Bermuda Hulks Floating “Abominations”

December 26, 2010

1ulk1A UK historian this month (Dec. 1) published new research on British convicts transported to Bermuda in the 19th century for penal servitude at Dockyard — hundreds of whom died aboard the notorious prison hulks they were housed in.

From 1824 to 1863, Britain shipped as many as 10,000 convicts to Bermuda to work on the Dockyard’s fortifications. They were incarcerated in the nine prison ships which at various times were permanently docked off Ireland Island.

These hulks were decommissioned Royal Navy vessels which had their masts removed and extra decking and roofs added to convert them into floating jails.

Jill Chambers, a UK historian who has spent 25 years researching subjects including the transportation of  convicts to British colonies, says contemporary eye-witness accounts of life aboard the hulks vary wildly depending on who was describing them: “In 1859, Chaplain to the hulks, Reverend J.M. Guilding, wrote, ‘in the close and stifling nights of summer the heat between decks is so oppressive as to make the stench intolerable, and to cause the miserable inmates frequently to strip off every vestige of clothing and gasp at the portholes for a breath of air.’

“Captain Ferdinand Whittingham, an army officer, published an account of life in Bermuda based on his observations made during an 18 month posting to the garrison in Bermuda. According to him the convicts had an easy life, and enjoyed more privileges and comforts than British soldiers or honest labourers back home in England.”

But she concludes the hulks were in fact breeding grounds for pestilence, squalour and human misery.

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Shortly before the prison ship system was finally abolished in Bermuda, conditions aboard the hulks became the subject of an impassioned speech in the British House of Lords by Earl Carnarvon.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1858 and 1859, Carnarvon had grown increasingly dismayed by the woeful living quarters aboard the hulks after studying a series official reports dispatched to his office from Dockyard. When he addressed the Lords in 1860, Carnarvon thundered: ”In every other part of the British Empire the system of hulks had been abolished, but it was retained at Bermuda.

“All persons who had turned their attention to the subject said that, from want of space, and other causes it was perfectly impossible to exercise a supervision over the convicts, and to enforce discipline among them on board of hulks. By the last Returns, of 1,500 convicts in confinement at Bermuda, two-thirds were confined in hulks.”

The Earl described the effect of this on the prisoners by quoting a passage from the same report of the Dockyard Hulks Chaplain cited by Ms Chambers.

“The Rev. Gentleman said:‘It is my painful conviction, after some years’ experience of the matter, that the great majority of the prisoners confined in the hulks become incurably corrupted, and that they leave them, in most cases, more reckless and hardened in sin than they were upon reception’.”

The Earl said the Chaplain had gone on to describe convict life between decks in particularly strong language  by Victorian standards: “Few are aware of the extent of suffering to which a prisoner is exposed on board the hulks, or the horrible nature of the associations by which he is surrounded. There is no safety for life, no supervision over the bad, no protection to the good.

“The hulks are unfit for a tropical climate. They are productive of sins of such foul impurity and unnatural crime that one even shudders to mention them.

” .. A mob law, and tyranny of the strong over the weak, exists below, which makes the well-disposed live in constant misery and terror; and when the passions of these lawless and desperate men are excited by quarrels among themselves the most deadly and murderous affrays are the consequence. The spectacle on board the Medway hulk upon the 1st of June last, when one prisoner was slain and twenty-four desperately wounded, would have appalled any humane heart. The hulk was a perfect shambles, and a frightful scene of uproar, excitement, and bloodshed. Suffice it to say, that a mere handful of warders was powerless to deal with the armed mob below decks. All that could be done was to fasten down the hatches, and when the work of butchery and carnage was over descend below to fetch up the dead and wounded’.”

Earl Carnarvon said the Bermuda hulks were “abominations”. While he supported punishing criminals as severely as their crimes merited, he said there could be no justification in treating them in such a manner that when they went out into the world again “they were infinitely more depraved than before” they had been before arriving in Bermuda.

British convicts exiled in chain gangs to Bermuda included debtors, unemployed mill hands and farm labourers, Irish nationalists, Scotsmen protesting their forced displacements from the northern Highlands, defaulting bankers, sheep thieves, poachers and other petty criminals. While in Bermua they all wore the Broad Arrow emblem on their uniforms – identifying them as property of the British government. At the end of their sentences, the convicts were not allowed to settle in Bermuda and had to be repatriated to Britain.

Bermuda maritime historian Chris Addams has recovered thousands of convict artifacts from the seabed near Dockyard which have been exhibited both in Bermuda and Australia. He has also written a detailed account of the history of Bermuda’s prison hulks.

During the course of excavations which began in 1982, Mr. Adams and fellow researcher Mike Davis uncovered items the hulk “Dromedary” which had been moored near the same spot off Dockyard for 37 years. They recovered artifacts including whale oil lamps, pewter mugs, engraved spoons, clay pipes, bottles, buttons, seals, coins, trinkets, charms, rings, beads, gaming pieces, religious items, knife handles and gaming boards.

Subsequent research by Mr. Adams and collaborators including celebrated marine archeologist Mark M._Newell uncovered evidence of a large-scale shipboard economy based on the production of curios by convicts. Exquisitely crafted objects carved out of bone, shell, metal and stone were made by the convicts and sold to the guards, visiting sailors and Bermudians for tobacco, alcohol, food and money.

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