On this day January 27: the sodomy epidemic


sodomy Norfolk Island
From: Robert Jones - 'Recollections of 13 years Residence in Norfolk Island and Van Diemans land', State Library of NSW

On January 27 1844,  the Melbourne Weekly Courier reprinted an article from the Sydney Morning Herald on the danger of the Norfolk Island sodomy epidemic spreading to mainland Australia.

I hesitate to write WTF in a serious history article – but sod it, as they used to say on Norfolk – WTF!

The outrage over Norfolk Island’s reportedly endemic sodomy began a few years earlier with a British inquiry into the transportation of convicts. William Molesworth, who chaired the inquiry, opposed transportation. Witnesses testified to the moral depravity prevalent in the Australian colonies supposedly as a result of the convict system.

Consequently, transportation to New South Wales finished in 1840. But the British still needed somewhere to send prisoners. Norfolk Island provided a conveniently remote destination for the ‘worst of the worst’. As Catholic Bishop Ullathorne told a town hall meeting in Leicestershire a couple of weeks before the Weekly Courier article, the island housed, “not only the scum of England, but the scum of Botany Bay itself.”

The British solved the problem by excising Norfolk Island from NSW. They then moved the administration of the island to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) where transportation continued until 1852.

Either prostitutes, other men or farm animals

But none of that consoled Australian colonists. They felt defamed by evidence given at the Molesworth Inquiry. Reputedly, the sex partners of choice in the Antipodes were either prostitutes, other men or farm animals.

Bishop Ullathorne himself testified to the prevalence of sodomy and bestiality in the colonies. The bishop thought the all-male environs of Norfolk Island encouraged sodomy while somehow failing to notice any parallel with the Catholic priesthood.

“There is another class of crimes too frightful even for the imagination of other lands; which St Paul, in detailing the vices of the heathens, has not contemplated; which were unknown to the savage, until taught by the convict – crimes which are notorious – crimes that, dare I describe them, would make your blood to freeze, and your hair to rise erect in horror upon the pale flesh.”

Ullathorne quoted others as estimating two-thirds of the prisoners on Norfolk Island indulged in male-on-male sex.

At a previous inquiry, a former judge testified that 50 – 60 incidences of sodomy occurred daily on the island. Judge Stephen claimed Norfolk Island prisoners he condemned to death thanked him, preferring death to a return to the island.

“They lived in a state of such horrid misery, witnessing the most horrid crime known to human nature, committed in numberless cases from morning to night.”

(More probably the condemned men did not wish to return to a place of unrelenting cruelty. Norfolk Island was 1400 kilometres from Sydney. Sadistic commandants inflicted punishments at whim.)

Geographical propinquity

The Weekly Courier thought removing administration of the island to Hobart a small consolation.

“This will not alter its geographical propinquity, nor protect our shores from the plague of its expirees.”

Apparently, the epidemic of sodomy might float on the waves and wash up on the shores of Port Phillip or Botany Bay.

When the Sydney Morning Herald first published the article, the Morning Chronicle responded with a history lesson.

“The Herald was mighty eloquent in denunciations of the peculiar species of depravity practised at Norfolk Island. Does the Herald know that it was against that very abomination practised in the South of France that the inquisition was first established…  The abomination, by the efforts of the Popes, was subdued, although some of its vile practices spread from Bulgaria (whence it has its name) to the South of France, thence to England, where, as we unhappily see, it still lingers, and disgraces the country.”

Gosh. Who knew? Bulgaria hey?

Contagious sodomy

It is astonishing how, throughout history, the same people who described homosexuality as a horrible and unpleasant thing, nevertheless believed anyone with knowledge of same-sex sex acts would be unable to resist the temptation to indulge.

That thought probably inspired a letter printed in the Parramatta Chronicle on January 27. The writer warned that the contagion of sodomy would spread to military guards and visitors to Norfolk Island.

All very reminiscent of Lord Desart’s response when someone suggested adding lesbianism to the British criminal code in 1921.

“You are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offence, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it. I think it is a very great mischief.”

The Weekly Courier agreed.

“It is well known that the crime… is rapidly progressive, acquiring fixedness of habit, spreading by the contagion of example.”

The Parramatta Chronicle‘s correspondent proposed what he claimed as the only possible solution “short of the destruction of the lives of all things at Norfolk Island.”

Take all the wanton female convicts from Sydney, and like Christians to the lions, throw them to the Norfolk Island sodomists.

However, the Weekly Courier didn’t care. It just wanted the sodomy epidemic ended.

“At whatever inconvenience, at whatever expense, this fetid dunghill ought to be swept away. We, as a community of free and virtuous Britons, are exposed to its pestilential effluvia.”

Read more: January 26 <— On this day —> January 28

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