THE FATAL SHORE BY ROBERT HUGHES
The transportation of English convicts to Australia began in 1788 and continued for around 80 years. Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore (1986) is a highly regarded and very detailed study of the Transportation System. Homosexual activity was widespread, as would be expected in a predominantly male penal system, and the descriptions involving boys are given in the following extracts.
Chapter 2: A Horse Foaled by an Acorn
The common simile for the prison [in 18th century England] was a monastery or seminary, a closed order of people who studied vice, not holiness—an appealing figure in its perfect inversion. ...
The idea that prisons could not reform criminals but were incubators of crime was the merest commonplace in the 1780s; everyone, magistrates included, took it for granted. There was no attempt to classify or segregate prisoners by age, sex or gravity of crime. Women were thrown in the same common ward as men, first offenders with hardened recidivists, inoffensive civil debtors with muggers, clerkly forgers with murderers, ten-year-old boys with homosexual rapists. ...
Chapter 3: The Geographical Unconscious
[Approximately 1/3 of First Fleet convicts were of known age, given as follows:]
AGE (YRS.) MEN WOMEN
under 15 3 2
16–25 68 58
26–35 51 50
36–45 11 6
46–55 4 3
over 56 3 3
Total convicts of known age 140 122
The youngest boy was John Hudson, a nine-year-old chimney sweep. He had stolen some clothes and a pistol. ...
Chapter 8: Bunters, Mollies and Sable Brethren
One would naturally suppose that, in a remote colony whose proportion of men to women varied between 4 to 1 in the city and 20 to 1 in the bush, homosexuality would have flourished. So it did, especially on the chain gangs and in the outer penal settlements; but it did not leave much official evidence behind. ...
Ernest Augustus Slade, who had been superintendent of the convict barracks at Hyde Park in Sydney from 1833 to 1834 (his resignation was forced by sexual scandal, though over a woman), testified that “among [the lower] class of convicts sodomy is as common as any other crime.” It was an ineradicable part of jail culture. But only about one case in thirty could be proven. Molested youths lodged complaints but then prevaricated in court; and other evidence tended to be vague, since “shirtlifters” were rarely caught in the act of buggery. ...
Homosexuality was the norm in the Hyde Park barracks in Sydney, where new arrivals were decanted from the ships, old lags thrown together with young boys. As in all systems of confinement since prisons began, lads became “punks” (passive homosexuals) to get the protection of a dominant man; they went by girls’ names, Kitty, Nancy or Bet. Few of them had any homosexual experience before they got to Australia, according to Ullathorne [a Roman Catholic prelate]—and his testimony was more than guesswork, since as a priest he had heard thousands of prison confessions and had to struggle with his conscience as he testified, generalizing so as not to violate the seal of the confessional. As one bewildered youth exclaimed to him, “Such things no one knows in Ireland.”
[Norfolk Island is a small island approximately 1400km east of Australia. From 1824 it was used to hold the worst, recidivist convicts and became notorious as Australia's most brutal penal settlement]
Cook [author of The Exile's Lamentations] also hints at the strength of attachments between prison lovers on Norfolk Island, a fact confirmed by the disapproving testimony of Thomas Arnold, the deputy-assistant commissary on Norfolk Island, to the Molesworth Committee: “Actually, incredible as it may appear, feelings of jealousy are exhibited by those depraved wretches, if they see the boy or young man with whom they carry on this abominable intercourse speak to another person.” ...
Certainly there was no decline in sexual coercion on Norfolk Island, except perhaps between 1839 and 1843, the time of Maconochie’s brief administration. By the mid-1840s it had grown even worse, largely because there was no effort to sort out the hardened criminals from the new arrivals. “Youths are seized upon, and become the victims of hoary and unnatural villains,” reported Thomas Naylor, chaplain on Norfolk Island from 1841 to 1845:
With these scoundrels the English farm labourer, the tempted and fallen mechanic, the suspected but innocent victims of perjury or mistake, are indiscriminately herded. With them are mixed Chinamen from Hong Kong, the aborigines of New Holland, West Indian Blacks, Greeks, Caffres, and Malays; soldiers for desertion; idiots, madmen, pig-stealers and pickpockets. In the open day the weak are bullied and robbed by the stronger. At night the sleeping-wards are very cess-pools of unheard-of vices. I cannot find sober words enough to express the enormity of this evil. . . . I watched the process of degradation. I saw very boys seized upon and lost; I saw decent and respectable men, nay gentlemen . . . thrown among the vilest ruffians, to be tormented by their bestialities. ...
Chapter 11: To Plough Van Diemen's Land
While Norfolk Island was set up to separate the worst convicts from the mainland colonies, the remote Point Puer peninsula in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) was used to separate and educate boy convicts aged 9 to 18. Although the historical record is silent on any sexual activity that may or may not have occurred at Point Puer, the following description was thought worthy of inclusion for its fascinating portrayal of the attempt to cross a penal colony with an English boarding school.
Port Arthur [in Tasmania] was not only a prison for the errant mature; it was also a school for young boys.
The visitor to Port Arthur in the 1830s and 1840s rarely failed to take a boat across Opossum Bay to a neck of land named Point Puer, where he could see, “climbing among the rocks and hiding or disappearing from our sight like land-crabs in the West Indies,” a colony of ragged pale-faced lads.
Point Puer was aptly named, puer being Latin for “boy.” It was a prison for children between nine and eighteen years of age who, caught in the inexorable mechanism of British law, had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land. “Little depraved felons” was Arthur’s word for them. By the mid-1830s, they were arriving in disconcerting numbers, as the gross influx of transported felons steadily grew. Thus, out of 1,434 convicts disembarked at Hobart between January and September 1834, 240 were juveniles. In all, more than 2,000 such boys were transported to Van Diemen’s Land and went to the reformatory at Point Puer.
The problem for Arthur and his three-man Board of Assignment was what to do with them. They were, to the last boy, either too young or too ignorant to have a trade or to be of the slightest use to a settler. These bewildered tykes, many of them hardened in theft and flashness, for whom no place could be found in the assignment system, were a dead weight on the government. Some were helpless, Arthur recognized, from “having been thrown upon the world totally destituted, others have become so from the tutelage of dissolute parents—and others have been agents of dexterous thieves about London—but all are objects of compassion.”
In 1833, sixty-eight such lads were vegetating in the Prisoners’ Barracks in Hobart, and Arthur’s “compassion” expressed itself by sending them all to the Tasman Peninsula. They arrived in January 1834, all of them drunk, for on the ship they had broken into a six-dozen crate of wine and shared it with the adult convicts on board. After a sharp lecture from Commandant Booth, they were put in a large, drafty temporary barracks rigidly segregated from the main settlement, so that the adult prisoners would have no chance to “contaminate” them. Point Puer was well isolated, with a shoreline consisting mainly of sixty-foot cliffs and the sea around it full of boiling rips and dangerous currents—“a wretched, bleak, barren spot without water, wood for fuel or an inch of soil that is not . . . utterly valueless.” It would improve along with its inmates, or so the System assumed.
The juvenile population at Port Arthur climbed rapidly. By the end of 1834, Booth had 161 boys under his eye; in 1836, 271; and in 1837, a special transport ship, the Frances Charlotte, was dispatched from England at the benevolent suggestion of Lord John Russell, with 139 boys and 10 adult overseers on board. By 1842, there were 716 lads on this dismal neck of land, and a jumble of barracks, workrooms and schoolrooms had grown up to shelter them.
They were to be schooled, taught trades, instructed in the truths of Christianity, and punished. “Keep in mind that these boys have been very wicked,” wrote Arthur to Booth in 1834, in the ominous accents of Dickens’s Wackford Squeers; “the utmost care should be taken to enforce upon their minds the disgraceful condition in which they are placed, whilst every effort should be made to eradicate their corrupt habits.” He did not want to see too much time wasted in “instructing the boys in reading and writing.” They needed practical skills, which would make useful assigned servants of them. They would acquire these from a hard daily grind. Up at 5:00 a.m., fold hammocks, assembly, Bible reading and prayer; breakfast at 7:00, hygiene inspection, muster, and classes in practical trades like joinery or bootmaking from 8:00 to 12:00. At midday, ablutions and another inspection; at 12:30, dinner; from 1:30 to 5:00, more apprentice work; wash and inspection again, and supper at 5:30; muster for school at 6:15; then school lessons for an hour, followed by evening prayers and Scripture reading, and bed at 7:30. Later the time for schoolwork in the evening was increased to two hours; it made little difference, however, as most of the boys were by then too fatigued to learn anything much.
The most successful part of this regime was the trade instruction, which was remarkably diverse. By 1837 it included baking, shoemaking, carpentry, tailoring, gardening, nail-making and blacksmithery. Enrollment in trade classes was limited, and most boys wanted to get into them. “As vacancies occur,” reported Booth, “the better disposed are selected to be placed at a trade, which is eagerly sought after.” They were anxious to get out of the laboring gangs, where every new arrival at Point Puer was introduced to “the use of the spade, the hoe and the grubbing-axe.” Boys in the laboring gangs did the donkey-work of Point Puer—the cleaning and scrubbing, the fetching and carrying—and they were worked hard; it may be no coincidence that, out of thirty-eight boys who died at Point Puer in the years 1834 to 1843, twenty-two were laborers. To be a sawyer or a joiner was far better. It also meant free skilled (or semi-skilled) labor for the Establishment, of the kind noted in the Port Arthur returns:
Construction of wheel-barrows, four cells, five coffins, 390 hammer-handles, six barrack stools, 13 school desks, 4 garden gates, and one set of stocks, and a pillory.
Turning of 216 masons’ mallets, 20 hat-pins, 50 belaying-pins, 2 bed-posts, and 243 ships’ blocks.
Making 17 pairs of Wellingtons @ 11s. pr., 24 Bluchers @ 5s. a pr., 2 prs. ladies’ shoes @ 3s. a pr., 1788 boots, prisoners’, @ 4s. a pr.
Point Puer boys made the nails, sewed the convicts’ “canary” uniforms of yellow and gray wool, painted the fences, forged the ax-heads and shaped the sledgehammer handles with their drawknives; the stonemasons among them laboriously cut the ashlar for the round security towers of Port Arthur, chiselled the moldings and ornamented keystones for the stone arches, hewed the angles of the pediments. The carpentry class made the elaborate pulpit and pews for the large neo-Gothic church, and in 1844 the thirty-four brickmakers turned out 155,000 bricks, some of which—bearing the thumb-marks left by those long-dead adolescents as they pushed the bricks from the sandstock molds—still lie scattered among the ruins of Point Puer.
There is no question that Point Puer boys received a trades education as good as (and probably better than) any they could have hoped to get in England in the 1830s. But their intellectual schooling was rudimentary. In 1842, some boys who had been there two or three years had difficulty reading words of one syllable; their arithmetic was no better. The only readers the pupils had were Bibles, supplied by a Wesleyan mission, and there were a few spelling-books and primers, but never enough; for eight hundred pupils there was “one very small blackboard seldom used” and not even a map of the world. The state of religious instruction was not much better. At first, it had been in the hands of Methodists, who reported in 1836 that “considerable attention is given to the boys’ religious instruction and several have been brought under the saving influence of the Gospel”; Backhouse and Walker, the visiting Quakers, vehemently dissented, finding the boys’ morals in “a most degraded state.” The Wesleyans were replaced in 1837 by an eager young Anglican catechist, Peter Barrow, fresh from running an orphanage for black foundlings on the coast of Sierra Leone. He thought a chaplain could reclaim half or even two-thirds of the Point Puer boys. He failed. Five years later, a few of the boys could parrot bits of an Anglican catechism, but none could recite the Commandments in correct order or show much grasp of scriptural history. Even their hymn-singing had declined, to the point that “the screaming is almost intolerable to any person whose ears have not been rendered callous.”
The likelihood of producing good little Christians at such a place was slight. Like any borstal or boarding-school, Point Puer had not one but two social systems: an official one imposed by the commandant and the chaplain, and a tribal one invented by the boys. Benjamin Horne, reporting on the place in 1842, mentioned “a sort of tyranny of public opinion amongst themselves which every boy in the place must submit to as a slave, almost at peril of his life . . . [T]he maxim of the whole fraternity was that everyone must tell as many lies [to overseers and other authorities] as may be necessary for himself and the community.”
The boy who ratted on his fellow prisoners would be persecuted and hazed half to death. The Point Puer boys had no reason to like their jailers; and although conditions there were at least no worse than an English orphanage or ragged-school, they were little better and its inmates loathed them. In particular, the boys hated the convict overseers as tyrants. If an overseer fell asleep on night dormitory watch, the lads would put out the lights and empty the communal chamber pot over his head. One especially unpopular overseer was so battered in such a nocturnal scuffle that he spent three months in the hospital. In 1843 one overseer, Hugh McGine, was murdered by a pair of fourteen-year-olds named Henry Sparks and George Campbell.
If a boy at Point Puer found a middle way between the strictures of Authority and the pressure of his peers and managed to learn a trade, he could come out with a better chance of making good than most assigned men; if not, the System would simply grind him down. So it was with Thomas Willetts, a stunted boy of sixteen from Warwick, transported in 1834 for filching some stockings and garden vegetables, who in the course of five years at Point Puer and Port Arthur racked up a total of 35 lashes from the full cat-o’-nine tails, 183 strokes of the cane on his butt and 19 sentences of solitary confinement.
THOMAS WILLETTS No 1809
tried 12 March 1833, arrd V.D.L. Augt 1834.
Trade: None. Height: 4 ft. 11 in.
Complexn: Dark Head: Small
Hair: Brown Whiskers: None
Visage: Small Forehead: M. Ht.
Eyebrows: Brown Eyes: Grey
Nose: Small Mouth: Med. Wide
Chin: Small Remarks: Pockmarked, scar on Rt. Arm.
Arrived in Van Diemen’s Land August 1834.
Convict. 7 Years’ Transportation.
Tried at Warwick, transported for stealing Stockings.
DEC1 30TH: Assaulting fellow prisoner & attempt to deprive him of his bread: 24 lashes on the breech.
SEPT. 9: Transferred to Port Arthur.
SEPT. 28: Improper & riotous conduct in the Cells: 15 lashes on the breech.
OCT. 21: Swearing, etc.: 7 days solitary confinement.
Nov. 18: Having Tobacco: 5 days ditto
FEB. 22: Having turnips, 5 days ditto
Nov. 3: Insolent conduct to Overseer, 4 days ditto
Nov. 7: Talking in cells, 3 days ditto
DEC1 26: Most improper conduct to the Ass’ Sub-Constable in the Execution of his Duty: 36 stripes.
JAN 26: Fighting in the Schoolroom, 3 Days Solitary, Bread & Water.
FEB. 18: Disorderly Conduct in School on Sunday, 5 Days ditto, ditto.
MARCH 20: Having a pair of Fustian Trowsers in his possession and most Improper Conduct towards the Assist. Sub-Constable: 36 Stripes on the Breech.
SAME DATE: Most Contemptuous Conduct in laughing immediately on leaving the Office after Sentence for the preceding Offence: 7 days’ solitary confinement on bread & water.
MAY 29: Having a pair of Boots improperly: 4 Days Solity Conft.
JUNE 26: Smoking in his hut contrary to orders: 3 weeks in No. 2 Chain Gang.
SEPT. 2ND: Gross Misconduct & Violence to Schoolmaster: 36 Stripes on the breech.
JAN 17: Insolence: 3 Days solitary Confinement, Bread & Water.
MARCH 16: Gross insolence, 7 days ditto.
APRIL 19: Improper Conduct towards a fellow Boy: 10 days ditto.
JUNE 25: Talking in church during Divine Service, 48 hrs. soly conft on Bd & Wr.
JULY 7: Striking a fellow prisoner: 36 Stripes on the breech.
JULY 28: Talking in the Cells and Insolence when checked, 3 days solitary, Bd & Wr.
AUGUST 3: Having his Face disgracefully disfigured, 48 hrs. soly confmt.
AUGUST 16: Gross indecency on his going to the cells, 4 days ditto.
OCTOBER 1ST: Absenting himself without leave from Public Works at Port Arthur and remaining absent until apprehended and brought back: 7 days ditto.
MARCH 5: Absconding: 35 lashes.
MARCH 20: Absconding: 2 years hard labour in Chain Gang, Port Arthur—conduct to be reported to Lieutenant Governor.
JULY 18: Disorderly Conduct: 24 hrs. solitary conft.
OCT1 9: Having a Silk Stock in possession improperly: 1 month on No. 2 Chain Gang.
DEC 5: Neglect of Duty and refusing to work: 1 month ditto.
On skins like his, the flaws of Arthur’s system were glaringly inscribed. But however wretched the life of the “incorrigible,” the “fractious” and the “refractory” could be made at Port Arthur, their sufferings were slight compared to the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines under Arthur’s reign.
Chapter 15: A Special Scourge
Discussing Van Diemen’s Land while Sir John Eardley-Wilmot was Lieutenant-Governor (1843-6) …
Letters and witnesses came across the oceans to Whitehall, testifying to the collapse of all moral values in the stained island. They made Van Diemen’s Land under Eardley-Wilmot sound infinitely worse than Capri under Tiberius.
Francis Russell Nixon Bishop of Van Diemen’s Land, carried the most weight among them. The epidemic of unnatural crime, he assured Lord Grey [a British Whig politician], “unless sternly arrested in its growth, must not only ensure the moral degradation of the colony, but draw down divine vengeance upon it.” Nixon believed that all the convicts, without exception, left the probation gangs worse than they entered them. He quoted letters to him from despairing gang chaplains. “I cannot depict the horrors committed here daily by miserable men, who know better, but who cannot escape from their wretched condition.” Parties of convicts slunk off together into the bush to gratify their lusts. In the “tench” or penitentiary (in fact, an ordinary prisoners’ barracks) in Hobart Town, where twelve hundred were kept, “The most disgusting crimes that ever stained the character of man are perpetrated . . . and without the least possible way of preventing it.” In the coal mines near Port Arthur, two men had raped a boy convict, “an offence hitherto, I believe, unheard-of in a Christian country.” They hanged for it, but the medical officer at the mines, Dr. Motherwell, found twenty men “labouring under disease from unnatural crimes.” The spread of rectal gonorrhea, Bishop Nixon warned, was “a special scourge” from God, “a mark of his increased wrath, for the yet greater abomination.” ...
In London, embarrassing stories had been current in the press for some time. “Van Diemen’s Land is in a bad state,” wrote an anonymous pen in the London Naval and Military Gazette in October 1845. “Crimes the most horrible are of daily occurrence. All the females have left the bush and have taken refuge in the towns, and . . . are subject to every kind of insult. Sir Eardley-Wilmot sets a bad example himself. No people of any standing will now enter Government House except on business. No ladies can.” Satires and moral versicles made their clumping appearance:
Shall fathers weep and mourn,
To see a lovely son
Debas’d, demoraliz’d, deform’d
By Britain’s filth and scum?
Shall mothers heave the sigh,
To see a daughter fair
Debauch’d and sunk in infamy
By those imported here?
Shall Tasman’s Isle so fam’d,
So lovely and so fair,
From other nations be estrang’d—
The name of Sodom bear?
Till Nature’s GOD, provok’d,
Stretch forth His mighty arm;
And in relentless fury, pour
His righteous judgments down.
Discussing the findings of Robert Pringle Stuart, “a magistrate in the Van Diemen’s Land convict department”, sent in May 1846 to investigate the state of affairs in remote Norfolk Island:
The physical state of the system on Norfolk was miserable—the rations underweight, the grain foul, the meat of the poorest quality, the maize-flour bread (known as “scrubbing-brushes” for the inflammation its abrasive bran produced in the prisoner’s guts) scarcely edible. The service buildings, from the kitchens to the fouled latrines, provoked Stuart’s disgust and the prisoner’s simmering, mutinous resentment. Ophthalmia, gonorrhea and dysentery were endemic. The jail was an unventilated pigsty and the main barrack building at Kingston a bagnio: more than eight hundred men were locked in the barracks every evening after work, the lights went out, and what went on afterward was not the guards’ business. Stuart paid it a surprise visit at eight o’clock one hot night and saw a flurry of “men scrambling into their own beds from others, in a very hurried manner, concealment being evidently their object.” Prostitution was widespread; lads sold themselves for tobacco, new boots, or a lump of bread kneaded together with fat. Rape was not merely common, but inevitable.
What especially shocked Stuart (and its effect on the officials who read his report may be gauged from the fact that, when it was eventually printed for the Lords and Commons in 1847, nearly all references to homosexuality were edited out) was that the virtuous forms of sexual life were parodied and inverted on Norfolk Island—not just rape and whoring, but marriage. “The association is not unusually viewed by the convicts as that between the sexes is ordinarily regarded; is equally respected by some of them; and is as much the source of jealousy, rivalry, intrigue and conflict . . . in others.” Some of the demons were faithful to one another, and “the natural course of Affection is quite distracted. . . . [They] manifest as much eager earnestness for the society of each other as members of the opposite sex.” In general, it was the English who turned to sodomy; the Irish Catholic prisoners abjured it.