Transportation and colonization/Chapter 12


CHAPTER XII.

THE PRACTICABILITY OF EMPLOYING TRANSPORTED CONVICTS AT GOVERNMENT LABOUR EXCLUSIVELY, WITHOUT INCREASING THE EXPENSE OF TRANSPORTATION TO THE MOTHER COUNTRY.

Supposing, therefore, that the assignment of convicts to private individuals should be discontinued, it remains to be ascertained in what manner all such convicts as might hereafter be transported to New South Wales from Great Britain and Ireland could be employed and maintained, without increasing the burdens of the mother country.

The progressive extension of the colony of New South Wales, and the rapid increase of its free population, which may now be reasonably anticipated from free immigration, will render a great variety of internal improvements, of the character of public works, absolutely necessary for its general welfare and advancement. As soon, for example, as the colonial boundary shall be extended in a southerly direction to Bass's Straits, two great roads will be required in that part of the territory; viz., from the township of Yass, near the present limits of the colony in the south-western interior, to Port Philip, a distance of about four hundred miles; and from the township of Goulburn, in Argyle, one hundred and twenty miles from Sydney, to Twofold Bay, a distance of about two hundred and fifty miles. Roads along the eastern and southern coasts will also be required, and cross-roads to connect the settlements on the coast with those in the interior. On all these roads bridges will be required; and breakwaters, dikes, quays, embankments, and extensive excavations will be necessary to render the harbours on various parts of the coast safe and commodious, or to give the requisite value to allotments in the future towns in their immediate vicinity. For all these purposes a vast expenditure of labour will be required. In a colony, however, in which all such labour has hitherto been performed exclusively by convicts, it is not to be expected that free emigrants, even of the class of labourers, would willingly accept employment of this kind, even for wages; especially while employment of a more eligible description could be obtained with facility. There would thus be a constant and a constantly increasing demand for convict labour for public works within the territory: and that demand would, I am confident, afford immediate employment for at least ten thousand convicts—a much larger number than the government would have to dispose of for a considerable time to come, even though the system of assignment should be immediately discontinued.

There is this peculiar advantage in employing convicts only in such public works as I have enumerated,—that the labour, if at all severe and incessant, as it ought unquestionably to be, is exceedingly irksome, and must necessarily he felt as a punishment. But such a mode of employing convicts has various other advantages to recommend it. It would enable the government to pursue one uniform system of procedure towards all convicts of the same degree of criminality in the eye of the law, whether in regard to food or clothing, labour or restraint, rewards or punishments. Efficient superintendence, solitary confinement by night, and regular religious instruction, could also be afforded under such a system of management, much more easily than under the assignment system; while exemplary conduct during a certain term of years might still entitle the convict to a ticket of leave, and enable him to return eventually to society.

As public works of the descriptions I have specified are at present urgently required in New South Wales; and as the colonial revenue, which has hitherto kept pace with the annual increase of the population and the progressive development of the resources of the colony, is fully adequate to meet the whole cost of such works;—I see no reason why a debtor and creditor account should not be kept for the labour expended on such works, on the part of the superintendent of convicts, acting on behalf of the mother country on the one hand, and of the colonial government on the other.

There would be no difficulty, for instance, in estimating the value of the labour performed by convicts in the construction or repairing of roads, or in any of the other public works to which convict labour might be applied in New South Wales; and there would thus be ample means of striking a balance between the colony and the mother country. The maintenance of a convict employed at the public works costs the colonial government at present £9. 9s. 10½d. per annum; and if the value of the convict's labour for a whole twelvemonth should not greatly exceed that amount, under the proposed arrangement, the fault would be attributable solely to inefficient superintendence.[1]

There is a second mode of employing convict labour in the territory of New South Wales, which the rapid extension of the colony, and the prospect of a greatly increased immigration, under the land-selling system, would enable the colonial government to have recourse to with much benefit to the community, and which would ensure the ultimate repayment of the whole cost of the maintenance of the convicts so employed. There are various navigable rivers on the east coast of New Holland, from Port Macquarie to the southern tropic; on the banks of which free and flourishing settlements will eventually be formed, and various branches of cultivation, for which the climate of the settled districts of the colony is unsuitable, pursued with advantage. Now it would greatly facilitate the formation of such settlements, and diminish the hardships of the first free settlers, if the government were to prepare the way for settlers of this kind by convict labour. Agricultural emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland would be apt to sink into despondency, if they found, on arriving in the colony, with the prospect of being speedily established in towns and agricultural settlements, that they had to form their town out of a dense forest, and to cut down whole acres of hard timber ere they could turn up a rood of land. But if the site of the future town should be duly ascertained, surveyed, and cleared; if streets should be laid out and formed, and a few buildings of permanent utility to the colonial government erected; if roads should be constructed to the more important localities in its immediate neighbourhood, and suitable tracts of land divided into small farms, having each a certain proportion of its whole extent cleared by convict labour, previous to its occupation; an agricultural settlement might be formed by a free emigrant population imported from the mother country—from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, for instance,—and a town established at once. And if both town allotments and farms of this kind should be let at a moderate rental for a certain term of years to the first occupants, with liberty to purchase at a certain fixed price before its expiration, the government would eventually, and at no distant period, be reimbursed for all their outlay in improvements, in addition to the payment of the original value of the land, while the settlers would experience comparatively little of the real hardship of settling in a forest. Labour of this kind is highly suitable for convicts undergoing penal discipline—much more so indeed than agriculture. Besides, on obtaining their freedom or tickets of leave, convicts, who had been trained to this species of labour in government employ, would betake themselves to such labour for hire, from habit as well as from necessity, and would thus become useful pioneers of civilization and improvement. At Moreton Bay, between the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth parallels of south latitude, there has been a penal settlement established for more than ten years past. I should be sorry to say that the convicts at that settlement have not been usefully employed during that long period in growing wheat and maize, sweet potatoes and tobacco; but as they have cleared but a very small extent of land, and done comparatively little towards fitting the settlement for being eventually converted into a free settlement, I am persuaded that if their labour had been employed for these objects exclusively, it would have served much better for all purposes of penal discipline, and turned eventually to much better account both to the government and to the public. Why, there are perhaps fifty localities on the Brisbane River, and the other two large rivers that empty themselves into Moreton Bay, highly eligible for towns and agricultural settlements; and if the convicts at that settlement had been employed in clearing the way for the formation of such towns and settlements in these localities, the value of the land would have been prodigiously enhanced to the government, and a free emigrant population, of many thousand souls, might have been introduced into it, direct from the mother country, and settled comfortably, first as tenants, and afterwards as proprietors in the course of a very few years. But ignorance, incapacity, and mismanagement have too frequently been the presiding spirits, wherever the employment of convict labour has been concerned in the Australian colonies. I have even been told, on unquestionable authority, that the commandant at a penal settlement in Van Dieman's Land, who had been asking directions at head quarters for the employment of the convicts under his charge, was actually desired, in a letter addressed to him on the subject by authority, to make them dig two deep pits at a considerable distance from each other, and then fill up each of these pits with the stuff that had come out of the other!—And this in a country where roads and bridges are required in every direction, and where the agricultural emigrant is often obliged to cut down an acre of standing timber as hard as mahogany, ere he can grow an acre of corn! In short, if the Land Companies of the British North American provinces can derive large profits from the greatly increased value of particular tracts of land, by constructing roads and bridges along their whole extent, and laying off eligible sites for towns and villages, before selling them in lots at several years' credit to emigrants of the humbler classes from the mother country,—why should the British government, which has the absolute command of so much convict labour in New South Wales, not do something of the same kind in that colony, now that the revenue derivable from the sale of its waste land can enable either the government or private individuals to convey whole shoals of the very same class of emigrants, free of all cost to themselves, to the shores of New Holland? A process of this kind would render the transportation system really subservient to colonization, while it would speedily establish along the coasts of Australia an industrious and virtuous population; whose characters and example would prove conducive in the highest degree to the reformation of the convicts, and render the continuance of transportation a blessing to the empire, rather than a curse. Why, a very small portion of the convict labour, which has been absolutely thrown away at the penal settlement of Moreton Bay during the last ten years, would have been sufficient to have effected the immediate settlement of at least ten thousand of the virtuous and industrious, but unemployed and starving poor of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, in that most promising locality. And if such a population were carried out passage-free, which it is evident can now be effected without cost to any party, to be settled along with their ministers and schoolmasters along the fertile banks of a noble river, and supplied with provisions on credit from the king's stores for six months or thereabouts, will any man suppose that they would not willingly pay a rent for their little farms till they could afford to purchase them, or that they would not speedily prove a source of revenue and of national strength, instead of being, as at present, a serious burden to the state?

The employment of convict labour in the two modes I have suggested,—1st, on public works within the present colonial boundary, and, 2nd, in preparing the way for the formation of new settlements to the northward, would, I am confident, infallibly ensure to the mother country ample and speedy repayment for every farthing of outlay, in the way of superintendence, maintenance, Sec, provided a judicious system of management should be devised and enforced for the future. For in regard to the latter of these modes of employing convict labour; as the increase of value, of which property is susceptible in a new country, from the mere increase of population, is incredible in England; it is fully in the power of the mother country, by taking a judicious advantage of this fact, to repay herself eventually for all her outlay in the maintenance of such portion of her convicts as should be employed in clearing the way for the progressive settlement of a free emigrant population. Besides, the severity of the labour, and the hardships to be otherwise encountered by the convict, might, by these different sorts of employment, be graduated in some measure according to the degree of his criminality; while, in the event of his obtaining conditional freedom, he might nevertheless be confined to a settlement or district, in which, ardent spirits being prohibited, and other unnecessary indulgences withheld, the probability of his ultimate reformation would be tenfold greater than in the present settlements of New South Wales.

Indeed, I would consider it one of the most important objects to have in view, in the formation and occupation of new settlements to the northward, to make provision for the future location of emancipated convicts, in localities or districts where they would not be exposed to the manifold temptations with which persons of this class are at present infallibly beset in New South Wales and Van demands Land, and where their power to exert a demoralizing influence on the sound portion of the community would be correspondingly diminished. The convict, for instance, whom it would be impolitic in the last degree to let loose upon society, within the present limits of New South Wales, might nevertheless be entrusted with his freedom in perfect safety, in a new settlement differently constituted from the first, in which the stimulus to reputable conduct would be strong on the one hand, and the check on his criminal propensities powerfully operative on the other.


  1. In the year 1831, when beef cost only three farthings, and bread a penny per pound, the whole cost of the maintenance of a convict at government labour in New South Wales did not amount to more than £7. 0s.d. per annum. Beef and bread were unusually high in the year 1835, for which year the cost mentioned in the text is given. I am confident that £8 would cover the whole outlay for each convict's maintenance for a series of years, if the number employed at the public works should be considerable.