Transportation and colonization/Chapter 8



The fifth cause of the comparative failure of the transportation system, as it has hitherto been administered, is the enormous evil that has resulted from the transportation of educated or gentlemen convicts to the penal colonies, and the frequent and ample opportunities which individuals of this class have hitherto enjoyed in these colonies, of not merely defeating the intentions of the law in their own particular case, by converting a state of intended punishment and degradation into one of extensive influence and positive enjoyment; but of also counteracting the natural tendency and operation of the punishment of transportation in a large proportion of the convicts of inferior grade. I say enormous evil; for the mischief that has arisen from this source, in the settlement of New South Wales especially, has been of incredible amount. It was repeatedly stated in evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons on secondary punishments, in the years 1831 and 1832, that the disposal of convicts of the higher or educated classes of society had always proved a subject of difficulty and embarrassment to the colonial government. They have hitherto been generally employed as clerks in government-offices; as clerks and book-keepers in the employment of lawyers, merchants, and petty dealers; as tutors in the families of respectable colonists, to train up the youth of the colony to useful knowledge, to virtue, and religion! or as editors or sub-editors of colonial newspapers,—dictating, forsooth, to "all and sundry," how convicts ought to be treated; passing censures or encomiums ex cathedra on governors, judges, and magistrates,—and ever and anon animating the convict and emancipist classes generally, with the most hostile feelings towards the free emigrant population! Of the prodigious evil which individuals acting in these capacities have at all times done to the colony of New South Wales, I shall enumerate three instances from three different periods of its history.

Early in the present century, Richard Atkins, Esquire, a gentleman who had not previously received a legal education, and who was consequently very ignorant in matters of law, was appointed Judge-Advocate, or principal law-officer, of the settlement. Conscious of his own deficiencies, he solicited and obtained Governor Bligh's permission to consult, in all difficult cases of law, a convict-attorney, of the name of Crossley, who had been convicted of perjury in London, and had been afterwards pilloried and transported; and the services of this individual having been especially rendered, in drawing up an indictment against a respectable inhabitant of the colony, who had previously been an officer of the New South Wales corps, for alleged resistance to the governor's authority, and contempt of the government regulations; the officers of that corps violently arrested the governor, and usurped the government of the colony,—pleading, as their principal excuse, the employment of Crossley as a confidential law-adviser of the government, in matters affecting the property and lives of respectable individuals. This insurrection proved a source of incalculable evil to New South Wales, and subjected the British government to enormous expense.

During the government of Major-General Macquarie, another convict attorney, of the name of E——, who had been transported from Dublin, arrived in the colony, and was assigned as a convict servant to the Rev. Mr. ——, of ——, one of the colonial episcopal chaplains of New South Wales, who employed him as a tutor for his sons. Of the nature of the instructions which the convict tutor communicated to his pupils, I am unable to speak particularly; but it is at least certain, that at the last criminal assizes held in the colony, one of them was found guilty of cattle-stealing, and is now a convict for life in Van Dieman's Land—thereby involving a highly respectable family in the deepest distress, and bringing down the gray hairs of his father with sorrow to the grave! E—— has been in England for the last twelve or fourteen years, having left his wife and children in New South Wales; and his eldest son is at present living in a state of concubinage in the town of Sydney, with the daughter of a deceased clergyman in England, who emigrated by one of Mr. John Marshall's female emigrant ships. E—— had of course obtained a pardon from Governor Macquarie shortly after his arrival in the colony, in accordance with the very liberal system adopted by that governor in bestowing such indulgences; and he had subsequently entered into a mercantile partnership with a half-caste emancipated convict from Calcutta, who had also obtained a ticket of leave, or conditional pardon, on his arrival in the colony. Finding, however, that the tea and other China goods, which his house was in the habit of importing from Bengal, were undersold in the Sydney market by a highly respectable American merchant in Sydney, who had a correspondent in Canton, with whom he maintained a direct mercantile intercourse; E——, determined, if possible, to exclude the American from the colonial market, instituted an action against him, in the supreme court of the colony, on an obsolete and most impolitic statute of Charles II., prohibiting foreigners from trading in British colonies, and confiscating their goods. By a legal manoeuvre, however, which was perhaps justifiable under the peculiar circumstances of the case, the American applied to the court for time to produce a duly attested certificate of E——'s conviction as a felon; which, in virtue of a much more recent parliamentary enactment, he professed his determination to plead as a bar to his instituting any action of the kind; and this application being granted by the court, the prosecution was dropped as a matter of course. That an individual, however, who had been himself but very recently restored to the rights and privileges of a British subject—solely through the extreme indulgence of a British governor, dispensing with the just enactments of the criminal law in his particular case—should have had the presumption to attempt to ruin a reputable merchant, merely because the business of that merchant interfered with his own mercantile speculations, thereby embroiling the whole colony, as was actually the fact,—is another instance of the mischievous and dangerous influence which educated convicts have so frequently acquired in the penal colonies, and of the bad purposes for which that influence has almost uniformly been employed.

The third and last instance I shall adduce of the bad effects that have resulted from the transportation of educated convicts to New South Wales, is one of a much more aggravated character, and, I am sorry to add, of much more recent occurrence. William Angus Watt, a Scotchman from the neighbourhood of Forfar, who had been employed for some time as a clerk in the office of a respectable lawyer in Edinburgh about ten years ago, was at length detected embezzling a considerable sum of money belonging to his employer; but, escaping from justice, was outlawed by the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland in the year 1827. He had in the mean time found his way to London, where he soon obtained respectable employment as a clerk or book-keeper in the extensive haberdashery house of Messrs. Todd, Morrison, and Co., of Fore-street. In that employment, however, he reverted to his former practices, and was at length detected in carrying on a most artful and extensive system of embezzlement. He escaped from justice a second time, but was apprehended by a Bow-street runner in Edinburgh, under the assumed name of Williams, and in the disguise of a half-pay officer. Being brought back to London, he was convicted at the Old Bailey in the year 1828, and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. Shortly after his arrival in New South Wales, he was sent to the penal settlement of Wellington Valley, which had been formed by order of the home government, at the distance of two hundred miles from Sydney, for the reception of educated convicts. By insinuating himself, however, into the good graces of the Scotch superintendant of that settlement, he was very soon allowed to come down to Sydney, where he was recommended from one government-officer to another, till he fell into the hands of the Archdeacon (now Bishop) Broughton, by whom he was employed as a clerk in the ecclesiastical corporation-office, and through whom, if I am not mistaken, he obtained a ticket of leave. On the breaking up of the corporation establishment, his abilities as a book-keeper, and also as a writer of articles for the colonial press, were so well known in Sydney, that he was offered employment at the same time by the proprietors of two colonial newspapers, — the Sydney Gazette, which is published three times, and the Monitor, which is published twice a week. He was pleased to accept employment in the former of these establishments, of which he soon obtained the entire management and control; the proprietors being the widow and children of the former editor, and the actual editor being an emancipated convict, of dissipated character and improvident habits, who was consequently a fit person to become the tool and accomplice of artful villany.

Such were the two hopeful individuals who were thus duly authorized and enabled, so lately as during the years 1834 and 1835, to read lectures thrice a week, to the whole colony of New South Wales, on matters of government and legislation; on the manner in which convicts ought to he treated in a penal colony, and on the very slight difference that there really was either in character or conduct (for such was the usual style and tendency of their writings) between free emigrants and convicts. In short, I have no hesitation in expressing it as my belief and conviction, that it was the uniform tendency and design of the writings of these individuals, as it has also been that of all other public writers of convict origin in the Australian colonies, to reduce the reputable portion of the community to the same level with themselves; to abolish all those salutary distinctions which the laws of God and of man have created between right and wrong; and, if possible, to dispossess the whole convict population of all sense and feeling of degradation and criminality.

That a convict merely holding a ticket of leave, and consequently under the strict surveillance of the colonial police, should have been allowed to occupy a situation of such commanding influence in a convict colony may perhaps appear unaccountable to the reader; but as it is no business of mine to attempt to explain the fact, I shall only observe, that the suspicion of connivance at the subsequently detected delinquencies of this individual, on the part of certain officers of government, was universal throughout the colony; as it eventually appeared, that he had not only been excused from attending the regular musters of ticket of leave holders, but had even been living for some time, with the knowledge of the police, in a state of concubinage with a female convict illegally at large. That convict female was afterwards forwarded to the Factory, or government prison for female convicts, at Parramatta; which, in this particular instance, as it has doubtless been in numberless others, was converted into a lying-in-hospital, maintained at the public expense, for the convict concubines of gentlemen convicts, enjoying, like Watt, unmerited and grossly-abused indulgence from the colonial executive; the illegitimate child of these worthies having been duly baptised and registered[1] under the name of Watt by the pious chaplain of the neighbourhood. The reader will, of course, have no difficulty in conceiving how connivance of this kind could be repaid by an individual having the command of so powerful an engine as the press.

Watt was at length tried in the Supreme Court of the colony, at the instance of the proprietors of the Herald newspaper, on a somewhat singular charge. In the year 1834 an anonymous letter had been written for publication in that journal, reflecting on the character and conduct of an individual in Sydney, who had formerly been a convict, but was then free. In the hurry of business it was put in type, but, on being read for correction, it was found to be libellous and unfit for publication, and was consequently suppressed. Watt, who was then sole manager in the Gazette Office, got intelligence of the circumstance; and being desirous of having the proprietors of the Herald, who were reputable free emigrants, subjected to an action for libel;—a course, which, in a colony abounding in needy and rapacious lawyers, is not unfrequently resorted to by artful villany and conscious worthlessness, as an approved instrument of torture for honest men,—bribed an emancipated convict compositor in the Herald Office to steal for him a proof or printed copy of the suppressed article; which he immediately enclosed in an anonymous letter, written in a feigned hand, and transmitted through the colonial post to the person to whom it alluded, that its being forwarded through so public a channel might be pleaded as a legal publication. The action was accordingly instituted, but was eventually lost; its main object, however, being gained to a certain extent, in subjecting the parties interested to much inconvenience and considerable expense. It was more than eighteen months afterwards, when Watt's villanous procedure in the whole matter came to light. On its being discovered, he was tried in the Supreme Court on a charge of felony, but was acquitted; the jury consisting partly, if not chiefly, of emancipated convicts. His acquittal was hailed by the worthless portion of the community—convicts and emancipated convicts, of the lowest grade—as the triumph of their principles and party; but his Honour Mr. Justice Burton, who presided at the trial, having represented to the governor, from the facts elicited in the course of it, that Watt was an unfit person to be allowed to remain any longer in Sydney, His Excellency ordered him forthwith to Port Macquarie, a subordinate settlement about two hundred miles to the northward.

In the course of his defence in the Supreme Court, Watt had made an outrageous attack on a magistrate of the territory who was in no way connected with the affair: for this outrage he was called to account before the Sydney bench of magistrates, to whose summary jurisdiction he was amenable, as a convict holding a ticket of leave. The outrage, it appeared, was not punishable; but various other charges being exhibited against Watt, the magistrates determined to enter into them at length. The investigation that ensued lasted many days; and in the course of it. Watt's whole manner of life in the colony, and the countenance he had been receiving from certain officers of government, fully appeared, notwithstanding a formidable array of perjury and chicanery of every description which were sedulously employed on his behalf. To the utter astonishment of the colony, however, several of the most respectable magistrates of the territory, who had been concerned in conducting the investigation, and who had, perhaps, acted in the matter with greater zeal than prudence, were shortly after publicly dismissed from the commission of the peace!

On his arrival at Port Macquarie, Watt obtained permission to marry the widow of the former proprietor of the Gazette, whose valuable property he had reduced to the brink of ruin; and having subsequently succeeded in ingratiating himself into the favour of the police magistrate of the settlement, he was the means of sowing so much dissension between that officer and the harbour-master, that a commission of inquiry had actually to be appointed to proceed to Port Macquarie in the month of May last (1836), to investigate their mutual criminations. The result of that commission was the dismissal of both these functionaries, and an order for the immediate cancelling of Watt's ticket of leave. On being apprised of this order, Watt absconded; and the last account of him, in August 1836, was that he had been apprehended, and flogged as a runaway!

Now, that a criminal like Watt, who ought unquestionably to have been doomed for a long period to hard labour and solitary confinement, should have been allowed to occupy a station of such commanding influence, as that individual attained so very lately in the penal colony of New South Wales, even during the period of his sentence of transportation,—subjecting the characters of various officers of His Majesty's Government to general suspicion, from alleged connivance at his delinquencies; occasioning the dismissal of various respectable magistrates from the commission of the peace, for investigating these delinquencies somewhat too minutely; occupying the time of courts of justice and benches of magistrates for weeks together, and thereby commanding all the while the exclusive attention of the press and the public; and finally raising up a formidable party in the colony for the countenance and protection of vice and villany;—that a state of things, implying so enormous a perversion of justice, should be permitted to subsist at the present moment in any part of the British empire, is (to say the very least of it) as strange in itself as it is disreputable to the British nation. Talk of the tendency of transportation as a species of punishment! It would, indeed, have been miraculous if transportation had been found conducive in any degree to the prevention of crime and the reformation of criminals, under a system of management so thoroughly monstrous.

  1. As the Act directs—not the Acts of the Apostles.