Punishment Box – control by a black box

No. 18

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Maintaining order on a prison ship would not have been easy, with convicts being sent across the world, away from family, their homes, and all things familiar. Just how successful the means used to maintain this order is debatable, but no doubt a spell in a ‘punishment box’ such as this one would not have been pleasant. One could neither sit nor lie – nor indeed even stand comfortably – once inside it…

By the 1840s, the need for females in the new colony was becoming critical and so increasing numbers of female convicts were dispatched on ships. This punishment box – later collected by J.W. Beattie as a convict curiosity for his museum – was used on one such vessel, secured to the deck and used as just one of a number of punishments meted out by the ship’s surgeons. Originally it was thought to be a dunking box for male prisoners, but several clues – including height and the air holes – and recent research has suggested its role in punishing female convicts.

Punishment in the new settlement was a matter of great debate, and the colony went through a number of radical changes in prison systems. A Female Factory was established in 1828 to specifically house women prisoners. By 1833, the penal settlement for male secondary offenders on Sarah Island (on Tasmania’s west coast) had closed and the new ‘model’ prison at Port Arthur on the east coast was built in 1850. This later prison, designed under the Separate Prison Typology from Jeremy Bentham’s theories, was intended to provide a systematised approach to punishment and represented a shift from physical punishment to a more psychological approach. The reform approach, argued at the time as more effective and enlightened, was nonetheless still extremely brutal and harsh.

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