HL Deb 01 March 1853 vol 124 cc782-9

, seeing the noble Duke the Secretary for the Colonies (the Duke of Newcastle) in his place, begged to ask if he could give the House any explanation as to the intentions of Her Majesty's Government with respect to convict prisoners in Bermuda and Gibraltar; and whether any steps had been taken for assimilating the treatment of those convict prisoners to that of those of the same class at present in Portland. Misapprehensions of a serious kind had gone forth with respect to what had hitherto been the practice in those prisons, and it was highly desirable that some information should be given on the subject. He would, therefore, ask whether any, and what, arrangements were going on with reference to the new building for the reception of prisoners which was said to be erecting in Bermuda, and also whether any provision would be made for their separate confinement?


said, that when the subject of the continuance of transportation was before the House a few days ago, he had stated, with reference to transportation to Bermuda and Gibraltar, that there was no intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government to make any alteration in the system of sending convicts to be employed on public works at those places. With respect to the other question of the right rev. Prelate, he (the Duke of Newcastle) had the satisfaction of informing him that the convicts now confined in hulks at Bermuda would rapidly be placed on the same footing with those who were now imprisoned on the more improved system to which the right rev. Prelate had referred as carried on at Portland. It was well known to those who had devoted attention to this subject, that it was impossible to maintain any proper system of discipline, or to ensure morality or health on board hulks. Until within a short time, by far the greater proportion of the convicts at Bermuda had been imprisoned on board the hulks; but the present Governor of Bermuda, Captain Elliot, one or two years ago, had called the attention of the Government to this subject, and, by the permission of Government, had purchased a small island called Boaz for the erection of a prison for the convicts. That prison had been erected on the most improved plan, and it was now so far completed, that already 300 of the convicts hitherto confined on hoard the hulks had been removed into it, and he trusted that before very long the remainder of the convicts would be placed there. It would be interesting to the right rev. Prelate further to be informed that this prison contained separate cells for each prisoner, and that the whole of the prison was lighted with gas. The right rev. Prelate had not asked him any question with reference to other convict establishments; but he (the Duke of Newcastle) was anxious to add, that so impressed was the Government with the conviction that it was desirable to limit as far as possible the number of convicts in hulks, that every attention should be paid to the accomplishment of that object. The space within which prisoners could be confined at Gibraltar was limited; but only one-third of the prisoners were confined in hulks. He hoped that it might become possible to remove the hulks from Gibraltar; but at present that desirable object could not be attained. As to the prisoners at Bermuda, he had only to repeat, that he hoped the present year would see them all removed to the new prison.


said, that as he was about to go on circuit in a few days to administer justice to Her Majesty's subjects, he hoped the noble Duke would allow him to put a question, though he had not given notice of it; it was, however, a question relating to the same subject—the punishment of transportation. He knew he should be asked by the grand jury in every county he should visit whether he could inform them as to what were the intentions of Her Majesty's Government with respect to the continuance of transportation as a secondary punishment; and he wished to know whether he should be able to say, that whatever difficulty there might be in sending convicts to the Colonies to which, till recently, they had been sent, the punishment of transportation would still exist, and that when he pronounced sentence of transportation for seven years, or for ten years, or for life, it would not be a mere mockery?


thought there would be some inconvenience in giving a positive answer at the present moment, because he stated on a former occasion that great alterations, both in the law as regarded secondary punishments and in prison accommodation, must be made before any final arrangement of this very difficult question could be arrived at by Her Majesty's Government. At the same time, he thought it right to state to his noble and learned Friend, that, as at present advised, he (the Duke of Newcastle) could not but believe that it would be necessary, before a long period had elapsed, to bring the punishment of transportation to a close; because, he must remind his noble and learned Friend, when he said that, though it might be requisite to abandon transportation as regarded those colonies which were unwilling to receive convicts, yet convicts might be sent to some other place, where no such unwillingness existed; that, as regarded convicts sentenced to various terms of punishment, the Government did not need to go very far from home for a place of punishment, if that alone were required. He did not know that the suggestion which had recently been made with respect to an island on the coast of Great Britain, or in the Hebrides, would not answer the purpose; but he must remind their Lordships that, as at present carried on, the system of transportation (so called) was very different from that to which allusion was made. It embraced a system by which men who had undergone a certain amount of punishment, and had behaved well, received tickets of leave, and, after some time had elapsed, became incorporated with and absorbed into the free and pure part of the population. That was the difficulty; and his noble and learned Friend would see, that whereas all the colonies of Australia, except Western Australia, had protested against the continuance of that system, there were none of the more ancient colonies of this country, and none which had been hitherto free from the taint of convicts, who would not solemnly and strongly protest against the introduction of that class. Considering the social state of their colonies, where were they to look for any society into which convicts could be introduced, as they were formerly into Van Diemen's Land and New South Wales, and as they were now into Western Australia? What he had stated went to show the inconvenience of giving an answer to the question which his noble and learned Friend had put, because he must see how many subjects were to be considered before a final determination on the matter could be come to; but he confessed that he should be deceiving his noble and learned Friend if he did not state that, looking to the duty which Her Majesty's Government, must perform to the Colonies of this country, be felt that he should not be acting in accordance with that duty if he were to say that they would continue the system of transportation in the form in which it had been hitherto carried on.


said, that it was most highly desirable the punishment of transportation should be continued. He took on himself to say, as a Judge, that if he pronounced sentence of imprisonment for life in England, the sentence produced no such effect as if he had said that the prisoner should be transported beyond seas; and, as the result of his own experience, be should state that if a period of imprisonment in England were to be substituted for transportation, it would be a miserable failure. He thought the system of travaux forcés would not succeed here. We could not force our convicts on respectable colonists who had settled in a colony; he did say that it was of vast importance to find some quarter of the globe whore the advantages might be derived from the punishment of criminals by transportation, to which the noble Duke had referred, because part of the system was reformation, so that they should be employed, and become useful members of society. In the colonies there were many thousands who had been transported as convicts, but who were now earning their bread by honest labour, honourably maintaining their families, having their children well educated, and being themselves useful members of society. Had it not been for the punishment of transportation, not one of those persons would have been reformed.


(who was almost inaudible) referred to the Falkland Islands as a place which had been thought a suitable receptacle for criminals, and was understood to indicate the physical character of those remote islands, and the circumstances in which convicts would be placed, but at the same time to qualify the representations given of the ultimate advantage that would attend the transportation of criminals thither. The subject was one which must be considered in various relations. With respect to convicts re-entering society, there were difficulties in the Colonies; but there were still greater difficulties in their procuring employment in a thickly-peopled country, where honest men found it hard to gain a livelihood. The vast proportion of those who had gone out to the Australian colonies as convicts bad had the opportunity of procuring honest employment; but he doubted exceedingly whether they could have succeeded in gaining a livelihood in our own thickly-populated country. He did not pretend to dogmatise on the subject, or to say that it was free from difficulty; but he wished to urge on their Lordships that there were two sides of the question, and that there were resources of which the Government might avail themselves.


expressed his concurrence in the opinion of his noble Friend; it was pre-eminently true that the subject was one which must be considered in its various relations. Their Lordships had to consider the interest of the colonies, undoubtedly, but not exclusively; there was nobody, whatever difficulties might be incident to keeping at home the whole criminal population, who would not be ready to say that transportation should cease to colonies advanced in civilisation. Our present system of transportation was injurious to many colonies; and colonists under such circumstances, whose interests were undoubtedly to be considered, declared that they would no longer receive our convicts. There were, however, very different cases. It was assumed that the Falkland Islands were entirely uninhabited—that they were as destitute of men as they were of trees; and therefore the mere sending the convicts to those islands did not seem to present any difficulty. The real difficulty was with regard to imprisonment at home. Supposing such system to be effectual, with his usual sagacity his noble Friend had asked what was to become of the prisoners whose term of punishment had expired? If they were to be set at liberty, but exposed to every possible temptation, and brought into contact, with all their habitual associates in vice, society was not discharging its duty. On the other hand, if they brought the convicts into a colonial society liable to be contaminated by such association, the State would not be held to perform its duty by that society. The question stood in a most unfortunate position. By dealing with the principle of transportation as had been done, they had made it hateful and odious to the greater part of their colonial possessions, who otherwise might have sought the assistance of that convict labour which they now rejected. Proof of this was to be found in the correspondence from the Cape, previous to that fearful resistance to authority which was almost tantamount to a declaration of war against the mother country Antecedently to that event, there were applications made to the home authorities, expressing willingness to receive our convicts if they were employed not in the midst of the civilised parts of the country, but in works that would prepare the way for civilisation in other parts of the country—employed, as had been well said, as pioneers of civilisation; and then by the time their sentences had expired, not only would improvements have been effected, but many of the convicts would turn out good members of society. But to proceed as we had done, pouring the whole stream of convict population into one colony, Van Diemen's Land, against the will and the entreaty of its inhabitants, was the very course to be taken if we had in view the purpose of making the convict system odious all over the world, detestable to the colony, and disgraceful to ourselves. He hoped it might be taken for granted, in consequence of what had passed some years back, that no change in the administration of the law so great as that of putting an entire and final stop to transportation could be attempted without first obtaining the sanction of the Legislature. It was at one time said that as incidental to the prerogative of the Crown it was competent to the Government to make alterations of that kind without an Act of Parliament; it was stated that by an exercise of the prerogative an alteration had been made with respect to the seven years' transports, and that such convicts were not now transported; but a noble and learned Lord (Lord Brougham) had interposed, and the result of the Committee which he moved, was a general admission that, whenever such change was made, it could only be made legally by Act of Parliament. If so, the question having to be discussed in the shape of a proposition for a Bill, if to be discussed at all, he would only add, that we must not only look to the mere question of transportation, but also to the proposed alternative. We should profit in such inquiry by the experience of foreign countries, and consider well what was likely to be the consequence of letting loose these classes dangereuses upon the country after a certain term of imprisonment. We should consider what sort of class the forçats would be likely to form. They might have certificates of good conduct from keepers of penitentiaries; but would any man give employment to discharged convicts while there were in his neighbourhood men untainted with crime seeking work and unable to obtain it?


observed, that on the occasion to which the noble Lord had just referred, and which had led to the appointment of a Committee, it was admitted that when the law denounced one punishment for a certain offence, and the Court had applied the law and pronounced the punishment which the law awarded, it was not in the power of the Crown afterwards to alter that to a sentence which, if it had been originally pronounced by the Court, would have been error in law and of no force. But on that occasion a Committee of that House was appointed, which sat for many weeks, and made a report, which he had not had occasion to look at since, but which he thought he might safely state was unanimous; and, though many Members of the Committee entered upon the inquiry adverse to transportation, and desirous of its being abandoned, yet the more the Committee inquired into the matter the more unanimous they were (if one might so speak, as if there were degrees of unanimity)—the more clearly and firmly were they of opinion that we could not for the present, at least, dispense with transportation. The subject was one of great difficulty and importance, and well deserved to be fully and deliberately weighed and discussed; and it was unfortunate that the House should be brought to such a discussion only incidentally. The difficulties were enormous both of continuing transportation and of giving up transportation; and he (Lord Brougham) protested he hardly knew whether he did not consider the difficulties on the one side pretty nearly balanced by the difficulties on the other. But he would fain hope, whatever system was adopted as a substitute for transportation, should it be abandoned, that the introduction of what were called travaux forcés, and falsely called the penitentiary system, would not be resorted to; though, at the same time, he would not say that secondary punishment might not be so framed as to meet the principal objections to the continential system of the galleys or travaux forcés.


considered it a very great defect in our present system, and one that must be remedied in any substitute for it, that the quarter to which criminals were sent should be a place of attraction to convicts. In spite of the opinion given by the noble and learned Lord, he had not the slightest doubt that transportation had lost much of its terrors, and that, with respect to a great number, the prospect of a free passage to the neighbourhood of the gold districts, with the chance of an escape or the hope of an early release, was at this moment rather an attraction than the contrary.

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