Space, Sexuality and Convict Resistance in Van Diemen’s Land: the limits of repression?

Eras Journal – Gilchrist, C. : Space, Sexuality and Convict Resistance in Van Diemen’s Land: The Limits of Repression?

Space, Sexuality and Convict Resistance in Van Diemen’s Land: The Limits of Repression?
Catie Gilchrist
(Sydney University)


On 30 December 1846, the Launceston Examiner informed its readers of “A New Invention”. According to the paper:

An ingenious writer in the London Athenaeum (we suppose a graduate in “prison discipline”) has propounded a series of moveable panopticons, which are to contain only six men, and are to be advanced from place to place, as the labourers on the roads advance. An overseers “berth” composes the centre compartment, supervising by a simple construction of six subdivisions in which the men are to sleep, as completely separated as if they were in distinct dwellings, while not a breath can be uttered that must not be heard by the overseer. It is also part of this plan, that when the whole gang is mustered at night, its superintendent or chief officer, keeping a sort of sleeping rolster [sic] roll sends the men to their respective panopticons, never sending to successive nights the same six men together.[1]

Throughout 1846 the Launceston Examiner had repeatedly denounced the existence of ‘unnatural crime’ among probation prisoners. Today we might marvel at the meticulous ordered detail of the ‘new invention’. The moving panopticon embodied in microcosm the innovative techniques of contemporary penal discipline: the surveillance of sleeping spaces, the separation of bodies, the imposition of silence. At the heart of this discipline lay an obsessive concern with sexual repression. Beyond the gaze of the overseer’s berth, colonial readers would have perceived the ‘new invention’ as an antidote to a myriad of cultural tensions that had been produced by the transportation of male prisoners. Victorian penal discourse was saturated in spatial-sexual anxiety and within the lexicon of colonial morality this anxiety assumed similar prominence.

Historians have been remarkably subdued in linking convict space with moral and cultural meanings.[2] Feminist historians have been much more emphatic in illuminating the spatial and sexual anxieties that surrounded female convicts,[3] yet the “sexualised imaginative geographies” of male convict accommodation have not been critically considered in the historiography.[4] Admittedly, we have an assumed mythology of ‘buggery in the barracks’ and ‘bestiality in the bush’, but there has been little analysis of the wider spatial-sexual meanings of the system beyond these stereotypes.[5] Johnston and Johnston’s casual suggestion that, “given that the first colonies were penal settlements, institutionalised homosexuality should come as no surprise” presents convict barracks and other penal spaces as passive backdrops where sexual activity was enacted.[6] This paper moves beyond the ‘assuming’ approach to uncover the much richer symbolic meanings that surround space and are embodied within it because space is not merely an “abstract arena on which things happen”. [7] The discussion focuses on the probation system of convict discipline in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1840s and concentrates on two particular sites to reveal the different ways that ideas of ordered space and criminal/moral reform interacted. It highlights the tensions that were produced by the discrepancies of penal theory and the practicable workings of the system and argues that convict space became a critical site where penal and colonial anxieties crystallised. These concerns were nurtured by moral and sexual fears, and this directly influenced the ways in which accommodation was organised and imagined. Reading the system through a spatial analysis further reveals how it shaped and informed a particular expression of convict resistance.[8]

Imposing Order and Classifying Spaces: Maria Island

The replacement of assignment with the probation system in Van Diemen’s Land reflected wider changes and developments in British penal theory. On arrival, prisoners were no longer to be dispersed as servants amongst the free settlers, but were to work and live together for a period of “probation” until they were released to hiring depots where they could be contracted out and exchange their labour for a wage. This approach required a very strict and particular management of bodies and spaces and was to be overseen by a centralised convict department. Probation aimed to impose a more systematic and uniform policy of discipline because by the late 1830s, the ‘lottery’ of assignment had become anathema to current penal thought. It was hoped that this system would punish for the past through hard physical work and material hardship, and reform for the future by the imposition of a rigid disciplinary regime and the influence of religious guidance. The classification and separation of prisoners within the collectivity of the gangs was imperative to the success of probation, and it was to be augmented by new techniques of observation and surveillance. In practice, however, the system was ill-planned, under-funded and never popular with the free colonists. By the mid 1840s the colony was in the midst of recession and the convict department was understaffed and poorly equipped to deal with the thousands of men arriving during these years. A consideration of the spatial ordering of prisoners at Maria Island in 1845 reveals the disjuncture between theory and practice and the moral tensions this produced. Maria Island was one station amongst the many established under probation and it is presented here as a microcosm of that system as a whole.

Maria Island operated as a secondary punishment station between 1825 and 1832. In 1842 a probation station was established on the island at Darlington and in April 1845 James Boyd was appointed Senior Assistant Superintendent.[9] He had recently arrived in the colony, informed by his own experiences of prison discipline at Millbank and firm in his belief that “separation, watchfulness and restraint are, or ought to be, the grand cardinal objects to be sought for in all good systems of prison discipline”.[10]

In December 1845 he wrote a detailed report on Darlington and he noted how the men were classed:[11]

The gang, which usually musters about 600 men, is divided into four classes, the first being composed of the best behaved prisoners; the second, of the tolerably good; the third, of the indifferent; and the fourth is the chain-gang and crime-class.[12]

The prisoners were located in accommodation according to class. Men of the first-class were housed in twenty out-huts, holding from three to twenty-four men each. The whole of the second and third were accommodated in six large rooms in the convict barracks. These rooms were constantly illuminated and each housed 66 men where the berths were “arranged in three tiers” and were “divided by separation boards, about 13 inches deep”. There were 102 separate apartments for the chain-gang and crime-class and “men specially ordered to be kept separate on account of unnatural propensities”.[13] The classification of prisoners according to behaviour and the ordering of the spaces which they occupied were thus, closely connected.

Notwithstanding these “extremely meticulous orderings of space”, Boyd was vehemently critical of the accommodation at Darlington.[14]

As an apostle of the separate system, this is perhaps not surprising and his criticisms clearly reveal the moral meanings that were inscribed in spatial order. He perceived the accommodation to be defective, and in particular, he noted the inadequacy of surveillance. During the night there was no person of authority in the dormitories “and in consequence the prisoners are left to themselves”.[15] In the large rooms he concluded “immorality and crime must reign triumphant” and reformation was nothing but “a hopeless expectation”.[16] Watchman patrolled the yards, but even if they “were disposed to prevent irregularity”, their “means of doing so are very limited”. One of Boyd’s own duties involved visiting “the sleeping rooms every night at uncertain hours…but”, he confirmed, “I cannot be answerable for misconduct when not present”. He described the use of night-tubs as an “indecent practice” both “ruinous to morality” and “decidedly injurious to health”.[17]

These ‘moral’ concerns extended to the first-class prisoners because the out-huts were “in many respects more objectionable than the large wards” as “many wholesome restraints imposed upon the men at the station” were “dispensed with” at this site. Defective accommodation aside, the system of classification was “fatally flawed”. New arrivals from Britain were “thrown” into the third-class and because this class was “freshly liberated” from the chain-gangs they had the most demoralising effect upon other prisoners “an evil fraught with the worst consequences”.[18]Moreover, “present conduct alone” was taken into consideration so that “the perpetrators of capital crimes and the hoary habit and repute [sic] thieves are found placed indiscriminately with the military deserters and other novices in crime, together with lads scarcely more than mere boys”.[19] Provision had been made for religious and scholastic instruction yet it was “dull”, “monotonous” and “decidedly useless”.[20]The general tone of his report concluded with the gloomy observation, “I cannot conceive a better school for the propagation of criminal knowledge and habits than a probation gang”.[21]

James Boyd’s report reflected the perceptions of one penal reformer at one probation station. Yet Maria Island was no exception and the same observations echo throughout the records of the convict department during these years. His report was saturated with moral anxieties and many of the “details” he gave concerning unnatural crimes emanated from these perceptions of inadequate classification, defective accommodation and the shortcomings of surveillance.[22] His report was sent to the Colonial Office and in May 1846, Gladstone ordered an independent inquiry. Charles Joseph La Trobe was appointed to investigate every penal institution in the colony. Reading his report reveals clearly that it was the spatial deficiencies of convict accommodation that led to his conclusion: the probation system had been “a fatal experiment” because “vice of every description is to be met with on every hand, not as isolated spots, but as a pervading stain”.[23]

This is not to suggest that separation and classification completely failed in the colonial context. Separate apartments and solitary cells were built (and planned to be built) at most of the probation stations in Van Diemen’s Land and at Norfolk Island to house the “incorrigible” and the worst of men from the “crime-class”. The use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary mechanism gradually replaced the use of the lash and reflected the move away from punishment “borrowed from a barbarous age”.[24] More specifically, atomisation increasingly came to inform the “quarantining” of men “addicted to unnatural vice”. According to William Champ, the Commandant at Port Arthur, complete spatial and physical separation was the only “palliative” to this “disease”.[25] Champ suggested that no man who was “not clear from the commission of that crime” be permitted to return to society until “at least one years [sic] separate treatment” because only this would lead to the habit being “forever broken off”. Port Arthur and the Hobart Town Barracks had separate sleeping spaces for those “tried or suspected of such offences”[26] and in Sydney, the new Darlinghurst gaol also housed “miscreants” in separate cells.[27]

Yet moral and sexual fears embraced the entire convict population. Before the later creation of the ‘homosexual’ as an idiosyncratic, medicalised ‘type’, sexual anxieties were not confined solely to those ‘tried or suspected’. ‘Unnatural’ acts were a ‘habit’ that might be committed by any man and it was this that made the separation and surveillance of all male convicts so imperative.

Techniques of Surveillance

The apotheosis of separate treatment was the separate system of prison discipline, inscribed in the architecture of the model prison built at Port Arthur in 1848. The majority of prisoners did not experience the separate system, yet many in the convict department were influenced by its ideals. John Stephen Hampton was the Comptroller-General of convicts from October 1846 until 1855.[28] An admirer of the separate system, he was restricted by fiscal considerations and instead adopted a pragmatic approach to the management of prisoners. By the twilight years of transportation, the earlier obsession with classifying and separating bodies remained evident. Yet it was augmented by an intense concern with spatial surveillance and it was this, rather than isolated separation, that informed the experiences of most probation prisoners by the late 1840s.

In May 1847 eleven “defective” probation stations closed. More men at fewer stations necessitated new methods of managing accommodation and at the remaining sites interior reforms were introduced.[29] Dispersed sleeping rooms – a feature that had earlier been criticised by Boyd – were amalgamated because surveillance was deemed better managed by accommodating more prisoners in fewer rooms.[30] At the Darlington station, the dividing walls were knocked down to make one large ward. The sleeping berths were separated by a double row of battened side walls or cages, recommended “to prevent the continuance of such abominable vices”, [31] and by May 1848 the Comptroller-General reported that there were 279 berths separated by fixed battens and that these apertures also prevented the prisoners from seeing one another. The room was illuminated by six lamps with double burners that were constantly lit to enable the “patrolling officer on duty…from any one point,[to] see all the bed places”.[32] This Benthamite principle of surveillance was further augmented by increasing the size of inspection holes in the doors of the wards; furthermore, Hampton noted, the approaching footsteps of warders were rendered mute by the wearing of slippers.[33] In a later report of 1849, Hampton admitted the open dormitory to be the “preferable” means of spacing prisoners because the supervision was “more complete than in separate apartments”.[34] He praised these “mechanical means” that had proved so efficient “as a preventative of unnatural crimes”.[35] It was also during these later years that privies were built to replace the “disgusting” night tubs which Boyd had found so morally abhorrent.

Colonel G.C. Mundy visited Darlington in 1850, the same year that it ceased to operate as a probation station. He wrote with regret that the extensive buildings of the settlement had been left to ruin. His account of the numbers once housed in the dormitory is exaggerated, yet his description reveals the “innumerable petty mechanisms” and the considerable imaginative effort that had been exerted in constructing “decent” accommodation.[36] A curious fascination with the sleeping spaces is particularly evident:

There was one feature of this defunct convict station that I viewed with disgust – a single dormitory for 400 men! The bed places were built of wood in three tiers, the upper cribs being reached by two or three brackets fastened to the stanchions. Each pigeon hole is six feet and a half long by two feet in width, and separated from its neighbours by double open battens. The prisoner lies with his feet to the wall and his head towards the centre of the apartment – like a bottle in its bin. This nocturnal aggregation of brutalised males is a feature of penal discipline that I was astonished to find had been so lately in operation.[37]

It is difficult to ascertain the level of prurience in Mundy’s observations. Did he acknowledge the moral reasons why men slept “like a bottle in its bin”? Certainly, many in the convict department invested heavily in the “preventive” effects of restraining devices and surveillance. William Gunn was the superintendent at Hobart Barracks and in a letter written to Sir John Eardley-Wilmot in 1846, he assured the Governor that the separation boards, the burning lamps, the “square holes in the doors”, the watchmen and the irregular hours of their patrols guaranteed that “any irregularity may be detected”.[38] The same year Bishop Robert Willson, appalled by the sleeping conditions at Norfolk Island, sailed to England to protest to the House of Lords.[39] However, on his second visit to the island in 1849 he noted “a marvelous change” had occurred. The “revolting immoralities and crimes which in earlier days had debased the prisoners were now totally unknown”. What precisely had facilitated this change in the prisoner’s moral behaviour? According to the Bishop:

I found in certain wards partitions of wood…between the berths and so constructed that it was impossible for men to come into contact with each other. In other wards furnished with hammocks, the hammocks were so arranged as to prevent…any irregularities. I found good, efficient lights in each ward, and that watchmen, under the direction of superior officers patrolled the wards during the whole night.[40]

The Bishop’s moral conscience was reassured by the restraining devices and the surveillance that had recently been introduced into the sleeping wards at Norfolk Island. This recurring emphasis upon “prevention” and the faith invested in the scrutiny of convict space was, however, sometimes put to the test. As Doreen Massey reminds us, “The spatial has both an element of order and an element of chaos”.[41]

A Scandal in Launceston

Lack of direct evidence for sexual involvement is often irrelevant…rumour thrives best when facts are uncertain, where the imagination is left to run wild.[42]

In August 1848 a scandal surrounding the hiring depot erupted in the town of Launceston. Looking at the reasons why it emerged demonstrates how convict spaces generated acute moral anxieties in the wider colonial community. The depot had recently been re-organised according to Hampton’s insistence on separation and surveillance and there were three dormitories that held up to 250 men. Repeated rumours and press reports that the depot was overcrowded led three local JPs to investigate conditions there.[43] According to their accounts the depot was “admirably calculated to promote [ Hampton’s] important object”. However, all the good intentions of the “imperatively necessary” internal restraints were “completely frustrated” and “more than neutralised” because in addition to 250 men sleeping in the separate berths, there were a further 208 men sleeping between them in the spaces on the floor.[44]

In Britain during the 1830s and 1840s, the effects of poor housing and overcrowding on the sexual habits of the poor were obsessively noted by social and penal reformers.[45] This reflected the conflation in contemporary thinking of the physical environment and moral behaviour. Too many men at the depot was a consequence of under-employment in the colony, yet the outcry drew upon spatial-moral anxieties because overcrowding exposed them “to contamination and confirmed them in habits of incurable depravity”. Furthermore, the men sleeping on the floor were “much more screened from observation than they otherwise would be” and were “in no better situation than those of others, wherein such a state of things has prevailed to call forth universal execration”.[46] Perhaps more alarming was the fear that this “reprehensible nightly association”, by which men “acquire the filthiest habits” threatened the residents of the town because they would eventually be turned “loose on our community”.[47]

Most colonists were not permitted to visit the probation stations or the sleeping quarters of the hiring depots. The local press made regular calls for them to be open to independent scrutiny by the free population. The “invisibility” of convict space generated anxieties because accommodation that was both overcrowded and invisible was the antithesis of bourgeois perceptions of domestic moral order. Invisible prisoners and unverifiable reports of vice created acute tensions within the gossipy circles of the colony and it was within this spoken yet ‘secretive’ context that the issue of men sleeping on the floor assumed further significance. They were doubly invisible, to both the surveillance of internal watchmen and to the outside colonial eye. The Launceston Examiner was particularly scathing when it thundered “however imposing may be the amount of brick and wood work, and the reports of the extension of accommodation” the colony still had “festering masses of corruption on every hand”.[48] Robert Crooke, a Catholic catechist in the convict department put it rather more bluntly when he proclaimed, “the blood runs cold at the thought of a sodomite being the servant in a respectable household”.[49]

It is clear that the ‘sexualised geographies’ of convict space generated moral anxieties for both the penal authorities and the wider colonial community. Similar concerns existed elsewhere in the colony and had emerged in Sydney in 1844 when the Hyde Park Barracks became the focus of a moral panic, yet there were some dissenting voices to be heard. Whilst his contemporaries were busy building sexual barricades in the barracks, Alexander Maconochie opposed the introduction of “preventive” measures because he perceived such restraints as deeply defective.[50]Maconochie was acutely aware that repression was part of a double process when he asserted that, “mere physical restrictions will always be found to provoke rather than check”. It was not insufficient accommodation which led to ‘unnatural’ crimes, but rather the inappropriate treatment and management of prisoners.[51] According to Maconochie, “If we will actively employ our prisoners, and by suitable means cultivate in them the daily practice of manly and social virtue, they will protect themselves from degrading vices much better than we can protect them by walls and bolts”.[52]

Opposition to “preventive measures” was also voiced by Thomas Rodgers, the Chaplain of Norfolk Island. In 1848 he accused the convict department of constructing an artificial environment, sustained only by “anti-social and unnatural means”. He railed against “the safeguards and preventatives of stout planking – strong open barricades – watchmen – lights – loopholes in doors – to keep men in the prime of manhood from the perpetration of unnatural practices”.[53] Rodgers denounced the “paranoia” and the covetous surveillance pervading the settlement that “sought for, and saw vice in what was most virtuous”. Friendships between men were discouraged, because convict discipline regarded all such relations “as overt intentions of committing unnatural crime”. Echoing Maconochie, he remonstrated that building “open barricades of stout planking forcibly to prevent sodomitical practices” would merely throw “its subjects back on more secret vice”.[54] If unnatural crime existed, it did so because through the imposition of “preventive” measures, it was in fact promoted.[55] The Foucauldian argument that “power is productive” suggests that “repression and denial” will ultimately produce “intensification and incitement”. This in turn, produces resistance.[56]

Resisting Space and Surveillance

The concept of spatial resistance has recently been explored by the sociologists Steve Pile and Michael Keith. InGeographies of Resistance, they note:

Power relations involve particular notions of space-as-territory, to be conquered, administered and regulated. In one sense, power is the power to have control over space, to occupy it and guarantee that hegemonic ideas about that space coincide with those which maintain power’s authority.[57]

The connection between resistance, space and sexuality has been explored in studies of convict women, yet male convict historiography has not considered the spatial-sexual dynamics of resistance.[58] According to Joy Damousi, “sexualised disruptions to established boundaries did not characterise male forms of resistance”.[59] Yet, male prisoners resisted the “preventive measures” and the surveillance techniques exercised over them, and disrupting “hegemonic ideas about that space” was certainly an important expression of resistance. Discussing these acts of defiance contributes to a new reading of male convict resistance. We do not know if the “preventive measures” did lead to the “promotion” of sexual activity. Yet, we can claim that resistance to the dormitory rules was one means of rejecting the power inscribed in the penal system. It reveals a further dimension to the interactions of space and the sexual meanings inscribed within it.

Contemporaries certainly recognised the spatial meanings of convict resistance. In 1848 Henry Phibbs Fry visited the sleeping dormitories at Port Arthur and noted that “the doors have holes for inspection through which, when the lamp is burning well, a portion of the interior may be viewed”. However, “inspection is dangerous, a stick having lately been poked through from the inside into the eye of the officer on watch”.[60] External inspection was interrupted by the prisoners in other ways. The repeated anxieties expressed over the importance of illumination meant that the burning lamps were an obvious target to sabotage. At the Colonial Hospital at Westbury, Mr E.S. Hall insisted that lamps were placed in all the wards at night. But, “they are very seldom alight in the morning, which they ought to be if no tricks were played with them”. Oil was often “stolen” and “flames extinguished with very little chance of detection”.[61] These incidents might seem trivial, akin to naughty boyish pranks, yet obstructing the scrutiny of space was one way to both disrupt and diminish the powers of penal surveillance.

According to Steve Pile, spatial resistance “cannot simply address itself to changing external physical space, but must also engage the colonised spaces of people’s inner worlds”.[62] It is impossible to imagine how separation boards, or the cages so graphically described by G.C. Mundy, were perceived by the prisoners. Some might have welcomed them, yet for others, they served as a constant reminder to the un-free, bonded status of the individual and they were often damaged or destroyed altogether. At the Oatlands Probation Station, Mr Park noted that they were regularly “removed and destroyed by the men in whom a general spirit of destructiveness exists, and which it would be impossible to prevent”.[63] These acts were an important expression of resistance because they were individual claims for physical autonomy and movement. They further subverted the atomising ideal of penal space, an ideal that was often impossible to maintain within the collectivity of the dormitory.

Resistance also found expression in transgressing spatial rules. The punishment records reveal that men were punished for being absent from the dormitory at night or for being out of bed during the stated sleeping hours.[64]Some prisoners broke spatial rules and crossed the boundaries of separation when they were found in another bed or caught sharing a hammock.[65] Robert Pringle Stewart visited the prisoners’ barracks on Norfolk Island in 1846 and noted that, “on the doors being opened, men were scrambling into their own beds from others, in a hurried manner”. Moreover, the convict wards-men “did not exercise any authority and were mere passive spectators of irregularity”.[66] We can see in this account that spatial-somatic regulation was often disrupted, yet it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which a ‘blind eye’ was indeed turned by watchmen. Were they helpless ‘passive spectators’ in the midst of collective debauchery? Or, in their passivity were they, too, resisting by (to use a common phrase) “malingering” on the duties of their job?

The use of convict overseers was a recurring theme in the observations and the criticisms that were made of the system. They provided a vital layer in the structure of penal discipline because the creation of a hierarchy within the convict body itself divided the prisoners and incorporated some within the hegemony of penal power. Yet, as a class they generated profound anxieties because their inclusion embodied the very point where disciplinary rhetoric and practice might be breached. Rather than collusion and collaboration with the authorities, the overseer also represented the antitype of that figure.[67] When the probation system of convict discipline commenced, Sir John Franklin noted “the necessity of having respectable persons to conduct the probationary gangs”.[68]

Fiscal considerations thwarted this and by the late 1840s efforts were still being made to phase out the use of convict overseers. In 1849, Thomas Rodgers suggested that the use of convicts as overseers at Norfolk Island subverted the principles of internal moral order. As he recalled, “of the night watch-men appointed to keep order, some were punished by Mr. Price himself for unnatural practices”.[69]

Despite the threat of harsh punishment, the frequency of cases tried for the transgression of dormitory rules suggests that moral discipline was difficult to enforce. At Maria Island “sleeping together under suspicious circumstances” was listed as a “grave” offence along with murder. Offences listed as common and every-day included “indecent exposure of person”, “holding intercommunication in solitary and separate confinement” and “absence from huts at night”. According to James Boyd these offences, “with the addition of riotous and irregular conduct in the wards…and neglect of duty by watchmen”, were the island’s “catalogue of offences, or nearly so”.[70] In his 1845 report, Boyd revealed an incident that had recently occurred:

In one night I found that eight men had removed the separation boards, and were sleeping together under most suspicious circumstances. They were tried and sentenced to nine months’ hard labour in chains…Two of the eight had the bold and disgusting affrontery [sic] to tell the visiting magistrate that they had never heard sleeping together prohibited at other stations where they had been.[71]

Feigning ignorance of the rules was unlikely to convince the judiciary, even if their claims were legitimate. Can we then read this incident as one of resistance? Perhaps the men were merely seeking warmth or comfort, yet this in itself was significant in a penal environment based on prohibition and obsessed with atomisation and deprivation. The very act of removing the separation boards would have been seen as transgressing boundaries and therefore ‘resistance’ in the eyes of the convict department. Conversely, we might consider ‘not knowing the rules’ to be a means of mocking and trivialising penal power relations. Foucault noted the “pleasure” of the observed in evading power and the desire to “flee from it, fool it or travesty it”. Their claims of ignorance might be read as a claim for agency because their ‘defence’ hinged on a refusal to acknowledge the discipline and control inscribed within those rules.[72]

Sexual meanings weaved their way through the techniques of surveillance and repression, the actions of resistance and the imposition of solitary and physically confining punishment. A final illustration of spatial-sexual resistance occurred at Norfolk Island in 1846 when Richard Kinder and James Proper were charged with an “unnatural crime”. The case could not be proved and they were charged instead with the “lesser crime” of “exposing their persons to each other in one of the boxes of the barracks”. This charge was proved and they were sentenced to nine months hard labour in irons at separate sites on the island.[73] Their ‘crime’ was both spatial and sexual because they had transgressed the rules of separation and they had resisted the ‘preventive’ measures of the boxes in the barracks. They had crossed two moral boundaries by their actions. Their punishment was in microcosm, a reassertion of penal discipline that both restrained the body and separated bodies. Individual irons and chains replaced the boxes in the barracks and the prisoners were isolated from one another geographically. Spatial-sexual meanings shaped perceptions of their ‘resistance’, but also informed their subsequent punishment.


Penal space had the potential to corrupt and pollute the very bodies it sought to control and reform. A spatial analysis of the probation system through two specific sites reveals this tension. Maria Island failed to accommodate, classify and separate men effectively and the scandal in Launceston highlights the ways that overcrowded spaces and the invisibility of bodies had moral consequences that reverberated out into the wider community. Turning the gaze back, observers looked at the system through a spatial lens and saw a penal system riddled with moral complexities. Many existing cultural and social tensions were magnified by the geographical concentration of criminal bodies in a small colony, and fiscal shortcomings exacerbated these tensions. Between Boyd’s report of December 1845 and the abandonment of Maria Island in 1850, new techniques of surveillance and restraint were introduced. These mechanisms sought to remedy past failures of classification and separation, yet they often enhanced anxieties as their own shortcomings became apparent, and different forms of convict resistance emerged. The convict department and the colonial population could try, but could not escape the sexual fears that male transportation had produced. Space was both the source of moral anxiety and the site upon which these concerns were projected.

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[1] Launceston Examiner , 30 December 1846.

[2] See J.S. Kerr, Design for Convicts: An Account of Design for Convict Establishments in the Australian Colonies During the Transportation Era, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1984; Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Australia’s Places of Confinement 1788-1988, National Trust of Australia, Sydney, 1988; I. Brand, Penal Peninsula: Port Arthur and its Outstations 1827-1898, Jason Publications, Tasmania, 1978; “The Convict Buildings of Maria Island”,Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 22, Nos. 3 & 4, September & October 1975, pp. 129-55; pp. 159-88.

[3] Kay Daniels’ study of convict women is particularly revealing. Daniels argued that the female factories failed to ‘reform’ women according to middle-class values precisely because incarceration encouraged and sustained a sexual subculture. According to Daniels, this ‘reinforced the view that integration into the community rather than incarceration was the best way to manage convict women’. Likewise, Joy Damousi has uncovered the sexual-spatial dynamic within the public-private domains on board the female transport ship. Her analysis suggests that sexual anxieties were both formed within, and heightened by, the spatial conditions of the ship. Like Daniels, she reveals how these anxieties intimately linked the management and control of female bodies with the spaces that housed them. See K. Daniels, Convict Women, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1998, p. 183; J. Damousi, “Chaos and Order: Gender Space and Sexuality on Female Convict Ships”, Australian Historical Studies, No. 104, April 1995, pp. 351-72.

[4] Richard Phillips, “Imperialism, Sexuality and Space” in A. Blunt & C. McEwan (eds), Postcolonial Geographies, Continuum, London & New York , 2002, p. 61.

[5] Historical approaches to sexual relations within all-male institutions have been explored. See A. N. Gilbert,”Buggery and the British Navy 1700-1861″, Journal of Social History, Vol. 10, 1976, pp. 72-98; A. N. Gilbert, “The Africaine Courts-Martial: A Study of Buggery and the Royal Navy”, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1974, pp. 111-22; J. Gathorne-Hardy, The Public School Phenomenon: 597-1977 , Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977.

[6] C. Johnston & R. Johnston, “The Making of Homosexual Men” in V. Bergman & J. Lee (eds), Staining the Wattle: A People’s History of Australia Since 1788, McPhee Gribble Publishers, Victoria, 1988, p. 90.

[7] M. Keith & S. Pile, “The Politics of Place”, in M. Keith & S. Pile (eds), Place and the Politics of Identity, Routledge, London, 1993, pp. 1-2. More recently, the cultural historian Frank Mort has directed attention towards the inter-related dynamics of space and sexuality. In the second edition of Dangerous Sexualities, he notes, ‘Recent cultural histories have amply demonstrated the significance of language in generating sexual meanings [yet] they have continued to underestimate the spatial dimensions of these codes’. Frank Mort,Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-moral politics in England since 1830, Routledge, London, 1987, 2nd ed., 2000, p. xxiii.

[8] As Doreen Massey has convincingly argued, space is not static, but is rather “a dimension” and “one of the axes along which we experience and conceptualise the world”. Moreover, space “is by its very nature full of power and symbolism, a complex web of relations of domination and subordination”. D. Massey, “Politics and Space/Time” in M. Keith & S. Pile (eds), Place and the Politics of Identity, p. 141; p. 156.

[9] See I. Brand, “The Convict Buildings of Maria Island”, pp. 129-155; pp. 159-188.

[10] James Boyd quoted in J. Syme,Nine Years in Van Diemen’s Land, McCosh, Park & Dewars, Dundee, 1848, p. 361.

[11] This report is printed in British Parliamentary Papers, Convict Discipline, Copies or Extracts of any Correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, 1843-1846, W. Clowes & Sons, London, 1847, pp 73-9. It is also printed in full in Ian Brand, The Convict Probation System: Van Diemen’s Land 1839-1854 , Blubber Head Press, Hobart, 1990 pp. 210-23. All quotes are taken from Brand’s source unless otherwise stated.

[12] Boyd Report, p. 211.

[13] Boyd Report, p. 211.

[14] See M. Foucault, (trans. R. Hurley), The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, Penguin, 1978, p. 145.

[15] Boyd Report, p. 212.

[16] Boyd Report, p. 213.

[17] Boyd Report, p. 212.

[18] Boyd Report, p. 215.

[19] Boyd Report, p. 214.

[20] Boyd Report, pp. 216-17.

[21] Boyd Report, p. 215.

[22] Ian Brand noted that much of the “detail” Boyd gave concerning unnatural crimes on Maria Island was omitted in the report published by the British House of Commons. See I. Brand, The Convict Probation System, p. 273.

[23] Despatch, C. J. La Trobe to Earl Grey, “The Present State and Prospects of the Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land”, 31 May 1847, in I. Brand, The Convict Probation System, p. 129; p. 117.

[24] J. Backhouse and G. W. Walker,Reports and other Papers , cy reel 1736, ML p. 179. The Quaker traveler, Frederick Mackie visited the Hobart Town Penitentiary on 1 January 1853. James Boyd was the governor at this time, and he showed Mackie the solitary cells. In his diary Mackie recorded, “these cells are now had recourse to instead of flogging which is entirely abolished”. F. Mackie, Traveller Under Concern: The Quaker Journals of Frederick Mackie on his Tour of the Australasian Colonies 1852-1855 , M. Nicholls (ed.), University of Tasmania, 1973, p. 63.

[25] Champ was the Commandant at Port Arthur from 1844 until 1848.

[26] Acting Comptroller-General William Champ, letter to Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, 30 June 1846, in E. Fitzsymonds (ed.), Norfolk Island 1846: The Reports of R. P. Stuart and T. B. Naylor, Sullivan’s Cove, 1979, p. 72.

[27] This gaol opened in July 1841. The original plan to house all inmates separately was not carried out, and an associated system of prison discipline was introduced. See J. S. Kerr,Design for Convicts, pp. 96-100.

[28] Matthew Forster was the Comptroller-General of the convict department from September 1843 until his death in January 1846. William Champ occupied the position between January and October 1846 until John Stephen Hampton took over in October 1846. Hampton remained in this position until November 1855.

[29] By the end of April 1848, Hampton’s report on the state of the convict department noted that the opening up of dormitories, the general use of bed battens and adequate supervision had been implemented at most of the accommodation sites. See Report on the state of the convict department, 30 May 1848, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 9 , pp. 251-3.

[30]. The Comptroller-General’s report of 31 October 1847 no longer mentioned the out-huts at Darlington . See Hampton’s Report in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 9 , 1849, pp. 121-9.

[31] Comptroller-General Hampton, report on the state of the convict department, 31 October 1847, p. 121.

[32] Comptroller-General Hampton, report on the state of the convict department, 30 May 1848, p. 252.

[33] Hampton visited Norfolk Island in January 1848. In his report on the state of the prisoner barracks he noted,”The wards now occupied are well lighted at night, but the inspection-apertures in the doors were defectively small. I therefore directed large holes to be immediately cut, which, with the present arrangement of the hammocks, will admit of complete inspection without opening the doors”. J. S. Hampton, report on Norfolk Island, January, 1848, inBritish Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 9, 1849, pp. 196-203, p. 197.

[34] Separate apartments continued to be used to house “all men” who were “suspected” to be guilty of “the crime”. See Comptroller-General, report on the state of the convict department, January 1849, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 9, 1849, pp. 166-7.

[35] Comptroller-General, report on the state of the convict department, January 1849, p. 167. Kerr has noted that “the enclosed bed places were completed in all but five establishments by the end of 1848, but the campaign for separate apartments was less successful”. See J. S. Kerr, Design for Convicts, p. 146.

[36] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 173.

[37] G.C. Mundy, Our Antipodes: or, Residence and Rambles in the Australasian Colonies with a Glimpse of the Goldfields, Bentley, London, 1852, reprinted Sullivan’s Cove, Adelaide, 1986, p. 11. In 1848 H.P. Fry visited the same convict dormitory. His account confirms this picture, although his suggestion that there were 282 wooden berths is nearer to the reports of the Comptroller-General, than Mundy’s figure of 400. Ian Brand visited the island in 1969 and again in 1973 and reported that “the battens to which the tiers of bunks were fastened are still to be seen in the walls”. See I. Brand, “The Convict Buildings of Maria Island”, pp. 136-7.

[38] William Gunn, Superintendent of Hobart Barracks, Letter to Lieutenant-Governor Eardley-Wilmot, 3 September 1846, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 7 , 1843-47, Shannon, Irish University Press, 1969, p.648.

[39] In Britain, Willson gave evidence to the 1847 House of Lords Select Committee on Transportation. He answered 148 questions on convict discipline, the probation system and the moral and religious implications of transportation. See his evidence, 11 May 1847, in British Parliamentary Papers, Juvenile Offenders & Transportation, No. 1, 1847, Shannon, Irish University Press, 1969, second report, pp. 489-514. See also, W.T. Southerwood, The Convict’s Friend: A Life of Bishop R.W. Willson, Stella Marris Books, Tasmania, 1989; J.H. Cullen, “Bishop Willson and Norfolk Island”,Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1952, pp. 4-10.

[40] R. Willson, Report on Norfolk Island, 10 December 1849, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol 8 , 1847-50, Shannon, Irish University Press, 1969, p. 441.

[41] “Chaos”, according to Massey, refers to the “unintended consequences which are not directly socially caused”. See D. Massey, “Politics and Space/Time”, p. 156.

[42] D. Turner, “Nothing is so Secret but Shall be Revealed: The Scandalous Life of Robert Foulkes”, in T. Hitchcock & M. Cohen (eds), English Masculinities 1660-1800, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, 1999, p. 184.

[43] The Launceston Examiner demanded that an investigation be carried out by the independent, unpaid magistracy of the colony, rather than the convict department. The Examiner did not trust an internal review by the convict department itself. The paper noted “the unpaid magistracy have a duty to perform from which they should not shrink. Let them visit every depot and house of correction at NIGHT and forward an account of what they witness to the Home Government”. Launceston Examiner , 23 August 1848.

[44] Letter from Theodore Bartley JP, Richard Dry JP & W.R. Pugh JP to Lieutenant-Governor Denison, 21 August 1848, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 9, 1849, pp. 78-9.

[45] See Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities, pp. 38-42; P. Stallybrass & A. White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Methuen, London, 1986, pp. 134-5.

[46] Letter from Theodore Bartley JP, Richard Dry JP & W.R. Pugh JP to Lieutenant-Governor Denison, 21 August 1848, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 9, 1849, pp. 78-9.

[47] Dr M. Gaunt, letter to Colonial Secretary, 19 August 1848, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 9, 1849, pp. 79-80.

[48] Launceston Examiner, 23 August 1848.

[49] Robert Crooke, The Convict: A Fragment of History, Hobart, 1958, p. 104. Crooke was the Roman Catholic catechist at the Salt Water Probation station between 1843 and 1850.

[50] According to Maconochie, “The direct application of force to the human mind always deteriorates it…it degrades, emasculates and too often crushes altogether”. He further noted, “the results of moral influence will be most evident and unquestionable where physical restraints are the fewest and weakest…being calculated to produce voluntary effects, little comparative superintendence will be required to make it effective”. See A. Maconochie, The Marks System, London, 1847, p. 7; J. C. Symons, Tactics for the Times as Regards the Condition and Treatment of the Dangerous Classes, London, 1849, p. 239.

[51] In a letter to J. C. Symons he noted the expediency of placing “prisoners comparatively in a natural state, instead of, as at present in a highly unnatural and artificial one”. A. Maconochie, letter to Symons, 14 April 1849, in J. C. Symons, Tactics for the Times, p. 241.

[52] Alexander Maconochie, Norfolk Island, London, 1847, pp. 19-20.

[53] Reverend T. Rodgers, Review of Dr Hampton’s First Report on Norfolk Island, 1849, p. 12. It seems that naked inspections formed part of the welcome ceremony for new arrivals at the island. Both John Knatchbull and Thomas Cook noted the practice in their memoirs. See J. Knatchbull, From Quarterdeck to Gallows: Including the Narrative written by himself in Darlinghurst Gaol 23 January – 13 February 1844, (C. Roderick ed.), Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963, p. 85; T. Cook, The Exile’s Lamentations or Biographical Sketch of Thomas Cook, first published 1840, reprinted Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1978, p. 44.

[54] Reverend T. Rogers, Review of Dr Hampton’s First Report , p. 12.

[55] Reverend T. Rodgers, Review of Dr Hampton’s First Report , p. 12.

[56] Foucault wrote of “the polymorphous techniques of power” to reveal this idea. In “Body/Power”, he noted that sexuality, in “becoming an object of analysis and concern, surveillance and control, engenders at the same time, an intensification of each individuals desire, for, in and over his body”. C. Gordon, (ed.),Michael Foucault Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, pp. 56-7.

[57] S. Pile & M. Keith (eds),Geographies of Resistance , Routledge, London, 1997, p. 30.

[58] See K. Daniels, “The Flash Mob: Rebellion, Rough Culture and Sexuality in the Female Factories of Van Diemen’s Land”, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 18, summer 1993, pp. 133-50; L. Heath, “A Safe and Salutary Discipline: The Dark Cells at the Parramatta Female Factory 1838”, Push from the Bush, Vol. 9, July 1981, pp. 20-8; D. Kent, “Customary Behaviour Transported: A Note on the Parramatta Female Factory Riot of 1827”, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 40, March 1994, pp. 75-9. Male Convict resistance has largely been examined in relation to the master-servant relationship of the assignment system. This has resulted in a focus upon work-related resistance such as “malingering”, the feigning of illness and the destruction of tools. See A. Atkinson, “Four Patterns of Convict Protest”, Labour History, No. 37, November 1979, pp. 28-51; W. Nichol, “‘Malingering’ and the Convict Protest”,Labour History, No. 47, November 1984, pp. 18-27. More recent studies have revealed the cultural dimension of male convict resistance. See Bruce Hindmarsh, “Beer and Fighting: Some Aspects of Male Convict Leisure in Van Diemen’s Land”, Journal of Australian Studies , 2000, New Talents ‘Writing Australia’ edn., pp. 150-56; H. Maxwell-Stewart, “Convict Workers, Penal Labour and Sarah Island: Life at Macquarie Harbour 1822-1834” in I. Duffield & J. Bradley (eds),Representing Convicts: New Perspectives on Forced Labour Migration, Leicester University Press, Leicester, 1997, pp. 142-62.

[59] J. Damousi, Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p. 66.

[60] H.P. Fry, A System of Penal Discipline, p. 173.

[61] Hall suggested that the lamps be locked within fine wire cages to prevent this. Mr. E.S. Hall to Dr Robertson, Westbury, 23 February 1846, Inclosure 12 in no. 9, Despatch 54, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot to Lord Stanley, 17 March 1846, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation Vol. 7, 1843-47, p. 507.

[62] S. Pile, “Introduction” in S. Pile & M. Keith (eds), Geographies of Resistance , p. 17.

[63] Mr Park to Dr Robertson, Oatlands, 4 March 1846, Inclosure 21 in no. 9, Despatch 54, pp. 510-11.

[64] K. Daniels notes that being out of bed at “an unreasonable hour” was considered “a most serious crime” with respect to female convicts incarcerated in Van Diemen’s Land. See K. Daniels,”The Flash Mob”, p. 139.

[65] Resistance aside, the desire for warmth and companionship probably motivated some men to share sleeping spaces.

[66] R. P. Stuart, in E. Fitzsymmonds (ed.), Norfolk Island 1846, p. 45.

[67] See. R. Evans & B. Thorpe,”Commanding Men: Masculinities and the Convict System”, Journal of Australian Studies , No. 56, 1998, pp. 17-34.

[68] Sir John Franklin to Lord John Russell, 18 November 1840, in British Parliamentary Papers, Crime & Punishment, Transportation, Vol. 6, 1810-41, pp. 870-2.

[69] Thomas Rodgers,Correspondence relating to the dismissal of the Reverend T. Rodgers from his Chaplaincy at Norfolk Island , Henry Dowling, Launceston, 1849, cy reel 499, Mitchell Library, Sydney, pp. 91-2.

[70] “Conduct of the Prisoners, Offences and Punishments” in James Boyd’s Report, 31 December 1845, in I. Brand,The Convict Probation System, pp. 218-9.

[71] Boyd Report, p. 213.

[72] See M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume One, p. 45.

[73]A. Price, 4 September 1846, in History of Norfolk Island 1774-1854 , cy reel 880, Mitchell Library, Sydney, p. 158.