Greetings, my friends,
The recent chance overhearing of a conversation has turned my thoughts to certain facets of convict transportation to the Antipodean colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, the latter of which has since been given the more salubrious and better-known appellation of Tasmania. Despite my considerable and untiring efforts to educate and warn various ministers of state of the inutility of sending people thousands of miles to a new land, rather than build prisons upon my guiding principles, 165,000 or so men, women and children were indeed transported to serve out their various sentences in Pacific climes.
Today’s Australians, I understand, have something of a mania for genealogical investigation, and the discovery of a malefactious ancestor is now a source of pride – particularly if said individual belonged to the ‘First Fleet’ arriving at Port Jackson in 1788 – whereas in the past it invoked a deep sense of embarrassment and subterfuge, to the extent that historical documents were defaced or destroyed. This leads conveniently to my inadvertent eavesdropping, where I heard discussed the nature of the various crimes for which prisoners were sent to New Holland and its southerly sister-colony. While most were transported for various degrees of theft, there was, I gather from those better informed, an occasional tendency to minimise the bad actions committed by an ancestor to maximise social standing, hence, a murderer becomes a housebreaker, a rapist transforms into a pickpocket, a forger becomes a stealer of the proverbial handkerchief, &c. &c.
I was told that a descendant had suggested that her ancestor was a burglar; yet the comprehensive records of the Van Diemonian convict department – pleasingly, almost panoptic in their extent thanks to the efforts of the indefatigable, though somewhat tedious and fastidious, Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur – reveal the truth: said individual was, in actual fact, convicted and transported for, as the original documents suggest, ‘Sodomy (donkey)’.
The punishment of an individual for an action which causes no harm to an individual or the community as a whole, seems to me entirely wrong. I am led to believe that one learned (though some might say obsessive) individual, has carried out an investigation of the Norfolk Island penal settlement, which operated between 1825 and 1855; of the 6,458 male prisoners detained there, 54 individuals were originally transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land for either bestiality – I am told ‘zoophilia’ is the modern nomenclature – or intercourse with another man. For example, John Brennan , a County Roscommon man and private of the 55th Regiment then stationed in Hong Kong, was transported for ‘Beastiality’ with a female dog, whereas William Beveridge , a seaman of the London Haymarket, was convicted of fornicating with a ‘female ass’. The case of Richard Brunsden was of particular interest. From Milton in Oxfordshire, Brunsden was convicted of ‘unnatural crime with a horse’ and, as noted by the insistent colonial clerk, ‘not a mare’; presumably this young man thought it might mitigate his crime were the animal he was convicted of interfering with female rather than male. James McGivern demonstrated a remarkable degree of ingenuity; he was transported for buggering a cow, and though he insisted that he was innocent of the crime, he ‘pleaded guilty on purpose to be transported’.
This individual’s work also provides further data on the all-male penal establishment of Norfolk Island, viz. that it was known to contemporaries as ‘Sodom Island’, ‘Gehenna of the Waters’, and ‘the South Sea Abomination’, such was its reputation as a hotbed of unnatural vice. My co-conversationalist’s investigations, however, demonstrated that rhetoric such as this was highly sensationalised, and further demonised the prisoners in the eyes of colonists. Indeed, it appears that when Norfolk Island convicts did have intercourse with each other, it was – with the exception of two cases, one of which involved the assailant being divested of his organ by his knife-wielding victim – peaceful and consensual. This did not allay the local authorities’ suspicions: on 2 January 1847, all prisoners at Norfolk Island were mustered and sent for examination by Dr George Everett. Each man stripped and was, according to one observer, ‘ordered to put his head down so the doctor could see plainly inside of his fundament’ for signs of disease. Ultimately not a single charge was brought against any man; a considerable measure of pain had thus been inflicted upon the general convict population, for a minimum measure of benefit.
During the mid-1840s, and the early 1850s, a climate of fear prevailed in Van Diemen’s Land, and certain outraged colonists wrote lurid reports, many of which came to London, of how convict transportation infected the colony – and the Pacific region – with vices of monstrous proportions. The colonist Mathias Gaunt, for example, wondered what ‘might befall’ his children were ex-Norfolk Island convicts brought to Hobart Town. Such prisoners – men ‘bereft of human nature’ and ‘adding the worst sensuality to the most perfect demonism’, according to one of the less respectable, of which there were many, Van Diemonian journals – were often subjected to the most hysterical and false characterisation along these lines. The dissembling of anti-transportations may even have contributed to the abandonment of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in 1853.
Those in charge of convict administration reserved some of the most severe punishments for men convicted – or indeed, merely suspected – of intercourse with each other. Aside from the use of chain gangs, flogging and incarceration at remote penal stations, severe means were utilised to regulate prisoner accommodation and behaviour, viz. dormitory bedding with wooden dividers to prevent men sharing the same bed, wardsmen and lamps, lock up boxes for repeat offenders to sleep in at night, or ‘separate treatment’ – viz. men being made to work, eat and sleep alone for their alleged tendencies.
While there is now a rather more enlightened view towards homosexuality than during this earlier period, attitudes towards inter-species intercourse have changed very little. According to Section 69 of the Sexual Offences Act , an individual who sexually penetrates a living animal is liable to disproportionate punishments, viz. fines, or imprisonment for up to two years; incidentally, the same penalties are prescribed for those charged with sexually penetrating a corpse. While most would not themselves wish to engage in bestiality, what harm is being done to any one person, human or non-human? Would legislators like to tell us on what medical or veterinary evidence they base their conclusion that, given that consent is not something an animal can give or withhold, animals suffer as a result of this intercourse?
Your ever laborious servant,