VDL Unnatural Crime Print Media Coverage, 1846 1
Copy of a DESPATCH from Lieutenant-Governor Sir E Eardley Wilmot,
Bart., to Lord Stanley.
Van Diemen’s Land,
Government House, March 16, 1846.
I HEREWITH transmit a letter from Mr Pitcairn, attorney in this town, to your Lordship, inclosing two newspapers published in this colony.
Mr Pitcairn’s object, in transmitting these newspapers, is to show to your Lordship, that the subject of * * * among the convicts here, is discussed by the public press; and though I by no means intend to undervalue the weight and importance which the public press ought to have in this and every part of the word; yet when I recollect that the newspapers in this country do not convey the opinions of the public so much as that of the individual who conducts them, and of the persons who have a pecuniary influence over them, I confess the chief feeling I have in reading these articles is to lament that either party spirit or ill-directed zeal should encourage a public discussion on a subject which ought not to be mentioned among men.
I am led to these remarks because it is notorious that the article in the Launceston newspaper signed “Cato,” was written by one of the ex-members of the Council; and though I cannot say that the article in the “Courier,” copied from the Sydney paper, was written by the same parties here, who have adopted every imaginable means to forward their views, yet the “Courier” is under the entire influence of its mortgagee, who was a member of Council, and of whom Mr Pitcairn is the legal adviser and intimate friend.
Had Mr Pitcairn, or the writers of the articles in question, ever memorialized, or in any way communicated with, the Government on this distressing subject, and the Government had refused to listen to them, and had neglected means to prevent the evil, then there might be a reason for making it a subject of public discussion. But this has not been done in the remotest degree; and Mr Pitcairn’s letter to your Lordship of 4th February, transmitted to your Lordship with my despatch dated 6th February, No. 33, is the first and only notice which he, and those who act with him have taken of the subject.
I have, &c
(Signed) E Eardley Wilmot
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Inclosure 1 in No. 8.
Copy of a LETTER from Mr Pitcairn to Lord Stanley.
Hobart Town, February 5, 1846.
IN reference to my letter of 4th instant, I think it right to inform your Lordship that the public press now notices the dreadful effects of the present transportation system. I send your Lordship the “Launceston Examiner” of 31st January, and the “Courier” of yesterday, in order to show that the state of the convicts is discussed in the newspapers both of New South Wales and of this colony.
I have, &c
(Signed) Robert Pitcairn
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Inclosure 2 in No. 8.
EXTRACT from the “Launceston Examiner” of January 31, 1846. [pp. 2, 3]
To Joseph Hume, Esq. [MP]
IT is a maxim of the British constitution that each Member of Parliament, though elected by a particular constituency, is returned as a representative of the people at large. His duties are not limited to the interests of a locality, but extend to the affairs of the whole empire. During a protracted public career, you, Sir, have consistently illustrated a principle too often overlooked. None with justice on their side ever solicited your interference and were denied your aid. If the sufferings of a private soldier were sufficient to excite your compassion and to secure your exertions—if the appeal of a single individual to your humanity induced you to arraign a former Lieutenant-Governor—to detail his conduct and to denounce his severity to Parliament, you will not disregard the complaints of an oppressed people.
Although it may be unnecessary to remind you of your expressed opinions, it will not be displeasing to colonists to learn from your own language the sentiments you entertain. I quote from a letter now before me:— “Formerly when no agent existed for Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, I was ready to protect the interests of the settlers, and to bring Darling and Arthur to account for their misdeeds. But since each of the colonies appointed and paid an agent, I hear little from them, and take less trouble in the House of Commons. But as long as I am in the way I shall be ready to expose abuse of power and to promote popular rights against the influence of the Colonial Department at home, which too often makes the appointments and legislation of colonies subservient to its own view, instead of colonial interests.” It is true, Sir, that a salary to a colonial agent appears in the annual estimates; but the recent return made to the House of Commons shows that the functionaries employed under this designation only purchase and ship supplies on account of the Local Governments. They perform no services for the people. The colonists are not in communication with the agent for this island: the majority were even ignorant of his existence until their attention was directed to the blue book. No, Sir, we have no agent to express our sentiments, to urge our claims, to re-echo our wrongs. We desire to enlist you and other uncompromising advocates in the cause of the colony; and in the firm belief that our appeal will he responded to, I ask you to redeem the pledge I have ventured to place upon record.
I shall not now examine the principles nor enlarge on the effects of that scheme of penal discipline, at once degrading to its subjects and ruinous to the colony. I shall not allude to the consequences produced by congregating large bodies of men together; neither shall I refer to the increase of crime and the sense of insecurity it has occasioned. You do not require to be told that the free labourers, imported at vast expense, have been driven from our shores; that thousands of free men and probationers are destitute of employment: the former dependent for support on voluntary benevolence, the latter sustained at the expense of the Crown. You are already aware that society cannot absorb the unskilled and unprofitable labour thrust upon the island; that the low rate of remuneration has destroyed
the best incentive to honest industry; that no influence now existing can check the process of demoralisation occasioned by the introduction of a disproportionate number of prisoners. You are also aware that landed property is depreciated in value, and even unsaleable, and that most, if not all the colonists would retire from this scene of crime, contamination, and ruin, if they could dispose of their estates for half the sum sunk in improvements. I desire to direct your attention to another subject hitherto neglected, the Administration of the Scheme.
It will not be supposed that the operation of a system carefully shrouded from the public eye is fully known to any not interested in its continuance. Partial statements, casual allusions, unwilling admissions, and isolated facts are all that can be obtained. The Imperial Government committed a fatal error in entrusting the administration of the plan to functionaries long resident in the colony, and trained to a system of tyrannical duplicity. Accustomed to leave the improvement of prisoners to the masters to whom they were assigned, the old officials neither appreciated the humane spirit of the new regulations, nor permitted it to appear in practice. The only “moral suasion” with which they were acquainted was the lash. They viewed the prisoners as entirely reprobate, and never imagined them capable of reformation while retained in custody. The use of those appliances necessary for the social, moral, and religious amelioration of the prisoners was obstructed or neutralized. The laxity of the new system has only aggravated the condition of those subjected to control. A greater licence has been allowed to wickedness. No counteracting influence has checked corruption, and the appalling fact has at length forced itself upon the attention of all, that the progress in demoralisation is uniform, rapid, and extreme. It is impossible to describe in language sufficiently plain not to be revolting, the degradation that exists at penal stations. Large masses of males collected together contaminate each other. A disease till now unknown to medical experience has become common: and when the subjects of this discipline are let loose on society, their guilty connection are not confined * * * * * * . 2 But indistinct allusion can only be permitted: the detail is too disgusting appear in the columns of a newspaper.
When we closely examine the subject, we discover that a hateful system of espionage has pervaded the administration. The chiefs, desirous only of personal aggrandisement, influence, and gain, have laboured to deceive their superiors, and to cast obscurity around their office—conscious that the operation of the system could not be exposed. I cheerfully exonerate Sir Eardley Wilmot from active participation in conduct so censurable. Dependent on his subordinates for information, he perhaps presumed their statements were correct. But he cannot be entirely exempted from blame. He might have tested reports so much at variance with facts; and he should never have permitted a counsellor to usurp his judgment and understanding. Weakness in a ruler may be as pernicious as wickedness: and it must be regretted that the Governor did not rend the veil which concealed corruption, and abandon long since a withering and fatal alliance. But that he was unacquainted with the intrigue carried on around him, I sincerely believe; for his past conduct precludes the supposition of connivance. The chiefs in power either secured the appointment of partisans of their own to separate stations, or endeavoured to enlist the departmental officers under their colours. In almost every instance where such became spies, and regularly furnished private reports, they were cheered by the countenance, and sustained by the influence of the general office. No charge, however just; no conduct, however culpable, perilled the situation of those who became instruments. Each was a petty tyrant in his sphere; and men the least qualified by nature, habits, education, or character, exercised without responsibility a measure of power that could scarcely be entrusted with safety to an angel. Every one placed under their control was entirely at the mercy of, perhaps, the most profane and immoral in the community. With the power of summary punishment, exercised in the privacy of a superintendent’s office, there was no charge which could not be substantiated or refuted, at the option of the judge. This method of procedure could only create one feeling in the breasts of the thousands liable to be arraigned at such tribunals—that of terror: only one sentiment could pervade their minds—that of submission to the petty tyrant to whom their destiny was for a time entrusted. It will not surprise you, Sir, to learn that, notwithstanding the studied secrecy which has been preserved, acts of oppression did not always remain unknown to the world: but the black catalogue can only be completed when a commission from England shall investigate the working of the system, and when the sufferers, having obtained their freedom, may without peril become accusers.
If, however, a man of integrity—perhaps appointed from home, and fresh from English society—was too stubborn to bend to subserviency, and become a member of the secret police, one or more spies were placed on his station. His actions were watched—his conduct misrepresented—his authority defied, by the minions of a superior. If he complained of insolence, he was rebuked for the display of temper; if he preferred charges, they were denied: in every case, he found the spies protected while he was left without support. In some instances men of spirit resigned their situations, rather than remain exposed to incessant annoyance and humiliation; while formal accusations against others, more tenacious of office, but equally obnoxious at head-quarters, compelled them to relinquish their livelihood. It formed part of the grand system to purge every department of officers who were not entirely subservient, or could not be crushed, should they manifest resistance. The same principles regulated the subordinates in their conduct towards their inferiors. The religious teachers provided by Government, too frequently found their path of usefulness obstructed by the superintendent of the station. The overseers who attempted to aid
the instructor in his duties—the very men who made themselves useful as monitors in the school-room—were often marked by a base functionary, who would reprimand the former at the head of their gangs, for some real or feigned fault and thus destroy their influence over the men, while he would punish the latter without condscending [sic] to prefer a charge. If it is necessary that the pulpit should be occupied by those who possess piety, zeal, and unbounded benevolence, it cannot be less essential that superintendents of penal stations should be men who value religion—who are imbued with a spirit of philanthropy, and who are indefatigable in their efforts to improve the character and ameliorate the condition of those committed to their care. But when superintendents the reverse of all this have been chosen, what can be expected but failure?
My observations are chiefly confined to one, but the most important, branch of penal science—the management of male convicts. You are, perhaps, aware that the female prisoners, during the period of probation, are placed on board the Anson, under the superintendence of Dr and Mrs Bowden, formerly of Hanwell. These excellent individuals have faithfully performed their duty; but, like others, in similar situations, they have been maligned, checked, and thwarted; no effort that spite could secretly suggest and power openly execute, has been spared to annoy this lady and gentleman, and impede their exertions to restore the outcast to society. But the superintendents of the Anson were too well known in England—too much appreciated here, to be easily assailed and suddenly subdued; and the authorities have only hitherto ventured to display their spleen in the shape of petty annoyance. If they seldom visit the Anson themselves, they have resident representatives; for in this, as in other instances, spies have been dropped on board, to quarrel and insult. The divisions of male and female discipline demand separate letters, and I now only refer to the latter as falling under the same pernicious administration as the former.
You will observe, Sir, that faulty as Lord Stanley’s system is acknowledged to be, it has not had a fair trial. To imagine that persons can he reformed under the superintendence of men unworthy to be entrusted with ministerial power would be absurd. Can convicts be taught honesty, sobriety, industry, morality, by negative examples? Will female prisoners be reformed by the precepts or pattern of a * * * ? 3 The colonists have long suffered in silence, but there is a point at which endurance must cease, and they now appeal to Parliament and the British public for redress and protection. I, Sir, look to you for aid. If a commission to investigate the operation of penal discipline in Van Diemen’s Land have not left the English shores, I entreat you will urge the appointment of men competent to undertake the task, and sufficiently honest and independent to discharge their duty with fidelity. Secondary punishment as carried out in this island, is a national question. It affects the financial and social welfare of the parent state, as well as the pecuniary and moral interests of colonists. The commission should he empowered to examine the whole system in detail, and authorized to suspend or dismiss every inefficient or corrupt functionary now employed in its administration. Nor will it be less necessary that Parliament should be put in possession of the official reports regularly transmitted from this island to the Colonial Office, the truth of which can be afterwards verified or refuted by the Commissioners’ evidence. A return of the crimes committed and summarily punished at each penal station should also be demanded, and full and accurate reports from the medical officers of every station obtained. The nation is now ignorant of the vice and corruption interwoven with the system, but when informed by official documents that the administration of penal science is defective, that its cost is enormous, that the subjects of prison regulations are destroyed by the discipline, and brutalized by the association to which they are exposed, and that a once flourishing colony is brought to the brink of ruin, the people of Britain will interpose and save this island from destruction. They cannot consent that a moral lava, which consumes whatever it touches, should be poured out on this land until every vestige of enterprise and industry—every trace of spiritual improvement and social advancement has been obliterated by the foul and fiery deluge. To you, Sir, I commend our cause.
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Inclosure 3 in No. 8.
EXTRACT from the “Hobart Town Courier” of February 4, 1846. [p. 3]
THE Sydney papers to the 15th of January furnish but little intelligence of interest or importance.
A writer in the “Australian,” arguing on the Waste Lands’ Act, on the ground that all the prosperity of New South Wales may be traced to its indigenous grass, dwells on the effects that would have resulted from any attempt on the part of the British Government to assert the power which it possessed, at the first settlement of the colony, of exacting a rent for the grass of the territory in order to aid the Local Government in paying its expenses. He maintains that such an impolitic impost on the efforts of skill would have checked, if not suppressed, emigration; and that instead of the spectacle of 20,000 of the malefactors of England, stained with every crime that degrades human nature, all industriously employed by free individuals in all parts of the colony, they would have been herded together in vast gangs, “as they are at this moment in poor oppressed Van Diemen’s
Land; the Home Government paying the expense of their overseership, their food, and their clothing, and training them during their sentences, like wild beasts, to be let loose when they become free, on any unhappy community in the neighbourhood; defiled not only with the crimes for which they had been expatriated, but with new ones—crimes which it is not lawful for Christians to name.” Though the preceding remarks are designed to exhibit the necessary consequences of the compulsory cessation of assignment under the circumstances which the writer supposes, they present, in their general conclusions, a sketch, by no means incorrect, of the inevitable results of probationism. For though the provisions of the system prescribe limited periods of indiscriminate assemblage, there is, necessarily, in the overwhelming supply and the utter inadequacy of demand for labour, a subsequent congregation, for an indefinite term, at the hiring depots, which prolongs, and, in many cases, perpetuates the evil.
1 BPP, Transportation, vol. 7, 1834-1847, pp. 498-502. Emphasis added.
2 The omitted words, obtained from the actual newspaper article, are as follows: “to their own species and sex, but extends even to domestic animals.”
3 The omitted words obtained from the actual newspaper are as follows: “leering teacher?”