Friday, 27 December 2013

Bushranging and public order

The Police Act first passed in 1833 and amended in 1838, provided police with considerable discretion and ample opportunity to make money. It contained seventy-two sections, with ‘a multitude of rules and directions relative to the regulation of the Police, and the removal and prevention of nuisances in Hobart Town and Launceston’.[1] Forty-four sections dealt with the recovery of penalties from 2s 6d to £20, half of which went to informers. The Cornwall Chronicle admonished magistrates for imposing the highest penalty when wilfulness was not proved. For example, if a constable was assaulted when attempting to stop thieves escaping, the maximum penalty of £10 for such an assault was justified.[2] But in cases of drunkenness, the Chronicle thought clear evidence of assault occasioning bodily harm and not an accidental blow should be demonstrated before imposing £10. The Chronicle was prepared to allow an informer part of the fine only in cases of sly grog selling, smuggling and illicit distillation.[3] The Police Act 1838 gave some protection to colonists. Section 64 held that where an informer was examined to prove the offence, he did not receive half of the fine and if the penalty for summary conviction exceeded £5, the aggrieved person could appeal to the Court of Quarter Sessions.[4]

Two of Arthur’s major achievements were to counteract the threat to public order and life from Aboriginal attacks and bushrangers. But not all Aborigines were transported to Flinders Island and as late as 1841 the Van Diemen’s Land Company at Circular Head in the north-west complained of numerous ‘depredations’ by ‘a small Party of Natives still at large in the Colony’.[5] The party of two men, a woman, and a youth attempted to murder and wounded some of the company’s servants, stole from huts and speared sheep and horses. Constables later reported seeing a white man with the Aborigines. These attacks were confined to a small area and, although serious for the company’s workers, did not threaten social order.

Under Franklin and Eardley-Wilmot, bushranging still posed a major threat. In 1838, Franklin reported ‘several daring outrages, attended with personal violence, robbery, and murder’ committed by four armed convicts.[6] Reacting to the ‘alarm’ of settlers, Franklin took ‘the most vigorous measures’ to catch the bushrangers. He sent all able-bodied constables in pursuit and offered ‘extraordinary rewards’ for their capture and free pardons to convict servants who defended their masters. Convicts who helped capture bushrangers were liable to be killed for their betrayal and were thus given free passage to England.[7] Franklin encouraged settlers to defend themselves resolutely, to tell the nearest Police Magistrate of the appearance of bushrangers as quickly as they could, and to scour the country for signs of bushrangers.[8] Four bushrangers were captured, but magistrates remained vigilant.[9] Most landholders willingly defended themselves but had farms to work and relied on ‘the protecting care of the Government’.[10] This protection was weakened by the withdrawal of military troops. Franklin protested that, as the convict population increased and spread throughout the island on public works and roads, absconding would increase unless the military could be located at each probation station.[11] In November 1840, Franklin reported that he had three companies of infantry men less than he had in May 1839.

In 1843, bushranging reached especially dangerous levels. The Cornwall Chronicle identified seven gangs of bushrangers comprised of from two to fifteen men operating in the north alone.[12] Three ‘very determined’ bushrangers, including Martin Cash and Laurence Kavenagh, escaped from Port Arthur, committed various acts of robbery, and eluded capture.[13] Cash had experience as a splitter in ‘the most intricate and impenetrable districts’ and knew where to hide. [14] Kangaroo hunters and shepherds allegedly harboured bushrangers and supplied them with ammunition and provisions.[15] Cash used a telescope to watch from the hills and attacked farms at the most vulnerable times, when men were in the fields or constables were not in the vicinity.[16] Bushrangers laughed at the ineffective efforts of convict constables to find them and their ‘overweening confidence’ encouraged others to abscond to the bush. According to the Hobart Town Advertiser, colonists faced a more numerous, desperate, and dangerous breed of convicts than the petty thieves of the past. The most desperate were the ‘dark, stern, and determined’ Irish prisoners, whose crimes had imperilled the lives of others and risked their own.[17] Convicts who had spent time at Norfolk Island and who were ‘anxious for plunder, and, if necessary, bloodshed’, were especially feared.[18]

Franklin was sensitive to charges of inefficiency and despite the large numbers of convicts dispersed throughout the colony and a relatively small police force, he pointed out that few convicts absconded and, when they did, committed a ‘small amount of crime’ and were usually captured quickly.[19] Only Riley Jeffs and John Conway, who shot District Constable Ward at Avoca and the Cash gang retained their freedom for long periods. From 1 January 1843 to 9 January 1843, 594 males absconded, of whom 505 were arrested, leaving 89 at large; 148 females absconded, of whom 113 were arrested, leaving 35 at large. In July 1844, Burgess reported that, during the first half year of his tenure, the average period of freedom was twenty-four days.[20] The police adopted various measures to recapture bushrangers. In July 1843, each magistrate selected four constables as Field Police, men of ‘good conduct’ and knowledge of the bush. They were stationed at the headquarters of each district ready for immediate deployment and were trained in the use of firearms by the military stationed in their districts. Between January and March 1844, ninety constables were taken from other stations to pursue absconders.

In the late 1830s, the weakness of police numbers in the interior led landholders to provide their own means of protection against criminals. The Northern Association for the Suppression of Felonies offered rewards for the capture of murderers, sheep stealers, embezzlers and petty thieves. Sheep and cattle stealing lay behind the formation of the Southern Association for the Detection and Suppression of felonies and Misdemeanours in 1838.[21] In the early 1840s, absconding probationers stole sheep, pigs, poultry, clothes and tools with seeming impunity, but, with the high price for wool, large scale sheep stealing was also common.[22] For example, in Evandale a gang of sheep-stealers drove hundreds of sheep to yards that were ‘purposely built’ to slaughter sheep and pack wool.[23] Before their capture, the gang had slaughtered about 1,500 sheep.

Despite the concentration of convicts and ex-convicts in the main towns of Hobart Town and Launceston, there were few signs of concern over levels of crime before 1840. The Austral Asiatic Review saw most robbery as of ‘the most pitiful, pilfering, food-hunting description’, but serious crime was strikingly rare for a sea port.[24] However, from around 1844, newspapers began to report more robberies and thefts. In Launceston, police numbers were too small to protect remote streets at night and robberies became more frequent.[25] Most crime was blamed on ‘[t]he appalling state of misery and destitution’ and the large numbers of unemployed probationers ‘let loose upon the community’.[26] But crime was no longer just driven by need. The Colonial Times noted the increasing incidence of ‘large, systematic and well concerted robberies’ by men more or often than not armed with guns, bludgeons and tomahawks.[27] The port area of Wapping in Hobart Town was the preferred haven for many thievish rogues and vagabonds.[28] The Hobart Town Advertiser claimed that, since the introduction of the probation system, the number of crimes had ‘vastly and disproportionately increased’[29] while the Cornwall Chronicle suggested that criminals belonged to ‘a “new school” of villainy’ produced by the probation system.[30] According to the American political prisoner Linus W. Miller, the convicts leagued together ‘under a systematic plan’ using ‘a vulgar language of their own’ to ‘plunder whatever comes their way’ and it was very difficult for the police to detect them.[31] Although Burgess introduced new arrangements to prevent crime at night dividing Hobart Town and Launceston into police districts under the command of a sergeant, he simply lacked the numbers to deal with the criminal population and town residents needed to develop their own methods of protection. The frequent robberies compelled the major merchants and shopkeepers to employ ‘armed confidential persons’ to protect their goods at night. The Colonial Times urged residents to form ‘a volunteer force’ of special constables to patrol their districts in liaison with the ordinary police, especially when detachments from Hobart Town were sent in pursuit of bushrangers and were replaced temporarily by Norfolk Islander convicts trained by Price.[32] The Cornwall Chronicle advised citizens to arm themselves and take turns in walking the streets ‘in search of bad characters who infest them’.[33] Residents should also get sturdy shutters and bolts and burn chamber lamps through the night.

According to the anti-transportationist solicitor Robert Pitcairn and others, some officials doctored criminal statistics to conceal actual levels of crime. Eardley-Wilmot unsurprisingly disagreed. He regarded the protection of life and property as his most important duty and claimed that his critics exaggerated the level of insecurity. He argued, not altogether convincingly, that magisterial and judicial records showed that crime had decreased. The number of persons brought before Police Magistrates decreased from 19,062 in May 1844 to 17,338 in May 1846 at a time when the convict population increased at a time when some 5,000 new convicts arrived in the colony.

The policing of VDL from its origins in the first decade of the nineteenth century to 1850 proved problematic. VDL was an often brutal and brutalised society in which transported convicts or emancipists made up a substantial proportion of the population. Free settlers were in a minority and often viewed themselves as a society under siege threatened by the indigenous Aboriginal population as well as by absconded convicts, bushrangers and by criminals in general. It is hardly surprising that security was a major issue and raised fundamental questions about the nature of the judicial system and how society should be policed. Successive governors had to try to marry their need to make VDL a penal colony in which those transported were punished with the demands of free settler society for judicial and political liberty and, from the late 1830s with calls for an end of transportation. The development of an effective police force was part of this process.


[1] Colonial Times, 13 October 1840.

[2] Cornwall Chronicle, 23 September 1843.

[3] Cornwall Chronicle, 15 November 1843.

[4] 2 Vict. No. 22 sections 64 and 65.

[5] AOT GO 1/45, p. 187, D.57, Stanley to Franklin, 26 February 1842, Curr to Directors, 12 August 1841, Curr to Colonial Secretary, 3 October 1839, Curr to Archer, 27 July 1841.

[6] AOT GO 33/28, p.785, D.43, Franklin to Glenelg, 14 May 1838; AOT POL 318/5, Forster to Colonial Secretary, 25 April 1838.

[7] CO 280/158, Franklin to Stanley, 21 July 1843.

[8] Hobart Town Gazette, 18 May 1838.

[9] AOT POL 319/2, Forster to Police Magistrates, 6 July 1838.

[10] CO 280/97, memorial from landholders at Swanport, 25 August 1838.

[11] AOT GO 33/34, p.825, D.44, Franklin to Russell, 3 April 1840; AOT GO 33/36, p.546, D.157, Franklin to Russell, 18 November 1840.

[12] Cornwall Chronicle, 6 May 1843

[13] CO 280/157, Franklin to Stanley, 3 June 1843

[14] Cash, M., Martin Cash: The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land in 1843-4, (Walch and Sons), 1870.

[15] Launceston Advertiser, 14 September 1843

[16] Hobart Town Courier, 17, 24 February, 31 March 1843

[17] Hobart Town Advertiser, 28 March 1843; compare this claim with an analysis of offences by Irish convicts in VDL, see Williams, J., Ordered to the Island: Irish Convicts and Van Diemen’s Land, (Crossing Press), 1994.

[18] Colonial Times, 2 April 1844.

[19] CO 280/157, Franklin to Stanley, 3 June 1843; Hobart Town Courier, 12 May 1843

[20] AOT GO 33/49, p. 11. D.185, Burgess to Colonial Secretary, 22 July 1844.

[21] Hobart Town Courier, 9 November 1838; Tasmanian Weekly Dispatch, 22 November 1839, 7 February 1840.

[22] Hobart Town Advertiser, 19 November 1844; Examiner, 25 December 1844; Hobart Town Courier, 6 February 1845; Syme, J., Nine Years in Van Diemen’s Land, (Dundee: The Author), 1848, p. 147.

[23] Cornwall Chronicle, 12 August 1844.

[24] Austral Asiatic Review, 22 December 1840.

[25] Cornwall Chronicle, 27 April 1844; Examiner, 13 July 1844; Launceston Advertiser, 9 August 1844.

[26] Colonial Times, 5 March 1844; see also Launceston Advertiser, 25 April 1844.

[27] Colonial Times, 2 April 1844.

[28] Colonial Times, 26 December 1845.

[29] Hobart Town Advertiser, 19 November 1844.

[30] Cornwall Chronicle, 11 May 1844.

[31] Miller, L.W., Notes of an Exile to Van Diemen’s Land, 1846, (S.R. Publishers), 1968, p. 284.

[32] Hobart Town Advertiser, 10 August 1844; Colonial Times, 29 April 1845; Spectator, 8 December 1846.

[33] Cornwall Chronicle, 24 May 1845.

No comments: