Postcolonial Fictions | Span | Reading Room | What'sNew | CRCC

Journal of the South Pacific
Association for Commonwealth
Literature and Language Studies
Number 36 (1993)

Postcolonial Fictions

Edited by MichŤle Drouart

Launched into Eternity (on the first Fremantle Gaol executions)

Joan Newman This paper needs to be prefaced with a few introductory remarks. First, strictly speaking, it may appear not to address postcolonial issues as such, for the events with which it is concerned, the first executions at Fremantle Gaol, occurred in the decade prior to Federation. But I should point out that I prefer to understand the term postcolonial to mean the on-going influences of the colonizing event, its continuing processes after the initial act of colonial appropriation, and related practices which may be transformed but to which there may, indeed, be no real end.

Also, this paper is only a fragment of a much larger project and this gives rise to my concern that it could disguise more than it reveals. In particular, I am aware of the danger that it may hide the impact of the British criminal justice system upon Aboriginal people in this state. My research, which involves the collection of data on all those convicted of capital crimes in Western Australia, indicates that between 1830 and 1907 approximately four hundred people were sentenced to death. Of these, approximately two hundred and eighty were Aboriginal. Of the one hundred and thirty actually executed before 1908, approximately sixty were Aboriginal. So although the indigenous people were more likely to be convicted of capital offences (and indeed other offences) than people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds, of those convicted, they were less likely to be hanged. This is not to forget, however, that incarceration often led to death through disease and violence. As far as I can ascertain, no Aboriginals were executed at Fremantle Gaol. This, of course, means that much of the treatment of Aboriginals in this period just prior to Federation, by the police, judicial and prison systems, may continue to be seen as less terrible than it was, for it met with far less media attention than the dramatic newspaper accounts of executions which are discussed in this paper.

With the closure of Fremantle Gaol last year, the newspapers published a number of stories about the prison, its history, its inmates, its executions. I was particularly interested in the list of names of those hanged at the prison. Scanning the list of forty-seven, I expected to read Anglo-Saxon and Celtic names, perhaps with a few exceptions. Instead I encountered Ah Chui, Chow Fong, Yong Quock, Mahomet Goulam, Jumma Khan, Pedro de la Cruz, Sabaro Rokka, Simeon Espada, Augustin de Kitchilan. Where were the Smiths, the Thomases, the Jones? I wondered. There is a Smith in 1908 and another in 1932, even a Smithson in 1911 and there is a Thomas in 1960, but not a Jones to be found. Most striking of all, the first eleven names are Malay, Chinese, Afghan, Filipino, reflecting not only the ethnic mixture of colonial society of the time, but also, I would suggest, its class, ethnic and religious prejudices. Time will not permit me to consider each of the eleven men who were executed between 1889 and 1900, but a study of media representations of some of these men, the first to die by judicial hanging at Fremantle Gaol, reveals much about the role of the press in maintaining the authority of the state and defining late colonial society's norms of punishment.

C.T. Stannage has noted that from the beginning of the colony of Western Australia, there was "little difference between Anglicanism and the Law: both served the investing class and both sought to inculcate in the 'inferior class' a respect for private property, an obedience to governors, and a fear of punishment for wrong-doing" (The People of Perth).1 Although by the 1880s the Anglican church had lost considerable ground—the weekly Catholic journal, The Record was established in 1880—its struggle to maintain its authority can be seen in the long close association of leading Anglicans with legal and political systems as well as with the media. In particular there was the desire to maintain the myth that the colony was a homogenous society of like-minded people. Those from ethnic, racial, religious and class origins other than those of the ruling class could more easily be labeled "outsider," "outlaw" or "criminal." The West Australian, established by Charles Harper, a deeply conservative Anglican, ran an editorial of January 21st 1889 which addressed the problem of "miscarriages of justice." What the editor meant by the term was very different from the meaning conferred by present-day usage. His concern was not for those who were considered to be wrongfully convicted, but about those that were thought to be treated too leniently. Leniency, he believed, had become so common that there was a danger that life was likely to be thought "less safe in Western Australia than in other parts of the British dominions." The lives feared for were those of the affluent, Anglican, landed gentry. Western Australian society wished to attract more such immigrants, so it was not desirable for the colony to be regarded as a dangerous outpost of lawlessness. And yet the apparent lack of rigour on the part of the law might only be resolved, the editorial threatened, by the action of colonists who "may consider the propriety of reverting to primitive methods of justice such as obtains in Texas, Arizona and other parts of the United States where the police constable stage of civilisation has been imperfectly developed."

Although by 1889 the colony largely saw itself as having passed beyond certain practices that were by then considered barbaric, the editorial in The West suggests that the discourses surrounding punishment of crime were very unstable. The colony could still be regarded as a special case. The threat of lynchings was to encourage greater acceptance of judicial hanging. Public physical punishment and public hangings were things of the past; the last occasion for a public execution in Perth was 1869. But hanging itself remained, a remnant of an earlier punishment methodology and increasingly problematic in its meanings. Attempts were made to demonstrate that judicial death was necessary, but clean, speedy and painless, carried out dispassionately and humanely. In no way could it be compared, it was hoped, to the violent and brutal murder of an innocent victim, the crime for which most of those hanged were being punished. An execution was conducted in the presence of a doctor, who attended to the prisoner's comfort in his last days, and finally pronounced him dead; a representative of religion who urged his confession and offered him religious succour; the authorities of the gaol; the representatives of the press; and, of course, the hangman himself. All combined in what it was hoped would be understood as a solemn ritual of religious significance. It was, after all, in the favoured expression of the media of the day, the moment at which the condemned was "launched into eternity." The close cooperation between the church, the press, and the prison was necessary to control the ritual meanings of a hanging.

The first execution to take place within the new prison gave the newspapers the opportunity of describing the gallows. It was, according to The West Australian (February, 25th 1889) "a commodious room;" to The Daily News it was an "execution chamber" in which the "whitewashed walls . . . reflect the light which is freely admitted by the large skylights in the roof" (March 4, 1889). In this smaller version of the prison's Anglican chapel, the chief minister of the gallows was the hangman. Like his counterpart, the priest, his actions consisted of a ritualistic performance of word, gesture and act in which the sacrificial body was that of the condemned man. In this place of cleanliness and light, the solemn ritual of judicial execution was to take place. The first to meet his death within its "whitewashed walls" was a Malay whose name is recorded as Jimmy Long. Neither of these was his real name, which may now never be known to us. Jimmy was a common appelation applied by Europeans to those whose names they refused to pronounce. He was known as "Long" Jimmy because of his height. Some newspaper reports avoided using a name at all, simply referring to this man as "the Malay."

But after Jimmy Long was found guilty of the murder of the captain of the pearling vessel upon which he was employed, a crime named by the press as "a peculiarly atrocious" one, he became "the murderer," "the prisoner," "the condemned man." These designations invested him with new meaning. He entered what Michel Foucault would describe as a "political field," in which his body was forced "to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs."2 He was the object of unrelenting scrutiny, watched by warders day and night, presumably to ensure that he did not cheat the hangman by committing suicide, for it was not his death that was needed, but the ritual act of execution as a display of the power of the state not only in terms of the man to be punished but to all potential offenders. Suicide would also suggest that the condemned man had dominion over his own body, but this body was now the property of the state. Nevertheless, the state needed the prisoner's compliance. Various activities of his final days are described in detail by the press. He was offered "religious consolation" but he rejected the offer of the priests, "preferring," the newspaper records, "the Mohammedan faith in which he had been brought up." A fellow prisoner prayed with him; he dictated a letter to his parents; he made a confession to "the watchers who were in charge of him." His eating and sleeping habits, as well as his demeanour, are described in detail, even down to "the perspiration [which] stood in heavy drops on his forehead." With the limitation placed upon the number of witnesses to the modern execution, the newspapers played a major role in controlling the meanings of the act, for they were the bearers of knowledge that was unattainable by members of the public in any other way.

The prisoner's irons were "knocked off," he was pinioned "by the proper officer in the ordinary way," and handcuffed behind his back. The walk to the gallows is recorded; the members of the procession are named. It is noted that he stops to pray and to ask for a drink of water. On the scaffold the white cap is "suitably adjusted," the trapdoors fall at a touch of the lever. A drop of six feet is allowed, and death appears to be instantaneous. The doctor declares that the neck has been dislocated. With the Sheriff and the prison Superintendent, he signs the declaration that the "Judgment of Death" has been executed. Precision, tidiness, propriety are the points of emphasis. Less dispassionate than The West, The Daily News report contains the older, more customary, theatrical phraseology of the spectacle of execution which was so characteristic of the broadsides issued after the public executions at Tyburn in London. The procession from the prison cell is "mournful," the prisoner is "the unhappy man," his prayers are "fervent." The "fatal noose" is drawn over his head and, at last, "the soul of the murderer [is] launched into eternity."

From the time he was taken into custody until his last moments, the behaviour of the prisoner known as "Jimmy Long" is described as "exemplary." For he has acted in accordance with the wishes of the authorities. He has made a confession; he has accepted his fate humbly and dutifully. For indeed, he is seen as fated, a term which assumes a rightness in the state of affairs, a destiny beyond mortal control. This destiny is seen as "the law taking its course," as if this were a law of Nature, or of God, rather than a law of men. He has played his part well in the political field of punishment. For as Foucault has remarked, "the body becomes a useful force only as it is both a productive body and a subjected body."3 And the body of Jimmy Long, as it emits all its signs of acceptance, and contributes to the ritual, helps to reproduce the institutional power to which it is subject. Even the man's alien faith is incorporated into the paradigm of acceptable belief, for he has acted the contrite sinner and so endorsed the combined authority of church and state.

Within the year, another Malay, Ahle (Harry) Pres, was convicted of the murder of a man by the name of Louis, a Filipino, described in the language of the day as a Manilla man. The day after his indictment, The West carried an editorial on the necessity of capital punishment, arguing that just as society sacrifices innocent lives for "the general advantage" in times of war, so the hanging of murderers secures society against internal crimes. "[I]t is sheer maudlin nonsense," the editorial continues, "to contend that, because [an innocent man] occasionally falls victim, hanging should be totally abolished." The condemned man, thereby, is likened to the soldier who must be sacrificed for the greater good. His guilt or innocence is no longer an issue, once he is required to act out his necessary role. The purpose of the death penalty is represented, not as retribution, but as necessary for social order and stability. The editor aligns this with a Christian position. "We are not pagans; we profess, at any rate, to have learnt a better rule of life than theirs . . ." Those who are opposed to the death penalty are accused of showing a "contemptible and maudlin sentimentality" in place of "the boasted commonsense stoicism of Englishmen" (Saturday, October 19th 1889).

Despite his protests of innocence, and even some doubt as to the identity of the body found, Pres was sentenced to death. His last days, defined by the prison ritual, are outlined by the newspapers. However, once he learns that "his fate is irrevocably fixed" he becomes highly agitated and is "unable to take his meals with his usual relish." This prisoner, too, is a Muslim, but he surprises his warders by quoting from the New Testament, comparing himself to Christ killed by the Romans. This is a man who knows the discourse of those who imprison him, and he uses it with disturbing effect. Before he is led to the gallows he swears on the Koran that he is innocent of the crime, after which he submits "with utmost composure" and repeats the Mohammadan declaration of faith during the process of preparation for hanging. The lever is pulled, and Pres is "hurled into eternity." But this occasion did not meet all the requirements of the authorities. A man who proclaims his innocence, and bravely faces his tormentors, may raise disturbing questions among members of the reading public. It could lead some to doubt official judgment. The writer in The Daily News felt some comment was needed to reassure his audience: "Although Pres so persistently and so solemnly protested his innocence of the crime laid to his charge and met his fearful fate with perfect calmness, yet those who have read the evidence adduced against him at his trial must admit the verdict of guilty was a just, righteous, and proper one." And as if this were not enough, then comes the clincher:

It certainly seems strange—and yet it is really true—that foreigners (i.e. Frenchmen, Italians and Malays, for instance) meet inevitable death with greater firmness than Englishmen and with an intrepidity act an indifference—as the conduct of Pres proves—altogether astounding. Taking this peculiar characteristic into consideration the extraordinary courage which Pres exhibited and the calmness with which he met his fearful fate cannot be attributed to moral strength resulting from a sense of conscious innocence.4

So, what was in danger of being interpreted as an admirable quality is rapidly inverted, explained as a false pose, a bizarre foreign trait attributable to difference, or Otherness, and not to be understood within the paradigms of "normal" behaviour, the "norm" being seen as British and—one might add—Anglican. The meanings of the signs must be kept under control.

Two years later, in April 1891, Ah Chui, also known as Li Ki Hong, faced the gallows. Ah Chui, a Chinese, was found guilty of the murder of another Chinese worker on a property near York. The offence, we are told by The West Australian, was conducted with "true oriental ferocity," whereas to The Daily News it was a "diabolical deed." Certainly it was a bloody affair. Ah Chui attacked three fellow workers, also Chinese, with a tomohawk, in an argument over an unpaid debt. In Fremantle Gaol, Ah Chui was watched by "three special warders, Hodges, Quinn and Farrell." The readers are assured of kindnesses shown him: "He was indulged in the luxury of a pipe of tobacco, and he being possessed of a good appetite, the doctor gave orders for him to be supplied with extra food." By such means Ah Chui was encouraged to adopt the role prepared for him—to demonstrate his acceptance of the state's authority.

Although Ah Chui's crime is described as ferocious and frenzied and his manner in court as "sullen" and "forbidding," his compliant demeanour in prison redeems him in the eyes and words of the reporter for The West. As he quietly submits to the pinioning operations Ah Chui is described as "a manly, strapping young fellow"; he walks unassisted to the gallows, where he stands alone, "upright and confident" (The West Australian, April 17, 1891). The Daily News, however, sees him rather differently, and remains dependent upon the earlier traditional terminology associated with images of public execution. The condemned man's "good appetite" is described as "almost ravenous," and "the manly strapping fellow" is in the eyes of The Daily's reporter, a "wretched man" (April 16, 1891). It is probably the same writer who had formerly described the execution of Pres, for here we have, again, the same phrases with a minor change to make allowance for the differing circumstances: "It certainly seems strange—and it is really true—that foreigners (i.e. Frenchmen, Italians, Chinese and Malays for instance) meet inevitable death with greater firmness than Englishmen, and with an intrepidity—as the conduct of Ah Chui proves—altogether astonishing" (my emphasis).

Twelve months later, in April 1892, four Chinese were executed together. Three men, Chew Fong, Lyee Nyee and Yong Quock had been found guilty of the murder of one of their countrymen at the Murchison where all worked as servants on a station; the other, Sin Cho Chi, was found guilty of the murder of an Englishman near Mill Stream Station. The Daily News, in noting the unusual circumstances of a multiple execution, smugly asserts that "we may at any rate congratulate ourselves that the unfortunate criminals were not of our own race and colour" (29 April, 1892). The fact that men of his own race and colour are not likely to have been employed in the same circumstances as three of the men, who were deprived of food by their foreman, does not enter the argument. But the newspaper does not wish to leave the impression that the Chinese would not have met with equal consideration under the law. The news report is at pains to point out that the administrators recognised the special circumstances of each case and were compassionate men: "It would doubtless have been a source of satisfaction to the Administrator and his Ministers if they could have spared the lives of the four men, as the responsibility of deciding such a question is in any case extreme, and was in these cases especially so, as differences of race and unacquaintance with our laws had to be, and doubtless were, well considered."

Whatever consideration may have been given, on the morning of the 29th April 1892, the ritual in which the Sheriff formally demands the bodies of the condemned men from their gaoler was enacted. The prisoners were led to the scaffold and executed two at a time. The newspapers differ in their reports as to who were hanged first. They differ also in which man they choose to represent as the villain of the piece. The Daily News sees Chew Fong as "distinctly cruel and brutal in appearance," but The West declares that the savagery of Sin Cho Chi is "expressed . . . in the form of snarls and barks at the warders who attended him." Although The Daily goes to considerable lengths to describe the different demeanour of each prisoner as he faced the gallows, The West remarks that their faces "wore the same expressionless appearance as their everyday life," suggesting that "they regarded death with all the stoical equanimity for which the Chinese are remarkable." Such stoicism is "explained" as due to the accused men being followers of Confucius. The head of the Chinese Anglican Mission in Victoria is consulted and quoted as saying that Confucianism is the "religion of despair" for it is, we are assured, "devoid of hope for a future world." (We are not told, however, how the religion of hope, in its Anglican version, explains the implied anguish of the Englishman on the scaffold. It seems the "boasted commonsense stoicism of Englishmen" cannot be relied upon.)

Although The Daily News relates a near bungling with one of the executions in which the rope slips, it still maintains that the executions were "satisfactorily and decently carried it." The West, too, assures its readers that "the four men died easily, muscular contraction ceasing within fourteen minutes in the longest instance." (So much for instantaneous death!) The next execution contained further elements of disorder. Goulam Mahomet was an Afghan, sentenced to death for the murder of another Afghan whom he shot in a mosque at Coolgardie. The report in The Daily News is notable for its emphasis on a breakdown in conventional practice. The formal demand for the prisoner's body is not heard. " 'In you go,' said someone to the executioner" and the hangman, an aged ticket-of-leave man, entered the cell. He was five minutes late in collecting the prisoner, fumbled with the rope, and the execution, timed for eight o'clock, was not conducted until almost 25 minutes past the hour. On the scaffold Goulam declared his innocence and condemned the system of justice in "this English dominion." The West reports his statement that "it appeared to him that Englishmen never forgave, for since the Afghan war and the massacre of the British at Khyber Pass they had borne no good feeling towards his countrymen. He attributed his sentence to the fact that he was an Afghan and not a European." Again the condemned man acted calmly in the face of the gallows, accounted for by the press on this occasion as due to his religious belief in predestination. Although the execution proceeded without further problems for the authorities, The Daily's journalist raises questions about the wisdom of the deep pit in the "event of an accident." He is also highly critical of the placement of the coffin on the drop rather than in the pit, for this meant that the body had to be hauled up by block and tackle after the hanging. But the newspaper reporter's criticism in no way suggests any sympathy for the hanged man, or even a criticism of the practice of hanging itself, but instead a concern that formal ceremony is being neglected. The concern is reflected in the petulant tone of the article, caused by what the reporter perceives to be a lack of respect shown to the representatives of the press who were "subjected to no little delay in having to wait outside the prison walls until different gangs of prisoners had left the gaol" (The Daily News, 2 May, 1896).

Mahomet Goulam's execution was followed less than a year later by that of Jumma Khan, another Afghan. This man was found guilty of the murder of a Welshman, by means of an axe, on the streets of Fremantle. The sanity of Khan would today be very much in question. The West describes him as having "run amok." Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death. The Daily News sets the scene: "The morning broke fair and smiling, and the sun, with its brilliancy undimmed by a single cloud, shone down on the prison and its surroundings as the sheriff a few minutes before eight o'clock, drove up to see the last dread sentence of the law carried out" (30 March 1897). One is tempted to add: "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world." Like the weather which shone its blessing, on this occasion, all the preparations were in "perfect order." At the pulling of the lever, the doors parted and "the murderer met his doom." The recorded response of the witnesses is telling. "A sigh of relief was heaved by many, who felt that the composure with which the condemned Afghan went to his death, and the success which attended the operation were, after all in a measure gratifying, that is so far as the vindication of the law is concerned." Whereas public executions had depended on terror, in the new practices of punishment, the law itself could be read into the penalty. That is, the procedure of execution could be made to justify its own existence, provided it all proceeded smoothly, with due ceremony. No longer was the authority of the state dependent on a public spectacle of pain and violence, a show of strength in danger of generating unpredictable public clamour, but rather it was now dependent on the cool, silent, efficiency with which it could carry out the penalty of death. For the ritual itself and the reporting of it in precise and meticulous detail assured that all was as it should be, and limited the expression of unsettling voices to the contrary—for the time being at least.

Curtin University of Technology

1 C.T. Stannage, The People of Perth: A Social History of Western Australia's Capital City. (Perth: Perth City Council, 1979) 36.

2 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon, 1977) 36.

3 Foucault, 26.

4 The Daily News 8 Nov. 1889.

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