Thursday, October 13, 2011

Captain Alexander Maconochie

The Norfolk Island Museum is fortunate to have a copy of statistics and comments written by Captain Maconochie, Commandant of Norfolk Island from 1840 to 1844. His paper is titled as “Criminal Statistics and Movement of the Bond population of Norfolk Island to December 1843” and has been reproduced in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol 8, No. 1 – March 1845. Most of the 50 pages are devoted to statistical tables but these are interspersed with enlightening comments on all aspects of convict life on the Island during the years Maconochie was in charge.

One subject that he wrote about was the religious life (or lack of it) amongst the prisoners and he found that the younger English prisoners were far better educated than the Scotch or the Irish.  Also married men were found to be “well conducted” and stayed away from the groups of convicts who had sunk to the depths of a despicable way of life.

“This degree of education among the English prisoners is higher than among the older ones.  When they read or write, they do both better than the others.  Their minds are generally more active, they covet a better class of books and more readily acquire general, though superficial, information from them.  On the other hand, these same young English prisoners, who are thus distinguished among us for superior education and educability, are not less remarkable for indifference to their religious duties and careless of religious instruction.  The older prisoners, without being always the better men for it, are peculiarly accessible to religious exhortation and impression and show much respect to religious addresses.  They thus come readily to church, they listen with extreme attention to any sermon in the least suited to them and they are frequently even deeply moved by one bearing on their individual circumstances.”

Maconochie discusses some of the reasons for these differences in attitude to religious instructions but fails to come to a conclusion except commenting upon the differences in the degree of education.  He goes on to say “I have frequently seen even very bad men exhibit considerable religious sensibility, not hypocritically or ostentatiously, but striving to conceal it and perhaps the first to laugh at it, to escape the jeers of, at the moment, their less sensitive companions.  But, as a class, the young English prisoners exhibit their appearances almost the reverse of these.   They come unwilling to church; they not unfrequently misconduct themselves there.  I have had occasion to sentence many to sit for different periods on the front benches, immediately in my own view and several have even been brought before me by their better – minded companions for arguing that religion was a hoax, supported by the better classes in order to control the lower.”

It can be seen from these comments that Maconochie was intensely interested in the character, conduct and upbringing of the prisoners and obviously had their well-being in mind – not everyone in charge of the prisoners took the time to study their faults and failings and ponder over their life before becoming a convict and the ramifications of confinement for years with the prison system.

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