Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not
joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
Captain Cook found Australia in 1770, and eighteen years later the
British Government began to transport convicts to it. Altogether, New
South Wales received 83,000 in 53 years. The convicts wore heavy chains;
they were ill-fed and badly treated by the officers set over them; they
were heavily punished for even slight infractions of the rules; "the
cruelest discipline ever known" is one historian's description of their
life.--[The Story of Australasia. J. S. Laurie.]
English law was hard-hearted in those days. For trifling offenses which
in our day would be punished by a small fine or a few days' confinement,
men, women, and boys were sent to this other end of the earth to serve
terms of seven and fourteen years; and for serious crimes they were
transported for life. Children were sent to the penal colonies for seven
years for stealing a rabbit!
When I was in London twenty-three years ago there was a new penalty in
force for diminishing garroting and wife-beating--25 lashes on the bare
back with the cat-o'-nine-tails. It was said that this terrible
punishment was able to bring the stubbornest ruffians to terms; and that
no man had been found with grit enough to keep his emotions to himself
beyond the ninth blow; as a rule the man shrieked earlier. That penalty
had a great and wholesome effect upon the garroters and wife-beaters; but
humane modern London could not endure it; it got its law rescinded. Many
a bruised and battered English wife has since had occasion to deplore
that cruel achievement of sentimental "humanity."
Twenty-five lashes! In Australia and Tasmania they gave a convict fifty
for almost any little offense; and sometimes a brutal officer would add
fifty, and then another fifty, and so on, as long as the sufferer could
endure the torture and live. In Tasmania I read the entry, in an old
manuscript official record, of a case where a convict was given three
hundred lashes--for stealing some silver spoons. And men got more than
that, sometimes. Who handled the cat? Often it was another convict;
sometimes it was the culprit's dearest comrade; and he had to lay on with
all his might; otherwise he would get a flogging himself for his mercy
--for he was under watch--and yet not do his friend any good: the friend
would be attended to by another hand and suffer no lack in the matter of
The convict life in Tasmania was so unendurable, and suicide so difficult
to accomplish that once or twice despairing men got together and drew
straws to determine which of them should kill another of the group--this
murder to secure death to the perpetrator and to the witnesses of it by
the hand of the hangman!
The incidents quoted above are mere hints, mere suggestions of what
convict life was like--they are but a couple of details tossed into view
out of a shoreless sea of such; or, to change the figure, they are but a
pair of flaming steeples photographed from a point which hides from sight
the burning city which stretches away from their bases on every hand.
Some of the convicts--indeed, a good many of them--were very bad people,
even for that day; but the most of them were probably not noticeably
worse than the average of the people they left behind them at home. We
must believe this; we cannot avoid it. We are obliged to believe that a
nation that could look on, unmoved, and see starving or freezing women
hanged for stealing twenty-six cents' worth of bacon or rags, and boys
snatched from their mothers, and men from their families, and sent to the
other side of the world for long terms of years for similar trifling
offenses, was a nation to whom the term "civilized" could not in any
large way be applied. And we must also believe that a nation that knew,
during more than forty years, what was happening to those exiles and was
still content with it, was not advancing in any showy way toward a higher
grade of civilization.
If we look into the characters and conduct of the officers and gentlemen
who had charge of the convicts and attended to their backs and stomachs,
we must grant again that as between the convict and his masters, and
between both and the nation at home, there was a quite noticeable
monotony of sameness.
Four years had gone by, and many convicts had come. Respectable settlers
were beginning to arrive. These two classes of colonists had to be
protected, in case of trouble among themselves or with the natives. It
is proper to mention the natives, though they could hardly count they
were so scarce. At a time when they had not as yet begun to be much
disturbed--not as yet being in the way--it was estimated that in New
South Wales there was but one native to 45,000 acres of territory.
People had to be protected. Officers of the regular army did not want
this service--away off there where neither honor nor distinction was to
be gained. So England recruited and officered a kind of militia force of
1,000 uniformed civilians called the "New South Wales Corps" and shipped
This was the worst blow of all. The colony fairly staggered under it.
The Corps was an object-lesson of the moral condition of England outside
of the jails. The colonists trembled. It was feared that next there
would be an importation of the nobility.
In those early days the colony was non-supporting. All the necessaries
of life--food, clothing, and all--were sent out from England, and kept in
great government store-houses, and given to the convicts and sold to the
settlers--sold at a trifling advance upon cost. The Corps saw its
opportunity. Its officers went into commerce, and in a most lawless way.
They went to importing rum, and also to manufacturing it in private
stills, in defiance of the government's commands and protests. They
leagued themselves together and ruled the market; they boycotted the
government and the other dealers; they established a close monopoly and
kept it strictly in their own hands. When a vessel arrived with spirits,
they allowed nobody to buy but themselves, and they forced the owner to
sell to them at a price named by themselves--and it was always low
enough. They bought rum at an average of two dollars a gallon and sold
it at an average of ten. They made rum the currency of the country--for
there was little or no money--and they maintained their devastating hold
and kept the colony under their heel for eighteen or twenty years before
they were finally conquered and routed by the government.
Meantime, they had spread intemperance everywhere. And they had squeezed
farm after farm out of the settlers hands for rum, and thus had
bountifully enriched themselves. When a farmer was caught in the last
agonies of thirst they took advantage of him and sweated him for a drink.
In one instance they sold a man a gallon of rum worth two dollars for a
piece of property which was sold some years later for $100,000.
When the colony was about eighteen or twenty years old it was discovered
that the land was specially fitted for the wool-culture. Prosperity
followed, commerce with the world began, by and by rich mines of the
noble metals were opened, immigrants flowed in, capital likewise. The
result is the great and wealthy and enlightened commonwealth of New South
It is a country that is rich in mines, wool ranches, trams, railways,
steamship lines, schools, newspapers, botanical gardens, art galleries,
libraries, museums, hospitals, learned societies; it is the hospitable
home of every species of culture and of every species of material
enterprise, and there is a, church at every man's door, and a race-track
over the way.