Governor Macquarie's Job Descriptions and the Bureaucratic Control of the Convict Labour Process

By Robbins, Bill | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Governor Macquarie's Job Descriptions and the Bureaucratic Control of the Convict Labour Process


Robbins, Bill, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


Mary Gilmore reminded Australians in her poem, Old Botany Bay, that the 'Knotted hands/that set us high' were those of convicts, the old lags, forgotten and ignored but whose work laid the foundations of European settlement. (1) Gilmore was right to emphasise the importance of work in history. Work, modern or ancient, is not simply a technological activity but is the result of human design, interaction and compromise. Work is not even an exclusively economic activity. As Raelene Frances reminds us, the organisation of work reflects social and individual dimensions of hierarchy, status, skill and gender. (2) It reflects values, attitudes, motives and interactions that might otherwise remain hidden. Work says something interesting about an individual; worker or manager alike. But, the political nature of work also says a great deal about the character of a society. The convict era in New South Wales was not a work gulag, it was not a slave society and nor was it a holiday camp. Through an analysis of work it becomes apparent that convict New South Wales was a society that was fluid and volatile and contested. (3)

The purpose of this article is to examine a particular aspect of the management of the convict labour process in order to add something further to our growing appreciation of the complexity of convict society. Under Governor Macquarie some work tasks, work regulations and controls were deliberately written for some positions within the convict system in ways that were similar to the modern job description. Like the job descriptions of today, Macquarie's descriptions, his discrete, clear sets of instructions and responsibilities, were intended to enhance labour productivity and increase managerial controls. They clarified, they directed, they created points of performance evaluation. These rudimentary forms of job description were, however, no accident. They were consistent with the bureaucratic, formalised and elaborate approach to the management of convict labour that is more than apparent during the years of the Macquarie administration. This article will outline, in varying degrees of detail, the five sets of job descriptions created by Macquarie from 1810 to 1821 and offer an explanation for how such a curiously 'modern' feature of labour management came to make such an early appearance in the landscape of Australian work.

Convict Literature and Convict Labour Process

John Hirst broke new ground in convict historiography by arguing that many popular notions and perceptions of the darkness and cruelty of convict society were simplistic and exaggerated. (4) In reality, he argued, convicts enjoyed many more freedoms, business and social opportunities and were much less brutalised or scrutinised than is often thought. The enemies, the opponents, of transportation simplified perceptions of the convict system by exaggerating its ills and excesses. A similar re-examination of the 'foundations' of convict society and convict experience was made by a collection of writers in Convict Workers. (5) In this collection detailed analyses looking at who the convicts were and what they did once they arrived challenged and reinterpreted existing orthodoxy. The contributors, in their own way, argued that convicts were more skilled, more literate and perhaps less likely to have been professional or career criminals than has hitherto been understood. In addition, contributors argued that the way convict work was organised and managed reflected motives of rationality and productivity rather than simply punishment. Although the bold assertions of the contributors to Convict Workers attracted a chorus of criticisms when first published many of their ideas have survived or demanded closer attention. (6)

There have been a number of other contributors who have argued the complexity of convict society. Alan Atkinson also observed that the ability and willingness of convicts to resist government control was not extinguished by their lowly status. …

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