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Issue #1621      December 4, 2013

Convict meets asylum seeker

Some lessons about history repeating itself

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie,
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains,
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabie,
In all those settlements I’ve worked in chains.
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales,
Of Moreton Bay I have found no equal,
Excessive tyranny each day prevails.

Moreton Bay, Anonymous.

Britain’s 18th century agricultural revolution, and the industrial revolution that followed it, caused massive social upheaval. The pattern of war, boom and bust that accompanies capitalism resulted in mass poverty and unemployment.

Convicts Embarking for Botany Bay, 1787-1788, Thomas Rowlandson.

It also caused rising rates of crime. Rather than tackling the problem at source, i.e. the greed, anarchy of production and rabid exploitation that characterises the system, the British government’s response was to increase the penalties, with a view to deterring the poverty-stricken masses from committing offences.

The sentence for many crimes was hanging, but the execution of large numbers of citizens carried the risk of civil uprisings or even revolution, as had happened in France. Death penalties were therefore usually commuted to life imprisonment, but this caused mass overcrowding in British jails.

In 1786 the British government decided to transport convicts to the newly-claimed territory of New South Wales, thereby not only ridding the nation of its unwanted poor, but also providing the industrial muscle for development of another profitable settlement that would make up for the loss of the American colony.

However, the decision didn’t act as a deterrent to crime. Like modern immigrants, many of the convicts looked forward to creating a brighter future in a new land. (Indeed, many years later, when the decision to end transportation to Sydney was announced, there were protest riots on the convict prison hulks.)

Seeking a further deterrent, in the early 19th century the government introduced a penal “filter” system of graduated penalties for repeated offences. If you committed a serious offence in Britain you were likely to be transported to Sydney or another penal station. After 1826, if you committed a second offence you would probably be sent to Norfolk Island.

If you committed a further offence there, you would be imprisoned in the jail. A further offence would land you in solitary confinement or in the terrible “dumb cells”, where the absence of light or sound often drove the prisoner insane. It was the nadir of British penal history.

Convict Hulk at Deptford, 1826, engraving, G. Cooke after S. Prout.

A shining light

Into this morass of institutionalised cruelty strode Alexander Maconochie, an incorruptible and inspired penal reformer, who was also a former Royal Navy commander and professor of geography. He had been a prisoner himself, having been captured by the French and force-marched across Holland in the dead of winter along with his crew members, (many of whom died), after which he spent two years as a prisoner of war.

Maconochie arrived in Hobart in 1837 as private secretary to the governor of Van Diemens Land. However, he subsequently wrote a scathing report on the treatment of convicts, which caused a storm of debate in Britain and resulted in the loss of his position.

Nevertheless, he had gained support within the British government and in 1840 he was asked to take over as commandant on Norfolk Island. The Hobart administration cooperated readily, as they now considered him a loose cannon with wildly eccentric and dangerous views.

And he was! He believed that convicts should receive an education and develop occupational skills while in captivity, with a view to their making a positive contribution to the settlement and society in general. That directly contradicted the penal orthodoxy that convicts had to be beaten into mute submission, a policy that usually led to embitterment and brutalisation.

Maconochie now had the perfect opportunity to put his ideas into practice. He believed that music and literature were essential assets for prisoner rehabilitation, and just before he left Hobart he found a music shop that was going out of business, so he bought the entire stock and had it loaded onto the ship.

Soon after he arrived on Norfolk Island he decided that the prisoners should be released for Queen Victoria’s birthday, and the astounded prisoners awoke to find their cell doors open.

Maconochie implemented a new penal system under which the convicts would be entitled to an Island ticket of leave, regardless of their officially designated sentence period, if they earned a certain number of “marks” for good behaviour and hard work.

He took steps to ease the transition from convict to civilian life, and even encouraged the prisoners to participate in juries during trials of prisoners who had committed offences. He often walked unguarded among the prisoners with his wife and children.

There were shortcomings and mistakes, but overall his experiment was remarkably successful. Despite bad weather and plagues of insects, after four years the island was productive and orderly and morale was high. However, his outspokenness, vigour and determination had gained him many enemies, and his appointment was terminated in 1844.

The old brutal system was reimposed on Norfolk Island. Ten years later the sadistic reign of the psychotic commandant John Price was the subject of a shocking official report, which finally provoked the British government to close the Norfolk Island penal station in 1856.

Maconochie is historically significant as a leading advocate of prisoners’ rights, and his approach was finally vindicated. After their release, convicts who had been “one of Mr Maconochie’s men” were sought after by employers because of their remarkably good character. The practice of rehabilitating prisoners, then considered outrageous by many observers, has now become established practice around the world.

Norfolk Island convict Establishment, Kingston in 1818.

Injustice, demonisation and stereotyping

The struggle by Maconochie and others to gain humane treatment of convicts offers us many lessons, particularly with regard to those other hapless immigrants, the asylum seekers who arrive by boat. The treatment and experience of both convicts and asylum seekers have remarkable similarities.

Working class people, who formed the majority of convicts, had little opportunity to defend themselves in court, and by today’s standards their sentences were grossly disproportionate to the offence.

However, the asylum seekers can claim an even greater injustice, because they are in effect imprisoned for breaking a law that does not even exist. Despite references to their “illegal entry”, there is no Australian or international law against arriving unannounced without travel documents, by boat or other means.

The convicts and asylum seekers have both been subjected to stereotyping and demonisation. Commandant Price and many others attempted to justify the brutal treatment of convicts because, they said, they were like wild animals who would take over their places of captivity and slaughter everyone else given half a chance.

Likewise, the oft-repeated misuse of the term “illegal” with regard to asylum seekers also promotes the notion that they are innately untrustworthy, inclined to criminal behaviour, and/or for other reasons undeserving of sympathy or humane treatment.

When news broke recently about an asylum seeker mother being forcibly separated from her newborn child who needed medical treatment, Tony Abbott expressed regret, but then pointed out that she was, after all, an illegal immigrant – by implication, she only had herself to blame.

Convict chain gang, undated. Engraving by Mansell.

Ending the secret punishments

Oppression feeds on secrecy. The terrible treatment of convicts was accompanied by the deliberate suppression of information. Secrecy was also facilitated by the remoteness of the penal stations, which made visits by independent observers extremely difficult – just like the current situation with people who want to visit detention centres in Manus Island or Nauru.

Maconochie, on the other hand, drew the wrath of the conservative establishment because he publicised the failings of the system, as well as his pursuit of feasible alternatives.

In a similar manner, more humane alternative approaches to the issue of asylum seeker deaths at sea, such as Julian Burnside’s recommendation for the establishment of processing centres in key transit countries, have been trivialised and dismissed by successive governments.

The secrecy which has become the byword of the Abbott government resembles the official silence that surrounded the treatment of convicts at the penal stations. In both cases the response of governments has been to banish those involved to remote locations, and to suppress information about their conditions, or even existence.

Moreover, in a reflection of the graduated punishments inflicted on the convicts, the official orthodoxy of successive Australian governments in recent decades has been to punish newly-arrived asylum seekers with penalties that have increased in severity over time.

Under the policies of off-shore processing and mandatory detention introduced by the Keating government, asylum seekers were in effect sentenced to indeterminate but often lengthy sentences of imprisonment in detention centres.

The severity of the punishments has been increased with the reintroduction of temporary protection visas which prevent family reunions, the suspension of processing of applications for asylum under the Rudd and Gillard governments, and finally the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island or Nauru, with bans on their ever gaining entry to Australia.

Only one application for asylum has been processed on Nauru in the last 14 months. The United Nations has warned that Australia is in danger of being found in breach of the UN Refugee Convention, because of the horrible, squalid conditions of the Manus Island and Nauru centres.

The history of the convicts in Australia demonstrates the futility of this cruel, myopic and self-defeating approach. However, the success of penal reformers such as Alexander Maconochie also shows that it is possible to overcome reactionary policies which seem to be entrenched and impregnable, like those that have led to our appalling treatment of asylum seekers.

It can and must be done.

Next article – ’Tis the season to be … racist

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