Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On a Convict Ship



How the Prisoners Were Guarded and Fed and Their Efforts at Amusements — One Intractable Convict Received Four Dozen Lashes With the Cat.

"I know something of life on a convict ship," said a retired officer of an East Indian merchantman. "I was on the Warwick, a merchantman just back from a voyage to Calcutta, when the government chartered her to carry convicts and troops from England to Gibraltar. It was a most interesting experience. We were to take convicts from three different prisons. About midnight on Dec. 22, 1869, we left the East Indian docks and dropped down the river to Gravesend, where the next afternoon we took on 100 men of the Seventy-first highlanders — by the way, they were all Irishmen — who were to act as guard for the convicts. Next tide we towed to Sheerness, near The North Foreland, where we came to an anchor and waited for the first installment of convicts sent from Chatham. They were brought alongside on a small steamer. I shall never forgot how they looked to me — I was a youngster then — in their yellow and black stripes and with the short, flat, brown arrow, which is the English government mark, stamped on their clothing. Having got them aboard, we made sail for Portsmouth, our next receiving station, where we got about a hundred more. From there we sailed to Portsmouth and took the balance of 250 from the prison there.

"We lay in Portland Roads three or four days on account of storm and then started for Gibraltar. While lying there an incident occurred which I can never forget. But first let me tell you something about the arrangement and discipline of the ship on this voyage. A staff surgeon of the royal navy was in charge of the ship, and every one was subordinate to him. He was absolutely an autocrat. We were a full rigged iron sailing vessel of 1,005 tons register, and we had now on board, with convicts, wardens, soldiers, crew and families of some of the soldiers, about 425 souls. So you can see we were pretty thick.

The sailors, who usually had quarters in the forecastle, had to give them up and live in part of the after between decks. A barricade was built across the ship at the mainmast, both between decks and on the main deck. The convicts lived between decks forward and were turned up for exercise every day before this barricade on the main deck.

"But while we lay in Portland Roads a convict named Sturgess, who was serving a 20 years' term, became intractable, and on being reproved by one of the wardens threatened the latter's life when his sentence should be served. I fancy if what followed should happen in one of your penitentiaries a howl of denunciation would go up all over the country, but British prison discipline is very rigorous, you know. Sturgess was immediately put in irons and thrust into the solitary confinement box for 24 hours and sentenced to receive four dozen at the expiration of his confinement. He was a stolid brute and did not seem to mind, remarking he had been flogged five times before and it would go hard with him if he couldn't take another dose.

It is generally the duty of the boatswain to do the flogging aboard ship, but the night watchman from Portland prison was sent off to punish this fellow. With the exception of the women, every one aboard was compelled to turn up to witness the flogging. All the convicts were ordered up before the barricade, and each one craned his neck to see the show and anxiously watched Sturgess to see if he were game. The thief's cat, with a knot in each string, was the weapon of punishment. The convict was brought up, stripped to the waist, his foot and knees lashed to two spars which were stood upright on the deck, his hands were chained, and a rope passing under the chain traced them up high above his head, and his breast was pushed against an iron grating lashed between the spars. The staff surgeon then read the accusation and sentence, and the night watchman was ordered to do his duty. I can see him now as he ran his hand among the strings of the cat and then with a quick, sharp stroke brought it down between the convict's shoulder blades. The chief warden, Donald Bain, counted the strokes, 'One, two, three,' and after each stroke the convict counted, too, and when he got to 24 he said coolly:

"'Well, there's half of them.'

"When he received the forty-eighth, without having once flinched or murmured, the other 249 convicts set up a cheer. But the staff surgeon turned on them and thundered:

"'If you do not keep silence, I'll flog every man of you.'

"About their food? It was of a better quality than that furnished either the soldiers or crew. They always got corned beef where the sailors got salt horse. Compressed vegetables and preserved potatoes were supplied them; also suet for their duff where that of the sailors was mixed with slush from the coppers. Then they had plums for their duff of a Sunday, while the sailors got none in their 'lump of lead.' The convicts got a gill of sherry every day at 11 where the soldiers got a pint of porter and the crew nothing. Many a convict told me he wished the voyage could last for years.

"They had their amusements too. They were not allowed to read newspapers, but once in awhile one would steal one from a warden's pocket. The warden would discover the loss, and hunting up the thief take his paper away and stick it back in his pocket. But before he had gone very far another would pick his pocket. I have seen a warden kept trotting a whole forenoon hunting up a precious old journal he had brought aboard with him. Then they often amused themselves by holding mock trials. They had judge, jury and counsel for the prosecution and defense. One night some of us got permission to go down to the main hatchway and look through the bars on one of these trials. It was one of the funniest performances I ever saw. The judge's bench was a mess table, and he wore a bunk blanket for a robe. His decisions were provocative of great mirth, and the speeches of the learned counsel were screamingly absurd. When the trial was finished, we were allowed to hand them in a little tobacco for a treat." — New York Sun.

No comments: