Transportation and colonization/Chapter 10


CHAPTER X.

THE DISCONTINUANCE OF THE ASSIGNMENT SYSTEM EXPEDIENT AND PRACTICABLE.

The moral effect of a punishment depends, in a very slight degree only, on its comparative severity. The laws of Draco may, indeed, be written in blood; but as human nature revolts at the execution of sanguinary statutes, the chances are, that, under such a system of legislation, the sympathies of the public will oftener be with the criminal than with the law; that the latter will, consequently, be but rarely enforced, and that the really guilty will too frequently escape with impunity. The legislator should therefore incline rather to mildness than to severity, and depend, for the moral effect of the punishment he denounces, on its being uniform in its operation, definite in its amount, and certain in its infliction. Now, as it is evidently impossible, in the present condition of the Australian colonies, that the practice of assigning convicts as servants to private individuals should realize any one of these requisites of punishment, I conceive it is absolutely necessary, for ensuring the future efficiency of transportation, as a species of punishment, that that practice should be forthwith and for ever discontinued; and that all transported convicts should henceforth serve out their term of transportation at the public works, and be subject to one uniform and undeviating system of penal discipline.

Shortly after the original establishment of the colony of New South Wales, the assignment of convicts as agricultural labourers, mechanics, or house-servants to private individuals, was had recourse to, rather as a matter of convenience to the government than with the view of carrying into effect any well-digested system of penal discipline: for, in carrying out this arrangement, the government were merely desirous, on the one hand, of being eventually relieved of the maintenance of a large proportion of the convicts; and of enabling the colonists, on the other, to supply the settlement as speedily as possible with the necessaries of life.

The hardships experienced by all classes of the colonists for some time after the commencement of the settlement, were sufficient to neutralize the evil consequences of this arrangement. The circumstances of the colony, however, are altogether different now; for the necessaries of life being now in great abundance and comparatively low-priced, the settler generally finds it his interest to give his convict servants such indulgences as are incompatible with a state of punishment, to render their situation as comfortable as he can, and thereby to obtain, with the least possible inconvenience, the largest possible amount of manual labour. In short, it is not the interest of the prudent settler, who merely studies his own personal advantage, to make his assigned convict servant feel his situation to be a state of punishment: but as all settlers are not gifted with this degree of prudence, (some individuals of that class yielding themselves up occasionally to the influence of violent passion, while others evince the utmost blindness in regard to their own interests,) the practice of assignment, as a species of punishment, is necessarily extremely unequal in its operation; the service of certain masters being really a state of hardship and punishment, to a degree almost intolerable to human nature; while that of others is rather a state of idleness and indulgence. Nay, it cannot be denied, that there are masters in New South Wales, who set so scandalous an example before their convict servants, and treat them on all occasions so much more like brutes than men, that the reformation of a convict in their employment is absolutely hopeless, and his depravation certain. Besides, the facility with which the assigned convict servants of many private individuals can procure ardent spirits, and the temptation which is thus held out to them to resort, as they too often do successfully, to dishonest and vicious practices to procure this indulgence, effectually preclude the possibility of reformation, in the case of a large majority of that class of the convict population.

It may be urged, indeed, that convict labour, in the way of assignment to free settlers, is indispensably necessary for the development of the resources of the colony, and for securing its rapid and progressive advancement; while, on the other hand, the employment of all the convicts, who might hereafter be transported to New South Wales, at government labour and under government superintendence, would subject the British government to an enormous and intolerable expense. I shall endeavour to meet these objections in order.

In regard, then, to the alleged necessity for continuing the assignment system, to supply the want of labour in New South Wales, I reply, that if the discontinuance of the system of assigning transported criminals, as agricultural labourers or as house-servants, to the free settlers of that colony, can be demonstrated to be expedient and necessary for the prevention of crime in England, and for the reformation of transported criminals, we are not to be told that the New South Wales settlers cannot dispense with convict labour. The interests of the British empire, which undoubtedly require that transportation should be rendered really efficient for these purposes, are not to be sacrificed for the private advantage of the free settlers of that colony. It is gratifying, however, to be able to state, that the interests of the free colonists of New South Wales are not opposed in this particular to the general interests of the empire: for I trust I shall be able to make it abundantly evident, that in the present advanced state of that colony, the assignment of convicts to private individuals is no longer necessary for the development of its vast resources, or for securing its rapid and progressive advancement. The free colonists of New South Wales may be divided into the three following classes:—

1st. Proprietors of sheep and cattle; depending chiefly, if not exclusively, on the increase and produce of their flocks and herds.

2nd. Agriculturists; depending chiefly, though not exclusively, on the cultivation of land.

3rd. Inhabitants of towns,—viz. government officers, professional men, merchants, shopkeepers, and mechanics.

In former times, and even till within the last few years, the pursuits of all these three classes of free colonists were generally combined; the merchant, or keeper of a store in Sydney, having a farm at no great distance in the interior, on which he cultivated grain for the colonial market, and depastured sheep and cattle, by means of convict labour, under the superintendence of ticket of leave, or free overseers. But this is now no longer the case, except in a very few instances. The three classes of colonists above enumerated are now becoming quite distinct*from each other; the extensive proprietor of sheep and cattle seldom growing more grain than is absolutely necessary for the supply of his own establishment, and frequently depending even for that supply on purchase from others; while the cultivation of grain and of other farm produce for the colonial market is progressively falling into the hands of settlers of an inferior class; the inhabitants of the towns subsisting in the mean time on their government salaries, their professional or mercantile pursuits, their shops or their handicrafts.

The property and wealth of the first of these classes consisting chiefly in their flocks and herds, the convict labourers assigned to settlers of that class are employed exclusively as shepherds and herdsmen; and as a flock of sheep consists of from three hundred and fifty to one thousand head, according as the country is more or less open, while the value of such a flock is at present from £500 to £1500, the convict shepherd or herdsman is necessarily entrusted with a large amount of valuable property, which, as a matter of course, subjects him to the strongest temptations to steal, or to connive at stealing from his master; and gives him the power of injuring his master, if he has in any way incurred his displeasure, in a great variety of ways, and to an incalculable amount. In this way, sheep and cattle stealing has, within the last few years, grown into a regular system in New South Wales, and is now practised to a prodigious extent;[1] numbers of the native youth of the colony, whose character in this particular at least was formerly above all suspicion, having latterly embarked extensively in the criminal practice, doubtless through their unhappy association with convict shepherds and herdsmen, ticket of leave men, and emancipated convicts possessed of sheep and cattle in the interior. In this way also, a large amount of valuable property is annually lost or destroyed throughout the territory, through carelessness or evil intent. On the other hand, the colonial proprietors of sheep and cattle are now well able to employ free emigrant herdsmen and shepherds; and the small additional expense which the employment of such persons would cost them, in comparison with that of convict labour, would be repaid them ten times over in the preservation and security, and consequently in the greatly increased value, of their flocks and herds. The continued assignment of convict servants to this class of colonial settlers is therefore no longer necessary, as a means of advancing their individual prosperity; while it is obviously ruinous to the morals of the native youth, the rising generation of Australia.

As for the second class of settlers, the growers of grain and other field produce for the colonial market, as they consist generally of industrious emancipated convicts, or of free emigrants, originally of the class of agricultural labourers, who have previously lived as hired servants on estates in the colony; it is obvious that they do not constitute a class of persons to whom convicts ought to be assigned on any account: for as convicts in the service of such settlers find themselves in all other respects on a level with their masters,—being engaged in the same labour, living on the same fare, and sitting at the same table,—they lose all sense of degradation and criminality, and not unfrequently corrupt those to whom they are thus assigned, provided they have any good principle remaining. Besides, it is equally practicable for the tenant or proprietor of a small agricultural farm in New South Wales to cultivate his land by his own labour, and by that of his family, with perhaps one or two hired servants, as in the mother country. It is true, there are settlers of the first respectability in New South Wales, who still cultivate extensively by means of convict labour, and who uniformly discourage the formation of an agricultural tenantry on their estates; but this state of things has arisen and is still continued from necessity, and not from choice: an emancipated convict tenantry, which has hitherto been almost exclusively the only sort of tenantry procurable in New South Wales, being generally a prodigious nuisance to the neighbourhood; as tenants of this class are, for the most part, receivers of stolen goods, and sellers of ardent spirits to the convict servants of the neighbouring proprietors. But if a reputable free emigrant tenantry could be procured, so as to afford eligible terms to both proprietor and tenant, very few settlers of respectability in New South Wales would continue to cultivate their own land, especially if the assignment system were discontinued.

As to the third class of the free inhabitants of New South Wales, I mean the inhabitants of towns, it is just as preposterous to continue to assign convicts to such persons, to be employed, as they almost uniformly are at present, as house-servants, as it would be to assign them for employment in the same capacity to the inhabitants of any town in Great Britain or Ireland, provided there were the same means of preventing their escape in the mother country as there are in New South Wales. The punishment, if it can be so called at all, is by no means adequate to the criminal's offence, in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred; and, to speak of it as a means of preventing crime in England, and of reforming the transported criminal, is downright mockery. Besides, assigned servants in the town of Sydney have a thousand ways and means of procuring money, and all those unhallowed indulgences that money can purchase every where, without the knowledge or permission of their masters: or, at all events, they have the means of passing the term of their servitude in comparative idleness, and in the acquisition or perpetuation of habits that render them unfit for any useful purpose, and a mere dead weight upon the community, on the expiration of their period of bondage. In short, whatever other parts of the transportation system, as it has hitherto been administered, may yet be retained, I conceive it is absolutely necessary for the moral welfare of the colony of New South Wales, to discontinue the assignment of convicts as domestic servants to the inhabitants of towns forthwith, and to prohibit their future residence in these towns, under the severest penalties.


  1. I have known cases of large proprietors of stock in the colony having 150 or 200 head of cattle missing at one time.