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Significant Scots
Alexander Maconochie


Alexander MaconochieTo the hopelessly brutalised convicts on Norfolk Island, Alexander Maconochie appeared like an angel from heaven. Little did they know that, but for the failure of an earlier dream, his fate — and theirs - could have been very different.

Having served at sea with Nelson, fighting in the West Indies, Maconochie had been sent home on half-pay to live with his mother in Warriston Crescent, Edinburgh. There he put his knowledge of the globe to good use, writing a series of pamphlets on opportunities for colonial expansion which were read in high places. He had great ability in formulating projects, and in 1823 he took his new wife to live on a farm at North Queensferry.

But despite making a name for himself in the community, building a school for his growing family and suggesting improvements to the local ferry service, the farm began losing money and he was forced to move on. Taking his wife and children to London, he joined some distinguished former Naval colleagues in a geographical society called the Raleigh Club.

The turning point for Maconochie and the men who would find in him a hope they thought lost forever came when his friend Sir John Franklin, the famous explorer, was appointed governor of Van Diemen’s Land, known today as Tasmania.

In need of a private secretary, he offered the post to his old comrade and it was gladly accepted. To augment his income in the Antipodes, Maconochie secured commissions to report back for various charitable bodies, including the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline.

Supported by the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, the society was the leading body for penal reform and had influence with the British Government. Lord John Russell, the Home Secretary, set up the Molesworth committee to investigate transportation, which showed no sign of reforming criminals and was felt to be polluting Australian society.

Through indirect, unofficial channels, Maconochie’s reports found their way to Russell’s desk in London. The picture they painted of the penal colonies on van Diemen’s Land was grim.

MACONOCHIE did not spare the detail in describing the vicious floggings, the heavy manacles and the line of savage dogs kept tethered from shore to shore across Eaglehawk Neck to prevent escape from the hell of Port Arthur.

Nor did Maconochie pull his punches in describing the regime of Franklin’s predecessor, Sir George Arthur. When Russell ordered Maconochie’s first report to be made public, there was uproar among the free citizens of Van Diemen’s Land, who relied on the repressive regime for cheap labour.

In the end, Franklin was forced to sack his friend, but Maconochie hung on. What began as yet another project had now become a personal mission to save the penal community.

In his reports be outlined a better way of running the colonies and with Russell’s qualified support, strings were pulled to give him a chance to prove his ideas in practice —as governor of Norfolk Island. From the moment he landed on the deceptively beautiful island, the convicts could see he was different. One of them later recalled Maconochie’s ‘most Christian-like and eloquent speech which drew tears from the eyes of the most hardened and depraved beings’ as he promised things would get better.

‘He said that he did not enter that island with the intention of torturing the unhappy prisoners. On the contrary, he purposed introducing measures by which alone the industrious and well-conducted could purchase their freedom.’

The convicts could hardly believe it as he outlined the new regime, involving two stages of treatment - punishment for the past, which they must meet with ‘manly penitence’, and training for the future, which they could embrace ‘with hope’.

Maconochie then defined how his new system would grant each convict marks according to conduct on a daily basis as evaluated by the overseers.

‘By this means,’ he said, ‘a record will be kept of every man’s conduct; he will advance from punishment to probation, and from probation to entire release, as he behaves himself. His fate will be in his own hands.’

In the punishment stage of a sentence, a convict could earn marks and use them to purchase small indulgences such as tea and tobacco or better clothes.

In the reforming stage, convicts would be offered the hope of buying their way out of a sentence early - a seven-year sentence would be made commutable to 6,000 marks, a ten-year one to 7,000, and 14 years and upwards to 8,000. For the first time, these hardened criminals were being offered the distant hope of freedom. As one recalled: ‘No sooner did they comprehend the purport of his message from our most Gracious Queen, that sovereign who had been forgotten by them as having any dominion over the land in which so much blood had been spilt, than Her Majesty reigned in their hearts and they all appeared to labour cheerfully in the one large field of reformation.’

ONLY Maconochie knew how far he was overstepping the mark with his superiors. He had brought with him 439 new convicts, who were to form a pioneering agricultural convict community at Longridge. They were supposed to be kept separate from the hardened, habitual offenders who had been there for years.

But Maconochie found it impossible to operate liberal and repressive regimes on the same island, and offered essentially the same system to all his charges. On learning this, his immediate boss, Sir George Gipps, the governor of New South Wales, fired off a strongly-worded letter, ordering Maconochie to conform to the original plan.

It was a critical moment. If Maconochie went back on his promises to the convicts, he would lose all credibility and hope of reform. Like Nelson, he chose to put a telescope to his blind eye and ignore the warning signals. He had held out the young Queen Victoria as a symbol of hope - as a gesture of good faith, the whole island would now celebrate her birthday. When the guards and overseers found out what he proposed, they thought he was mad. For one day only, every convict was to be given his freedom. As the sun rose over Norfolk Island on May 25, 1840, festive pennants fluttered on flagpoles near the landing pier to welcome a new dawn.

Old lags and new, convicts alike got out of bed and were astonished to find their prison gates open. They could wander as they pleased throughout the Island, swim in the sea, play games on the grass, as long as they showed by ‘returning to their quarters at the sound of the bugle that they might be trusted with safety’.

FOR men who had received 100 lashes tied on a triangle for the crime of wandering a few yards from their barracks, such freedom was unbelievable, but they knew Maconochie had put his trust in them and they would not let him down.

Among them were men who had once been so desperate to escape that they had ‘seized boats under a fire of musketry’, yet on Queen Victoria’s birthday those same boats lay untouched. The day began with a ration of fresh pork being issued to each prisoner, to be cooked on barbecue fires during the morning. Throughout the morning Maconochie wandered among his prisoners, taking his family with him, chatting affably with vicious criminals.

At midday, the convicts sat down to an open-air lunch on tables set up on an open patch of ground alongside the prisoners’ barracks. Maconochie and his officers sat down with them. Maconochie then gave each man half a tumbler of a mixture of rum and lemonade. ‘It scarcely smelt of spirits, and went, as was intended, to the hearts, not the heads, of those who drank it.’ They drank to the health of their young sovereign. As one later remembered: ‘The cry "Long Life to Queen Victoria" was echoed from one end of the island to the other in the most deafening cheers, three times three.’

This toast was followed by the national anthem, played by convict musicians on instruments Maconochie had brought from Sydney. As it was played, prisoners uncovered their heads with ‘as great a share of decorum observed as could have distinguished a free community’.

Then a 21-gun royal salute was fired, answered by musketry from the military garrison. Maconochie delivered a speech ‘calculated to nourish our feelings of attachment to our beloved Queen’, and after this national games between the Irish, Scots and English took place, with prizes for the winners.

THE highlight of the afternoon’s entertainment was a theatre performance. The old hands were taking the leading parts and had spent two weeks preparing costumes, scenery and music in their spare time.

As the evening drew on, fireworks - paid for, like the rum, by Maconochie himself — were let off beside the prison compounds. At 8pm, the bugle was sounded and the prisoners returned to their barracks to answer muster. Not a single man was absent.

For Maconochie, it was a total vindication of his ideas. The most bestial of men could respond to simple human kindness; His ideas worked, and he was going to show the world that even hardened criminals were capable of reforming their lives. Little did he know how powerful the forces of repression would be in undermining his efforts.

ONE of the biggest early challenges faced by Alexander Maconochie on Norfolk Island was Charles Anderson. A workhouse orphan, Anderson had been sent to sea at the age of nine and gone on to join the Royal Navy.

At the Battle of Navarino in 1827 he was wounded in the head and afterwards, whenever angered or drunk, he picked fights. His track record of violence soon led to transportation and, at 18, he was one of the most difficult prisoners in New South Wales.

In one year he received 1,200 lashes, yet still he absconded. Eventually he was chained to a rock overlooking Sydney Harbour where he slept in a hollow with a wooden lid locked over him at night.

He was fed by pushing his food towards him with a pole. Regarded as a wild beast, he became one of the sights of Sydney Harbour and visitors would pass by in boats and throw bits of bread to him.

By the time he was sent to Norfolk Island he was only 24, but looked at least 40. Maconochie was warned he was vicious and best left alone. Instead, the humanitarian Scot hit on the inspired idea of putting Anderson in charge of a herd of unruly bullocks.

Left alone together, the wild man and the wild cattle tamed each other. Anderson knew from his own experiences that high and strong tempers would not bend to the lash, so he coaxed the beasts into good behaviour by treating them kindly.

Maconochie was so impressed that he put Anderson in charge of the signal station, where he kept the garden so well tended and his own dress so neat that when Sir George Gipps, governor of New South Wales, visited the island he could scarcely recognise the monster who was once chained to a rock in the harbour.

BUT by 1843, when Gipps arrived, the forces arrayed against Alexander Maconochie’s brave experiment were too powerful to resist. While Gipps was amazed at what the Scotsman had achieved in three years, the new Tory government in London was determined to pull the plug on this dangerously liberal state of affairs. Maconochie was to be recalled.

Informers had sent tales of his alleged improprieties and the escalating costs of his reforms back to Britain. His successes were overlooked, his failures magnified and Lord Stanley, the new Secretary of State for the Colonies, did not like what he heard. The convicts on Norfolk Island no longer grovelled before their gaolers, but had been encouraged by Maconochie to abandon all ‘slavish marks of respect’. When accused of a crime, instead of summary punishment, they were entitled to a trial — with other convicts acting as jurors. And when confined to one of Maconochie’s new cells, where the Bible was read aloud in a room above, the convicts were allowed to choose whether or not to hear the word of God by opening or shutting a trapdoor in the ceiling. Despite Maconochie’s humanising influence, he had been unable to reduce the widespread homosexuality among convicts. Victorian society regarded sodomy as the ultimate sin, yet when Maconochie pleaded for women convicts, or even convicts’ wives to be allowed on the island, he was slapped down at once.

Did he not realise what had happened on Norfolk Island the last time female prisoners were taken there? The soldiers had allowed the women to be ‘sold’ for rum to the highest bidder.

On Thursday nights, the women were summoned to the soldiers’ barracks and forced to dance naked with numbers painted on their backs, with large tots of rum for those who danced the most provocatively.

Such licentious behaviour had contributed to the colony being shut down for ten years, until a more disciplined system was introduced.

The last thing Stanley wanted was a ‘meddling Scotchman’ tipping everything into the mire. Even in Maconochie’s private life, he was held up as an object of scandal. He and his wife’s liberal approach to bringing up their children was held responsible when their eldest daughter Mary Ann went off the rails at 19.

SHE was caught in a passionate liaison with the assistant surgeon on the island, a gifted musician who gave her violin lessons. Her parents stopped the affair, but worse was to come.

A young, handsome convict, transported for forgery, was trusted to become the wayward Mary Ann’s replacement music tutor. When she fell for him, her parents again found out and the tutor was gaoled. To avoid further scandal, Mary Ann was sent to Cheltenham to live with an aunt. But the cruellest blow was the execution of a group of convicts who tried to escape in the government brig that called at Kingston. Twelve convicts sent to unload the ship seized the sentries’ guns and took charge of the vessel. The struggle to regain it left five convicts and a soldier dead before the remainder were taken prisoner.

Although Maconochie knew he could not save them from the noose, he decided to help them face their fate with dignity. He kept them together in the same cell. He allowed other convicts to buy them tea and sugar and supplied them with fresh meat himself.

Every Sunday afternoon, Maconochie read the divine service himself in their room. After one service, a doomed man declared:

‘I never before was happy; I begin now, for the first time in my life, to hope. I am an ignorant man; but I thank God I begin to see things in their right light now.’

‘I have been unhappily placed from my childhood. I do not mention this to excuse my errors; yet if I had years since received the kindness I have done here, it might have been otherwise.’

As Norfolk Island was not now authorised for trials for capital offences, the prisoners were sent to Sydney. Four were sentenced to hang, two had their death sentences commuted to transportation for life and the seventh was acquitted because he had not taken part in the escape attempt. On execution day, a local newspaper reported on the men’s last moments on the scaffold: ‘After shaking hands with their executioner, the four joined their hands in a convulsive clasp and, with the prayer of repentance on their lips, the fatal bolt was drawn and they were launched into eternity.’

BY now Maconochie’s own fate was sealed, and he returned to Britain with his family. But he refused to remain silent, writing pamphlet after pamphlet expounding his new system of penal reform.

Among those he impressed was Charles Dickens, the great novelist famed for his social conscience, who decided to use Maconochie’s system at a refuge for fallen women which he supported.

Norfolk Island went back to the old, brutal, repressive regime, but Maconochie’s ideas were implemented at a prison in Ireland and for two years he did his best as governor of a prison in Birmingham, until the actions of his subversive, sadistic deputy undermined his good work.

Maconochie’s last words on the subject were delivered at the age of 70 to a House of Lords select committee, and would ring down the centuries: ‘My experience leads me to say that there is no man utterly incorrigible. Treat him as a man, not as a dog. You cannot recover a man except by doing justice to the manly qualities which he may have - and giving him an interest in developing them.’

Maconochie’s Experiment, by John Clay, is published by John Murray, price 17.99.


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