Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fatal Shore

39 shillings. A paltry amount in today’s coinage but in the late 18th century it was enough to send you to the gallows if the crime you committed was judged to be worth more than that figure.

Because there were so many corpses dangling from gibbets around the English countryside juries became averse to sending more to the gallows and since the threshold for a gibbeting was 39 shillings juries started finding that the crime in question did not meet that fatal amount.

With fewer going to the gallows the result was that more had to be imprisoned in traditional cells. The problem was that nobody wanted to build more prisons. What to do? One enterprising bureaucrat suggested that the old hulks rotting on the Thames River would do to encapsulate the criminals. That the hulks had no sanitation, were leaking both river water and rainwater and were infested with rats made no difference to the authorities that were charged with finding somewhere to house the convicts.

In spite of the benevolence of the juries the hulks began to fill to the point where the only way to take up the ever increasing number of convicts was to push more and more into the same spaces. This overcrowding resulted in early deaths for some and the desire for an early death in others.

While the hulks were keeping the convicts out of sight of the nobility and landed gentry some in the government wondered about perhaps transporting the wretched refuse to the antipodes, which was what the land of Australia was considered. The Royal Navy was adamantly against using their ships for such duty. The economic squeeze of how to pay for the transportation and the social necessity of doing something meant that some way to justify the expense of transportation had to be found.

If the prisoners could be put to work harvesting the timber that was known to be in great quantity in Australia then selling that timber would offset the cost of transportation. As with many governmental justifications this was more a hope than a reality.

The first transport was partially successful. It removed a few hundred prisoners from the hulks. However, only half of them survived the trip from their decaying home on the Thames River.

When the arrived in Australia they immediately started to replicate the society they had been part of in England. If the aborigines got in their way they simply slaughtered them.

Flogging as well as hanging were two of the methods of maintaining civil order that were used extensively by the overseers of the transportees. Applying the cat-o-nine-tails until a back was nothing more than ribbons of flesh covering bloody ribs was as much a part of the transported felons' daily lives as was the endless slave labor they were thrust into.

Punishment and slave labor were the two standouts for the first fifty years of settlement in Australia. Cannibalism, sadistic cruelty and madness were also extant during the early years of Australian settlement.

John Hughes, an Australian, has written a very detailed account of the English judicial system, the social niceties of the time and the transportation process. Not a page turner but you will have a better understanding of what Australia is all about when you finish it.

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