HC Deb 07 April 1819 vol 39 cc1433-41
Mr. Bennet

rose to move an address to the Prince Regent, to stay the departure of a vessel destined to convey female convicts to New South Wales. He did not mean to cast censure upon any public office, and was perfectly aware that many abuses had been corrected by recent regulations. The system of transportation, as it had existed for some years, might be said to be at an end. His objections, however, were still many and serious: they were derived from two sources—from the process itself of transportation, and from the manner of conducting it. On the present occasion he should, however, confine his attention to the state of female convicts, whom he considered the process of transportation had a strong tendency to debase and corrupt. Notwithstanding all the precautions which had been devised, it had hitherto been found impossible to prevent a species of intercourse with the seamen, or in other words a personal prostitution, which could not fail to degrade still lower, beings already too low in moral character. A second objection against this mode of punishment was its inequality as applied to different persons. By some it was considered not as a punishment to be feared, but as an advantage to be courted. Those who had families to be separated from, and were bound by strong ties to their native country, might contemplate it with dread; but to the friendless or deserted criminal, it presented the idea of a desirable asylum. A great defect also was, that it offered no example; the punishment was not seen, and did not therefore operate, as all punishment ought, in deterring others from the commission of similar offences. The ordinary class of offenders against the law were not influenced, as had been observed by a French writer, by remote ideas of punishment: it was necessary that the pains and penalties attending misconduct should be obvious to their apprehensions, and scattered around their path. From 1787 to 1818, 2,987 women, being in the proportion of 1–7th of the men transported during the same period, had been sent out of the country. Of 220 women sent from 1816 to 1818, 121 were sentenced to the limited term of seven years transportation. These women were sent for very different periods, and yet few of them ever returned. Their only means of returning were prostitution. Many of the convicts had received judgment for capital offences, many for minor ones. Now the act of the 9th of the king. c. 74, had been drawn up on the principle, that persons convicted of minor offences ought to be confined to penitentiaries; and not sent at a great expense to a distant settlement. A learned judge had told him, that on the last circuit he was about to sentence a woman to be transported, when his resolution was changed by the clerk of the peace informing him that it was nearly impossible for women to return. No classification existed on board, but petty offenders were compelled to associate with capital convicts and hardened delinquents. This appeared to him in the light of a gratuitous infliction of pain, which was discreditable to a great country. He must complain also of the manner in which women were brought from country gaols to one spot, for the purpose of being put on board the vessels destined for New South Wales. One unfortunate girl had been brought from Cambridge, so bound in chains, that it was necessary to saw them asunder. Another had been brought in a state of torture all the way from Carlisle. When once on board, no distinction was observed between the small and the great offender; the girl whose passion for finery had prompted her to commit a petty theft, was placed in the same bed with the shameless prostitute who robbed on system. He held in his hand a letter written by Mr. Marsden, chaplain general in New South Wales, and stating that promiscuous intercourse between the seamen and female convicts had prevailed on board a ship which had carried out a great number of women, previously trained under the care of Mrs. Fry and others, to habits of morality and decorum. The officer commanding the vessel had enforced stricter discipline on its arrival at St. Helena, but the change was attended with hardship and cruelty. Mr. Giles, a missionary on board, declared that the utmost confusion and insubordination had prevailed, and that the convicts and passengers were unnecessarily put on short allowance of water, which produced much suffering, especially amongst the children. There was here evidence on the part of Mr. Marsden, and the House had before been put in possession of evidence, that there was a want of accommodation for the female convicts. A few of them were lodged in a factory at Paramatta, and the rest were obliged to wander in the streets, and to have recourse to prostitution in order to procure the means of subsistence. The misery and depravity of these persons were so great, that Mr. Marsden who had been a considerable time in the habit of contemplating them, declared that it required all his fortitude to beat the scenes which he had to witness. His object was, to save the female convicts from being sent to the factory of Paramatta; and he, for one, could not consent that any human being, either man or woman, should be sent to New South Wales, till some place was provided for their reception. He had already stated the helplessness and the hardships of the women on board the ships; he had gone out with them, and lodged them in the factory of Paramatta; and he would now show what became of them, when they had arrived there. Mr. Marsden, in a letter which he now held in his hand, said, "The hospital of Paramatta is divided into two wards, one for the reception of men, and the other for women; but as there are no locks on the doors, the men and the women have easy access to each other, in consequence of which the grossest debaucheries take place. I have remonstrated on these things again and again, but no remedy has yet been provided. These regulations are attended with the worst effects. What can be worse than for a clergyman coming to visit the sick, and finding men and women lying promiscuously in the same beds? There has not, for a considerable time back, been either a lamp or a candle in the hospital, nor can either be procured even to watch a dying person; and I have frequently been obliged to grope my way in going to visit the sick at night." This letter was dated on the 6th of February, 1818. He abstained from reading other parts of it, because he did not wish to criminate individuals. Whether the new system of this year, with respect to the regulations on board female convict ships would be better than that of last year, he should not inquire; but he objected to a system under which, when the women arrived at New South Wales, they had no place where they could lay their heads. He was not for letting any ship with female convicts sail from this country, till some place was provided for their reception. He did not say, that no convicts should be sent out, because there certainly was a distinction between the situation of males and that of females. He could not see why the convicts at present under sentence of transportation in England and Ireland might not be kept at the several houses of correction; for he could not suppose that of these so many were hardened in wickedness that danger might be apprehended from keeping them in the country. He would now ask, after the picture of misery which he had drawn, whether it would be consistent with humanity to consign any more of these wretched females to the hardships which they had to encounter on the voyage to New South Wales, and to the subsequent evils which awaited them on their arrival there? He concluded by moving, "That an humble Address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, praying that his Royal Highness would be graciously pleased to stay the sailing of the Lord Wellington Female Convict ship."

Mr. Wilberforce

rose to second the motion, and trusted that what he was about to say would be the means of producing the universal concurrence of the House. His hon. friend, for the unwearied attention which he had paid to this subject, was entitled to the thanks and the gratitude of the country. What he wished to state, was, that it was not necessary for those who agreed to the present motion, to concur in all the sentiments uttered on the subject by his hon. friend. They were at present engaged in an inquiry into the state of the colony, both with regard to the manner in which convicts were transported thither, and the manner in which they were treated when there; and if they thought that remedies would suggest themselves to the committee now sitting, for the hardships, to which convicts were subjected, both on the voyage and while in that country, he could not think it but right to stay the sailing of this vessel, till the result of the committee's inquiries should be known. He concurred with his hon. friend in the opinion which he entertained of Mr. Marsden's character, and thought the testimony of that gentleman ought to have great weight, although he could not have been aware that a public use was to be made of his letters; for, with the exception of that addressed to the committee, they were all written to a friend in confidence.

Mr. Bathurst

said, his hon. friend who had last sat down, had stated that those who were not disposed to goall the length of the hon. mover might nevertheless concur in the present motion; and he seemed to think that till the committee had made * their report, no more convicts should be sent out. This seemed to go far beyond the present motion; for if he understood the hon. mover, his object was only to prevent women from being sent out. But, for his part, he could not see why men should be sent while the inquiry was going on, and not women. The hon. gentleman had said, that though it might be dangerous to keep men in the country, it would not be dangerous or inconvenient to keep women. But, as an argument for sending convicts out of the country, it might be stated, that the assizes were loaded, and all the prisons in the country full. In point of morality too, he apprehended that the plan would not be favourable: for there had been frequent complaints, that in some of the gaols there was no division between the male and the female prisoners: they had accounts that in some of the best regulated gaols in the kingdom it had been found impossible to make a proper classification of the prisoners, and that in consequence vice was extremely prevalent. He thought, therefore, that to distribute the convicts among the several prisons in the country, would not be an expedient measure. There were at present 180 convicts in the different gaols, of whom forty or fifty were so advanced in years, that it was not thought proper to send them to New South Wales; there were forty of another description, for whom accommodations would soon be provided in a penitentiary; and then there still remained ninety who were not proper persons to be left in the country, and whom it was intended to transport. He was not prepared to deny that there were many inconveniences attending the situation of the female convicts, which did not apply to convicts of the other sex. He was not at present arguing on the propriety of sending out convicts; but in a moral point of view, it might be a question whether morality was not promoted by sending out women to the colony. He complained that the hon. mover had gone too far into the details which were before the committee. The hon. gentleman had said, that the female convicts, on their arrival, were all sent to Paramatta: but this was not the case. On the arrival of a ship, the inhabitants who wanted female servants went to the ship and chose such as they liked. This permission, however, was granted only to married persons. The rest of the cargo was then sent to Paramatta, but not in such a situation as had been represented. Such of them as were refractory were obliged to work at this factory, and perhaps their labour might not enable them to procure a lodging. But here they were employed only till 3 o'clock in the afternoon, after which they were at liberty to work for themselves s and such of them as could procure work would be able to provide themselves with a lodging. With regard to the gross case of seduction which had been mentioned, it certainly did not occur in the ship which was sent out last year, nor was it known when it had occurred; and, therefore, there were no means of ascertaining who the master and surgeon were who had been guilty of such a dereliction of duty. If prisoners were not to be sent out of the country, he should think the best plan would be to have penitentiaries for their reception; but the hon. gentleman should consider, that it could not be the work of a day to provide accommodation for all the prisoners in the country. It had been said that the convicts found great difficulty in returning, when the period of their banishment had expired; but he believed that few ever wished to return, and he mentioned that merely to show that it was no additional hardship. Many of them married and settled in the country; and he thought it was stated formerly that an industrious man in the course of five years might earn as much as would pay for his passage home. He would not say that a woman could earn as much in the same time; but he thought that what he had stated was sufficient to prove that the hardship was not so great as it had been represented. The House ought not to consider that the persons about to be sent out were a number of innocent individuals; on the contrary, they were a set of persons whose bad passions, of every description, it was found most difficult to restrain without strong coercive measures. He could not, on the whole, see that any ground existed for restraining the sailing of the convict ship in question more than any other.

Mr. Buxton

said, it was stated in evidence before the committee, that the number of females in the manufactory at Paramatta was 150, of whom 120 were nightly discharged with no means but prostitution to maintain themselves. The witness had been asked, how large a proportion of the females supported themselves by prostitution, and the answer was nine out of ten!

Sir T. B. Martin

did not intend to take up much of, the time of the House, as in the few remarks he, had to offer he would not follow the hon. member for Shrewsbury in his rambles to New South Wales, He had heard a great deal said about the height to which vice, and particularly that of prostitution, had arisen is the colony; but, from every thing which he could learn, he believed it was not so great as it; was in London. He could not see any end which the detention of the ship would answer, except one, which was a strong argument against it—that if the hon. gentleman wished to wait for the report of the committee, they would have very probably to delay the sailing until nearly the, close of the session, at which time the equinoxial gales would be near at hand, and then what a situation would these unfortunate females be exposed to? He gave credit to the hon. gentlemen for those humane feelings which prompted them to such steps; but he thought they were quite mistaken in their application, of, them on many occasions, if they continued in the same feeling, it would be better to have at once an act of parliament to reform human nature; for, by that means alone, could their views be reconciled to necessary practice.

Mr. Marryat

said, that from the line of conduct adopted by the hon. gentleman on the other side, one might be led to suppose, that there was no such thing as an executive government. Was the House to suppose that his majesty's ministers were unfit to devise any regulation for the management of the colony? If so, hon. gentlemen had better make a motion to remove them. He conceived that no sufficient grounds had been given for the motion, and should therefore vote against it.

Mr. Bennet

said, he had not contended that the colony should be abolished altogether, but merely that it was in a state which needed considerable alteration before any more female convicts were sent thither. He had objected to the sending out the present ship, because he saw that the same principles were acted upon as had been continued on former occasions. With respect to the observations on the general system of prostitution among the women, he should beg the indulgence, of the House to read one sentence of the evidence taken before the committee. It was asked of one of the witnesses, before the committee, whether the women convicts in the colony had any other way of getting money but by prostitution? The answer of the witness was, that he was not aware of any. One consequence of their want of money was, that at the expiration of their time they had no means of returning home. Many of them had left families in this country, and of course it might be supposed that they were anxious to return to it. Without any fair means of gaining a sufficient sum to ensure that object, it was not surprising, considering their former habits, that they should have recourse to such digesting means of procuring it as had been mentioned; but there were others differently circumstanced, from age and infirmity. Upon the observation respecting his rambles to New South Wales, he should only say that he was not ashamed of them. He felt it his duty to bring the subject thus frequently before the House, and he would not be deterred by it from the sneers of any hon. member. When the House should have before them the result of the labours of the committee, it would be found, that so far from its being required to pass a law to regulate human nature, it would be only necessary to repeal some of those laws which were constantly tending to deprave it. He had no high opinion of the tender sympathies of ministers on those subjects. He had in his recollection what passed on the subject of convicts in the year 1787, when they were first sent out; when (the House would scarcely believe it) it was proposed and discussed in the privy council, whether the convicts at that time should not be sold to the Bey of Tripoli as slaves. This proposition (the proposition of lord Auckland) was considered, though of course rejected; but it showed how little disposed the government were at that time to attend to the situation of the convicts. At the same time a ship that was sent out with them, had not any settled destination; and the sentences of some of the convicts had expired before they reached the colony to which they were at length consigned. If hon. members would refer to what had been said on this subject by Collins and Hunter, they would find enough to convince them that his statements were not overcharged.

The motion was then negatived.