macquarie , Brisbane and others), many of the officials, school teachers and the editor of the first newspaper. However, the power of the Protestants did not carry over to succeeding generations. The conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics was very significant because it reflected major differences in ways of looking at governmental structure, the rights of man, and society. They saw two distinct political systems--one based on local Christian self-government and the other on a hierarchical rule from above.[11] The Protestants were eternally suspicious of the Roman Catholics, who were believed to be responsible for trying to upset the revolution settlement of 1688 (granting religious freedom); attempting to undermine the British constitution; violating the rights of conscience; and for reducing the decent standard of English civilisation to the barbaric level of the Irish potato farmer.

            A third belief that was to have a growing impact in the nineteenth century was that of the Enlightenment, or humanism. While the Protestants and Roman Catholics hoped in God for their salvation, the men of the Enlightenment hoped in man. Man was a product of evolution  so they believed in the perfectibility of man by improving man and his external environment. Since there were no absolutes, truth was relative and reality in the eye of the beholder. It was the humanists, along with the liberal Protestants who, by 1900, succeeded in secularising Australia and in undermining its Christian heritage.

            A fourth group were the deists, the men of common sense, who "believed in the Roman virtues of courage, Stoicism, endurance; they disdained religion as a consolation for human suffering". They considered religion useful only to subordinate the masses and viewed the clergy as moral policemen. The deists believed in an orderly universe with laws, but did not believe in a personal God. They had a passion for science because if they discovered all the laws of the universe, they would become like God, knowing all things.[12]

            Such a man was Arthur Phillip, a retired naval officer, who was chosen as Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the colony. The colony of New South Wales extended from Cape York to latitude 43 degrees 39' south and as far west as the 135 degrees east longitude, and included all the adjacent islands in the Pacific Ocean. Phillip's duties were extensive. He was to found the settlement of the colony; supervise the cultivation of land; develop amiable relations with the Aborigines; enforce the proper observance of the Protestant religion; import women from the islands to offset the shortage of female convicts; emancipate deserving convicts, who by their good behaviour and industry proved themselves worthy. Each such ex-convict was to be given thirty acres of land (ten extra acres if married and ten for each child), together with the necessary tools to cultivate the land and a year's supply of food from the government store.

            To assist him in the administration of justice, Parliament passed an act giving the Governor the power to create a criminal court presided over by a Judge Advocate and six military officers. There was also to be a civil court and a court of appeal presided over by the governor, with the right of appeal to the Privy Council. Clark comments: "It was a government designed to ensure law and order and subord­ination by terror, a government designed for men living in servitude rather than for free men".[13]

            Arthur Phillip believed the established church (the Church of England) was "the bulwark of liberty", which by Phillip's definition, meant the maintenance of the British class structure and British institutions for the benefit of decent respectable people who cultivated the Roman virtues of self-discipline and endurance--that is, the upper classes. He saw Roman Catholicism to be the enemy of a free people and self-governing institutions and its adherents as "enslaved by arbitrary despotisms".[14] Phillip, like his military officers (with few exceptions), saw religion as useful for its social utility value and so to be supported in public, but mocked it in private. It was not surprising, then, that he was not in total agreement with Rev. Richard Johnson who was appointed chaplain to the convicts.

            Early on Sunday, 13 May 1787, the First Fleet, consisting of eight ships and three store ships, weighed anchor at Plymouth and sailed down the English Channel for the high seas. There was no fanfare, no tearful waving crowds to bid them God speed. A terse statement in the London Chronicle, two days later, noted that on 13 May the convict ships departed.[15]  After stopping at Rio De Janeiro to pick up rum and seeds and plants that might flourish at Botany Bay, they headed for Cape Town . There, Phillip purchased more seeds and five hundred animals, so that when they resumed the voyage they looked like a Noah's Ark.

            They sailed for Botany Bay on rough seas. Christmas Day came and went without much appetite for Christmas dinner. After rounding Van Diemen's Land, the fleet sailed up the east coast of New Holland, arriving at Botany Bay  on 20 January 1788. "I cannot say from the appearance of the shore, that I like it", wrote Second Marine Officer Ralph Clark in his journal.[16] Surgeon John White  could not find Cook's "fine meadows". Naval Officer Phillip Gidley King "noted that the soil was nothing but sand". However, Judge Advocate Captain David Collins saw the Hand of Providence. In his journal he wrote  how God had blessed the voyage, which had been completed in eight months and one week without the loss of one ship and with the death of only thirty-two men from sickness.

            Upon landing, Governor Phillip and Captain  John Hunter set off to look for a more suitable location and found "the finest harbour in the world", as Phillip put it, or, as Hunter expressed it: "The governor being satisfied with the eligibility of this situation, determined to fix his residence here".[17] The next day, Phillip searched the harbour for the cove with the best spring of water and called it Sydney. So on 26 January, the Fleet sailed up the harbour to Sydney amidst warlike demonstrations by the natives from the shore. After disembarking, the crew raised the British flag and toasted their Majesties, following this with a gun salute. The 26 January has been celebrated as "Australia Day" ever since. On 27 and 28 January, the rest of the marines and the male convicts landed. Some cleared land while others pitched tents. The women landed on 7 February and on 8 February Phillip was sworn in as Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the colony of New South Wales.

            On Sunday, 3 February, chaplain Johnson preached his first sermon under a large tree to a congregation of convicts and troops. His text was Psalm 116 verse 12: "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me"? This was an appropriate text in view of all the stormy winds of the sea they had been delivered from to make it safely to the shores of Australia. What better response could he expect from his listeners than to "take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord", for it was to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the shores of this new land that Johnson had been sent.

This gospel . . . proposes a free and gracious pardon to the guilty, cleansing to the polluted, healing to the sick, happiness to the miserable, light for those who sit in darkness, strength for the weak, food for the hungry, and even life for the dead.[18]



                    [1]Quoted in Clark, A History of Australia, 1: p. 60.

               [2]Antonio Giordano, A Dream of the Southern Seas: The Life Story of James Mario Matra, the Spiritual Father of Australia (Adelaide: A. Giordano, 1973), pp. 22-23.

               [3]HRNSW, Vol. 1, pt. pp. 2., 1-8; Antonio Giordano, A Dream of the Southern Seas: The Life Story of James Mario Matra, the Spiritual Father of Australia, pp. 19-24. Matra's main interest had originally been the settlement of free men--American refugees or Loyalists. However, he later admitted the possibility of including a penal settlement.

               [4]See George Mackaness, ed., "Some Proposals for Establishing Colonies in the South Seas", Australian Historical Monographs (Dubbo: Review Publications, 1979). The earliest proposal for settling Terra Australis was submitted to King James I by Sir William Courteen, an eminent London merchant, in 1625. Other early proposals included those of Captain John Welbe (1716), Jean Pierre Purry (1718), and Charles de Brosse (1756).

               [5]Alexander Dalrymple, "A Serious Admonition to the Public on the Intended Thief Colony at Botany Bay", Australian Historical Monographs, ed. George Mackaness (Dubbo; Review Publications, 1979).

               [6]Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPGFP), Classified Digest of the Records, 1701-1892 (London: SPG., 1893), p. 771.

               [7]L. L. Robson, The Convict Settlers of Australia (Melbourne, 1970), p. 9. Quoted in Allan M. Grocott, Convicts, Clergymen and Churches: Attitudes of Convicts and Ex-convicts towards the Churches and Clergy in New South Wales from 1788 to 1851 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1980), p. 8.

               [8]G. J. Abbott and N. B. Nairn  (eds.), Economic Growth of Australia 1788-1821 (Melbourne, 1969), p. 32. Quoted in Grocott, Convicts, Clergymen and Churches, p. 8.

               [9]For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies (Matt. 15:19)--illustrating a lack of the Principle of Christian Character. See also Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Prov. 6:14; and Mark. 7:21. The heart (internal) is the key to a man's doings (external), so he should "guard (his) heart with all diligence" (Prov. 4:23) and "keep God's words in the midst of his heart" (Prov. 4:21).

               [10]Clark, A History of Australia, 1: p. 91.

               [11]The Christian Principle of Self-government is the issue here. The New Testament church became the model of local self-government by incorporating the principle of representation (Acts 1:26, 6:2-3). However, with the development of the centralised Episcopal form of church government after the first century, the concept of local self-government was lost along with that of individual responsibility to God. It was not till King Henry VIII's break with the Pope, that the individual, as he studied the Word of God for himself, recognised he was accountable to God without the mediation of any priest or any agency other than Christ Himself (Rom. 14:11-12; 1 Tim. 2:5). This led to a renewal of interest in self-government.

               [12]John Orr, English Deism: Its Roots and Its Fruits (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1934), p. 13: "The deist maintained that God endowed the world at creation with self-sustaining and self-acting powers and then abandoned it to the operation of these powers acting as second causes."--quoted in Amos, Defending the Declaration,

p. 181.

               [13]Clark, A Short History of Australia, p. 23. This centralised type of government, illustrating the flow of power from the governor down, characterised the first 50 years of Australia's history. Self-government began when individuals, at the grass roots level, began to exercise their right to "no taxation without representation".

               [14]Significantly, both Catholicism and the Church of England illustrate the same type of Episcopal governmental structure--that is, government from above (by a bishop or archbishop), rather than from the bottom up as in the Presbyterian or New Testament model.

               [15]For more, see Watkin Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay; with an Account of New South Wales, its Productions, Inhabitants. (London: J. Debrett, 1789).

               [16]Ralph Clark, The Journal and Letters of Lt. Ralph Clark, 1787-1792, ed. Paul G. Fidlon and R. J. Ryan (Sydney: Australian Documents Library, 1981).

               [17]Quoted in Clark, A History of Australia, 1: p. 86.

               [18]Quoted from an address written by Johnson in 1792, in Macintosh, Richard Johnson: Chaplain to the Colony of New South Wales, p. 53.