Monday, February 08, 2016

Cruelty and enlightenment

I don’t know if the following observations are profound or trite or somewhere in between. They are prompted by a recent visit to the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania.

Every country, it seems, has something to be ashamed of in its history. Certainly, among other things, the US bears blame for its treatment of native Americans, slaves imported from Africa, and forced detention of Japanese descendants during World War II.

And yet, those same countries have often made contributions to political systems that are truly noteworthy in the advancement of human society.  Think of the principles espoused in the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and in the practice of civil disobedience against injustice, a philosophy that stemmed from the writings of Thoreau and others. 

These contradictions between eras of cruelty and shame and periods of enlightenment may be irreconcilable. Or perhaps there is some underlying theory of the advancement of the human condition that posits that the bad must occur to bring about the good.  Political philosophers of greater wisdom than I have surely offered their hypotheses.

I think, though, that part of the process of societal development depends strongly on exposing the bad times with stories about normal human beings who were caught up in the antisocial maelstroms of their time.  We seem to be emotionally insulated from general histories about thousands or millions of people who were harmed during the cruel eras.  It is hard to pursue political action based on such broad-based summaries.  But when we hear the stories of individuals who were treated badly, we are able to identify with them and then perhaps step back and build a political coalition for change.

It was in that light that a recent visit to the Female Factory was so powerful.  This facility was opened, ostensibly, to punish and help redeem women who had committed crimes in Great Britain. The crimes could be as simple as stealing a handkerchief or food for a starving family.  Poverty was viewed as a sin, caused by the ethical character of the poor person, not by the society in which they lived. 

“Transportation” was the name for forced passage across several oceans in cramped and unhealthy ships to Tasmania, where women were locked up to serve their time. 

The prison bureaucrats were careful to record the arrival of each woman, assigning her such descriptors as they felt were appropriate.  A sample is shown above, an indication of the dehumanization already being experienced by these women.

But the system was actually designed to provide women to help serve and populate the British colony.  While in the factory, the women would do manual labor in support of the community of Hobart.  Laundry was handled here.  Women were also tasked with “making oakum,” disentangling the caustic, tar-laden strands of ship rope into fiber that was used as caulking to fill the cracks between boards for ships.

Babies were forced to be weaned from their mothers at 6 months, then to have a diet of bread and water from the polluted rivulet next to the factory.  Many died from dysentery.  At 3, the children who survived were taken to live in their own orphanage-prison, perhaps to be reunited several years later when their mothers’ terms of servitude were completed.

Later, “transportation” was transformed to “probation.” Upon landing, women would be sent out to work and live on farms throughout the island in slave-like conditions until they could earn their freedom.  If they failed to do their work well or became pregnant, they would be returned to the factory.

At the museum, there is this simple exhibit on which women’s names are listed.  They remind us that each one had her story of loss and suffering. With luck there could be survival and freedom.  Indeed, there was a lovely photographic exhibition of modern day descendants of some of these women, who live proud lives notwithstanding their “convict” ancestors.

(By the way, there were other types of awful treatment awaiting the male convicts in Van Diemen’s Land—many of whom, too, committed minor crimes and were sent as a work force by the British Empire to squeeze out possible colonization by other European powers.)

I was reminded as I watched the movie Suffragette that Australia was the second country in the modern era (after New Zealand) to grant women the right to vote—well before Great Britain.  Was there something about the earlier history of cruelty and oppression that led to a greater sense of egalitarianism in Oz?  Is it possible that the treatment of men and women convicts created a communitarian culture that led to this and other social advances?  A number of my friends and colleagues here have made this connection.  How ironic it would be if one era of such cruelty helped herald another period of political enlightenment. If so, the women at the factory would have left a legacy for their adopted country that they never could have imagined.


Tom said...

Very disturbing: "female factory". What words do!

Theresa Willett said...

From Facebook:

Your comment on societal development feels spot on. However, there are many lessons not learned despite incredible access to knowledge.