Maconochie's Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform
Maconochie's Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform

Maconochie's Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of Modern Prison Reform

by Norval Morris

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In 1840, Alexander Maconochie, a privileged retired naval captain, became at his own request superintendent of two thousand twice-convicted prisoners on Norfolk Island, a thousand miles off the coast of Australia. In four years, Maconochie transformed what was one of the most brutal convict settlements in history into a controlled, stable, and productive environment that achieved such success that upon release his prisoners came to be called "Maconochie's Gentlemen".

Here Norval Morris, one of our most renowned criminologists, offers a highly inventive and engaging account of this early pioneer in penal reform, enhancing Maconochie's life story with a trenchant policy twist. Maconochie's life and efforts on Norfolk Island, Morris shows, provide a model with profound relevance to the running of correctional institutions today. Using a unique combination of fictionalized history and critical commentary, Morris gives this work a powerful policy impact lacking in most standard academic accounts.

In an era of "mass incarceration" that rivals that of the settlement of Australia, Morris injects the question of humane treatment back into the debate over prison reform. Maconochie and his "Marks system" played an influential role in the development of prisons; but for the last thirty years prison reform has been dominated by punitive and retributive sentiments, the conventional wisdom holding that we need 'supermax' prisons to control the 'worst of the worst' in solitary and harsh conditions. Norval Morris argues to the contrary, holding up the example of Alexander Maconochie as a clear-cut alternative to the "living hell" of prison systems today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780198033387
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 02/29/2000
Series: Studies in Crime and Public Policy
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 750 KB

About the Author

Norval Morris is Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and Criminology at the University of Chicago. He is the editor of The Oxford History of the Prison and the author of The Brothel Boy and Other Parables of the Law. In 2000, he received both the American Society of Criminology's Edwin E. Sutherland Award and the National Council of Crime and Delinquency's Donald Cressey Award.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Part 1


Memories, certainly my memories, do not flow evenly; they bounce about in time from scene to scene, and there are great gaps of remembrance. I try to establish sequence, to search for cause and consequence. Sometimes I seem to have made wise decisions, struck sensible postures, but often a wry sadness is all I find. Other times there are patches of clarity. It was clear that my daughter, Mary Ann, believed she was treated unfairly, misused, she said. I had no inkling of this until that Sunday morning at breakfast when she fixed her hostility to my plans sharply in my memory.

    We were in the smaller room of the two used for dining in Government House. When the Franklins were there we needed the larger room with its grand mahogany table to seat the two Franklins and the eight Maconochies. But this morning Sir John and Lady Franklin were on a Governor's tour in the Northeast of Van Diemen's Land and my four sons were not yet up and about, being allowed to sleep in today before church.

    There were only four of us at table: my wife, Mary, our daughters Mary Ann and Catherine, and myself. Mary Ann had awakened early as she often does, sometimes before dawn, and, since Government House overlooks the harbour, had seen a ship preparing to enter the harbour. She had walked down to help welcome the jolly boat and the mail from the ship and had brought the Government House mailbag back with her to our breakfast. I searched quicklythrough it to see if there was a communication to me from the Colonial Office. There was. It was what I very much wanted: The offer of the superintendence of Norfolk Island at a salary equal to that of a lieutenant-governor of a small colony.

    It was not a movement order, posting me to Norfolk Island. It was phrased as an offer, should I desire it, and suggested that I might care to try out the scheme for the governance of convicts I had been writing about. If so (and I had the sense that the draftsmen of the document were of the view that I would be unwise to accept their offer—the tone was: you have written about your theories, see if you can make them work, we doubt it), instructions had been issued to Sir John Franklin, the Governor of Van Dieman's Land, and to Sir George Gipps, the Governor of New South Wales, to facilitate and expedite my assumption of this duty.

    Excitedly, I shared the news with Mary and the girls. Mary and Catherine made no immediate reply. Not so Mary Ann.

    "Are you really going to drag us all along to that terrible place, Father?" She seemed on the point of tears; I had not seen tears from her for several years. It was as if she had suddenly, not gently and sweetly, but suddenly and brusquely, taken on woman's estate. No longer a bright but uncertain child, she had in that moment become a mature and sharp-tongued woman.

    I had known her for sixteen years by the pet name "Minnie" rather than the more formal "Mary Ann." I found in reply I used neither. I was now not confronted by my dear girl Minnie, but by an attractive and independent-minded young woman, Mary Ann: "You question our going to Norfolk Island after the three long months of our planning, without a word of objection from you?"

    Now, clearly through tears, she managed to say; "No. Father, I esteem your purpose; it is your making us go with you that I resent."

    The substance as well as the manner of her complaint surprised me. She had been the only member of the family who seemed at all interested in my evolving Marks System; indeed, she had helped me shape it by her probing questioning. I could not doubt her interest, but suddenly, as my theory became a reality for me, she wished to be free of it.

    Recovering quickly, eyes now dry and hard, she developed her opposition to my plans for us on Norfolk Island. She had never before been so direct with me. She and I had discussed my Marks System and she had read and indeed helped me phrase my submissions and correspondence to England on the governance of convicts. I knew she was a skeptic; I knew she thought I overstated my case; I knew she believed that there were many prisoners who were unlikely to respond to my proposed system of gradual movement toward conformity, tested and marked by increments of freedom and duty; but she had never previously suggested, as this morning's outburst implied, that I was sacrificing our family to my theory of punishment.

    I avoided any direct controversy at the table. I said that it was only an offer and that I would have to think about it, and talk with Mary, and then with my daughters and sons, but I knew I was dissimulating and I think Mary Ann also knew it.

    I was glad that the Franklins were now absent, though he had been my closest friend before we accompanied him and Lady Franklin to Van Diemen's Land. We had both served as naval captains and been promoted on retirement to the rank of Commander. He had then continued his series of explorations of the Arctic, which brought him fame, while I had been one of his loyal supporters. I had thrown in my lot with him in the subservient role of his personal secretary (subservient because I had been senior to him in the Navy) when his appointment as Governor of Van Diemen's Land was announced, under the promise that a suitable post would be found for me in the southern colonies as soon as one became available. But the weeks grew to months and then to more than a year with nothing suitable available, and Sir John growing daily more distant from me due to his reaction to the servile fawning lavished upon him by the members of the Legislative Council and the dominant political faction in the colony who had, wisely, taken an instant dislike to me as an impediment to their control of the Governor.

    As a naval officer and as a leader of Arctic expeditions, John had manifested remarkable judgment and coolness in many crises; as the lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land he had manifested remarkably different qualities: a susceptibility to flattery and a willingness to believe in unreal, complex, political schemes directed against him, of which I was the supposed leader. Nevertheless, having to live so close together in the same household, as we did for the time being, we managed courteous relationships on the surface, greatly modulated by the encouraging warmth of Lady Franklin's affection for my family.

    A colonial posting for me, which was not an embarrassing come-down, had until now seemed as distant as the day we reached Hobart Town, whereas Norfolk Island offered an opportunity to prove in action the value of a theory of human behavior which might well have lasting significance. And I could not face the idea of crawling back to England as a failure—which is how our return would be seen. And, beyond that, I hated the way convicts were being treated in New South Wales and here in Van Diemen's Land, and it would be a joy to demonstrate that life for them need not, indeed should not, be so brutal.

    Mary, I knew, would want to come with me and so would the boys. No harm would come to the girls; they might miss a year or two of the London social whirl, but they could return to England in two or three years' time and be the better for the antipodean experience. And Minnie in particular seemed to be growing in mind and judgment at an unusually swift pace, mainly, I flattered myself, stimulated by the unusual tuition I was giving her. Not the usual graces of the young lady, for which Mary provided training—sewing, music and song, dance, sketching—but serious studies in geography, Latin, and philosophy under my tutelage. These should not be abandoned. No, we must go together as a family to Norfolk Island.

    But at another level I knew I was deceiving myself—denying what seemed obvious on much later reflection. Since her puberty and the flowering of her unusual intelligence, Minnie had been especially dear to me. She was the only one of the family with whom I could really talk, other than about family matters or personalities. Our conversations mostly involved my plans, my punishment theories, my political difficulties and what to do about them, matters which I could discuss with no one else in this colony now that the rift had opened between Franklin and me.

    I was sedulous in attending to her studies, but every such session returned at the end to my Marks System and how it might be launched. I needed her on Norfolk Island.

    But that too seemed self-deception. On the Island there would surely be senior military officers who would welcome such discussions under the pressure of the reality test of my ideas. And further, there were ample tutors in England who could further Minnie's studies and talk as much as she could tolerate about politics and philosophy. Yet it seemed a yawning void to embark on this penal adventure without her presence and encouragement.

    All in all, it seemed not unreasonable to keep the family together for a year or two—it was certainly what my wife, Mary, wanted—and then let either or both the girls go home to my sister in England if that were then thought wise.

Later that day, in the afternoon, in the garden in front of the house we shared with the Franklins, I talked with Mary about our daughters. She thought that Norfolk Island would be useful for Catherine who seemed already preoccupied by the thought of marriage; it might well give her time to grow to a larger maturity before accepting the first faintly acceptable suitor—for she was a beautiful young girl and would attract many such suitors. Mary Ann was a different matter, Mary thought, but Mary also felt that she herself needed Mary Ann's help in what would likely be a difficult and lonely life on Norfolk Island, and that it was not asking too large a sacrifice for Mary Ann to devote the next year or two to the family's needs.

    So, after reflection, we agreed that I would insist on Mary Ann accompanying us to Norfolk Island with the suggestion by Mary that after a year or two it might well be sensible for her to return to my sister in England. To both of them I proposed to stress the pleasures likely in Sydney while I made ready for my transfer to Norfolk Island.

    When we spoke of this decision to the girls, Catherine seemed not displeased by the plan, while Mary Ann's response was curt and to the blunt effect that not yet being of age she could not properly oppose her parents, and then said no more.

The Old Testament presents some dreams as suitable for prediction of future events—bad seasons, poor crops, storms of toads and the like—and endows some seers with the capacity for their interpretation. Though not in doubt of my faith, I find such an idea wholly unlikely and am glad it does not much recur in the New Testament. For my part, I don't remember most of my dreams, though Mary and Mary Ann and Catherine have a lot to tell about theirs and do so freely.

    Sometimes, if I am awakened suddenly by some outward event, the ship being engaged, a sudden change of the wind at sea, a call from a sentinel, I will have a memory of what I was dreaming about, but even that memory is shadowy and passes quickly.

    Sailors at sea are quite superstitious about their dreams and claim immunity from taking risks in the riggings after some dream of tragedy, and they also extensively relate and no doubt imaginatively embroider their dreams of a sexual character. They certainly talk a lot about their dreams, real or later imagined. Some fellow officers have even told me of the colour and skin tonings of people in their dreams; for me, so far as I can recall, my snippets of dreams are in dull monochrome, and are entirely inconsequential—but not always.

    Occasionally, very occasionally, my dream pattern varies, perhaps two or three times as I recall in my life. And it did on the night before we reached Sydney on our way to my new posting. I dreamt of a naked lady, rather of a girl, and a girl not at all unlike Mary Ann. Well, hardly a girl, more a young woman. And I was intimate with her; the bed-sheets and my memory both so testified. I cleaned up the former as best I could and thought about the latter, and thought and thought and worried and worried. How fragile loving relationships are! Did I really harbour such evil thoughts? Should I change my behaviour towards her? But that seemed ridiculous.

    Was this a common experience of fathers of young woman daughters? I had no idea, and did not propose to ask anyone. I was certainly deeply fond of Mary Ann, but not unduly I thought, and there is no doubt that I would rather die than injure her. Was my affection excessive? I thought not; but the speed with which Mary and I had disposed of her desire to return to my sister in England gave me pause. At all events, nothing was now to be done; we had made our decision; we would stick to it.

They were called the "Heads," a misnomer to sailors, since they were the gates to the loveliest, safest anchorage in the world. The entire British fleet could be safe-harboured in this vast confluence of ocean and river, protected by the massive rock gates that shaped the entrance to Sydney town. The heads and the surrounding hills drew the sting from any weather these latitudes might produce. The heavy ordnance, perched on the heads, guarding the entrance to those waters, allowed entry to no hostile ship.

    On the 23rd of February, 1840, I boarded the Nautilus, with a complement of over four hundred passengers, of whom three hundred were convicts, who had recently been transported from Ireland, and about one hundred soldiers and some of their families, including my wife, Mary, and our six children and myself. Leaving the heads we caught the easterly tradewinds, and the thousand-mile passage to the penal colony east-northeast of Sydney had begun. We reached Norfolk Island eleven days later and I was in charge thereafter of about 2,000 prisoners, of whom most were twice transported, doubly banished, once from England or Ireland, and then banished again for further offenses in New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land.

    All Sydney had described them as incorrigible, the worst of the worst, but that was a superficiality. The three hundred on the Nautilus with me were merely the usual run of convicts—petty thieves, persistent poachers, political offenders, with a sprinkling of robbers and housebreakers and an occasional killer who had been thought not to merit the hangman's noose. Those awaiting me on the island were of sterner stuff, since they had continued the same or similar behaviour in the colonies, together with some military offenders for whom the lash was thought inadequate. But, all in all, I saw all 2,000 as presenting just the same problem to the penal authorities as I had seen around me in Van Dieman's Land and read about before then, a problem handled, it seemed to me, with inefficiency and cruelty, but capable of being largely replaced by a stern decency, a firm and fair administration, and the Marks System.

    Nevertheless, I was well aware that my experience (even that period as a prisoner of war) did not fit me for the role I had sought, though I saw this as both an advantage and a disadvantage since I would not be bound by established, often injurious, routines.

    With few exceptions, Norfolk Island would be populated only by prisoners and soldiers, the former outnumbering the latter by a factor of about five to one. The exceptions were my own family, and the dependents of a few of the soldiers who had accompanied their husbands or fathers to New South Wales and then on to Norfolk Island, and a handful of nonmilitary prison administrators, also under my command, and their families. There would be no middle class, no artisans, no professional men other than those who served with the army or among the prisoners, all but a few of whom had come from poverty, through one or another form of stealing, to their present situation. It would be a two-tier society, prisoners and soldiers, and, as I had already learned on Van Diemen's Land, the latter had neither inclination nor training to serve as prison guards.

    I was told that nobody was ever quite sure of the number of convicts on Norfolk Island. Death from the lash, disease, suicide, and despair visited regularly and made a tally difficult. Nor had I at this stage had a careful count made of the Irish prisoners who were with me on the Nautilus. Counting convicts mattered little enough on Norfolk Island. There are but two accessible landings for ships, one where we landed, known variously as Sydney Bay or Sandy Bay, the other, extremely hazardous, on the other side of the Island. For the rest, the sea beats on steeply rising cliffs, seriously impeding any attempt at escape by sea.

* * *

I am not beautiful. I am infelicitous in conversation. Though I am just seventeen, I hate to be treated as an empty-headed child. I try hard not to be caustic and direct with others, but I frequently fail. I find little interest in the transient and panting unrealities that shape my sister Catherine's emerging affairs of the heart, and those of most of the young ladies we have come to know in Hobart Town and Sydney. Only with Father do I find an openness of discussion, an ease of behaviour. I am "Minnie" to my mother, my sister, and brothers. To Father, from my earliest memories and until recently, I have also been "Minnie." Perhaps he now sees me as a grown woman. But our shared interests and habits of mind divide us from the rest of the family. He talks to me, and I to him, of his naval days, of the treatment of convicts, of the system of transportation, and of his geographic studies—the rest of the family find such topics boring and they do not trouble to conceal this reaction.

    This has not made me a congenial member of the family. There is a resentment that expresses itself only in rare occasions of anger, mostly by my sister, Catherine; but I think the others feel it too. And I am both troubled by and rejoice in Father's ill-concealed, apparently larger affection for me. Perhaps that is wrong; perhaps there is no larger affection for me; he seems to love the entire family, but as an intellectually potential equal he certainly prefers me.

    Nevertheless, privileged as I am, I find resentment in his willingness to give immediate precedence to any official or social duty over his attention to me or the rest of us in his family. Particularly in the past few weeks in Sydney he has devoted every waking minute to his plans for Norfolk Island and spoken hardly a word to us, except occasionally to solicit and receive my assistance in shaping a clean draft of one or another of his more confidential letters—my role as his backup amanuensis. But yesterday he put all work aside; satisfied that he had done all he could, acquired all the supplies he needed, bought the books and musical instruments, persuaded all those who required persuasions to advance his plans for the Island settlement, and devoted the day and the evening to my seventeenth birthday and the party given that night to celebrate it.

    Apart from my family there had been no one I really cared for at yesterday's party. In the few weeks we had been in Sydney I had met some young ladies of my own age and had been introduced to a few young men in the army and to a few civilian landowners. They were, all in all, a more lively bunch than those in Hobart Town, but I still felt that my youth was steadily being stolen from me. It seemed so long since we were in relaxed and interesting society, and indeed it was a long time. I had been fifteen when we embarked in Bristol on the appalling Fairlea for that torturous journey from home. And now, a day after my seventeenth birthday, we were sailing for an even more distant banishment.

    Our quarters on the Nautilus were, of course, far better than the closet-like hole my sister, Catherine, and I had been packed in on the Fairlea. Father was the ranking officer by far on the Nautilus, both because he had been a Commander in the Navy and because he was the new Commandant of Norfolk Island, and some effort had been made to make us comfortable. I still had to share a small cabin with Catherine. But now, though two years younger than me, she has a sense of privacy which makes close living more tolerable.

    I had tried my best not to be morose at the party yesterday. Mother and Father had demonstrated their love and consideration of me in many ways, and even my sister and four young brothers had been affectionate, but I knew that in an important way I was being badly treated.

    What was there for me on Norfolk Island, even more remote from home than where we had been the past years? It was not that marriage did not attract me, far from it; it was rather that I found no one of interest among the soldiers and settlers who had been sent or had brought themselves to this distant corner of the world—and I didn't think any such charmer would likely appear in these remote colonies. And now here I was suffering a yet further banishment to a penal colony devoted to the very worst convicts and to soldiers least required for military conflict, and therefore thought suitable to serve as prison warders and not much else—hardly the environs to find a husband for me, and certainly far removed from the romantic whirl of London society. My marriageable years, few even in London, were being stolen from me.

    Yet it is so hard to be resentful of my parents. Mother always acts the peacemaker and finds much to be said on both sides of even the slightest disagreement, while Father lifts every hint of conflict to a level of principle and philosophic consideration, so that he still finds it hard to think of me as other than a precocious child, bound to him by ties of manifest love, whose intellectual development, for which he seems to hold himself responsible, is of more importance than anything other than her health.

    Father could hardly be blamed for finding little time for us while we were in Sydney; there was much to be done before he could take charge of the penal hell that he, and no one else of his social standing, wished to govern. Why he should want it still amazed me. He had already succeeded in two careers: as a naval commander and as a geographer, being the first Professor of Geography at London University and the founding Executive Director of the Royal Geographic Society which had played such an important role in the heroic adventures of his erstwhile friend, Sir John Franklin. Why, with so much already achieved, he should have decided to come himself to the antipodean colonies, and to drag his family with him, was quite beyond my understanding—though it was clear to me that he had become obsessed with his Marks System of Convict Discipline. (He always wrote it thus, as if it demanded to be capitalised.) And now a yet further incomprehensible plan: he believed he could take the most brutal convict settlement in the young Queen's domain and turn it into what he called a "moral hospital."

    In Hobart Town, Father had first begun to develop his plans for the governance of convict settlements, having been prompted to this by his undertaking, before we left England, to the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline. They were, as I understand it, a segment of those who had worked for the abolition of slavery in the colonies and in the New World, who now likewise opposed what they saw as the brutality, akin to slavery, of our convict system. They had phrased a list of sixty-seven questions about the convict regime in Van Dieman's Land and had asked Father to reply to these questions after he had observed that system. He had agreed to do so. In the family, I was the only one with whom he discussed these matters. He talked to Mother of them, but she never risked comment that hinted at disagreement, which is essential to serious conversation. I, on the other hand, early saw this new interest of his as a threat to our family's well-being, and did not hesitate to quibble with and prod at his belief that virtually all convicts could, by his system, be turned in time from depravity to social conformity.


Excerpted from Maconochie's Gentlemen by Norval Morris. Copyright © 2002 by Oxford University Press, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Author's Noteix
About the Authorxiii
Part 1 Norfolk Island, 1840-18441
Part 2 Maconochie and Norfolk Island after 1844161
Part 3 Why Do Prison Conditions Matter?171
Part 4 Contemporary Lessons from Maconochie's Experiment177
Fixed or Indeterminate Sentences and "Good Time"178
Graduated Release Procedures and Aftercare195
"The Worst of the Worst"197
Punishment and the Mentally Ill203
Deterrence, Rehabilitation, and Prison Conditions208

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