Coffin and Convict Ships

The Providence; convict ship that sailed from Cobh, County Cork in Ireland (Image source Don Wilson's The Providence)

The Providence; convict ship that sailed from Cobh, County Cork in Ireland (Image source Don Wilson’s The Providence)

In doing some research for the follow-up book to The Foundling I needed to find out more about convict ships.

I bought a few books and interviewed my Australian cousin, Keiran Hannon, who knows a lot about convict ships and is currently writing a book about them.

The books I bought were quite helpful. Bound for Botany Bay by Alan Brooke and David Brandon, The Great Shame by Thomas Keneally, and The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes.

Interior of a convict ship (Image source www.nzmaritime.co.nz )

Interior of a convict ship (Image source www.nzmaritime.co.nz )

All convict ships were fitted out in Deptford, England. The ships were barks (or barques)  that were converted to transport convicts. These ships had three or more masts. Between the deck and bulkhead was the prison, with prison bars. There were no hammocks for convicts to sleep on, they slept instead on benches.

The reason for the need for a penal colony was that the crime rate in the British Empire during the late 1700’s and 1800’s had skyrocketed. Petty crimes such as stealing clothes, clothing was scarce and people were so cold they stole it, were punishable with transportation to a penal colony.

Although laws in New South Wales in Australia were passed in 1841 to stop convict ships arriving from Europe, the ships continued to make the journey to Van Diemen’s Land until 1851. The reason for the NSW parliament making the law was that settlers were unhappy with the convicts being shipped to their lands.

A hulk was essentially a ship that was docked and used as a floating prison. Convicts were imprisoned on hulks until they were transported to either Botany Bay or Van Diemen’s Land. The condition of the hulks was often worse than the convict ships themselves. In Ireland in particular the hulk ships were very bad.

A convict ship (Image source Victorian Crime and Punishment)

A convict ship (Image source Victorian Crime and Punishment)

Convict ships transported male or female prisoners separately. This resulted in some ships with female convicts becoming notoriously known as The Brothel Ships.

Female convicts were put in the coal hold if they didn’t obey orders. The biggest insult for women was getting their heads shaved as a punishment for misbehaving.

Lobscouse, a watery vegetable stew, and burgoo, a cheap porridge, were two meals that were born on the convict ships. Provisions were contracted by producers who often cheated with the amount of food provided by making false bottoms for casks or lacing provisions with large bones , nails, dead rodents, and horse’s hooves. This resulted in a shortage of food for the prisoners which then caused disease outbreaks.

Dysentery, pneumonia and scurvy were common on-board convict ships. Bark solution was used to treat scurvy, it was a mixture of lime juice and other juices. Sometimes the convict ships would stop at Cape Town in South Africa to collect more provisions such as oranges.

Interior of a female convict ship (Image Source Australian Culture and Psyche)

Interior of a female convict ship (Image Source Australian Culture and Psyche)

There were three main routes taken by convict ships; a direct route from England and or Ireland to Tasmania, England to Rio de Janerio, England/Ireland to Cape Town (summer) Simon’s Town South Africa (winter), and the final destinations were Tasmania, Botany Bay or Van Diemen’s Land in Australia.

The most concise history of Convict ships can be attained from The Convict Ships by Charles Bateson. Here is a sample of some of the exact details about specific ships that Bateson provides in that book.

Name of Ship: John William Dare (Women’s Convict Ship)

Arrived in Hobart: 22nd May 1852

Bark, small, 291 tonnes

Captain: Thomas Walters

Surgeon Superintendent: Robert Clarke

Sailed from: Dun Laoghaire (then known as Kingstown) in 1851

172 convicts embarked and 3 died en-route to Hobart.

Route: via Cape Town

Took 146 days to make the journey

Interior of a coffin ship (Image source Penn State to Ireland)

Interior of a coffin ship (Image source Penn State to Ireland)

The most amazing thing I have read so far in my research about convict ships is that the most common crime committed was stealing clothing and that the coffin ships that left Ireland during the years of the great hunger had worse conditions than convict ships.

There were far more deaths on the coffin ships than there were on the convict ships. Conditions were also worse on the coffin ships.

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