disciplining servants

In the early nineteenth century employers had far greater power to discipline their servants than we would now see as acceptable.  In Britain relations between employers and their workers were governed by Masters and Servants Acts.  These acts were designed specifically to regulate servants and other workers and were weighted heavily in the interests of employers.  They were enforceable through the courts, generally by appealing to magistrates.  Since magistrates all came from the employing class, it was much more difficult for workers to obtain justice through these acts, although they could, and did, appeal to magistrates to enforce payment of wages. Servants could be prosecuted under the Masters and Servants Acts for a range of transgressions, including being absent from a workplace, inattention to duty, and drunkenness.  Punishment could include a term of imprisonment.

Many servants were also bound to their employers through indenture agreements.  These bound workers to a master for a particular period and at a specified rate of pay. Employers travelling to South Australia were particularly keen to secure their workers through indentures before leaving Britain, because they knew that wages were generally higher in the other colonies of Australia and that employers had found it difficult to keep workers.  Under the terms of the South Australian Colonization Act, most workers had also obtained free passage, paid from the funds their employers had invested in land, and employers were anxious to ensure that they repaid their passage through labour on arrival.

Of course enforcing discipline is another matter entirely, as Samuel Stephens found on the arrival of the Duke of York and the John Pirie at Kangaroo Island.  For a brief period his workers had the upper hand, deciding when and how long they would work, and to some extent what work they would perform.  But it soon became obvious that since the Company was the only employer, and the only ready source of food, they had little option but to work as he directed.

Employers also had wide discretionary powers to enforce what they saw as acceptable behaviour in their servants. For women especially, this included appropriate standards of sexual morality.  The Gougers’ servant, Margaret Clark, got into trouble on at least two occasions during the voyage.  On the first occasion she was accused of flirting with the sailors (what Gouger describes as ‘lightness of conduct’,) but the second incident was much more serious, when she bit the arm of another serving girl and drew blood. For this she was ‘in disgrace’ and the Gougers applied to the captain for appropriate punishment.  He ordered half of her head to be shaved. Head shaving was a punishment applied especially to women and seems to have reflected the common belief that a woman’s hair was her ‘crowning glory’. To cut it short, or worse, to shave it off, was to shame the victim in a very public way. Head shaving was often a punishment meted out to female convicts. Since many women’s hair was never cut at all, it presumably also took a very long time for the hair to grow back. And the decision to shave half of the head must have made poor Margaret look particularly ridiculous.

Of course when employers and those in authority imposed punishment they looked for appropriate penitence.  Margaret showed none of that, apparently laughing and joking her way through the punishment in defiance, which made her offence all the worse as far as the Gougers were concerned.  They decided that she was beyond redemption, a ‘malicious and designing little jade’ was how Gouger described her, and determined to leave her at the Cape if they could, in the care of the Children’s Friend Society, in exchange for another girl. Margaret, of course, had no right of appeal against this punishment.  On board ship the captain’s word was law and she was, in any case, only an inexperienced young girl.

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