On a recreational hunting expedition in Sydney Cove, Governor Arthur Phillip speaks with Judge David Collins, Captain Watkin Tench, and Midshipman Harry Brewer about the nature of punishment. As he wonders aloud why the British government thought it was a good idea to “cross fifteen thousand miles of ocean” just to build a penal colony, Judge Collins points out that the convicts are guilty and thus deserve to be here. “But hanging?” Phillip asks, and Collins assures him that only three of the convicts will be hanged, since they were caught stealing food from the colony’s supply. As he says this, he draws Phillip’s attention to a beautiful bird, adding that he has been given control over a beautiful “paradise of birds.” “And I hope not of a human hell,” Phillip replies.
Governor Arthur Phillip emerges right away as an empathetic character, someone who wants to rule the Australian penal colony in a just and levelheaded way. Because of this, he isn’t automatically in favor of public executions, especially when this method is used to punish something as petty as theft. When Phillip expresses his hesitations, the audience sees that he is a compassionate man who doesn’t want to preside over a “human hell” replete with terror and authoritarian violence.
Phillip expresses his desire to rule the colony with a “more humane” attitude, but Captain Tench asserts that “justice and humaneness have never gone hand in hand.” In response, Phillip clarifies that he doesn’t think the convicts shouldn’t be punished, but simply that public hangings are rather perverse, since they become “spectacle[s].” To that end, he fears the criminals will see the hanging and think that everything in the colony is exactly the same as it was in England, which will encourage them to revert to their “old ways.” This logic doesn’t convince Tench, though, since he thinks the convicts haven’t changed in the first place, adding that they also don’t “intend” to reform themselves. Chiming in, Judge Collins says he respects Phillip’s desire to treat the criminals in a humane manner, but he says that this “edifice will collapse without the mortar of fear.”
During this discussion about the positive and negative effects of public execution, Phillip reveals his belief that criminals are capable of rehabilitation. This is why he doesn’t want to make public hangings into a “spectacle,” since he believes that this kind of punishment will discourage the convicts from ever trying to improve themselves. When he says that he doesn’t want the prisoners to think the justice system is exactly the same as in England, he implies that he wants to create an environment in which personal growth and even forgiveness are possible. However, Tench demonstrates his strong disagreement by upholding that the convicts have no desire to change, and even Judge Collins criticizes Phillip’s empathetic outlook by suggesting that fear is an integral part of any well-functioning society. As such, the audience sees how uncommon Phillip’s compassion is when it comes to justice and governance in the Australian penal colonies.
Phillip suggests that lashings should be enough to keep the convicts in line, but Tench and Collins point out that many of them have already experienced heavy whippings and that—at a certain point—this punishment leads to death anyway, though in a slower way that can’t be made into an “example” because it isn’t public. When Phillip asks Harry what he thinks, the midshipman tells him that the criminals “laugh at the hangings,” since they’re so used to seeing them. Agreeing, Tench says that public executions are the convicts’ “favourite form of entertainment,” and Phillip finds this troubling, ultimately suggesting that perhaps they enjoy the hangings because nobody has exposed them to more wholesome forms of entertainment.
Once again, Phillip gives the convicts the benefit of the doubt, this time suggesting that they only need a bit of guidance in order to become respectable individuals. When he says that the criminals only see public executions as “entertainment” because they haven’t been exposed to anything better, he implies that everyone is capable of recognizing and benefiting from good art—even people who are seen as uncultured and crass. In turn, he again expresses his desire to reform the convicts, seeing them as human beings capable of change.
Captain Tench makes fun of Phillip for wanting to treat the convicts as civilized humans, but Phillip insists that people have to “learn to love” things like opera and the theater. “Surely no one is born naturally cultured?” he says. However, Collins reminds him that they hardly have any books or plays in the colony, so they might as well focus on punishing the convicts instead of educating them.
Phillip’s assertion that “no one is born naturally cultured” emphasizes his belief that personalities are formed, not innately inherited. This is an important idea, since it suggests that everyone is capable of changing themselves. Still, this mentality doesn’t quite align with the conditions of the penal colony, which has seemingly been created to punish criminals, not to reform them. This, it seems, is what Judge Collins points out by saying that—since they hardly have any resources to help the convicts change—they might as well concentrate on carrying out standard forms of punishment.
Turning his attention to the upcoming hanging, Phillip asks Harry to tell him the names of the convicts sentenced to death. First, Harry tells him, there’s Thomas Barrett, a seventeen-year-old brought to the colony because he stole a single sheep. Phillip is troubled that Thomas is so young, and when Tench suggests that this proves “the criminal tendency is innate,” he disagrees, insisting that the convict’s age indicates no such thing. Next, Harry tells Phillip that a convict named James Freeman has also been sentenced to death. The final criminal, Harry says, is Handy Baker, a marine who was the “ringleader” of the theft. Collins adds that Handy tried to argue that it was unfair that the marines receive the same amount of food as the convicts. Hearing this, Tench agrees that it is too bad that this is the case, since his men “are in a ferment of discontent.”
The fact that someone like Thomas Barrett—a mere seventeen-year-old—has been sentenced to death simply for stealing food illustrates just how harsh the rules are in the penal colony. Handy Baker is also a marine, but is set to receive the same punishment as the two convicts, meaning that the courts have no sympathy even for members of the military. As such, the audience sees how strict and unbending this society is when it comes to doling out penalties—something that clearly bothers Phillip, since he wants to rule the colony in a more “humane” manner.
Wrapping up their discussion, Tench says that the hanging should take place as quickly as possible. “It’s their theatre, Governor, you cannot change that,” he says. In response, Phillip says he’d rather the convicts watch actual theater. Nonetheless, he tells Harry to prepare the hanging, adding that he’ll need to find someone to be the hangman. Before they finish the discussion, Harry mentions that there was also an eighty-two-year-old woman who stole food from Robert Sideway, and when Phillip suggests that it’s unnecessary to hang such an old woman, Collins says, “That will be unnecessary. She hanged herself this morning.”
By this point, Tench has already proved his overall lack of sympathy for the convicts. The reason he is so merciless, it seems, is that he truly believes criminals are inherently inferior and morally corrupt, which is why he tells Phillip that it’s impossible to change the fact that the convicts see public hangings as “theatre.” When Collins tells Phillip that the old woman who stole food from Sideway hanged herself, though, the audience sees just how hopeless these convicts really are, and how little faith they have in an overly harsh justice system.