Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

A Compassionate Alternative to Hanging

Posted in General, On This Day on January 25th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 26, 1788:  Once You’ve Lost America, Where Do You Dump Your Petty Criminals?

AustraliaIn 1606, Dutch explorer Willem Jansz discovered a large land mass south of New Guinea.  From his tentative exploration, he found nothing to merit further interest.  The land was swampy, and the natives poor and hostile.  It would be another 36 years before the Dutch ventured a second expedition to this land.  Abel Tasman sailed along the western and southern coasts of what proved to be a very large island.  He found the lands there to be arid and uninhabitable.  Yet, however dismal, this territory required some designation on maps.  So cartographers gave it the generic name of Australis, the Latin for southern. 

Not until 1770 did anyone bother to explore the east coast of Australis.  British explorer James Cook found its land to be surprisingly habitable.  The climate was temperate and the soil seemed arable.  Eastern Australis could provide the basic requirements of a European colony.  Claiming the land for Great Britain, Cook named the territory New South Wales.  So Britain now had a distant island that offered a meager sustenance–and that proved exactly what Britain wanted.

In politics and science, 18th century Britain certainly was in the forefront of the Enlightenment.  But that energetic progress did not extend to British justice.  There the gallows was the usual recourse, dispatching thieves as well as murderers.  Still, there was some leniency in the system.  Shoplifters, poachers, prostitutes and debtors really did not deserve to hang.  For stealing food, seven years in prison was sufficient retribution.  The problem was that the prisons were teeming with these petty criminals.  Britain could make better use of them by transporting them to its far-flung colonies.  There, the felons could labor on government projects or be sold as indentured servants, working as slave labor for the length of their prison sentence.  The American colonies had served as a useful dumping ground for these criminals.  Indeed, Georgia had been founded expressly as a penal colony.  However, since 1775, those colonies proved completely uncooperative with any British policies.  With America lost, Britain found a use for New South Wales. 

In December1786, the British government authorized an expedition to establish a penal colony in Australis. Eleven ships–known in Australian history as the “First Fleet”– departed from Britain in 1787.  On board were 772 prisoners, of whom 189 were women, 247 marines as guards, and supplies to sustain the colony for its first year.  Sailing around Cape Horn and through the Indian Ocean, the Fleet reached New South Wales on January 18, 1788.  They first landed at an inlet called Botany Bay but the site lacked a source of fresh water.  Sailing a short distance north, the Fleet found a more promising site for settlement on January 26th.  It would be named for Britain’s Home Secretary:  Lord Sydney.  

The First Fleet would be followed by a Second Fleet, a Third Fleet and eventually no one bothered counting.  Each fleet had a cargo of criminals.  Over the next 80 years 162,000 shackled men and women would be transported to Australia.  Today, the Commonwealth has a population of 22 million.  Four million of them are descended from those convicts,  and January 26th is remembered as Australia Day.

The Adventures of William Bligh

Posted in General, On This Day on April 28th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

April 28, 1789:  Captain Bligh’s First Mutiny

Of course, you know about the mutiny on the Bounty.  Hollywood won’t let you forget it.  There have been three versions of the Fletcher Christian’s revolt against Captain Bligh (At least in English; there was also an Australian version.)  In 1935, handsome noble Clark Gable leads a revolt against the cruel and thieving Charles Laughton.  Then, in 1962 sensitive Marlon Brando ousts the sadistic Trevor Howard.  Finally, in 1984 party animal Mel Gibson overthrows bourgeois killjoy Anthony Hopkins–and, yes, this is the most historically accurate version, although I can’t help but call it “Fast Times at Bounty High.”  In fact, the next production is overdue.  This one will probably depict Renee Zellweger mutinying against Meryl Streep.

After the Bounty was seized by the mutineers, Bligh and 18 loyal crew members were cast adrift in an open boat.  Of course, they were expected to die but Bligh, however deficient his charisma, was a superb navigator.  He determined that the nearest European outpost was the Dutch colony at Timor, so he set sail for it–a mere 3600 miles away.  And 47 days later he and his crew were there.  The etiquette of the British Navy did require a formal inquiry into the mutiny.  Had Bligh been a raving sadist, the Admiralty still might have exonerated him; but by a pleasant coincidence he actually deserved to be found innocent.  Besides–navigating the Pacific in an open boat–he was such a brilliant sailor, who cared if he was a charmless drip.

William Bligh continued his naval career, achieving successes and promotions.  Lord Nelson personally commended him for his heroism at the battle of Copenhagen in 1801.  By 1806, the Bounty incident was a mere anecdote in an otherwise laudable record.  The British penal colony of New South Wales–alias Australia–needed a governor and the stalwart, efficient Bligh seemed the perfect choice. 

Since Britain was somewhat preoccupied with Napoleon, the Australian colony had been left virtually autonomous.  With a scarcity of money, the unofficial currency of Australia was rum.  And that was one of the more decorous aspects of the colony.  Corruption was rampant.  The prison guards–the New South Wales Corps– were themselves criminal,  “recruited” from army gaols, and their officers the rejects from reputable regiments.  The Corps soon was dominating and ruling the colony.  What the Corps did not own outright, it extorted a cut.  Of course, the officers got the choice tracts of lands, establishing themselves as the colony’s aristocracy and they very much acted the part.  Convicts worked as serfs on the officers’ estates.  The colony was less than 20 years old but the Corps was thoroughly entrenched.

This was the situation when Bligh arrived as governor.  His predecessors had either succumbed to bribes or the languor, but Bligh intended to make New South Wales into a proper British colony.  He tried curtailing the trading of rum, which happened to be a major business of the Corps; he tried breaking the Corps’ monopolies and he tried firing the most conspicuously corrupt officers in the Corps.  In theory, Governor Bligh had every right to do so.  However, the only military or police force in the colony happened to the Corps–and for some reason, it wasn’t cooperating.  Bligh was powerless and he never had the charm to negotiate a compromise.  All he really could do was to annoy the Corps.  He didn’t last two years. 

On January 26, 1808 William Bligh faced his second mutiny.  He was overthrown by the Corps which declared martial law over the colony.  The mutineers offered to let Bligh return to England but he refused, insisting that he was the rightful governor and would not abandon his post.  He even attempt to incite a popular uprising to reinstate him; of course, popularity was never his skill.  So, at his own insistence, Bligh remained in Australia until his officially designated successor arrived.  That was in 1810.  The new governor also had a way with dealing with the New South Wales Corp; he brought along his own regiment of troops.  Under these circumstances, the Corps accepted reassignment back to Britain.  However, many of its officers resigned their commissions to enjoy their baronial estates in the colony.  Their descendants remain the creme of Australian society.

As for Bligh, he was exonerated by another official board of inquiry.  Ironically, he would be assigned to a post in Ireland.  But of all places, somehow he didn’t cause a mutiny there.