Relations between Aborigines and colonists
Friends or foes?
Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?
Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence
The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white
Not a good fence builder
Mary Anne Bugg
Justice or resistance?
Contemporary racism against Indigenous People
Convicts and their legacy
How the past shapes the present
Regrets and floggings
Power and morality
Punishment of Convicts in Colonial Australia
What did it aim to achieve?
Traditionally, there are four main justifications for punishments being designed and implemented. Justice for the victim is one justification. For example, punishments such as an eye-for-an-eye aim to make criminals suffer to the degree that their victims have suffered. Deterrence is another justification. For example, hanging someone in public was intended to serve as a warning to potential criminals about what would happen if they too broke the law. Rehabilitation is a third justification. For example, forcing a criminal into an education program was intended to provide them with an alternative means aside from crime to survive. Social protection is a final justification. For example, sending Convicts to the other side of the world was intended to protect British society from the immoral conduct of those who could not obey the law.
In colonial Australia, there were three main punishments for male convicts; the wheel, irons and floggings. Often these were inflicted in ways that suggested that
justice, rehabilitation, and societal protection were not important considerations. Instead, they were inflicted to serve as a deterrence, to gain some kind of economic benefit for a vested interest or just because some people in power gained pleasure in witnessing human misery.
In theory, flogging was intended to act as deterant and it was dispensed for crimes such as neglecting work, attempting escape or general misconduct (being rude in the eyes of someone with power.) It also became common to flog Convicts until they confessed to crimes or to get information out of them. In other words, it was used as torture.
A short whip was made up of nine strands of leather and knotted along its length to give it extra bite. The Convict was typically spread eagled over a triangular frame or tied to a tree. Their skin usually split by the fourth lash and the backbone could be exposed by 50 lashes.
The floggers were often friends or acquaintances of the Convict being flogged. Perhaps this was because flogging was hard work that would be tiring for someone in authority. Alternatively, ordering a mate to flog a mate could break camaraderie between Convicts.
Flogging was probably a popular punishment because it was easy to dispense and because many authority figures gained satisfaction in witnessing human misery. As an act of defiance, Convicts tried to avoid showing pain. As one commentator wrote:
'The convict flagellator at this time "felt a gratification in inflicting and witnessing human misery." There were many prisoners who would bear any punishment rather than complain; I am certain that they would have died at the triangle rather than utter a grown'.
The Convict J.F Mortlock wrote that it even became good Convict manners not to show pain:
"In Australia , silent composure under suffering is strictly prescribed by convict etiquette."
Although it was easy to dispense, flogging had downside in that it often killed the Convict or reduced their capacity to work. Furthermore, when Convicts were unable to work because they had been flogged, they needed to be flogged again for not working. As one Convict explained:
"unless it were at the meal Hours or at Night he was immediately sent to work, his back like Bullocks Liver and most likely his shoes full of Blood, and not permitted to go to the Hospital until next morning when his back would be washed by the Doctor's Mate and a little Hog's Lard spread on with a piece of Tow, and so off to work...and it often happened that the same man would be flogged the following day for Neglect of Work."
Flogging a convict at Moreton Bay, 1836
Convicts were usually flogged by other Convicts, who had been threatened with suffering the same fate if they didn't swing hard enough.
The treadmill was a punishment that seemed to have been devised to make an economic profit out of the Convicts’ transgressions. It was introduced into Sydney in 1823 as an alternative to floggings and was often used to punish crimes such as “insolence.”
The Convicts had to walk up a revolving set of steps which powered mills grinding grain into flour. Members of the public could pay a fee to have their grain milled. For the Convicts, it was tiring work and if they did not walk at a sufficient speed, they could be flogged like a donkey. If they slipped, their legs could fall into the blades and be mutilated.
The visiting French naval officer Hyacinthe de Bougainville gave this account of the Sydney treadmill in 1825:
It is a large wheel whose horizontal blades are wide enough to allow a certain number of men to position themselves, each next to the other, on the outside… Holding on to a wooden crossbar that is separate from the wheel and attached at the height of the chin, they climb without stopping from one blade to the next… this labour continues for forty minutes without a break; the men rest for twenty minutes, then they start up again, and so on, for the whole day… It was difficult to imagine an activity more boring and tiring at the same time, by it’s monotony and the care necessary to apply to this task, in the fear of missing the blade and having your legs mutilated…
Although it was designed to make something constructive out of punishment, there is some circumstantial evidence that it was also used to satisfy the desires of someone who wanted to see pain. The novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1867) was based upon Marcus Clarke’s observations of the Tasmanian penal colony. In one passage, Clarke wrote
"Frere gave him fifty more lashes, and sent him the next day to grind cayenne pepper. This was a punishment more dreaded by the convicts than any other. The pungent dust filled their eyes and lungs, causing them the most excruciating torments. For a man with a raw back the work is one of continued agony. In four days Rufus Dawes, emaciated, blistered, blinded, broke down "For God's sake, Captain Frere, kill me at once!"
Convicts in Australia were required to walk the treadmill without their shirts, unlike in England where Convicts kept their shirts on. Although this could be explained as an environmental adaptation, it could also suggest that the treadmill was being used in the way described by Clarke.
A treadmill operating in London 1822. In Australia, Convicts were naked from the waist up.
For their early years, Australia’s colonies were open air prisons, which basically meant there were no walls to restrict the Convict’s movements. There wasn’t that much threat of the Convicts running away because, unless they were accepted by an Aboriginal tribe, Convicts lacked the knowledge of the bush to survive independently of the colonies.
Despite the little hope for independent survival, some Convicts kept trying, which in turn resulted in the authorities turning to leg irons. This involved placing shackles around the Convict’s ankles, which could in turn be chained to other Convicts in a gang. Not only did the irons prevent the Convicts from being able to run away, they also caused discomfort and pain. Medical journals recorded that they caused severe groin pain, bruising of the skin, lesions and skin ruptures.
The leg irons came in different weights so that different levels of discomfort could be applied. The above legs irons were in excess of 10kg and used far more steel than was needed to simply restrain.
In the gangs, the Convicts were forced to do some kind of labouring, such as building roads. In Newcastle, penal administrator Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset even ordered that a chain gang carve him a 1.5m X 10m swimming pool into the rocks for his private use.
The Bogey Hole is a popular sea bath in Newcastle. It was orginally constructed because Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset wanted a calm rock pool for his own leisure.
Punishments for female Convicts
Female Convicts were usually spared the irons and floggings inflicted on male convicts. For crimes such as public drunkardness, pregnancy on assignment, prostitution or theft, they were often sent to female factories for periods from two weeks to a number of years. At the factory, they were forced to do some kind of labouring (such as making clothes) and if they were disorderly or disrespectful, they would be subjected to secondary punishments, such as having their heads shaved or being sent to solitary confinement.
Outside of the factories, it seems women were sometimes subjected to both the punishments inflicted on men as well as those on women. For example, while being transported to Australia on the Britannia, an Irish woman named Jenny Blake tried to commit suicide. To punish her attempt, the ship's captain personally gagged her, cut her hair off, and used a cane to publicly beat her over the back, shoulders and face. He then ordered that she be placed in irons. The punishments inflicted on Jenny Blake revealed that psychopaths who got into positions of authority had free reign to inflict any punishments they wanted for any indiscretion or lack of indiscretion. These punishments didn't achieve anything except provide the pyschopath with gratification in the infliction of misery.
Convict women were often punished for having poor morality. In 1838, Convict women at the Cascades Female Factory reacted by mooning the visiting governor and the reverend.
Was justice served by the punishments?
An-eye-for-an-eye punishments are typically justified as a form of justice. They are based on the premise that victims wont feel satisfied unless the criminals suffers to the extent that they have suffered. In the case of punishments in Australia’s penal era, it would be difficult to define them as an eye-for-an-eye because the punishments so grossly exceeded the crime and were more like an eye for a fingernail. As the Convict J.F Mortlock wrote in 1864
"What is the measure of the guilt of those transported for killing game, or goaded to robbery by famine and destitution? Then, there are innocent men in the position of criminals, who have been erroneously found guilty upon obscure or implausible evidence or misdirection, or who have been made to appear guilty by the false oaths and artful devices of wicked persons interested in effecting their ruin or destruction."
What were the hidden costs of punishment?
Flogging and executions could be costly because they deprived the colony of workers or reduced their output. The hidden cost was the Convict’s own desire to commit more crime in order to extract revenge. As the Convict J.F Mortlock wrote in 1864
"All the evil in his nature (and who is without any) had been developed and nourished by harsh and cruel treatment, kindling, perhaps, a revengeful feeling against all mankind - a feeling, often the cause, in Australia at a future period, of the barbarous murder of innocent individuals."
Although bushranger Ned Kelly was not a product of the Convict system, he was a product of the police culture that came out of the Convict system. He had similar sentiments:
my lips teach the public that men are made mad by bad treatment, and if the police
are taught that they may exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill treat,
my life will not be entirely thrown away."
Were there any attempts at rehabilitation?
Because punishment itself had a cost, sometimes punishments were devised to rehabilitate. Today, rehabilitation might come in the form of an education program; however, at the Port Arthur penal settlement, it came in the form of the “silent system.” Under the system, prisoners were hooded, made to stay silent or locked in rooms with little sound or light. In theory, this would allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon their actions. Furthermore, criminality was often conceived as a contagious disease so with sensory deprivation, the disease could not be caught or spread.
The silent system was not an effective form of rehabilitation as many of the Convicts developed mental programs. A mental asylum was subsequently constructed alongside the prison to house the criminals that the silent system turned insane.
The Port Arthur penal colony was the scene of some of the worst physical and psychological punishments that the world has ever seen. .
George Barrington (14 May 1755 – 27 December 1804 Irish Convict sent to Botany Bay)
distant climes, o'er wide-spread seas we come,
Though not with much
eclat, or beat of drum,
True patriots all, for it be understood,
We left our country for our country's good:
No private views disgraced our
What urged our travels was our country's weal:
will doubt that our emigration
Had prov'd most useful to the British Nation.
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Dying for liberty
Why is it not celebrated?
White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese
Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears
Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero
A larrikin and a hero
Australia's Greek Moment
World War 2
The eastern chapters
The expression of transnational identities
Values and policies of Australian leaders