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Vice in a vicious society : Crime and convicts in mid-nineteenth-century New South Wales

Sturma, M. (1983) Vice in a vicious society : Crime and convicts in mid-nineteenth-century New South Wales. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland.


Between 1788 and 1840 about 80,000 male and female prisoners were transported from the United Kingdom to New South Wales. The social consequences of this migration were most forcefully stated by a British select committee in 1838. The committee sounded the death knell of convict transportation to the colony when it concluded that the system not only failed to reform criminals, but also created societies "most thoroughly depraved, as respects both the character and degree of their vicious propensities". According to the committee's chairman. Sir William Molesworth, there existed in Australia "a state of morality worse than that of any other community in the world".

Historians concur that the credibility of the Molesworth Committee was seriously undermined by the prejudices and preconceptions of its chairman and principal witnesses. But they tend to attack the committee's motives rather than to contradict its conclusions. Indeed, Molesworth's portrayal of New South Wales represented less a new departure than the climax of British perceptions of the colony. The committee shared with most accounts of the colony's moral condition two basic assumptions. First, it assumed the existence of a "criminal class". Persons who committed criminal offences were believed to form a class, detached from the working classes, which lived entirely off the proceeds of crime and which threatened social order. As fear of revolutionary violence subsided in Britain, concern with the "criminal" or "dangerous classes" faded. However, the belief that offenders were mainly drawn from a professional criminal subculture prevailed during the first half of the nineteenth century. The conception of a "criminal class" provided part of the rationale for transportation, since it assumed that offenders were from a distinct group which could be exported.

A second pervasive assumption was that criminality was contagious. Contemporaries summed up the demoralizing influence of criminals in the word "contamination". According to Sydney's superintendent of police, William Augustus Miles, "contamination" resulted because "a convict will talk over his deeds of guilt till crime becomes familiar and romantic". Others believed that the process of contamination was even more insidious. Chief Justice James Dowling, while offering some fatherly advice to his son, warned that, "Vice is so fascinating, that she cannot be looked upon without peril to the beholder .Some held as well that criminal traits were hereditary. Judge Alfred Stephen stated his conviction that "crime descends, as surely as physical properties and individual temperament".

These same assumptions, if in a less virulent form, are reflected in the works of major writers on the convict period. Studies by C.M.H. Clark, L.L. Robson and A.G.L. Shaw tend to confirm that most convicts were drawn from a "criminal class". All three writers associate the typical convict with city-dwelling professional criminals. Central to their argument is the high proportion of convicts (estimated at two-thirds of all those transported) with prior convictions in Britain. The hardened and habitual criminals, more or less deserving of their fate, have become the textbook view of convicts exiled to Australia.

The interpretations of Clark, Robson and Shaw serve to correct romanticized characterizations of the convicts. "Obvious victims", in the sense of Tolpuddle Martyrs or Canadian Rebels, comprised only a small percentage of the men and women transported. But the convicts' criminality remains debatable. The statistical data available hardly justify the conclusion that most convicts transported to New South Wales had prior convictions. In any case, changes in the judicial system, criminal law, police force and definitions of offences make prior convictions a very dubious indicator of the convicts' character. It should also be remembered that most people transported were convicted of simple larcenies, rather than robberies, burglaries or other offences usually associated with professional criminals. A study of crime in England's Black Country from 1835 to 1860 indicates that most persons prosecuted for criminal offences were normally employed, and although they occasionally supplemented their incomes by theft, they were not members of a "criminal class". Even assuming the reformatory nature of the transportation system, the high proportion of convicts with good records in the colonies appears as further mute testimony against their alleged recidivism.

The concept of "contamination" is still more problematic, both because of its vague connotations in nineteenth-century usage, and because it is more subtly translated into historical interpretations. Some historians have accepted uncritically the demoralizing influence of convicts on the honesty and moral standards of the general population. More importantly, convict vices and values such as hard drinking, hard swearing and a hatred for the police are viewed as leaving a lasting imprint on Australian culture.Convict "contamination" becomes in effect a component in the development of a distinctively Australian ethos...

Item Type: Book
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Copyright: 1983 University of Queensland Press
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