In the 1700’s, England had a problem: too many prisoners and nowhere to put them. Immorality was rampant in the lower classes, resulting in an increase in crime. The judicial system was not what you might call fair; you might be hanged for killing a man or for stealing bread off a passing cart. It fact, it was not until a barrister by the name of William Garrow challenged the advocacy system in the late 1700’s that prisoners were seen as “innocent until proven guilty.” Prior to then, they were guilty unless proven innocent, and most of them went without any legal benefits or representation. Great Briton had to figure out what to do with the abundance of new prisoners crowding into their prisons, so they chose to transport all of them to penal colonies in Australia. It was an experiment that proved mildly successful in some ways, and disastrous in others.
The voyage took nine months and once settled, the prisoners, which ranged from thieves to smugglers and perpetrators of other petty but “serious” enough crimes to earn them prison sentences, were given employment and responsibilities according to their skills (such as farmers, seamstresses, fishermen, and so forth) but a change in scenery did not change their behavior so their jailors faced the same problems as in England, but in a far harsher climate. Because the women had earned a reputation for loose behavior, the men treated them according to that reputation, and since the prisoners behaved like animals, the occupying army treated them like animals, in one case not intervening when a riot broke out in camp. Many women married for the protection it would offer them from the male prisoners. To maintain order, the army had to enforce strict and often brutal tactics simply to keep the prisoners from hurting one another. England was dealing with the results of the problem rather than discerning the cause.
Our society tends to dismiss criminal behavior by shifting blame to factors that contribute to it rather than the lax morals that create it. The criminal boom during this time was not due to poverty or illiteracy (though they were certainly a factor) but because of the diminishing morals of the country. Many in the lower classes were raised without a value system or the influence of a church; a lack of morality accompanies an increase in crime. England was at the time in a state of godlessness. Luther’s Reformation had not been a success since it was introduced as policy through force by Henry VIII rather than as true reform, and was as corrupt and politically-driven as its predecessor. Because of this, the church of the 1700’s was ineffective. The attendance at church was a social norm but had no influence on the values of society. While we remember George III as the king that caused the American Revolution, to his contemporaries he stood out because of his rigid views of morality; unlike his predecessors, he did not keep a mistress and would not permit adultery in the royal court.
What concerns me more than reading about these horrible events is the realization that our current social climate reflects a similar view. We live in a time in which we have embraced and accepted immorality, when God is being removed from our schools and many of our churches are watered down so as not to offend, when faith has become a social norm rather than a life choice, and young people are being taught moral relativism rather than personal responsibility. History has shown us that when morality slides, criminal behavior soon follows. Evidence of this is obvious in the recent London riots, proof that England is no different now than in the 1700’s. Much like King George, the current queen faces the realization that her views on morality are shared neither by her descendents nor her subjects.
It didn’t surprise the army that the penal colonies were ripe with theft, rape, and riots, since such behavior was fully expected in the absence of social values. Thus, should it surprise us in a more current setting? It also begs the question, what is the price of losing our morality? Is it liberation from “rigid” philosophies… or that we will raise an entire generation of criminals? ♥