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Friday, April 2, 2010

The Cat-O’-Nine-Tails

During their years in the British penal system, both on the hulk and in Van Diemen’s Land, James and his fellow Patriots were constantly under the threat of the lash. Usually their punishment was limited to the treadmill or to a stint in solitary confinement, but still, as James writes, the threat of “the triangles, ever before our eyes, was the object of our greatest horror.”(1)  They had witnessed many a barbaric scene—a British felon, his back being laid open with the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made of nine knotted cords and wielded by another felon. Miller recorded that “the sound of the blows upon the naked back of the sufferer may be heard at a distance of one hundred rods.”(2)  James described the triangles, which were visible at every probation station, and compares the ordeal to a crucifixion:

The triangles accompany the party to work, and are made of three long pieces of wood set up and meeting together at the top; a ring is run through any two of these pieces near the top - a strap is run through the ring and tied round each wrist of the sufferer whose arms are thus extended at their full stretch, as in cases of crucifixion, his legs are then firmly fastened to a crossbar near the ground.

The freemen of the new world stripped stark naked, except his pantaloons, is then exposed to the lash of the felons of the old. The flagellator is ordered by the police officer to give two, four, or six dozen of strokes of the heavy whip, as the case may seem to him to require, on the sufferer's naked back, who is then unloosed from his degrading posture and ordered instantly to his work whatever it may be.(3)

Just a few lashes were enough to “skin a man’s back and leave it a tangled web of criss-crossed knotted scars.”  One eye-witness to a flogging records seeing the victim with “blood that had run from his lacerated flesh squashing out of his shoes at every step he took,” and “ants were carrying away great pieces of human flesh that the lash had scattered about the ground.” The total number of lashes was recorded on the prisoner’s convict record.  As bad as the physical damage was, the permanent psychological damage was worse: “What the cat-o’-nine-tails instilled was not respect for discipline, but a sullen conviction of one’s own impotence in the face of Authority…”(4)

James claims to have been flogged twice, once for “finding fault with our wretched food,” and again for “hitting a blow at a felon overseer;” and he names at least seven others who were flogged for minor offenses.(5)  His claim is not corroborated by the other Patriot accounts or by the public convict record. James’ record shows that he was punished only once and sentenced to three months at Bridgewater in March 1840. Hiram Loop was not flogged for refusing to work one cold morning without shoes; he was actually sent to solitary confinement for several days and fed on bread and water.  Wright was also put in solitary confinement, and not flogged. In their written narratives, Miller, Snow, Gates, Marsh, and Heustis all claim that not one of the Americans was ever flogged.  The convict records confirm that their punishment for various offenses was either three to ten days in solitary confinement or several days on the tread wheel.(6)

The American and Canadian prisoners never became accustomed to the cruelty or the drunkenness and depravity of convict society. James wrote, “Van Dieman's Land is the most remarkable place for drunkenness I ever saw.”  He and his fellow prisoners “tried to established temperance societies, at which some of our ablest men lectured and a very few of the English convicts joined us.”(7)  The only Sunday services provided for the prisoners were those of the Church of England.  In the absence of a minister from his own Presbyterian faith, James preferred to listen to Mr. Beasley, a ”kind-hearted Methodist preacher,” who came “from a distance to exhort several times.”  His popularity was a threat to the established minister, so his visits soon ended.  According to James, a man like Beasley was much needed in Van Diemen’s Land, “one of the wickedest, most profane, immoral and degraded places on earth.”(8)  He was hesitant to give the specifics:

It is impossible for me to describe the state of society in Van Dieman's Land. Nine-tenths of the people are convicts. The men are bad enough.  Some of their crimes are so revolting that I forbear to name them; and as for the London prostitutes, they are there in thousands, and infinitely worse than the worst of men. Virtue itself would soon be contaminated in such a polluted atmosphere.(9)

Samuel Snow’s assessment is the same: “…we had in countless instances seen total depravity personified.”(10)  Of his experience with Green Ponds treadmill convicts, Miller wrote:

…the scenes enacted by these wretched men, during the hours of darkness, were of the most revolting and diabolical character; too dark to be written—too dreadful to be thought of…Vice and crime of the most revolting nature, such as called down the vengeance of heaven upon ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, are prevalent to an alarming extent … the natural result of herding depraved men together in such a system—a system which ensures not only their entire ruin is this world, but, what is of far more importance, in that which is to come.(11)
  1. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  2. Miller, p. 284.
  3. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  4. Hughes, The Fatal Shore, pp. 428-9.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 4-5.
  6. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, pp. 112-13, 123, 252.
  7. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 10.
  8. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 5.
  9. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 10.
  10. Snow, pt. III.
  11. Miller, p. 237, 320.

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