Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Monday, April 09, 2012

H is for Hulks . . .

And not the Incredible Hulk of movie fame.

Before the American Revolution, English courts, instead of flogging and branding prisoners for minor offenses, transported them to the American colonies. This was a lucrative business for jailers who sold prisoners to shippers who, in turn, sold them to landowners for 7 or 14 years. After the American Revolution, the English prisons were as crowded as ever -- with no place for prisoners to go. Newgate and local jails throughout the country were full to the bursting.

The Thames was lined with old ships, no rigging, no sails, "rotting at anchor" (Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 42). But the Hulks Act (1776) stated prisoners could be kept on these old ships, 'reclaimed' through 'Hard Labour' and assigned out daily in work gangs (Hughes 42-43), before being shipped to New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land to serve out their sentence. But shameful overcrowding led to riots on the hulks, protests from neighboring towns, and what propelled change -- the threat of prisoners escaping, carrying with them gaol fever.

So the British government approved contracts that shipped convicts to NSW and Van Diemen's Land, a four month voyage marked by crowded sleeping space, contaminated food in short supply, and armed guards to prevent insurrection. Sometimes several months passed before all the convicts were loaded on the ships. Men, women, and children arrived in London from all parts of England, some in irons, exhausted from their journey. Such prisoners were often leg-shackled and chained atop the coaches in all kinds of weather. Once aboard the hulks, nearly all, including children, faced some sort of fetters, described by Hughes as "a 14-pound iron" on the right ankle as an impediment to escape (140). If the prisoner (or the family) could not afford to bribe the guards, the irons could be heavier. These were worn constantly even as the prisoner was released to work gangs.

Once they were aboard the hulk, prisoners could expect to be robbed by the officers, their new cell mates, and threatened with flogging or the Black Hole for any breach of discipline. Prisoners with money could gain better conditions, but when a prisoner died, even his body could be sold for dissection.

I've read several accounts of the early landings in New South Wales that said the prisoners stumbled ashore, starving, and hardly able to care for themselves. Most had been convicted of theft, and the women, though none in the first ships were transported for prostitution, often improved their conditions through liaisons with the crew, becoming 'sea wives.'

Hughes reports the average age of convicts was 27, and that due to extreme deprivation, 1 man in 10 died on the Third Fleet's voyage, with the rest "so emaciated, so worn away", they were unfit to work. Some 162,000 prisoners were thus sent to Australia before transportation ended in 1853 (Hughes 73, 105, 143).

A grim history and grim grist for my tale. . .

1 comment:

  1. Beth, you do such a great job of reminding us of this history. Imagine those poor people, especially the ones committed for petty crimes.