Convicts - (Part 1) - The Voyage
During the 1700's Great Britain was experiencing significant change and unrest. This was the start of the Agricultural Revolution. New types of farming equipment, better crop-growing methods, and improved methods of breeding livestock were being developed. This in turn led to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of new types of factories and industries and changed the basis of employment in the country.
In rural areas, second- and third-generation farmers regrettably abandoned their lands to work in the cities. Some found employment in the newly created factories but most were not so lucky. Poverty and drunkenness, therefore, became widespread, and inevitably, this led to crime, especially property theft.
There was no police force as we know it today (this was not developed until the 1800's) and the few policemen there were had trouble enforcing the law. Punishments for those caught committing crime were extremely harsh, often involving the death penalty or transportation to one of Britain's colonies.
In 1718, Great Britain introduced a punishment known as Transportation. Apart from being a punishment for convicted criminals, this also provided cheap labour for Britain's American colonies. This proved to be so effective, that by the 1760's more than 1,000 convicts were transported each year,and the type of crime punishable by transportation increased. Shoplifting [of items valued at more than five shillings(50cents)], picking pockets, highway robbery, arson, forgery, and poaching were some of the crimes charged.
With the outbreak of America's Revolutionary War, the transportation of convicts to American colonies ceased. Britain's jails became quickly overcrowded with a buildup of criminals who could no longer be sent overseas. As a temporary measure, the government put the convicts on ships called hulks, which had the masts removed and were no longer seaworthy. These hulks were used first on the Thames River in London, and then more established as temporary prisons at Portsmouth and Plymouth. Conditions in these were poor, and they were infested with rats and disease.
After the American colonies gained independence and became the United States, they refused to take any more British convicts. The British government, however, refused to abolish transportation and searched for new places to send the convicts. Several parts of Africa were considered but these regions were unhealthy, and Botany Bay in Australia was eventually chosen, on the recommendation of Joseph Banks who visited Australia with Captain Cook in 1770.
The First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in Botany Bay in 1788.
The First Fleet to Botany Bay consisted of 11 ships containing 1,487 people: 715 free adults, 759 criminals, and 13 children. Six births occurred during the voyage, but by the time it ended, 23 convicts and two newborns had died.
The captain and crew kept convicts imprisoned below deck, but allowed them exercise on board under watchful armed guards when the weather permitted. Although a convict received only a third of the dietary fare of a seaman, it sufficed with biscuits, salt beef or pork, peas, cheese, butter, vinegar and a daily allowance of 3.4 litres of water. Occasionally, the convicts received fresh fish when caught and fresh vegetables when the fleet anchored at port. In other words, the convicts on this first fleet were treated humanely—not so for those that followed
The Second Fleet became notorious for its cruelty and the number of deaths that occurred during the voyage. Transport of convicts to Australia on this fleet of six vessels was contracted out to London businessmen who were more interested in the profits to be made in Sydney than the welfare of the convicts. These ships were severely overcrowded to allow more room for cargo which could be sold on arrival. Sufficient food had been allowed, however, it wasn't provided to the convicts, who were placed on a starvation diet, and rarely allowed on deck for exercise.
On docking in Sydney Harbour in 1790, of the 1,000 convicts who left England, 267 had died, and another 488 suffered dysentery and scurvy. Fifty more convicts died shortly after landing. Governor Phillip subsequently protested to the British government, which brought charges against those involved. However, they fled England before being brought to trial.
The Third Fleet consisted of ten ships, also contained over 1,000 convicts, and reached Sydney in 1791. Although the death toll of 200 was slightly less than during the Second Fleet's voyage, 576 of the survivors were desperately ill, and 300 died in the coming months.
Conditions on convict ships improved gradually over the years. By 1802, ships surgeons were paid ten shillings and 6 pence for every convict landed in good health, and captains received 50 pounds if the voyage was properly conducted. New regulations banned overcrowding and ensured that convicts received enough food and fresh air. Exercise on deck was made compulsory, and convicts were allocated increased sleeping space of 45 centimetres. With these new regulations, the death rate on board convict ships declined steadily. Between 1787 and 1868, however, an estimated 3,000 convicts died sailing between Britain and Australia.
The next installment will discuss settlement and convict life in the colonies.