'The whip is a very contagious kind of thing': flogging and humanitarian reform in penal Australia

Penelope Edmonds, Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper traces humanitarian debates over corporal punishment and the use of the lash in the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century, with particular attention to Quakers James Backhouse and George Washington Walker’s interventions in penal discipline in colonial Van Diemen’s Land. It examine the ways that corporal punishment of convicts and Aboriginal peoples was framed through abolitionist eyes and explores in detail specific objections to the lash, including ideas around suffering, abstract vengeance and pain. The paper considers the move to other punishment strategies such as silent and solitary confinement, promoted in place of the lash. As we show, the evidence provided by the travelling investigative Quakers did much to inform the 1837 Select Committee on Transportation chaired by William Molesworth. The same report is also credited with reducing the rate of flogging in the penal colonies. However, while the Molesworth Committee is regarded as a decisive turning point in the history of Britain’s deployment of convict labour, we argue that a shift in punishment strategies was already well underway before the late 1830s. Using new data on punishments awarded, we demonstrate that in Van Diemen’s Land the demise of the lash had begun well before the Molesworth Committee met. We conclude by arguing that the association between the great humanitarian moment and the demise of flagellation so often associated Molesworth, was more complex and less direct than is often supposed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Colonialism and Colonial History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • corporal punishment
  • Australia
  • penal discipline
  • Aboriginal people
  • convicts


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