Click on this image to order the book

Click on this image to order the book
The book version of James Gammell's life story is now available. Click on this image.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hobart Town - Sweeping the Prison Yard

On the second day each new prisoner was called individually into Superintendent Gunn’s office and notified that, having been sentenced for life, he must now spend two years on probation, or hard labor, before “any indulgence whatsoever” could be granted. When Linus Miller questioned such harsh treatment for the state prisoners, Mr. Gunn admitted that this regulation was only a formality, and would not be enforced unless the Governor should order it. He mentioned that “no orders with reference to our treatment” had been sent from England. This fact seems to have left the officials in Van Diemen’s Land in a quandary about how to treat the state prisoners. Therefore, at least for the first month, hard labor was not required. The English felons went off the next morning to labor on the government road project, and James and his three comrades remained in the barracks. Miller took this opportunity to write two letters of appeal, one to Governor Franklin, and the other to a member of the Legislative Council of Van Diemen’s Land, Mr. Lawrence.(1)

One or two days later Mr. Gunn summoned Miller again to his office. Knowing that “you Americans detest idleness,” he suggested that they might enjoy a little exercise. He proposed that they could help the overseer of the prison yard by sweeping for one half-hour each morning. As an added incentive, he suggested that this might influence the governor to grant them “liberty of the island” (a ticket of leave). He stressed that their service was strictly voluntary, however, “my advice would be to do as I have proposed.” Miller, Gammell, Grant, and Beemer debated the offer at length, and then came to a decision—one which they soon would regret:

…Mr. G. was only trying the yoke upon our necks to see how it would fit. Had we only refused to perform any labor whatever, I doubt not it would have saved us years of slavery; for even the tyrant Franklin would have hesitated before using compulsory measures to compel state prisoners to labor as felons. It would not sound well in the public papers of Great Britain; but if we could be coaxed and deceived to shoulder the burden ourselves, all difficulty in the matter would be at an end, and they could by degrees force us into absolute slavery. (2)

Over the next several days, one half-hour of sweeping soon became more than half a day of labor in the prison yard and cleaning in the wards, with extra tasks ordered by Mr. Gunn. On Sunday, when the British felons were marched off to church, the four Canadians were ordered to remain in the yard and sweep. Miller boldly announced that he would not work on the Sabbath: “I shall not take any half-hour’s exercise today.” “The devil you won’t!” replied the overseer. Miller stood his ground and fired back: “It is the Sabbath day, and I cannot.” Gammell, Grant, and Beemer, not willing to stir up trouble, simply obeyed the orders.(3) James later gives this account of Miller’s punishment, which seems to be exaggerated compared to Miller’s account of the same incident:

Lynus W. Miller, a fine youth from Chautauque county [New York], was fed 14 days on brown bread and cold water in a solitary cell, because he absolutely refused to do work assigned him on a Sunday. He offered to work harder, if possible, any other day; but assured his employers that his education and his principles alike forbade him from performing unnecessary labor on the Christian Sabbath.(4)

Miller was immediately locked in a small, filthy cell, which had a mud floor and no toilet. After just a few minutes of conversation between the overseer and the constable, Miller was offered a second chance if he would agree to work, otherwise he would surely be flogged. Defiantly Miller replied, “I shall remain here and take the flogging.” Exasperated, the constable ordered him out of the cell: “Now go to church and be d— [damned] to you; but depend on a flogging in the morning.” Miller wrote that he went to church, because “bad as the church was, [he] preferred breaking the Sabbath by going there, to sweeping the yard.” Prison worship services, held nearby at St. George’s Anglican Church(5), were “a solemn mockery.” The clergyman dutifully read the sermon, while all but a dozen of the twelve hundred felons in the chapel played cards, gambled, cursed, sold tobacco, shared a swig of rum, crawled under the benches, or punched each other.

The next morning Miller was summoned to the superintendent’s office. After his interview, Mr. Gunn instructed the overseer to never again require Miller to work on the Sabbath day; Gammell, Grant, and Beemer, however, were still required to work. In this case Miller was definitely granted an unusual concession not offered to the British felons. Of the twenty to thirty prisoners brought before Mr. Gunn each day for various offenses, five to ten of them were flogged, and others were sentenced to one, two, or three weeks of solitary confinement and given only one pound of bread and a pint of water a day. (6)
  1. Miller, p. 275.
  2. Miller, pp. 278-79.
  3. Miller, pp. 280-81.
  4. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription p. 4.
  5. St. George’s Church, built in 1838, still stands at Battery Point, Hobart.
  6. Miller, pp. 277, 280-283.

No comments:

Post a Comment