THE PRISON HULKS AND TRANSPORTATION

To be sentenced to death and then "reprieved" to a sentence of transportation for stealing a turkey and a ploughshare seems beyond comprehension to me but it was seen at the time as a perfectly logical solution to criminal behaviour in the lower orders. Fines and imprisonment were used as punishments in the eighteenth century but not to the same extent as today. For fines to be effective the criminal has to have the resources to pay the fine otherwise the sanction is useless as a form of deterrent. Given that large sections of society lived at or below poverty level this option was not  a preferred option. The alternative punishment of imprisonment  also posed problems. Prisons were generally small and used primarily for persons on remand, awaiting the imposition of the sentence or the payment of incurred debts. Apart from the House of Correction, detention in a prison was not regarded as a punishment. Hence the preoccupation with the death penalty and transportation 

England had many capital statutes, (at the beginning of the nineteenth century there were over 200 separate offences for which death was the prescribed punishment) predominantly it must be said to protect property and public hangings, which drew massive crowds, were seen as the primary deterrent to crime. The Crown preferred to commute an increasing number of capital convictions to life imprisonment. This apparent leniency—known as the Royal Mercy—imposed gratitude and obedience, but also saved the crossroads of the realm from large numbers of hanging corpses which may have provoked riots. The proportion of capital convictions actually executed dropped from 69 percent in 1749 to 46 percent in 1788 (at the beginning of transportation). By 1808 it was down to 15 percent.

However, there was an increasing shortage of jails. Transportation therefore answered a number of problems. In Britain, it retained the Royal Mercy, got rid of prisoners and therefore the need for more prisons. At the same time it provided forced labour for Britain's colonial possessions.

Initially the convicts were sent to the New World of America and the Caribbean. Since 1776, when the birth of the United States put an end to the transportation of convicts to the New World the convicted prisoners were housed in old troop transports and men-o-war known as "hulks" which were in effect floating prisons. The masts and rigging of these ships were removed, and they were moored off the mud banks along the Thames and the southern naval ports of England. The ships were still afloat and theoretically habitable; in reality, however, they were wet, dark, cramped, and foul-smelling.

Conditions were some of the most appalling in British penal history. Convicts could spend several months on the hulks, working ten-hour shifts ashore — often in the Royal Navy dockyards — during the day; they then returned to the rotting ships by longboat at night. They were fitted with leg irons and given rough canvas clothing to wear. It was degrading to do such hard labour, because these chain-gangs were considered grotesque ‘tourist attractions’. The common view was that prisoners on the hulks were hardened criminals. Corruption was rife, and the prisoners’ lives were governed by a maze of whimsical rules. Bribery was also widespread, playing a part in many aspects of daily life, and also in death: a convict’s body, instead of being buried, could be sold to the dissectors’ agents who visited the docks. It is a wonder that a majority of convicts survived the horrors of the hulks, the last of which was decommissioned in 1858.  The deteriorating conditions led the penal authorities to search for a new place to transport these "hardened criminals" and in the mid 1780's moved that transportation should commence to the newly discovered lands in what now is Australia  

Once convicts had spent some time on the hulks, they were moved to transport ships for the 15,000-mile journey to Australia. Almost all of the 825 vessels dispatched were fitted out by private contract, and none of them was purpose-built for transportation. The government laid down strict conditions for getting the human cargo to its destination; but abuses were widespread. Some of the early transports were undertaken by former slave-traders, and their treatment of the convicts on the voyages (which could last up to eight months) was almost inhuman. In some cases, the prisoners’ quarters had no portholes or sidelights. The lower decks were often dark and damp; lanterns and candles were banned for fear of fire. The only fresh air many of them got was from a sail rigged so as to scoop a breeze down the hatchway; in a storm, however, when the hatches were closed, there was no fresh air below. Sometimes corpses were left to rot for a week or more. Prisoners who were thought to have broken the ship’s rules were flogged or otherwise abused. Conditions were so appalling that victims of crimes often appealed on prisoners’ behalves, once they realised the terrible fate that lay in store for the convicts

Transportation to Australia began with the sailing of the ‘First Fleet’ to New South Wales, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. The government of William Pitt had wished to find a suitable dumping-ground for the convicts, because, it was believed, there was no possibility of existence for them in England or Ireland. Most transportees were male, unmarried, and city-dwellers, with an average age of about 26. Eighty per cent were shipped out for thefts (such as breaking and entering, highway robbery, cattle or sheep stealing, and mugging); other offenders were convicted of grand larceny, receipt of stolen goods, swindling, impersonation, and forgery of banknotes or other documents. These serious crimes represented a threat to commerce — one of the most important principles on which the modern British state was built.

Thus “Australia was settled to defend English property not from the ... invader across the Channel but from the marauder within”.

There were some early attempts to utilise the labour of Aborigines. In 1815, Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales, established a farm near Sydney Harbour to employ Aboriginal labour. The venture did not prove a success and he concluded it was not worth trying to train them, when convicts were available as a source of labour.

To understand what banishment to Australia meant, one must understand the geographical knowledge of the day. In the late eighteenth century, the world was largely unknown to Europeans. The interiors of most continents were still unexplored, and even North America had only pockets of population. Australia and Antarctica were terra incognito. Hughes points out that it could hardly have been worse if the convicts had been told they were going to the moon, “at least one could see the moon from England”.

On landing in Australia after what must have been atrocious voyages, most of the convicts were sent to work for the government, often in chain gangs building roads or doing other public work. The alternative was to become what was called an ‘assignee’ which meant that he went to work - was assigned - to a ‘master’ for whom he worked until he had served his time and earned his freedom. If a convict who received a seven year sentence like David did, he would have earned his ‘ticket of leave’, which meant that he was emancipated - free to work for himself - in about 1795. Had he lived he would have become an ‘emancipist’.

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This page was last updated on 21/08/12 09:05