Hughes tells the story of the Australian convict system from the first planning to the end of transportation nearly a century later. He alternates between official records and the individual experiences recorded in letters, memoirs and case notes. The result is a vivid portrayal of colonial life. If you haven't read it, please do! Let me just give you a little taste of its riches.
Although Hughes doesn't ignore the tragedy of Aboriginal Australia during these years, this is very much a British story. Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century was a troubled society. The Industrial Revolution had led to rapid urbanisation, while economic downturns and the Napoleonic Wars led to huge rates of poverty and destitution. Crime was the inevitable result.
However, the British ruling class did not make the obvious connection between poverty and crime. Instead, they saw crime as very much an individual problem. Criminals were morally defective, and Britain's poor communities were infested by a 'criminal class' who needed to be dealt with firmly. Harsh punishment, including execution and exile, was necessary both to remove the criminals from society and deter others from taking the same path.
The working classes did not necessarily agree. The list of capital crimes was long - you could be hanged for crimes that included forgery, petty theft, cutting down an ornamental shrub, appearing on a high road with a blacked face or impersonating a gypsy. Hence hanging, seen as a firm deterrent by the rulers, was a subject of wry humour and pathos in folk culture. English slang was full of euphemisms for hanging, folk songs featured brave men and women going to their deaths at Tyburn, and the hangings themselves, a popular form of entertainment, were often occasions for the condemned to perform for the crowd and thumb their noses at the law.
In practice, more than half of those sentenced to hang never made it to the gallows. Instead, their crimes would be commuted to long periods of imprisonment. Britain's jails were full to bursting. Many prisoners were confined for years on rotting ships in terrible, squalid conditions, becoming more and more crowded as prisoners kept pouring in but none left.
Transportation provided a safety valve for this overloaded system. At first prisoners were sent to North America, but the revolution there sent Britain scurrying for an alternative. Sydney ended up as the winner, for reasons that are somewhat confusing. There was much official discussion about securing a base in the Pacific to protect Britain's access to sea lanes, but Sydney was useless for that purpose. It seems that they simply chose to send convicts to a place guaranteed to be isolated and inhospitable.
In the beginning New South Wales certainly worked as a place of terror. If prisoners survived the voyage (far from guaranteed) they would arrive ill and dispirited to a tiny community where food often ran short, punishments were brutal and the only chance of escape was to run off and starve in the bush. Yet by the 1820s things were not always so terrible - the voyage was still risky, although far less so, and the initial imprisonment and work on the chain gang still harsh, but there was also a growing agricultural industry fuelled by free settlers, and the towns were starting to become hubs of commerce.
There was a huge demand for labour and convicts were assigned to free settlers as unpaid labourers. A cruel master could be worse than prison, but if you got lucky you could have a decent life. Then once you had your ticket of leave wages were high, especially if you were literate or had a trade. For many of the English and Irish urban poor who had been exported from the slums this was paradise. Reports from released prisoners worried the colonial authorities who saw their deterrent slipping away. New terror needed to be injected into the system before poor urbanites started to commit crimes just to get free passage to this land of milk and honey. So new colonies were created. There was Part Macquarie, Moreton Bay (now my home town of Brisbane) but the most terrible of all was Norfolk Island.
This little dot of earth in the Pacific, 1000 km from Australia's east coast, is not a terrible place in itself. Captain Cook sailed past it without going ashore and painted it as a naval gold mine, with tall straight pine trees that would serve as ship's masts and naturally growing flax for sail-making. It was the next place to be settled after Sydney, but like so many other glowing reports Cook's assessment turned out to be an illusion. The timber of the Norfolk Island Pine is too brittle for ship-building and flax requires skilled weavers. To complete the disappointment the island turned out to be infested by rats which eagerly ate any crops the settlers tried to grow. Before long the settlement was abandoned.
A perfect place, then, to punish those who had committed fresh offences in the colony. No-one would escape because there was nowhere to go. There would be no urban luxury, no free settlers to be assigned to. There would only be prisoners and jailers, labour on behalf of the government and never-ending punishment. It was also a place guaranteed to bring out any sadism, latent or open, in its commandants and officers. The list of its commandants is a catalogue of psychopaths. Its first ruler on resettlement in the late 1820s was Lieutenant-Colonel James Morriset, a veteran soldier whose face had been disfigured by a shell in the Napoleonic War and whose mind turned out to be as twisted as his face. It's last, John Price, was so wantonly cruel that his behaviour sparked the final closure of the settlement, and he entered the Australian literary canon as the sadistic, duplicitous Maurice Frere in Marcus Clarke's For the Term of his Natural Life. Those in between were no better.
Prisoners could receive 100 lashes or more for crimes such as 'smiling while on the chain', 'singing a song', 'insolence to a soldier' or 'neglect of work'. The island had its own specially reinforced whips because of the heavy use to which they were put, the prisoners taken down from the triangle with their backs flayed to the bone and streaming with blood. As if this were not enough they could be subjected to a range of medieval tortures - labouring in heavy irons, weeks of sensory deprivation in an underground cell, months of solitary confinement, chaining to the wall, gagging with an iron bit.
The aim was to break their spirit and it worked. Prisoners would put their own eyes out to escape hard labour. Afraid of eternal damnation if they committed suicide, some of them entered into murder pacts - a group of half a dozen prisoners would draw straws, with the one drawing the short straw murdered by the others. Since there was no judge on Norfolk Island, the perpetrators would be sent on the next ship to Sydney along with any witnesses, where they would be hung if they could not escape first. Others sank into despair, made bargains with the devil or persisted in their truculence and dared their jailers to flog them more.
Yet in the midst of this cruelty and suffering there was one remarkable exception - Captain Alexander Maconochie, a Scottish officer who served as Commandant between 1840 and 1843. Maconochie had arrived in the colony as private secretary to Sir James Franklin, the famed Arctic explorer who replaced George Arthur as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land. He developed a passion for prison reform and proposed a radical new system. In place of punishment, he aimed to reform. To do this he proposed what he called the Mark System. Instead of sentences being defined by the passing of time they should be defined by the earning of a fixed number of 'marks'. These could be earned in a variety of ways - good behaviour, hard work in their prison labour, gaining new skills or education. While earning these marks, prisoners should be treated with mercy and fairness, and once the marks were earned their sentence would be over.
Maconochie was permitted to trial this system on Norfolk Island. It is hard to imagine a more difficult environment for an experiment in prison reform, but he was not given a second option. Possibly his master Governor Gipps and his colonial overlords feared a backlash from the colonial aristocracy if they tried it on the mainland. Norfolk, at least, was a place no-one really knew or cared about.
Maconochie's optimism about the possibilities of his system must have seemed almost delusional but his zeal and, it has to be said, arrogance had a way of sweeping problems aside. He was under strict instructions to confine his experiment to new arrivals, keeping the existing system in place for the 1200 'old hands', but as soon as he arrived he extended the system to everyone on the island. His first act was to declare a public holiday for all prisoners in honour of Queen Victoria's birthday which fell just five days after his arrival. The occasion was marked by all hands being given a tot of rum, excused from work and treated to plays, concerts and other forms of entertainment
For the prisoners, what followed was a glorious relief. The whips were destroyed, prisoners were unchained and released from solitary. Instead they were introduced to a system of promises and rewards - extra freedoms and privileges, meaningful work and, at the end, the opportunity for freedom. Maconochie built up a library for the use of prisoners which included the works of Shakespeare, which he encouraged the prisoners to perform. He spent money on musical instruments and formed bands and choirs. He erected headstones for those who passed away and allowed proper funerals and memorials.
The results were remarkable. The prisoners embraced the system enthusiastically. The prisoner memoirs and letters that survive refer to him as an angel, a deliverer. Ill discipline, crime, assaults and insubordination dropped dramatically. Productivity improved, the lash turned out to be unnecessary, punishment cells sat empty. Maconochie was generous in distributing praise and 'marks' and before too long many had qualified for their ticket of leave. Sadly, Maconochie's remit didn't extend to the mainland, so they only gained the freedom of the island but even this was better than chains and the lash.
One celebrated case was that of Charles Anderson, a former naval seaman who suffered brain damage while on active service and under stress became uncontrollably violent. Anderson ended up on Norfolk Island after a long history of counter-productive punishments which included two years chained to a rock on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour. He was 24 when Maconochie arrived on Norfolk Island but already looked old and was subject to relentless bullying by prisoners and jailers alike, treated as and acting like a wild animal. Maconochie started out by putting him in charge of a herd of half-wild bullocks and permitting him to sleep in the field with them rather than return to the jail and further bullying. When he did the job well Maconochie praised him and promoted him to the management of a remote signal station where he lived cheerfully and productively. When Gipps finally visited the island in 1843 he could hardly believe the change in the 'wild man of Goat Island'.
Gipps almost immediately regretted his support for Maconochie, repeatedly ordering him to separate the new prisoners from the old, to be stricter, to punish more, to be more stingy with his rewards. Maconochie responded with long, sanctimonious memos on the benefits of his system and urgings for Gipps to approve the actions he had already taken, send him more equipment and so forth. Gipps forwarded these to his masters in England with notes expressing his own doubts about the possibility of success, and was variously given leave to remove Maconochie if he wanted (he didn't) and instructions to limit or modify his system. Maconochie zealously ignored any orders he didn't like, writing even longer memos explaining why they needed to be rescinded. He was three weeks journey from Sydney and in practice he could do whatever he pleased. His psychopathic predecessors and successors would simply lie about their abuses, but Maconochie did not have that skill and his guilelessness surely hastened his downfall.
Finally, after three years of doubts and misgivings, Gipps decided to see for himself. In March 1843 he turned up at the island unannounced, fully prepared to sack Maconochie on the spot. Instead, he discovered that his own criticisms and those of the commandant's detractors were unfounded. The system wasn't perfect, but it was working. He changed his tune, writing to the colonial office that he believed the experiment should be continued after all, but he was too late. As the letter expressing his change of heart sailed north, the one ending Maconochie's tenure was already sailing south. At least his tickets of leave were ratified and those he had freed were allowed to move to the mainland, but for the next 20 years the island returned to its state of ever-increasing cruelty.
In the end, Maconochie's system was not abandoned because it didn't work, but because it worked too well. It set out to improve the prisoners' lot and turn them from criminals to citizens. Yet the English aristocracy and their pale imitators in New South Wales didn't give a fig for the prisoners. What they cared about was the effectiveness of the deterrent. The worse the stories filtering back from this hell on earth, the stronger the deterrent. The prisoners themselves were merely pawns in this big game of crime and punishment, their lives a necessary sacrifice to a greater good.
It's strange how little some things change. Maconochie was so far ahead of his time that his contemporaries could barely understand him. These days, many of his ideas are standard practice in prison management - a prison library, bands and theatre troupes (even, here in Queensland, one that specialises in teaching prisoners to act Shakespeare), opportunities for education and trade training, a graduation to full integration back into the community. Maconochie would have felt much more at home in a 21st century prison than in a 19th century one.
Yet when it comes down to it, we are still willing to send people into exile on distant islands in an attempt to send a message to the wider world. They are not subject to the lash or the gag bit, but their torment is nonetheless real. They find themselves branded as the worst of the worst and subjected to inhumanity, and then we are asked to be shocked when they resist. Many consider ending their lives as a better option than their indefinite detention. They may, perhaps, gain some limited freedom on the tiny island to which they have been banished, but they will not be permitted a normal life despite the fact that they deserve it and it is essential to their wellbeing. Their wellbeing is not the point.
We are in urgent need of a reformer like Alexander Maconochie, someone with the courage and pig-headedness to brush aside opposition and do what they know is right. He points us to our better selves, to the possibilities of mercy and generosity in the midst of fear and cruelty. He says it can be done, but he is long gone. Now it is up to us.