The Settlement at Port Jackson, by Watkin Tench


Observations on the Convicts.

A short account of that class of men for whose disposal and advantage the colony was principally, if not totally, founded, seems necessary.

If it be recollected how large a body of these people are now congregated in the settlement of Port Jackson and at Norfolk Island, it will, I think, not only excite surprise but afford satisfaction, to learn, that in a period of four years few crimes of a deep dye or of a hardened nature have been perpetrated. Murder and unnatural sins rank not hitherto in the catalogue of their enormities, and one suicide only has been committed.

To the honour of the female part of our community let it be recorded that only one woman has suffered capital punishment. On her condemnation she pleaded pregnancy, and a jury of venerable matrons was impanneled on the spot, to examine and pronounce her state, which the forewoman, a grave personage between sixty and seventy years old, did, by this short address to the court; ‘Gentlemen! she is as much with child as I am.’ Sentence was accordingly passed, and she was executed.

Besides the instance of Irving, two other male convicts, William Bloodsworth, of Kingston upon Thames, and John Arscott, of Truro, in Cornwall, were both emancipated for their good conduct, in the years 1790 and 1791. Several men whose terms of transportation had expired, and against whom no legal impediment existed to prevent their departure, have been permitted to enter in merchant ships wanting hands: and as my Rose Hill journals testify, many others have had grants of land assigned to them, and are become settlers in the country.

In so numerous a community many persons of perverted genius and of mechanical ingenuity could not but be assembled. Let me produce the following example. Frazer was an iron manufacturer, bred at Sheffield, of whose abilities as a workman we had witnessed many proofs. The governor had written to England for a set of locks to be sent out for the security of the public stores, which were to be so constructed as to be incapable of being picked. On their arrival his excellency sent for Frazer and bade him examine them telling him at the same time that they could not be picked. Frazer laughed and asked for a crooked nail only, to open them all. A nail was brought, and in an instant he verified his assertion. Astonished at his dexterity, a gentleman present determined to put it to farther proof. He was sent for in a hurry, some days after, to the hospital, where a lock of still superior intricacy and expense to the others had been provided. He was told that the key was lost and that the lock must be immediately picked. He examined it attentively, remarked that it was the production of a workman, and demanded ten minutes to make an instrument ‘to speak with it.’ Without carrying the lock with him, he went directly to his shop, and at the expiration of his term returned, applied his instrument, and open flew the lock. But it was not only in this part of his business that he excelled: he executed every branch of it in superior style. Had not his villainy been still more notorious than his skill, he would have proved an invaluable possession to a new country. He had passed through innumerable scenes in life, and had played many parts. When too lazy to work at his trade he had turned thief in fifty different shapes, was a receiver of stolen goods, a soldier and a travelling conjurer. He once confessed to me that he had made a set of tools, for a gang of coiners, every man of whom was hanged.

Were the nature of the subject worthy of farther illustration, many similar proofs of misapplied talents might be adduced.

Their love of the marvellous has been recorded in an early part of this work. The imposture of the gold finder, however prominent and glaring, nevertheless contributed to awaken attention and to create merriment. He enjoyed the reputation of a discoverer, until experiment detected the imposition. But others were less successful to acquire even momentary admiration. The execution of forgery seems to demand at least neatness of imitation and dexterity of address. On arrival of the first fleet of ships from England, several convicts brought out recommendatory letters from different friends. Of these some were genuine, and many owed their birth to the ingenuity of the bearers. But these last were all such bungling performances as to produce only instant detection and succeeding contempt. One of them addressed to the governor, with the name of Baron Hotham affixed to it, began ‘Honored Sir!’

A leading distinction, which marked the convicts on their outset in the colony, was an use of what is called the ‘flash’, or ‘kiddy’ language. In some of our early courts of justice an interpreter was frequently necessary to translate the deposition of the witness and the defence of the prisoner. This language has many dialects. The sly dexterity of the pickpocket, the brutal ferocity of the footpad, the more elevated career of the highwayman and the deadly purpose of the midnight ruffian is each strictly appropriate in the terms which distinguish and characterize it. I have ever been of opinion that an abolition of this unnatural jargon would open the path to reformation. And my observations on these people have constantly instructed me that indulgence in this infatuating cant is more deeply associated with depravity and continuance in vice than is generally supposed. I recollect hardly one instance of a return to honest pursuits, and habits of industry, where this miserable perversion of our noblest and peculiar faculty was not previously conquered.

Those persons to whom the inspection and management of our numerous and extensive prisons in England are committed will perform a service to society by attending to the foregoing observation. Let us always keep in view, that punishment, when not directed to promote reformation, is arbitrary, and unauthorised.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04