Punishment in Magadha vs. 17th-19th Century England


To understand the application of Parajika 2 in the modern world, it is helpful to compare the treatment of criminals in King Bimbisara’s Magadha with those in 17th-19th Century England.


Punishment of criminals in King Bimbisara’s Magadha was as severe as that in 17-19th Century England. For instance, at a time when a loaf of bread cost a penny, and a cotton handkerchief was six pennies, theft of goods worth twelve pennies merited the death sentence, particularly if associated with violence. Theft of under twelve pennies led to a lesser punishment: whipping before 1718, transportation thereafter. However, in the three centuries in England, the public attitude to crime gradually softened, and punishments became more intelligent. The softening attitude to crime has continued into the present day. Therefore, it seems that the sentences mentioned in Parajika Two correspond nowadays to various milder counterparts: for instance, fines and community sentences. The following brief account illustrates this.

Punishment in 17th to 19th Century England


Most defendants sentenced to death were hanged in public, a spectacle meant as a deterrent. Convicts were drawn in a cart through the streets and given a chance to speak to the crowd (and, it was hoped, confess their sins), then hanged, surrounded by a huge gathering. Hanging meant being placed in a horse drawn cart, blindfolded, then, with the noose around the neck, the cart pulled away. Until the introduction of the “sharp drop” in 1783, this caused a long and painful death by strangulation. Concern at the disorder which occurred at such scenes led to executions in private. By the 19th Century there were serious reservations about the use of the death penalty for any but the most serious offences. It was removed from pickpocketing in 1808, and from many other offences in the 1820s and 1830s.


In the 17th Century fines were used primarily for the punishment of minor crimes. However, in 1779 a clause in the Penitentiary Act allowed a fine to be imposed in lieu of branding. Thereafter fines were frequently used, often in conjunction with a term of imprisonment, for manslaughter and theft.


Prisons were initially used for holding defendants awaiting trial and convicts awaiting punishment. Imprisonment was not itself a form of punishment. Occasionally, however, even in the 17th Century, convicts were sentenced to a period of imprisonment, usually in addition to some other penalty, such as whipping.

Imprisonment as Reform

From the 1770s new attitudes towards imprisonment developed. It was thought that prisons could be used to reform offenders, so that they could re-enter the community as productive citizens. In 1794 the new Coldbath Fields House of Correction used the controversial system of solitary confinement to attempt to get convicts to reflect on their sins and reform. Hard labour was meant to contribute to the reformation of offenders by teaching them to be industrious. Prisoners in houses of correction were typically set to beating hemp.


People convicted of notorious crimes such as sodomy, seditious words, extortion, fraud, and perjury were punished publicly in the pillory, which was set up where crowds could easily gather. The culprit (usually a man) was placed on a platform with his arms and head placed through holes in the wooden structure. He was normally required to stay there one hour. The pillory turned so that crowds on all sides could get a good view, and the crowd expressed their disapproval of the offence by pelting the offender with rotten eggs and vegetables, blood and guts from slaughterhouses, dead cats, mud and excrement, and even bricks and stones. Some convicts died from the abuse. Concerns about disorder and the subversion of the purpose of the punishment meant that after 1775 few people were pilloried, and the punishment was abolished in 1837.


In the early eighteenth century people wanted an alternative to the death penalty. Under the 1718 Transportation Act, those sentenced to death could be granted a royal pardon on condition of being transported for fourteen years or life. In 1776 transportation was halted by the outbreak of war with America but resumed in 1787 with a new destination: Australia. This was seen as a more serious punishment than imprisonment, since it involved exile to a distant land.


Offenders (mostly those convicted of petty theft) were sentenced to be stripped to the waist and flogged “at a cart's tail” along a length of public street, usually near the scene of the crime, “until his [or her] back be bloody”. Publicity was an essential feature of this punishment, but occasionally even in the late seventeenth century the courts ordered that the punishment should be carried out in prison or a house of correction rather than on the streets.

Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the proportion of whippings carried out in public declined, but the number of private whippings increased after 1772 owing to a loss of faith in the alternative punishments of transportation and the death penalty. The public whipping of women was abolished in 1817 (after having been in decline since the 1770s) and that of men ended in the 1830s (Information from www.oldbaileyonline.org)

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