Transportation and colonization/Chapter 3



It is no longer possible to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the number of convicts transported to the West Indies and the American colonies previous to the war of American independence. During the publication of the Encyclopedie Methodique, in the year 1785, the article Etats Unis was submitted by its author, M. Meusnier, to President Jefferson, who was then American minister plenipotentiary at the court of France; and, in reference to this class of persons, to which the French editor had alluded as one of the three classes that peopled America, Jefferson supplied him with the following remarks:—

"The malefactors sent to America were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration, as one class out of three that peopled America: it was at a late period of their history that this practice began. I have no book by me which enables me to point out the date of its commencement; but I do not think the whole number sent would amount to two thousand; and being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom, and propagated little. I do not suppose that themselves and their descendants are at present four thousand, which is little more than one-thousandth part of the whole inhabitants."—'Memoirs and Correspondence of President Jefferson,' vol. i. p. 406.

It is pretty evident, from the tenour of these observations, that this was by no means a favourite subject with the worthy plenipotentiary; whose native patriotism, as well as his laudable desire to make his countrymen stand as well as possible with their good allies, doubtless induced him to throw a little American dust into the eyes of the French encyclopedists: for while he would induce the reader, at the commencement of his remarks, to believe that not more than two thousand English convicts had ever been transported to America altogether, he intimates, at the close of them, that this estimate referred to the colony of Virginia alone; the comparison which he institutes being made with the population of that colony at the commencement of the war, and not with that of the United States generally. On the publication of Governor Phillip's 'Voyage to New South Wales' in the year 1790, an estimate of the number of convicts annually transported to America, for some time previous to the war, was made expressly for that work, (if I am not mistaken, by the Honourable Mr. Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland, a nobleman who had much better access to correct information on the subject of transportation than President Jefferson; who besides had no prejudice to bias him respecting it, and who had himself been in America, in the capacity of envoy-extraordinary from Great Britain during the war;) and the result of that estimate was, that the number so transported had been about two thousand every year.[1] Allowing, however, that this estimate was as much above the truth as President Jefferson's was below it, I conceive it may be taken for granted, that, as the system of transporting criminals to America had been in practice from the year 1619, or for one hundred and fifty-seven years previous to the American declaration of independence, as many convicts had been transported to America during that period as would have amounted to at least five hundred every year for a whole century previous to the American war, or to fifty thousand altogether.

It would seem that none of these convicts were ever transported to that part of the American territory called New England, comprising the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Rhode Island. The puritanical character and origin of the population of these provinces preclude such an idea. Indeed, we may estimate the feelings with which the virtuous New Englanders would have received any proposal of the kind, from a fact related by the Rev. Daniel Neale in his 'History of New England:' viz. that during the seventeenth century, a settler in one of the earlier settlements of Massachusetts or Connecticut having been found guilty of theft, was sentenced by the General Court (doubtless, following scriptural example and oriental practice) to have his house pulled down and made a dunghill, and to be sent back himself by the first convenient opportunity to England.

The American colonies, to which convicts were transported under the old system, were those of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania; the population of which amounted, at the commencement of the war, to 1,800,000, that of the New England colonies being about 700,000, It was therefore over a territory extending from north to south from six to seven hundred geographical miles, and of boundless extent to the westward,—a country, moreover, containing, at the close of the period referred to, a population of upwards of a million and a half,—that 50,000 British convicts were slowly; dispersed in the course of a century and upwards. These convicts were literally bought by the planters for the terms specified in their respective warrants, and worked with their negro slaves under the lash of an overseer," as is testified by a contemporary writer; for it would seem that the British government of that period never inquired how the convicts were treated in the American colonies, provided they were only prevented from returning home.

The testimony of President Jefferson, as to the convicts transported to America being generally eaten up with disease, seldom marrying, and having few children, is to be received with as many grains of salt as his statement as to their gross number. There is no reason for supposing that convicts would be more diseased on their arrival in America sixty or eighty years ago, than convicts usually are at the present day on their arrival in New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land, especially when the captain had to sell them by auction on their arrival, to procure payment for their passage-out; and the probability is, that under such treatment as they were then subjected to in the American colonies, many of them would acquire industrious habits, and would settle themselves reputably in the New World on attaining their freedom. Supposing, however, that convicts, and the descendants of convicts, did not amount to more than one hundred thousand persons at the commencement of the American war, these individuals were not only scattered over a vast extent of territory, but commingled (so as to preclude all possibility of ascertaining their convict origin) with a population of upwards of fifteen hundred thousand souls.

It is not wonderful, therefore, that every trace of the convict origin of a certain proportion of the population of the United States of America should have disappeared entirely long ago. The free emigrant inhabitants of the American colonies were too numerous, from the very first, to permit persons of this class and origin to form a separate body in the community, far less to give the tone to society. The very complaints of the American colonists, on the subject of the importation of convicts, demonstrate that society was constituted from the first on a right basis in America, notwithstanding the prevalence and operation of the transportation system for upwards of a century and a half; that the number of the free and untainted portion of the population was uniformly beyond all comparison greater than that of the transported criminals and their immediate descendants; and that, consequently, it could only have been through skilfully counterfeiting, if not really possessing, the character and habits of the reputable free man, that the liberated convict could ever hope to insinuate himself into society, on any thing like equal terms with his fellow-citizens, on the American soil.

It cannot be denied, therefore, that in so far as it actually prevailed, transportation to the American colonies proved highly efficient in securing the attainment of the great ends of punishment,—the prevention of crime and the reformation of criminals. That a somewhat similar system has proved by no means equally efficient in the Australian colonies, is, I believe, universally acknowledged: but when we contrast the state of thing's in these colonies, in reference to the gross amount of their convict population, as compared with the free emigrants of all classes, with the state of things under the old colonial regime in America, the cause of the very different result of the more recent experiment becomes self-evident.

For upwards of thirty years after the first establishment of the colony of New South Wales, and for about fifteen years after that of Van Dieman's Land, these colonies were almost exclusively colonies of convicts.

The following statement of the population of New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land at the close of the year 1820, that is, thirty-three years after the former of these colonies was founded, will sufficiently exhibit the sort of materials of which society was originally composed in the Australian colonies:

Number of male convicts who had arrived in New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land, up to the close of the year 1820 22,217
Number of female ditto 3,661
Total 25,878
Population of New South Wales in 1820 23,939
Population of Van Dieman's Land 5,468
Total 29,407

Character and origin of the population of New South Wales in 1820.
Free emigrants 1,307
Adults born in the colony 1,495
Children 5,668
Convicts in actual bondage 9,451
 Do.  holding tickets of leave 1,422
 Do.  free by servitude 3,255
 Do.  pardoned 1,121
Persons employed in colonial vessels 220

Character and origin of the population of Van Dieman's Land in 1820.
Free emigrants 714
Adults born in the colony 185
Children 1,020
Convicts 2,588
 Do.  holding tickets of leave 68
 Do.  free by servitude 62
 Do.  pardoned 231

Such, therefore, was the character and origin of the actual population of New South Wales at the close of the thirty-third year of the existence of that colony, as the principal penal settlement of the British empire. Of a population of 23,939 persons at that period, there were only 1307 of the class of free emigrants, while not fewer than 15,249 were either convicts in actual bondage, or had arrived in the colony in that condition; or, in other words, the convicts and emancipated convicts were considerably more than ten times the number of the free emigrant population. Had the whole of these 1307 free emigrants been virtuous persons, one might well have asked, "What are these among so many?" but when it is borne in mind that a very considerable proportion of these emigrants consisted of dissolute persons, whose vicious example tended to demoralize the very convicts,—the peculiarly unfavourable circumstances in which the experiment of the transportation system, as a means of preventing crime and of reforming criminals, was made by Great Britain, will be sufficiently obvious.

There was doubtless a great change for the better during the governments of Sir Thomas Brisbane and Sir Ralph Darling, i. e. during the next ten years of the existence of the colony of New South Wales; a comparatively large number of respectable free emigrants having arrived and settled in the colony during that period, whose influence and example were highly favourable in discountenancing profligacy and criminality, and in encouraging the practice of virtue: but the disproportion of the free emigrant and convict classes of the community still continued to be felt, and to manifest the same evil influence, although in a much smaller degree, on the general population. At the close of Sir Thomas Brisbane's government, in October, 1825, the population of New South Wales amounted altogether to 36,336 persons: of these there were

Convicts in actual bondage 14,200
 Do.  holding tickets of leave 2,078
 Do. . free by servitude 6,018
 Do.  pardoned absolutely or conditionally 1,208
Total number of persons who either were or had been convicts 23,504
Free emigrants 3,150

There was, doubtless, at that period a native population of all ages of nearly 9000 souls; but it is evident that that population cannot be taken into account in estimating the character of the materials of which society was originally composed in the colony of New South Wales.

I have no account of the number of free emigrants and convicts who arrived in the colony during the first two years of the government of General Darling, but the following is a list of the number of persons of both classes who had arrived during the eight years and a half previous to the 30th of June, 1836:—

Year. Convicts. Free
1828 2,712 596 3,308
1829 3,664 564 4,228
1830 3,226 309 3,535
1831 2,837 457 3,294
1832 3,268 2,006 5,274
1833 4,136 2,685 6,821
1834 3,161 1,664 4,725
1835 3,602 1,428 5,030
1836 1,796  675 2,471
till June 30, ———— ——— ———
28,402[2] 10,284 38,686

Into a community, therefore, so unhappily constituted, both in a moral and political light, as I have shown that of New South Wales to have been from the first, there have been imported during the last eight years and a half, to counteract the naturally evil influence and to promote the reformation of its convict population, (as well as of 28,402 additional convicts, imported during that period,) only 10,284 free emigrants of all classes and ages. If these ten thousand free emigrants had all been virtuous and industrious persons, I admit that their influence in neutralizing and counteracting the natural influence of this immense accumulation of depravity would have been exceedingly powerful; for not only is it true in New South Wales, as it was in ancient Rome, that "ipse aspectus boni viri delectat," ("the very sight of a virtuous man is refreshing,") but it is also true that such a man uniformly sheds a moral influence around him in that colony, the beneficial effect of which is incalculable, and which will not unfrequently make vice herself assume the aspect of virtue. Unfortunately for the colony, however, a considerable number of these ten thousand emigrants consisted of discharged soldiers and pensioners, who had been induced to commute their pensions for a free passage to the Australian colonies, and most of whom proved good-for-nothing, dissipated, and worthless characters. A large proportion of the remainder consisted of families and individuals of the class of mechanics, who had been assisted in effecting their emigration to New South Wales by colonial bounties in the shape of passage-money. Of this class perhaps as many as three-fifths have been virtuous and industrious persons; the rest being a dead weight upon the colony, either from their indifferent moral character, or from the non-adaptation of their previous occupations and habits to the wants of the colony.

Of the free emigrants above mentioned, 1536 have been unmarried females, who had also been assisted in their emigration by bounties, in the shape of passage- money, from the revenues of the colony. But when we take into consideration the original constitution and character of colonial society, and the strong temptations to which unprotected females must in such a society be exposed; when we take into consideration the improbability of inducing any considerable number of really virtuous females to emigrate to a distant country, and especially to a convict colony, without natural protectors; and when we take into consideration also the artifices of individuals in the shipping line, who find this species of export trade by no means unprofitable;—it will not appear by any means surprising, that the system of female emigration, which has been pursued for several years past, under the direction of a Board in London professing to reform the Australian colonies, should, instead of producing any such reformation, have only added prodigiously to the previous amount of the immorality and criminality of the colony of New South Wales.[3]

Deducting, therefore, from the ten thousand free emigrants of all classes and ages, who have arrived in New South Wales during the last eight years and a half, the worthless free emigrants of all the three classes above mentioned,—whose demoralizing influence on colonial society has been evident to every observer, and alarmingly extensive,—I question whether there would remain as many as five thousand reputable persons of the whole number to exert an influence of an opposite tendency, and to counteract the additional moral poison diffused over the whole territory, during the period of their successive arrival, in the shape of twenty-eight thousand additional convicts fresh from the gaols of England.

It must therefore be evident, that the transportation system, as a system for the prevention of crime and the reformation of criminals, must have been totally different in its character and effects before the war of American independence, from what it has been ever since. Such a colony as a convict colony was never heard of in America; neither was there ever any such task imposed on any colony on that continent, in the way of controlling and reforming criminals, as the British government have recklessly imposed on the virtuous portion of the free emigrant population of New South Wales. I shall have occasion in the sequel to show that it was not the original intention of the founders of that colony that it should have been constituted in so unheard-of a manner; at present, therefore, I shall only point out a singular political result of the grand mistake which has thus been made in the organization and constitution of the Australian penal colonies. In the American colonies the liberated convict could only hope to repossess himself of the political rights and privileges of freemen, by causing his previous character and history to be entirely forgotten in his subsequent good conduct, and by thereby inducing the belief that he was really worthy to exercise them: but the liberated convict of N«w South Wales comes boldly forward to claim these rights and privileges,—besieging the British parliament with his memorials and petitions on the subject—on the ground, forsooth, of his having undergone the full amount of punishment denounced for certain crimes and misdemeanours, by the laws of his country: or, in other words, on the ground of his being an emancipated convict, he lays claim to the elective franchise, to constitute legislators for the people, and to the still more important office of juryman, to sit in judgment in matters concerning their liberty or their lives!

And why does the emancipated convict of New South Wales plead for such privileges on this ground,—aground which would have exposed him in every colony in America, during the continuance of transportation to that country, to utter derision? Why, just because society has been permitted by the British government to grow up to comparative maturity in the Australian colonies, without a sufficient infusion of virtuous freemen to give it a proper tone.

In fact, the very circumstance of a man's standing forward in any country to claim certain political privileges, on the ground of his being an emancipated convict, is a presumptive proof of his not being really reformed; for the really reformed character would naturally seek the shade and court obscurity. The extensive prevalence of such claims and feelings in any country is, moreover, a presumptive proof of the utter inefficacy of transportation to that country, under the system of management out of which such a state of things has arisen, as a means of preventing crime or of reforming criminals. Nay, the very existence of any community of recent British origin, and situated within the limits of the British empire, in which such feelings can be entertained, and such claims preferred, is a positive opprobrium to the British government for the last forty years.

As the colony of New South Wales, however, is now happily delivered from that system of Tory neglect and mismanagement, under which it was suffered to grow up to comparative maturity,—like a noxious weed thrown over a garden wall and alighting accidentally on a dunghill,—and to which alone it owes its convict character, its convict feelings, its convict claims; I trust the same principle of thorough reform, which has already been so beneficially exemplified in other departments of the public service, will, ere long, be extended to that important dependency of the empire, in the way of providing an effectual remedy, in so far as such a remedy can yet be provided, for those great evils that have already resulted, and may yet result to it, from the mismanagement of the transportation system. But, as the nature of the remedy to be applied, in the case of any existing evil, can only be ascertained from a thorough knowledge of the nature and extent of that evil, I shall endeavour, in the course of the following chapters, to point out some of the causes that have hitherto operated most powerfully in occasioning the comparative failure of the transportation system, both as a means of preventing crime, and of reforming criminals, in the Australian colonies.

  1. The number transported to New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land has been as high in one year as six thousand; but the average number is considerably lower.
  2. The proportion of Roman Catholic convicts in ships from England is 10 per cent., that of Protestant convicts in ships from Ireland being 5 per cent: it is therefore evident and unquestionable, that the Roman Catholic religion has exceedingly the advantage of Protestantism in contributing to the prison population of convict colonies.
  3. A few facts will serve to open the eyes of people of common understanding in England, as to the real character and tendency of the female emigration system. The David Scott, a female emigrant ship, chartered and loaded with merchandise on his own private account by Mr. John Marshall, agent of the London Board, arrived in Sydney about the beginning of November, 1834. Sixty of the females who formed part of her cargo were common prostitutes; forty of whom were so thoroughly vile, that my informant, a respectable free emigrant, who arrived in the colony as a cabin-passenger by that vessel, assured me, "he did not believe they could be matched in England," The captain's authority was accordingly set at defiance by the crew, and the vessel converted into a scene of the most abandoned licentiousness during the whole voyage. The ship Lay ton, which had arrived some time previous, had been similarly circumstanced; and the consequence was, that although a considerable number of reputable females emigrated by both vessels, many were ruined for ever, from the vile society into which they were thus thrown. The Canton, which arrived rather more than a year after the David Scott, was at first reported to have brought out a much better cargo: it was ascertained, however, that within three days after the females by that vessel were landed in Sydney, forty of them were regularly domiciled in houses of bad repute in the colonial capital.

    The change for the worse which the prevalence of this system during the last three years or thereby has produced in the town of Sydney, and in the morals of the colony generally, is equally evident and deplorable. For the last two or three years the streets of Sydney have been absolutely infested, both by day and by night, with female emigrants of the vilest character, whose passage-out has been paid for from the funds of the colony: whereas, during the whole period of my previous residence of ten years in New South Wales I never observed any thing of that kind. The thoroughly demoralizing influence of such exhibitions on the youth of the colony may be easily conceived, for one bad woman let loose upon society does infinitely more harm than half a dozen bad men; but the total amount of licentiousness and profligacy, which had not assumed so grossly disgusting a form, but which was, nevertheless, notoriously practised, as notoriously occasioned and supported by this monstrous, this infamous system, to the ruin of the peace of many reputable families in the colony, is utterly incalculable. The single fact, that during the year 1833 there had only been six persons, who had arrived free in the colony, confined in the gaol of Sydney, and that the number of such persons who had been so confined during the first seven months of the year 1836 had amounted to ninety, is of itself a pretty evident indication of the thoroughly demoralizing tendency of the female emigration system; for a large proportion of these persons were free emigrant females, the first female emigrant ship from London having arrived in New South Wales towards the close of the year 1833.

    I left the colony for England on the 4th of July of that year; but on ascertaining, on my return to it in the month of November 1834, the real character and tendency of the female emigration system, I did all in my power to expose it to the public, in its proper light, through the colonial press. For this service I was honoured with a pamphlet by Mr. John Marshall, the agent of the Female Emigration Board in London, who was all the while accumulating a handsome fortune by thus destroying the hopes of the colony. I should not have mentioned this pamphlet, had it not contained three letters, which were adduced in apparent contradiction of certain statements I was represented to have made on the subject of female emigration, written respectively by Mr. Alderman Pirie, late Sheriff of London; Sir Edward Parry, late manager of the Australian Agricultural Company; and Archdeacon Broughton, now Bishop of New South Wales. Mr. Pirie's letter was adduced to contradict a statement contained in an anonymous letter in the Colonist newspaper, which Mr. Marshall thought proper to impute to me, but of which I had not been the writer; the letter in question having been written by Mr. Beilby, a respectable merchant in Sydney. In that letter it was stated by the writer, who had been superintendent of the ship Lay ton on her voyage out, that Mr. Pirie had expressed some suspicions of Mr. Marshall's procedure to himself in his own office in London, and Mr. P. was brought forward by Mr. M. to declare solemnly that he had never expressed himself in such a manner to me! I never said he had. The matters contained in the papers I had really written, on which Sir Edward Parry and Bishop Broughton were brought forward, though somewhat indirectly, to throw discredit, by representing them as improbable, were facts and circumstances relative to the female emigrant ships David Scott and Duchess of Northumberland; of which I had ascertained the truth from the first authority,—that of most respectable men connected with these vessels in the port of Sydney. Both of these vessels, moreover, had arrived in the colony more than a twelvemonth after Sir Edward Tarry and Bishop Broughton had left it, and the matters in question were consequently as little known to either of them, as they could have been to any man in England.