By the late 1830s, an individualized prison record accompanied each convict to the penal colonies but only in Tasmania were arrivals interrogated systematically about their criminal history and former life. As late as 1837, Governor George Arthur complained that the colony did not receive any documentation about convicts’ offenses, conduct in custody or prior associations. Consequently, he instigated requirements that Supervising Surgeons, charged with the instruction as well as the physical welfare of exiles aboard ship, provide on arrival a “hulk list” containing: the name, age, birth-place, crime, date of conviction, marital status and other demographic data of each prisoner.
This information formed the basis of each convict’s individual record. It was presented to the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, responsible for their assignment, who then boarded the ship to make a “minute examination” of each prisoner, with piles of paperwork at the ready. For Governor Arthur, interrogation would fill the gaps in official documentation and impress on convicts the all-seeing power of “the System.” Confronted by such displays of evidence and forensic inspection by an apparently omniscient investigator, the convict, concluded Governor Arthur, would be awed into truthfulness.
Reputedly, convicts were indeed overwhelmed by the all-seeing gaze of the Principal Superintendent who, they said, could recall every prisoner by name and ship and “never forgets anything.” Yet, while much has been said about the importance of those who were in charge, the role of offenders in the production of criminal records has rarely been probed. By the time they arrived in Tasmania, most convicts were already accustomed to the cross-examination as they were subjected to many as they made their way from bench to prison to hulk to ship. Thousands of the convicts had been incarcerated on at least one occasion precisely for failing ‘to give a proper account’ of themselves when arrested as a ‘rogue and vagabond’ acting suspiciously. Used to reeling off an account of themselves, what did convicts admit to the authorities and, equally important, what did they omit? Was Governor Arthur right to assume that convicts would be inclined to truthfulness? Did any seize the opportunity to enhance their prospects in a new land by reconstructing their past?
As long as there have been prisons, there has been considerable debate over the value and interpretation of information supplied by prisoners. According to Thomas Gatrell and Franklin Hadden, evidence of prisoner’s offenses, ages, literacy levels and occupations contained in prison records “are probably the least reliable material in the official statistical records.” In view of contemporary complaints that offenders lied about their age, employment, schooling, and religion to mitigate their sentence or treatment in jail, Gatrell speculated that prisoners were “incurable romancers” who constantly exaggerated the normality of their lives before incarceration.
As it happens, the first studies employing large-scale examination of prison records to determine convicts’ prior offending rates concluded in the mid-twentieth century that, contrary to popular mythology, exiles were rarely starving poachers or desperate peasants. Most convicts were not first-time offenders, they argued, and many came from what contemporaries termed the “criminal class.”
Find an error? Take a screenshot, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll send you $3!