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  • Sodom Island: Pandæmonium and the Botany Bay of Botany Bay
  • Mark Peart (bio)

During its second British settlement between 1825 and 1855, Norfolk Island operated as an ultrapenal prison complex that was variously known as “Hell upon Earth,” one of the “five criminal cities” of the plain, and “Gomorrah Island” or “Sodom Island.”1 The isolated penal settlement was designed for recidivists and incorrigibles from the convict colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (the original name of Tasmania, changed in 1855) and the worst offenders from the British metropole. Lying roughly between New Zealand and New Caledonia, the small volcanic outcrop is some eight hundred kilometers (five hundred miles) from the nearest landmass, making for an ideal prison. Modern penal reformers campaigning for the end to the transportation system took [End Page 263] Norfolk Island penal practice as an ultimate example of the failures of older system penal methods.2 In 1845 newspapers and circulars printed increasingly alarmed reports on the objectionable social order at Norfolk Island, which they claimed had reached a crisis point under the administration of the commandant, Major Joseph Childs. Commentators attributed Childs’s incompetence to a combination of arbitrary brutality and disciplinary laxity. Norfolk Island’s social order, newspapers reported, was in a state of inversion, and an inquiry was called for. John Eardley-Wilmot, lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, charged Robert Pringle Stuart, a visiting magistrate in the convict department of Van Diemen’s Land, with conducting the investigation. Stuart spent two weeks at the prison settlement and composed a report that was convincing enough to persuade Eardley-Wilmot to take action to dismiss Childs the day after he had read it.3 Thomas Beagley Naylor, the former Anglican minister to the island, sent a letter to London, arriving in September 1846, expressing his dismay with what he also saw as systemic social disorder and widespread sodomitical sexual behavior at the settlement. He sent his letter to London with his wife, intending her to publish it as a pamphlet; however, Alexander Maconochie, the former Norfolk Island superintendent and renowned penal reformer, intervened, and the letter was instead sent to Earl Grey, secretary of state for war and the colonies. The Colonial Office submitted both Stuart’s and Naylor’s accounts in a report to both houses of the British Parliament on February 6, 1847.4 Upon hearing of the “unnatural” horrors at the settlement, Grey made orders for it to be closed and for the interned to be sent to the Tasman Peninsula in Van Diemen’s Land.5 [End Page 264]

In this article I offer close readings of Naylor’s and Stuart’s accounts from a literary historicist perspective in order to provide nuanced analysis of the rhetorics about sodomy from which these accounts proceed. Both of these texts are primarily accounts of social disorder at the prison, and I argue that sodomy emerges as a primary condition of this disorder; it is depicted not simply as an expression of sexual behavior—though sex between the men was said to be ubiquitous—but as an indication of general social disorder. Michel Foucault famously described sodomy as the “utterly confused category,” noting its historical use to delimit a range of proscribed nonreproductive sexual acts, from adultery, oral and anal sex (between same-sex and different-sex partners), to bestiality.6 In British law, sodomy was a capital crime carrying the death sentence until 1861. In the Australian colonies, sodomy was a crime under British law in the first two decades of the nineteenth century under 25 Henry VIII, chapter 8 as the “detestable and abominable vice of buggery committed with mankind or beast,” an injunction against general nonprocreative sex acts. (Enacted in 1533, 25 Henry VIII, chapter 8, was the first codification in secular law of prior canon law.) British sodomy law was later recodified under the 1828 Offenses Against the Person Act, in 9 George IV, chapter 31, as “the abominable Crime of Buggery, committed either with Mankind or with any Animal”; the legal requirement for proof changed to “upon the Proof of Penetration only.”7 Prior to 1828, “emission of seed” was...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 263-296
Launched on MUSE
2019-05-01
Open Access
No
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