The Convicts

'...and many a man from downright starvation

lies mouldering beneath the clay,

and Captain Logan, he had us mangled

at the triangles of Moreton Bay'


This verse from 'Moreton Bay' by Frank McNamara, the Convict Poet of the 1820's, revolves around floggings the convicts received. Much more rarely mentioned in history is the role of the doctor at the floggings: to determine whether or not it was safe to continue.  

The prominent mid-20th century poet Robert D Fitzgerald writes of discovering that a relative of his was the first private doctor in Australia, Martin Mason. Mason arrived in 1798, and in 1801 became magistrate at Parramatta and Toongabbie. He had a reputation for cruelty. In his poem 'The wind at your door', Fitzgerald expands an infamous historical account of the floggings ordered in retribution for the Castle Hill Rebellion:


'My ancestor was called on to go out,

a medical man, and one such must by law

wait in attendance on the pampered knout

and lend his countenance to what he saw,

lest the pet, patting with too bared a claw

be judged a clumsy pussy. Bitter and hard,

see, as I see him, in that jailhouse yard


his eyes green, and for that slit, the smile

that seems inhuman,, have it cruel and stark,

but grant it could be too the ironic mark

of all caught in the system- who the most,

the doctor, or the flesh twined round that post?


There was a high wind blowing on that day;

for one who would not watch, but looked aside,

said that when twice he turned it blew his way

splashes of blood and strips of human hide

shaken out from the lashes that were plied...


...One hundred lashes more, then rest the flail.

What says the doctor now? "This dog won't yelp;

he'll tire you out before you see him fail;

here's strength to spare; go on!"...

Fitzgerald was not happy to discover such a man in his background, but fairly raises the question of the system the doctor was confined within. The poem is well worth reading in its entirety.

Consider: Doctors are sometimes asked to perform such functions, for example in the death chambers of the USA.  What would you do if the Australian state ordered you to decide if, for example, illegally detained and tortured people could withstand another day? How would you work out whether or not a prisoner could cope with more torture?

Consider: Are there any places or circumstances in which you can imagine yourself advising lay authorities on ways to inflict suffering on prisoners? Is the Hippocratic oath always inviolable?

One time when I was a GP in western Victoria, a travelling boxing show was looking for a doctor to decide who could and who could not go on. I deplore rough rural boxing as a sport, and consequently refused to support the event. They found another doctor to do the work.

Robbie Walker was one of Australia's prison poets (the most prominent of these, Max Williams, is now a well loved local poet in the Bega Valley). Robbie was half-caste, displaced and violent, but in prison he wrote poems, and even ended up on a TV special called 'Prison New Faces' in 1981. His death in custody at the age of 24 was one of many investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Here is an extract from 'Solitary Confinement':


Have you ever had to strip

before half-a-dozen barking eyes

forcing you against a wall-

ordering you to part your legs and bend over?


Have you ever laid on a wooden bed-

in regulation pyjamas

and tried to get a bucket to talk

in all seriousness?


Have you ever heard the screams in the middle of the night,

or the sobbings of a stir-crazy prisoner

echo over and over again in the darkness

threatening to draw you into its madness?


If you've never experienced even one of these,

then bow your head and thank God.

For it's a strange thing indeed-

this rehabilitation system.'


updated: 22/03/2010