History - AustralianAustralian CultureCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


Share |

Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
Why paternalism ruled over conquest?

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

Convicts and their legacy

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


Can Convict Creations be relied upon?

Offence and punishment - primary source

Punishment of Convicts in Colonial Australia

What did it aim to achieve?

Traditionally, there are four main justifications for punishments being designed and implemented. Justice for the victim is one justification. For example, punishments such as an eye-for-an-eye aim to make criminals suffer to the degree that their victims have suffered. Deterrence is another justification.  For example, hanging someone in public was intended to serve as a warning to potential criminals about what would happen if they too broke the law. Rehabilitation is a third justification. For example, forcing a criminal into an education program was intended to provide them with an alternative means aside from crime to survive. Social protection is a final justification. For example, sending Convicts to the other side of the world was intended to protect British society from the immoral conduct of those who could not obey the law.

In colonial Australia, there were three main punishments for male convicts; the wheel, irons and floggings. Often these were inflicted in ways that suggested that justice, rehabilitation, and societal protection were not important considerations. Instead, they were inflicted to serve as a deterrence, to gain some kind of economic benefit for a vested interest or just because some people in power gained pleasure in witnessing human misery.


In theory, flogging was intended to act as deterant and it was dispensed for crimes such as neglecting work, attempting escape or general misconduct (being rude in the eyes of someone with power.) It also became common to flog Convicts until they confessed to crimes or to get information out of them. In other words, it was used as torture.

A short whip was made up of nine strands of leather and knotted along its length to give it extra bite. The Convict was typically spread eagled over a triangular frame or tied to a tree. Their skin usually split by the fourth lash and the backbone could be exposed by 50 lashes.

The floggers were often friends or acquaintances of the Convict being flogged. Perhaps this was because flogging was hard work that would be tiring for someone in authority. Alternatively, ordering a mate to flog a mate could break camaraderie between Convicts.

Flogging was probably a popular punishment because it was easy to dispense and because many authority figures gained satisfaction in witnessing human misery. As an act of defiance, Convicts tried to avoid showing pain. As one commentator wrote:

'The convict flagellator at this time "felt a gratification in inflicting and witnessing human misery." There were many prisoners who would bear any punishment rather than complain; I am certain that they would have died at the triangle rather than utter a grown'.

The Convict J.F Mortlock wrote that it even became good Convict manners not to show pain:

"In Australia , silent composure under suffering is strictly prescribed by convict etiquette."

Although it was easy to dispense, flogging had a downside in that it often killed the Convict or reduced their capacity to work. Furthermore, when Convicts were unable to work because they had been flogged, they needed to be flogged again for not working. As one Convict explained:

"unless it were at the meal Hours or at Night he was immediately sent to work, his back like Bullocks Liver and most likely his shoes full of Blood, and not permitted to go to the Hospital until next morning when his back would be washed by the Doctor's Mate and a little Hog's Lard spread on with a piece of Tow, and so off to work...and it often happened that the same man would be flogged the following day for Neglect of Work."

Convict flogging

Flogging a convict at Moreton Bay, 1836 
Artist unknown
Hand-coloured etching

Convicts were usually flogged by other Convicts, who had been threatened with suffering the same fate if they didn't swing hard enough.

The treadmill

The treadmill was a punishment that seemed to have been devised to make an economic profit out of the Convicts’ transgressions. It was introduced into Sydney in 1823 as an alternative to floggings and was often used to punish crimes such as “insolence.”   

The Convicts had to walk up a revolving set of steps which powered mills grinding grain into flour. Members of the public could pay a fee to have their grain milled. For the Convicts, it was tiring work and if they did not walk at a sufficient speed, they could be flogged like a donkey. If they slipped, their legs could fall into the blades and be mutilated.

The visiting French naval officer Hyacinthe de Bougainville gave this account of the Sydney treadmill in 1825:

It is a large wheel whose horizontal blades are wide enough to allow a certain number of men to position themselves, each next to the other, on the outside… Holding on to a wooden crossbar that is separate from the wheel and attached at the height of the chin, they climb without stopping from one blade to the next… this labour continues for forty minutes without a break; the men rest for twenty minutes, then they start up again, and so on, for the whole day… It was difficult to imagine an activity more boring and tiring at the same time, by it’s monotony and the care necessary to apply to this task, in the fear of missing the blade and having your legs mutilated…

Although it was designed to make something constructive out of punishment, there is some circumstantial evidence that it was also used to satisfy the desires of someone who wanted to see pain. The novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1867) was based upon Marcus Clarke’s observations of the Tasmanian penal colony. In one passage, Clarke wrote

"Frere gave him fifty more lashes, and sent him the next day to grind cayenne pepper. This was a punishment more dreaded by the convicts than any other. The pungent dust filled their eyes and lungs, causing them the most excruciating torments. For a man with a raw back the work is one of continued agony. In four days Rufus Dawes, emaciated, blistered, blinded, broke down "For God's sake, Captain Frere, kill me at once!"

Convicts in Australia were required to walk the treadmill without their shirts, unlike in England where Convicts kept their shirts on. Although this could be explained as an environmental adaptation, it could also suggest that the treadmill was being used in the way described by Clarke.


Convict Treadmill

A treadmill operating in London 1822. In Australia, Convicts were naked from the waist up.


For their early years, Australia’s colonies were open air prisons, which basically meant there were no walls to restrict the Convict’s movements. There wasn’t that much threat of the Convicts running away because, unless they were accepted by an Aboriginal tribe, Convicts lacked the knowledge of the bush to survive independently of the colonies.

Despite the little hope for independent survival, some Convicts kept trying, which in turn resulted in the authorities turning to leg irons. This involved placing shackles around the Convict’s ankles, which could in turn be chained to other Convicts in a gang. Not only did the irons prevent the Convicts from being able to run away, they also caused discomfort and pain. Medical journals recorded that they caused severe groin pain, bruising of the skin, lesions and skin ruptures. 

leg irons

The leg irons came in different weights so that different levels of discomfort could be applied. The above legs irons were in excess of 10kg and used far more steel than was needed to simply restrain.

In the gangs, the Convicts were forced to do some kind of labouring, such as building roads. In Newcastle, penal administrator Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset even ordered that a chain gang carve him a 1.5m X 10m swimming pool into the rocks for his private use.

Bogey Hole

The Bogey Hole is a popular sea bath in Newcastle. It was orginally constructed because Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset wanted a calm rock pool for his own leisure.


Punishments for female Convicts

Female Convicts were usually spared the irons and floggings inflicted on male convicts. For crimes such as public drunkardness, pregnancy on assignment, prostitution or theft, they were often sent to female factories for periods from two weeks to a number of years. At the factory, they were forced to do some kind of labouring (such as making clothes) and if they were disorderly or disrespectful, they would be subjected to secondary punishments, such as having their heads shaved or being sent to solitary confinement.

Outside of the factories, it seems women were sometimes subjected to both the punishments inflicted on men as well as those on women. For example, while being transported to Australia on the Britannia, an Irish woman named Jenny Blake tried to commit suicide. To punish her attempt, the ship's captain personally gagged her, cut her hair off, and used a cane to publicly beat her over the back, shoulders and face. He then ordered that she be placed in irons. The punishments inflicted on Jenny Blake revealed that psychopaths who got into positions of authority had free reign to inflict any punishments they wanted for any indiscretion or lack of indiscretion. These punishments didn't achieve anything except provide the pyschopath with gratification in the infliction of misery.

Female Moonings

Convict women were often punished for having poor morality. In 1838, Convict women at the Cascades Female Factory reacted by mooning the visiting governor and the reverend.


Were there any attempts at rehabilitation?  

Because punishment itself had a cost, sometimes punishments were devised to rehabilitate. Today, rehabilitation might come in the form of an education program; however, at the Port Arthur penal settlement, it came in the form of the “silent system.” Under the system, prisoners were hooded, made to stay silent or locked in rooms with little sound or light. In theory, this would allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon their actions. Furthermore, criminality was often conceived as a contagious disease so with sensory deprivation, the disease could not be caught or spread.

The silent system was not an effective form of rehabilitation as many of the Convicts developed mental programs. A mental asylum was subsequently constructed alongside the prison to house the criminals that the silent system turned insane.

Broad Arrows Cafe PORT Arthur

The Port Arthur penal colony was the scene of some of the worst physical and psychological punishments that the world has ever seen.


Activities - The social psychology of punishment

Activity 1 - Apply the findings of the Stanford Prison experiment to explain why punishments seem to have no purpose other than causing pain

The Stanford Prison Experimen(Zimbardo 1971) was a social psychology experiment that randomly assigned volunteers to the roles of prisoners and prison officers to investigate the psychological effects of power differentials. The experiment was planned to run for two weeks but had to be abandoned after six days after the prison officers exhibited increasingly sadistic behaviour. Despite the ethical concerns regarding the trauma suffered by prisoners, the experiment has been very influential in that it demonstrated a social situation, rather than personality traits, can be the key determining factor in sadistic behaviour.

When instructing the guards, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo stated:

"You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy ... We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we'll have all the power and they'll have none."

In regards to the Australian penal system:

In what ways, were the Convicts made to feel their lives were totally controlled by the system?

In what ways were they stripped of individuality?

In what ways were they made to feel powerless?

In what ways were they made to feel afraid?

Activity 2 - What was the message of punishment?

Severe punishments are sometimes justified as being required to "send a message." The intended message is not the same message that is received? As the Convict J.F Mortlock wrote in 1864

 "All the evil in his nature (and who is without any) had been developed and nourished by harsh and cruel treatment, kindling, perhaps, a revengeful feeling against all mankind - a feeling, often the cause, in Australia at a future period, of the barbarous murder of innocent individuals."

What message did the Convicts referred to by Mortlock likely receive from punishment ?


Activity 3 - Source analysis

In 1804, the Irish Convict George Barrington wrote a poem that had ironic views on patriotism. What were the views and why might an Irish Convict (or any transported Convict) feel this way?

George Barrington
(14 May 1755 – 27 December 1804 Irish Convict sent to Botany Bay)

From distant climes, o'er wide-spread seas we come, 
Though not with much eclat, or beat of drum,
True patriots all, for it be understood, 
We left our country for our country's good:
No private views disgraced our generous zeal,
What urged our travels was our country's weal:
And none will doubt that our emigration
Had prov'd most useful to the British Nation.

Activity 4 - Was justice served by punishment?

An-eye-for-an-eye punishments are typically justified as a form of justice. They are based on the premise that victims wont feel satisfied unless the criminals suffers to the extent that they have suffered. Weigh the crime against the punishment of transportation to Australia and up to seven years of hard labour to decide if the punishment served justice.

Activity 5 - Define the purpose of the punishment

Decide if the following punishments coud be defined as a form of rehabilitation, justice for victims, deterrence, social protection, economic exploitation, sadism:

  • Execution
  • Transportation
  • Treadmill
  • Head shaving (for women)
  • Wearing a collar (for women)
  • Floggings
  • Assigned work

Actvity 6 - Use Milgram’s Obedience studies to explain why individuals participated in punishments they believed to be wrong:

Many free citizens were horrified by the punishments they saw in Australia yet aside from writing letters of concern, they continued to be part of the system. Convicts themselves also participated in punishments of other Convicts. The most common form was being required to flog other Convicts.
Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s give an insight into why individuals are able to set aside their ethical and moral concerns to inflict hurt on others without feelings of responsibility. Participants were told that the experiment aimed to determine the role of punishment in eductaion.

Study the experiment and explain how an evasion of feelings of personality responsibility could have allowed people to implement extreme cruelty in Australia.

Activity 7 - Why did Aborigines not see it as justice?

Read the news account from 1791:

May 30 1791 The ferocity of British justice has shocked the Aborigines. The Governor wants to prove to them that there possessions are to be respected, and that any convict stealing from them can expect a harsh penalty.

Only this month a convict who stole fishing tackle from Daringa, wife of Colbee, was severely flogged in the presence of as many Aborigines of both sexes as could be assembled. The reason for the punishment was explained to them.

The Aborigines expressed abhorrence of the punishment, and sympathy for the sufferer.

Why do you think the Aborigines did not feel a sense of justice when they saw the conflict who had stolen from them being flogged?






John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese






"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)