Convict Discipline

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser

26 July 1834

Saturday, July 26, 1834. Convict Discipline.

It is much to be regretted that people cannot always form the most favourable opinions of those who consider themselves entitled to the admiration of their fellow citizens, and it is, perhaps, quite as great a pity that all men will not act up to the dignify of their station and the purity of their professions.

It is exceedingly unpleasant to be compelled to censure where we ought to have reason to commend, but when we see individuals pretending to all the sanctity of righteousness, bending the idolatrous knee to that self interest which they profess to have renounced, it almost affords a distressing pleasure to tear the mask of dissimulation from their hearts, to hold them up to public condemnation.

We have been led to these remarks, by the perusal of some apparently candid observations on convict discipline published in a late number of the Monitor.

The theme is a fruitful one- it has employed the tongues and the pens of many during the last twelve months and we are free to confess, that with much that has been stated by our contemporary we perfectly agree.

We are grossly abused when ours is designated "the prisoners' journal", that is, we mean, in the sense which such a designation is meant to convey.

We are not the prisoners' journalists - but we are and ever will be, to the utmost of the limited powers with which Providence has endowed us, the advocates of the helpless and oppressed, whether free or bond, or in whatever situation of life they may happen to be.

We look at the act, not at the individual upon whom or by whom it is inflicted. Under such feelings it was that we perused the strictures in the Monitor, and which were re-published in a subsequent number of that journal, they being considered, as the editor stated, of much importance, not only in the colony, but also in London.

Upon the general principle of convict discipline, we think, there can be but one opinion.

Every restraint, consistent with the principles of justice and humanity, and keeping in view the object of all human punishment, reformation by example - ought to be imposed upon individuals who are undergoing the penalty of the law.

The interests of society the interests of the unhappy persons themselves, require the exercise of that strict discipline which we recommend: but what is to be its extent? That, we believe, is the sole question at issue.

For many years prior to the establishment of New South Wales as a penal colony, offenders against the laws were transported to the American plantations.

They were then made the absolute property of the settlers- as absolute as the cattle on their farms- they were, in fact, constituted white slaves, during the full period of their banishment.

The system of transportation now in force relieves the British nation from the imputation of legally sanctioning slavery to its utmost extent.

The crown is now the assignee of the British convict, possessing and exercising the power of temporarily divesting itself of its rights, and vesting them in the settlers residing in the penal colonies.

Once in New South Wales, or Van Diemen's Land, the convict enjoys a qualified freedom - he is placed, as it were, in a state of probation, preparatory to his full restoration to society the law which has doomed him to exile protects his person even in that state - he is not a slave, but an apprentice. This is our view of the principle and object of the transportation laws.

But although the general system emanates from the British legislature, the minor details must, of necesaily, be confided to the discretion of the local government; and it is upon one of those points that we are at issue with two of our contemporaries.

Of the Sydney Herald it is not our intention to speak- its motives, its designs, and the parties by whom it is influenced are so well known, that the sentiments promulgated in that journal can have little weight.

Not so with the Monitor - the editor of that paper has hitherto been looked upon as the advocate and assenter of liberal principles - he had established for himself a fame on that account which we, among the number of his former admirers, had hoped would never have been diminished he has now "turned his back upon himself," he best knows why. In this editor's writings, there has, of late, been a strange inconsistency.

The leniency of the present Governor, in reference to the question of convict discipline, has long been a subject of weekly animadversion with him and his "fellow soldier in the Gallia wars," our near neighbour.

The "Summary Punishment Act" has been repeatedly denounced by him, as a measure cilculated to entail the most ruinous consequences to the settlers.

The prison population was asserted to be in a state little short of insurrection, owing to the mistaken lenity of the Executive authorities - complaints multiplied upon complaints, of what is termed insubordination, of the turbulent demeanor of the convicts, were spread far and wide - all emanating from three or four individuals, but, notwithstanding, impudently put forth as the sentiments of the settlers generally.

The Governor instituted an enquiry, the result of which was such as fully justified His Excellency in disregarding the clamour.

What has been the result?

After months of incessant declamation, we at length have it on record, that all that has been alleged to have occurred as a consequence of the "Summary Punishment Act," is not owing to the law, but to the magistrates not putting it in force!!!

Surely three long tails are not too many for that.

To be sure there is a reason assigned- or, rather, what is asserted as a reason, namely, the influence on the minds of the magistrates, occasioned by the Governor's known humane disposition: but we make our opponents a present of that.

We have upon record, the fact that the magistrates do not put the law in force, and that to their remissness is to be attributed the existence (if it does exist any where) of "insubordination." "Oh! that mine enemy would write a book," says Pope somewhere. - "Oh! that the Monitor would attack me," well may exclaim the Governor.

The Monitor has defended His Excellency, and we thank him for it.

But the Monitor commends, and by implication, recommends, the Douglas panacea: we'll give our readers a specimen of it, and then conclude for the present.

"Upwards of two years-ago, I was passing along the public street opposite the gaol, when Walton, the flogger, accosted me in the following manner:-

That he had been compelled to flog a man, named Henry Bayne, in a most cruel manner, on suspicion of a robbery;

that he had been ordered to punish him with 25 lashes every morning, until he would tell where the property he was charged with stealing was concealed;

that no surgeon attended, and the man's back was so lacerated, that he was afraid he would die under the punshment, if continued;

that he inflicted upon Bayne 25 lashes, for five mornings successively, beginning on Monday;

that, on the sixth morning, being Saturday, he was ordered to flog him again, when he kept out of the way all day.

On Monday he was ordered, by Doctor Douglass, to punish him again, which he did, the man still persisting in his innocence, and that he knew nothing of the property.

"I satisfied myself with respect to the correctness of Walton's statement, that he punished Henry Bayne six times in eight days!!! - Vide Mr. Marsden's letter to the Court of Enquiry, dated Parramatta, 28th July, 1825."

Such were the doings in the days of Major Goulburn and Dr. Douglas! Would the Monitor revive those times?

We honestly believe he would not if he could.

Then why write as he does?

Why induce people to believe and assert, that he has no fixed principle in politics - that he is the mere weather-cock of the day?

But we must pause for the present.