Transportation and colonization/Chapter 5



One of the most fruitful sources of the comparative failure of the transportation system, as it has been administered in the Australian penal colonies during the last thirty years, has doubtless been the unlimited importation and consumption of ardent spirits in these colonies. The want of a virtuous free emigrant population, to afford the requisite stimulus to reformation on the one hand, and the requisite check to criminality on the other, maybe considered as a negative cause or source of failure; but the extent to which the importation and consumption of ardent spirits have all along been permitted in the Australian colonies may be regarded as a positive source of moral debasement, operating still more directly in producing the same evil effect. One should have thought that the rigorous prohibition of the importation of ardent spirits, in countries which for a long period could only be considered extensive gaols, would have suggested itself as a measure of expediency, if not of absolute necessity, to those who were concerned either in founding the penal settlements of the empire, or in the subsequent administration of their government:[1] for as drunkenness is the great source of crime in the mother country, and the sole procuring cause of transportation in the case of a large portion of the prison population of these settlements, the absolute prohibition of the importation of ardent spirits into the colonial territories was evidently not less necessary for the prevention of crime in the mother country, than for the reformation of the transported criminals. It is lamentable to reflect, however, on the manner in which the praiseworthy and benevolent intentions of the founders of the penal colonies of the empire were virtually counteracted and completely frustrated through the culpable neglect of this indispensably necessary and highly salutary measure, on the part of the colonial authorities of New South Wales and Van Dieman's Land, acting, however, under the sanction of the Home Government. For, besides the regular and ample ration of ardent spirits that was served out to all free persons in the service of government, whether civil or military, from the highest in command to the humblest menial, there were regular and periodical issues of large quantities of ardent spirits, free of duty, to government-officers of all ranks, from the first settlement of the colony; and as numerous convicts were from time to time acquiring their freedom, while a system of concubinage with female convicts was extensively and indeed almost universally practised by the free population, there was no want of fit persons to dispose of the officers' rum, and to hold out the requisite inducement to all convicts still in bondage to rob and steal, to procure the means of indulgence. It had thus virtually become the interest of the free portion of the population of New South Wales, from the first establishment of that colony, to frustrate the grand object of its wise and beneficent founders, in regard to the reformation of the convicts, and to do all that in them lay to render the latter worse than ever; the Government in the mean time supplying the means of their general demoralization with a liberality and profuseness above all praise. For until so late a period as the 18th of August, 1816, when the demoralizing practice was discontinued by order of Earl Bathurst, ardent spirits were held by the colonial government as the circulating medium or current coin of the colony; they were given in payment for work of every description performed for Government, and issued out in certain fixed quantities to civil and military officers, overseers, clerks, and constables, by way of remuneration, as it was termed, for imaginary services. And so effectual had this preposterous system proved in defeating the great ends of the establishment of the colony, in the course of the first twenty years after its original settlement, that shortly after the commencement of the present century, the colony had become one grand scene of brutal dissipation and licentiousness, of lawless violence and rapine. The following is the testimony of a competent and unprejudiced witness, who arrived in the colony about the year 1802, as to the scenes that were then generally exhibited in New South Wales among the emancipated convict settlers and their convict servants:—

Eighteen years ago, the period when I arrived in this colony, it was lamentable to behold the excess to which drunkenness was carried: it was no uncommon occurrence for men to sit down round a bucket of spirits, and drink it with quart pots, until they were unable to stir from the spot; and frequently did the settler involve himself so deeply in debt by drunkenness, that it terminated in his ruin."—Dr. Redfern, in reply to Governor Macquarie's Queries. January 1820. Parliamentary Paper.

During the protracted administration of Governor Macquarie, who succeeded to the government of New South Wales in the year 1810, the measures adopted by authority, for the welfare and advancement of the colony, had unfortunately a direct tendency to strengthen the general propensity of the lower classes of the colonists to the excessive use of intoxicating liquors, and to afford additional means of indulgence to all classes of its anomalous population. By an injudicious and unwarrantable extension of the system of granting free pardons, conditional pardons, and tickets of leave, or exemption from government labour, numerous convicts were from time to time thrown loose upon the colony before they had acquired industrious habits, or were at all capable of conducting themselves with propriety: for although the governor uniformly gave small grants of land in the interior to newly-emancipated convicts, to encourage the formation of a class of agriculturists throughout the territory, these grants were generally transferred to the wholesale or retail dealers in ardent spirits, as soon as the governors order to take possession of the land was obtained. In the mean time, the large expenditure of British money by Governor Macquarie, in the erection of buildings of inferior importance in the colonial towns, necessarily congregated large bodies of the convict and emancipist population in these towns;?,nd by affording high wages to free labourers of all classes, held out the requisite encouragement for the establishment of numerous public-houses, both licensed and unlicensed; most of which were mere receptacles for stolen goods, while all of them were sources of irresistible temptation and ultimate ruin to such emancipated convict settlers as had acquired property by their own industry in the interior. Nay, for four years during the administration of Governor Macquarie, three individuals in Sydney had an authorized monopoly of all the ardent spirits that were imported into the colony, on condition of their erecting a public hospital in the town of Sydney; and during the continuance of this monopoly, every means was used to increase the number of houses for the sale of ardent spirits, both in Sydney and all over the colony, to augment the consumption of intoxicating liquors, already of enormous amount, as compared with the population, and thereby to spread a moral pestilence as widely as possible over the whole community."[2]}

The foundations of society in the colony of New South Wales being thus laid in so preposterous a manner, it will not appear unaccountable, that the consumption of ardent spirits, and the practice of all those lesser vices, and the prevalence of all those greater crimes and misdemeanours, that must necessarily ensue from excess in the use of such stimulants in a convict colony, should have been steadily advancing during the successive administrations of Sir Thomas Brisbane, Sir Ralph Darling, and Sir Richard Bourke; insomuch that, if I may be allowed the expression, the whole body politic of the colony has at length become completely saturated with intoxicating liquors, and the entire mass of its humours completely corrupted.

The present consumption of ardent spirits in New South Wales, and the progressive increase of consumption during the last ten years, will appear from the following Return of the Quantity of Spirits on which duty has been paid in the colony during that period, with the amount of the duty."

Year. Gallons. Duty.
£. s. d.
1826 149,902½  43,655 12 11
1827 139,085  41,555  0 10
1828 168,328  52,671 18  9
1829 186,114½  61,592 17  8
1830 202,773¾  67,498 18  8
1831 223,900  74,634 11 10
1832 247,295  82,627 16  7
1833 287,782  95,535  4  9
1834 273,841½ 107,955  9  1
1835 291,138 117,161  8 11

The population of the colony at the close of Sir Thomas Brisbane's administration, in October, 1825, was 36,336; and at the end of the year 1835 it was in all likelihood not less than 80,000, allowing for births and the increase from immigration and the importation of convicts, since the census of 1833. It follows, therefore, that the consumption of ardent spirits in New South Wales amounts at present to 3⅝ imperial gallons annually for every man, woman, and child in the colony; the entire consumption for the united kingdom being one gallon and a small fraction for each individual. Allowing, however, for convicts in actual bondage, to whom spirits are not issued, and for children and other natives of the colony, who are generally indisposed lo the use of ardent spirits, the number of the actual consumers of this vast quantity of intoxicating liquor does not, in all probability, exceed 40,000 persons; each of whom must consequently consume at the enormous rate of upwards of seven gallons a year! If, therefore, the increase of crime in the united kingdom is imputed in no small degree to the increased consumption of ardent spirits, what result can reasonably be expected from the transportation system, either in the way of preventing crime or of reforming criminals, in a colony in which the consumption is so enormously higher than in Great Britain and Ireland?

During the period of his actual bondage, the convict is understood not to be allowed ardent spirits; but in the service of private settlers he has occasionally ways and means of procuring the unhallowed indulgence, independently of his master. Emancipated convicts are scattered all over the territory, and too frequently obtain their livelihood, not by honest industry, but by corrupting the convict and emancipated convict population,—selling ardent spirits on the sly, as it is called, and receiving in exchange property or goods that are generally pilfered or stolen from their owners for the express purpose of procuring the means of indulgence. But if a settler is so vigilant on the one hand, or so fortunately situated on the other, as to render it impracticable for his convict servants to obtain the means of intoxication during their period of bondage; or if, as is often the case, they conduct themselves with propriety during that period, in expectation of their more speedy liberation; they receive tickets of leave, or permission to employ themselves within a certain district for their own advantage, after a period of servitude in proportion to the term of their original sentence, provided they have committed no crimes or misdemeanours in the colony: and it often unfortunately happens, that convicts who have conducted themselves with great propriety as assigned servants—behaving themselves during the whole period of their bondage soberly, honestly, and industriously, and so as to induce the conviction, that if placed in happier circumstances and beyond the reach of ardent spirits, they would approve themselves thoroughly reformed—no sooner become their own masters and acquire the command of money (which they are soon able to do, from the high price of labour in the colony), than they revert all at once to habits of drunkenness and dissipation. As the ticket of leave, however, is subject to be cancelled at any time for drunkenness or other disorderly conduct, society has still some hold on the ticket-of-leave holder till the expiration of his original sentence of seven or fourteen years' transportation: but when at length he obtains his certificate of freedom, and can practise irregularities of this kind with impunity, he generally gives the rein to the evil propensities of his nature, and yields himself an easy prey to the powerful influence of temptation—employing himself from time to time in honest labour only till he has acquired the means of repeating his brutalizing debauch. I have known of instances, in which emancipated convicts, who had conducted themselves with the utmost propriety as assigned servants, have spent sums of £10, £20, £30, £50, £70, and even £100 in this way at one sitting—planting themselves in some low public-house along with other characters of a similar description, and drinking for weeks together till their last shilling was gone!

In a country in which so preposterous a system has -been suffered to grow up, to extend, and to perpetuate itself, under the fostering hand of authority, it would be absolute mockery to ask whether transportation had proved effectual either for the prevention of crime or for the reformation of criminals. At all events, whatever may be its effect in England, it is unquestionable that, under the prevalence of that system, crime has increased and is increasing in New South Wales. This will appear evident from the following "Return of Convictions for Felonies and Misdemeanours in the Supreme Court, and in the Courts of Quarter Sessions," of that colony, during the following years: viz.

Years. Convictions.
1831 361
1832 425
1833 565
1834 685
1835 771

In short, as drunkenness is the parent of crime, it must be self-evident, that a colony, in which the consumption of ardent spirits is so enormous as it now is in New South Wales, and the temptations to that species of indulgence so numerous, can no longer be a fit place for transported criminals under the system of management hitherto pursued in that colony.

  1. One of the Acts passed in the year 1734, for the settlement of Georgia, was to prevent the importation and use of rum and brandy in the province, or of any kind of spirits or strong waters whatever."—Parliamentary Evidence on Drunkenness, No. 939. Why was there no such act passed for New South Wales?
  2. In the year 1810, the first year of Governor Macquarie's administration, the number of licensed public-houses in the colony was thirty-one,—a number which one should imagine would have been sufficient for a population of ten thousand souls. The contract for the Rum Hospital, as it was called, was entered into during the following year, and the number of licensed houses during the four years of its continuance was as follows; viz.
    In 1811 104
    1812 117
    1813  93
    1814 110