Wednesday 7 May 2014

HBD Chick sorts out Australia

Were you in the cafe at the British Library recently? You might have caught a rare glimpse of the indefatigable HBD Chick labouring away at the curious question of the fall in violence in North West Europe beginning in 1300. Unlikely subject, and unlikely you would have recognised her, because nobody knows what she looks like.

Under the beneficent cloak of anonymity she has been researching whether capital punishment purged the English of their “genes for violence” rendering them the meek and harmless geeks they are today. Into these calm labours I lobbed in a possible contributory factor: the transportation of convicts to Australia. Australia, the continent in the Southern seas.

The short answer is that transportation had nothing to do with it. Here are her findings:

well, if you take a look at the chart from pinker/eisner (from previous post) which shows the decline in homicide rates in europe beginning in the 1300s, you’ll see that by far most of the decline happened in the medieval period, well before the transportations to australia — or even north america — happened. so i think we have to look to that period for the “pacification” of nw europeans and not so much the 1600s-1800s. if anything, there’s an interesting spike in homicide rates right around 1800 — whether that has to do with the increasing population or better records or something else altogether (or all of the above), i don’t know.

anyway, not that many murderers were actually transported to australia (or north america). from l.l. robson’s The Convict Settlers of Australia: An Enquiry Into the Origin and Character of the Convicts Transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land 1787-1852, we know that out of the 125,000 transportees which he surveyed (the total number of transportees to australia was approximately 165,000 — a total of 60,000 was sent to north america, btw):

- men outnumbered women six to one (a total of 24,960 female convicts was sent to australia)

of the male convicts:

- 54% were transported for unspecified larcenies
- 15% for burglary or housebreaking
- 11.3% for stealing domestic or farm animals (as distinct from poaching game)
- 6% for “theft of wearing apparel”
- 4% were sentenced for “offences of a public nature,” for instance “coining and uttering” bad money (2%) or treason (1.5%) or membership in trade unions or (the lord save us and bless us!) irish secret societies (ca. 1 convict in 5 was tried in ireland, most of them in dublin)
- a little more than 3% were transported for “offences against the person,” which ranged from assault, rape, kidnapping and a few statistically negligible sodomy convictions to manslaughter and murder

so something less than 3% out of ca. 106,000 convicts were murderers. if we call it 1%, that’s just 1060 murderers transported to australia in a 65 year period (16 per year). and 20% of those were irish!

so, no – the transportation of murderers out of england probably contributed very little to the pacification of the english. like i said above, that happened earlier in the middle ages. i think the increasing use of capital punishment (in some periods, the normans favored castration, btw — same or similar effect prolly) must’ve affected the average nature of the population. however, as i said in my previous post, historians of crime have a hard time explaining why homicide rates dropped so significantly in the medieval period in the netherlands where there *wasn’t* a strong state which could impose capital punishment on the population, while on the other hand in medieval northern italy where there *were* strong states meting out capital punishment, the homicide rates *didn’t* drop. something else must’ve been going on in the nw corner of europe. i’ll be posting more about this going forward, so…stay tuned!


The answer, with which I heartily concur, is to stay tuned to the redoubtable HBD Chick. Until then, no more thieving of wearing apparel.

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