New Yorker Report: 19th-Century Prison Ships

July 6, 2020

The New Yorker has published an interesting article detailing aspects of the ‘prison ships’ in Bermuda back in the 1800s, with the article titled ‘The Gay Marriages Of A Nineteenth-Century Prison Ship.’

Their report said, “In 1842, a court in Lancaster, England, convicted a young lawyer, George Baxter Grundy, of forging payment, and promptly sent him to serve a fifteen-year sentence in Bermuda, beyond the seas.

“The British Empire was expanding rapidly and was in desperate need of labor; by the time Grundy arrived, thousands of prisoners had been sent to the island to fortify British defenses in North America, hauling and cutting limestone to support military operations.

“It was a vicious system: the men, many of them colonial subjects from Ireland, had been torn from their homes, shipped thousands of miles away, and consigned to years of forced labor in a foreign land, all in service of empire-building. [In one sense, the men in Bermuda might have considered themselves lucky—if they had been sent to the penal colony in Tasmania, they would have had little hope of ever returning home.]

“Convicts lived on a handful of boats, called “hulks,” which were permanently moored in the naval harbor. Each ship housed hundreds of men; Grundy, like his fellow-convicts, lived with fifty other inmates in a crowded cell. The work was backbreaking, and the conditions brutal.

“Shortly after Grundy’s arrival, yellow fever swept across the island, and he watched in terror as more than a hundred other prisoners died. Grundy spent six and a half years in Bermuda; when he returned home, to London, he summarized his experience, in a scathing complaint to the Colonial Office, as “the most soul destroying and hellish ever devised by man.”

“Grundy recounted how, soon after arriving in Bermuda, he saw two men engaged in “filthy action” in the middle of the day. He instantly reported them to officials. The men—Samuel Jones and Burnell Milford—were charged with “being found in a position ‘derogatory to the laws of God.’ ” They were given twenty-four lashes each, and their pay was suspended.

“Being a new prisoner at the time, I thought I should be generally supported,” Grundy wrote. “But such was not the case.” The convicts retaliated against him. He was ostracized, and some of the men threatened to put him “to sleep.” He also felt unsafe among the prison guards—who, he claimed, did not like it that he had exposed the ship to criticism.

You can read the full story here on the New Yorker.

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Category: All, History