White Slaves, African Slave Traders, and the Hidden History of Slavery

Convict slavery in Australia

Approximately 162,000 convicts were sent to Australia, often for the most petty of crimes, were treated as slave labour, and received the harshest of treatment. Norfolk Island, in particular, dished out harsh and inhumane punishment.[74]

Even the transportation to Australia constituted a major punishment in itself. Whilst conditions on the First Fleet have been described as fairly satisfactory, 267 convicts died during the voyage of the Second Fleet, and 199 in the Third Fleet. Captain Hill, a British military officer at that time, wrote of the awful conditions in the convict fleets.

    "The slave traffic is merciful compared with what I have seen in this [second] fleet; in that it is in the interests of the masters to preserve the healths and lives of their captives, they have a joint benefit with the owners; in this, the more they can withhold from the unhappy wretches, the more provisions they have to dispose of at a foreign market, and the earlier in the voyage they die, the longer they can draw the deceased's allowance to themselves."[75]

Research published on the "Convicts to Australia" website adds further details:

    "Convicts were housed below decks on the prison deck and further confined behind bars. In many cases they were restrained in chains and were only allowed on deck for fresh air and exercise. Conditions were cramped and they slept on hammocks.

    ...Although the six convict ships, three supply ships and two naval ships of the first fleet arrived with their cargo of 780-odd convicts in relatively good condition, the same cannot be said for those that followed during the rest of the century.

    Of the 1000-odd convicts sent on the second fleet, 260 or more died during the voyage. As mentioned in the section on hulks, many were diseased when they embarked and those who managed to survive the voyage were severely weakened by scurvy, dysentry and fever.

    On subsequent voyages the story was not much different and the treatment of the convicts was a disgrace. Private merchant ships were contracted to transport the convicts and their masters looked for ways to improve their profit margins by withholding the convicts' rations, keeping them chained below decks without fresh air and inflicting harsh and cruel punishment in an attempt to maintain discipline. Although official complaints were made after the fact, justice was never seen to be done. In one particular case, Thomas Dennott, the master of the 'Britannia', was described as a sadist. He brought a cargo of Irish convicts in 1797 and subjected them to brutal discipline of 300, 400 and 800 lashes. The worst death rate, however, was recorded on the Hillsborough which arrived in 1799. Typhoid killed 95 of her 300 convicts."

On board the ship Chapman, coming from Ireland in 1817, the reactions of naval personnel to an alleged planned mutiny were so severe and extreme that Governor Macquarie, after an inquiry, sent home a number of its personnel under arrest; however, those charged were later acquitted.[77] Whilst the extremity of the brutality meted out on the Chapman was so severe as to be reported, the ordinary everyday brutality would usually go unreported, due to it being "acceptable" and so commonplace.

Convicts sent to Australia included some boys as young as eight years old, and there were many sent out who were aged between twelve and eighteen.[78]

There were also political prisoners amongst the transportees, including the Scottish martyrs of 1794; the naval mutineers of 1797; the Irish rebels of 1798, 1803, and 1848; the agricultural rioters of 1830; the Tolpuddle martyrs of 1834; the Canadian rebels of 1839; and the Chartists of 1842.[79]

The London Quarterly Review published an article in June 1841 discussing the convict situation in Australia:

    "Captain Maconochie condemns the whole of the penal institutions of the colonies, and says that the bad state of society may be traced directly to their pervading and demoralising influence; he complains that physical coersion [flogging, etc.] is resorted to upon every little breach of regulation, &c. &c.; in short, he says, in so many words, that the settlers who have convicts assigned to them are slave-holders, and the assignees slaves."[80]

In the early days of New South Wales, convicts were employed on public works, construction, and public farms. However, as the numbers of free settlers (including governments officials) and emancipists (ex-convicts) increased, a large proportion of convicts were released to them, in order to assist them in the cultivation of their lands. Under this system of assigned service, convicts were assigned to masters and were entirely under their control.

Governor Arthur of Van Diemen's Land declared that the assigned servant

    "deprived of his liberty, exposed to all the caprices of the family to whose service he may happen to be assigned, subject to the most summary laws... [was in a condition] in no way different from that of a slave."

The only differences were that convicts were not to be flogged by their masters and, except in the case of a "lifer", they were in bondage for a limited period of years.

In one notorious case the convict servants of Major James Mudie assaulted their overseers, and when tried for attempted murder they stated that they were willing to die provided they had been able to expose the conditions in which they were em­ployed. The convicts were convicted, but Governor Bourke ordered an inquiry to be held; however, Mudie was officially exonerated.

Convicts were entitled to complain to a magistrate about ill-treatment meted out by their masters; however the magistrates, usually settlers or masters themselves, were more likely to be sympathetic to the master. Complaints by masters, against their convict servants, of misconduct, insolence or idleness were readily accepted and the convicts were sentenced to flog­ging or returned to government service. Governor Bourke wrote that "The most extensive summary jurisdiction is given to the magistrates ...they are themselves settlers directly interested in maintaining the strictest subordination and in exacting the most laborious exertion which the law permits on the part of the assigned servant".

Magistrates regularly visited the government convict establishments to hear the overseers' complaints and to inflict sentences. The most common punishment was flogging, as this interfered less with the ability of the convict to work. Later, there was a tendency to order solitary confinement or the tread-wheel instead of the lash, but both of these forms of punishment depended on facilities being available, whereas a whip or a cat-of-nine-tails were more easily obtained. More severe was a sentence to hard labour for a prescribed time on a road gang, with or without irons. Worse still was banishment to a penal settlement. Even when granted a "ticket of leave", convicts remained subject to severe discipline and the ticket could be revoked for any offence, no matter how trivial.

In New South Wales in 1833, in one month 2000 out of 28,000 convicts were convicted summarily and 9000 lashes were ordered by the magistrates. In Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) during the same period there were 1250 summary convictions and 4250 lashes ordered among 15,000 convicts.

Road gangs of convicts suffered under extremely brutal discipline. As extra punishment, the men could be worked in irons. James Backhouse, a Quaker who visited New South Wales in 1836, wrote of one road gang, "the punishment to which they are subjected for misconduct in the gang is flagellation [flogging]; and in some instances they have received from 600 to 800 lashes, within the space of eighteen months, at the rate of not more than fifty lashes for one offence". A soldier named Joseph Sudds, who died shortly after being condemned to work in a road gang, carried irons weighing 13 lb. 12 oz., which were described as "light". Backhouse noted that at one time the men were ordered to work in chains for as long as seven years, but this severity had later been relaxed.[81]

A recollection of chained convicts is given in Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland.

    "Father also saw the unfortunate chained men on the treadmill working out their punishment. You would hear the "click, click" of their irons as they kept step with the wheel, and those with the heavier irons seemed to have "a great job" to keep up. Some poor wretches only just managed to pull through till they got off at the far end, then they sat down till their turn came to go on again. They all had to do so many hours, according to their sentence; an overseer kept the time, and a couple of soldiers guarded them. When they had put in their time they were marched back to barracks.

    The leg irons for the chain gang were made in the lumber yard by a blacksmith prisoner there. A supply was kept always on hand, some light and some heavy, and when a prisoner was sentenced to wear them for a certain time he was taken to this blacksmith's shop to be fitted up; then when his sentence had expired he was sent there to have them taken off again.

    ...The lighter irons had links about the size of a plough chain, the others being much heavier. The chains were some two feet long between the legs, and in the middle of each was a small ring with a string through it, which, being connected to the prisoner's belt, kept the irons from dragging on the ground during motion. Prisoners wearing chains had a peculiar way of walking, and you would see the poor fellows just released after six months or so, going along as though they still wore them. Heavily-chained men always dragged their feet along in a weary fashion - life to them could not have been much joy. Ordinary trousers would not go over a man's irons, so the chain gang all wore these garments opened right down the outside seams, and buttoned there with big black buttons.

    ...Father says, "I have often heard my father say that some of the poor fellows got fifteen or sixteen years for stealing turnips, others were sentenced for life because they had stolen sheep, or for forgery. Nowadays, for the same offence or worse, they pay a fine or earn a few months in gaol".

Punishment for convicts in Australia went well beyond being flogged, put in chains, or sentenced to the treadmill. A "secondary" punishment was established by setting up penal settlements where discipline was so severe that being sent to some of the settlements was said to be "worse than death". In his encyclopaedic article "Convicts and Transportation", A.G.L. Shaw notes that Chief Justice Forbes was scathing about the conditions at such places:

    "the experience furnished by these penal settlements has proved that transportation is capable of being carried to an extent of suffering such as to render death desirable, and to induce many prisoners to seek it under its most appalling aspects."

Shaw's researches also showed that the brutalities of life in the penal settlements at Norfolk Island and Port Arthur were so horrifying that "convicts were known to commit murder in order to be sent away for trial".[83]

David Bentley, writing for Brisbane's Courier Mail, says that the period when the Moreton Bay penal settlement was under the command of Captain Patrick Logan was "an era when convicts were literally whipped to death and desperate prisoners cast lots to slit one another's throats as a merciful escape from torment."[84]

Life for many convicts in Australia was extraordinarily severe, wherein they suffered from the conditions of horrendous slavery.

White Slaves, African Slave Traders, and the Hidden History of Slavery