For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter IV.

Extracted from the Diary of the Rev. James North.

August 24th. — There has been but one entry in my journal since the 30th June, that which records the advent of our new Commandant, who, as I expected, is Captain Maurice Frere.

So great have been the changes which have taken place that I scarcely know how to record them. Captain Frere has realized my worst anticipations. He is brutal, vindictive, and domineering. His knowledge of prisons and prisoners gives him an advantage over Burgess, otherwise he much resembles that murderous animal. He has but one thought — to keep the prisoners in subjection. So long as the island is quiet, he cares not whether the men live or die. “I was sent down here to keep order,” said he to me, a few days after his arrival, “and by God, sir, I’ll do it!”

He has done it, I must admit; but at a cost of a legacy of hatred to himself that he may some day regret to have earned. He has organized three parties of police. One patrols the fields, one is on guard at stores and public buildings, and the third is employed as a detective force. There are two hundred soldiers on the island. And the officer in charge, Captain McNab, has been induced by Frere to increase their duties in many ways. The cords of discipline are suddenly drawn tight. For the disorder which prevailed when I landed, Frere has substituted a sudden and excessive rigour. Any officer found giving the smallest piece of tobacco to a prisoner is liable to removal from the island. The tobacco which grows wild has been rooted up and destroyed lest the men should obtain a leaf of it. The privilege of having a pannikin of hot water when the gangs came in from field labour in the evening has been withdrawn. The shepherds, hut-keepers, and all other prisoners, whether at the stations of Longridge or the Cascades (where the English convicts are stationed) are forbidden to keep a parrot or any other bird. The plaiting of straw hats during the prisoners’ leisure hours is also prohibited. At the settlement where the “old hands” are located railed boundaries have been erected, beyond which no prisoner must pass unless to work. Two days ago Job Dodd, a negro, let his jacket fall over the boundary rails, crossed them to recover it, and was severely flogged. The floggings are hideously frequent. On flogging mornings I have seen the ground where the men stood at the triangles saturated with blood, as if a bucket of blood had been spilled on it, covering a space three feet in diameter, and running out in various directions, in little streams two or three feet long. At the same time, let me say, with that strict justice I force myself to mete out to those whom I dislike, that the island is in a condition of abject submission. There is not much chance of mutiny. The men go to their work without a murmur, and slink to their dormitories like whipped hounds to kennel. The gaols and solitary (!) cells are crowded with prisoners, and each day sees fresh sentences for fresh crimes. It is crime here to do anything but live.

The method by which Captain Frere has brought about this repose of desolation is characteristic of him. He sets every man as a spy upon his neighbour, awes the more daring into obedience by the display of a ruffianism more outrageous than their own, and, raising the worst scoundrels in the place to office, compels them to find “cases” for punishment. Perfidy is rewarded. It has been made part of a convict-policeman’s duty to search a fellow-prisoner anywhere and at any time. This searching is often conducted in a wantonly rough and disgusting manner; and if resistance be offered, the man resisting can be knocked down by a blow from the searcher’s bludgeon. Inquisitorial vigilance and indiscriminating harshness prevail everywhere, and the lives of hundreds of prisoners are reduced to a continual agony of terror and self-loathing.

“It is impossible, Captain Frere,” said I one day, during the initiation of this system, “to think that these villains whom you have made constables will do their duty.”

He replied, “They must do their duty. If they are indulgent to the prisoners, they know I shall flog ’em. If they do what I tell ’em, they’ll make themselves so hated that they’d have their own father up to the triangles to save themselves being sent back to the ranks.”

“You treat them then like slave-keepers of a wild beast den. They must flog the animals to avoid being flogged themselves.”

“Ay,” said he, with his coarse laugh, “and having once flogged ’em, they’d do anything rather than be put in the cage, don’t you see!”

It is horrible to think of this sort of logic being used by a man who has a wife, and friends and enemies. It is the logic that the Keeper of the Tormented would use, I should think. I am sick unto death of the place. It makes me an unbeliever in the social charities. It takes out of penal science anything it may possess of nobility or worth. It is cruel, debasing, inhuman.

August 26th. — Saw Rufus Dawes again to-day. His usual bearing is ostentatiously rough and brutal. He has sunk to a depth of self-abasement in which he takes a delight in his degradation. This condition is one familiar to me.

He is working in the chain-gang to which Hankey was made sub-overseer. Blind Mooney, an ophthalmic prisoner, who was removed from the gang to hospital, told me that there was a plot to murder Hankey, but that Dawes, to whom he had shown some kindness, had prevented it. I saw Hankey and told him of this, asking him if he had been aware of the plot. He said “No,” falling into a great tremble. “Major Pratt promised me a removal,” said he. “I expected it would come to this.” I asked him why Dawes defended him; and after some trouble he told me, exacting from me a promise that I would not acquaint the Commandant. It seems that one morning last week, Hankey had gone up to Captain Frere’s house with a return from Troke, and coming back through the garden had plucked a flower. Dawes had asked him for this flower, offering two days’ rations for it. Hankey, who is not a bad-hearted man, gave him the sprig. “There were tears in his eyes as he took it,” said he.

There must be some way to get at this man’s heart, bad as he seems to be.

August 28th. — Hankey was murdered yesterday. He applied to be removed from the gaol-gang, but Frere refused. “I never let my men ‘funk’,” he said. “If they’ve threatened to murder you, I’ll keep you there another month in spite of ’em.”

Someone who overheard this reported it to the gang, and they set upon the unfortunate gaoler yesterday, and beat his brains out with their shovels. Troke says that the wretch who was foremost cried, “There’s for you; and if your master don’t take care, he’ll get served the same one of these days!” The gang were employed at building a reef in the sea, and were working up to their armpits in water. Hankey fell into the surf, and never moved after the first blow. I saw the gang, and Dawes said —

“It was Frere’s fault; he should have let the man go!”

“I am surprised you did not interfere,” said I.

“I did all I could,” was the man’s answer. “What’s a life more or less, here?”

This occurrence has spread consternation among the overseers, and they have addressed a “round robin” to the Commandant, praying to be relieved from their positions.

The way Frere has dealt with this petition is characteristic of him, and fills me at once with admiration and disgust. He came down with it in his hand to the gaol-gang, walked into the yard, shut the gate, and said, “I’ve just got this from my overseers. They say they’re afraid you’ll murder them as you murdered Hankey. Now, if you want to murder, murder me. Here I am. Step out, one of you.” All this, said in a tone of the most galling contempt, did not move them. I saw a dozen pairs of eyes flash hatred, but the bull-dog courage of the man overawed them here, as, I am told, it had done in Sydney. It would have been easy to kill him then and there, and his death, I am told, is sworn among them; but no one raised a finger. The only man who moved was Rufus Dawes, and he checked himself instantly. Frere, with a recklessness of which I did not think him capable, stepped up to this terror of the prison, and ran his hands lightly down his sides, as is the custom with constables when “searching” a man. Dawes — who is of a fierce temper — turned crimson at this and, I thought, would have struck him, but he did not. Frere then — still unarmed and alone — proceeded to the man, saying, “Do you think of bolting again, Dawes? Have you made any more boats?”

“You Devil!” said the chained man, in a voice pregnant with such weight of unborn murder, that the gang winced. “You’ll find me one,” said Frere, with a laugh; and, turning to me, continued, in the same jesting tone, “There’s a penitent for you, Mr. North — try your hand on him.”

I was speechless at his audacity, and must have shown my disgust in my face, for he coloured slightly, and as we were leaving the yard, he endeavoured to excuse himself, by saying that it was no use preaching to stones, and such doubly-dyed villains as this Dawes were past hope. “I know the ruffian of old,” said he. “He came out in the ship from England with me, and tried to raise a mutiny on board. He was the man who nearly murdered my wife. He has never been out of irons — except then and when he escaped — for the last eighteen years; and as he’s three life sentences, he’s like to die in ’em.”

A monstrous wretch and criminal, evidently, and yet I feel a strange sympathy with this outcast.

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