Category:Self-Government by the Convicts

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Few of the convicts would have written a journal on the outward voyage. Of these, very few have survived. The earliest known to have done so is William Noah, who sailed on the Hillsborough in 1798. This is the first time that we are provided with an opportunity to experience the voyage from inside the convict quarters.

It is probably not by accident, then, that the Hillsborough is the first vessel where we find a description of the convicts organising themselves for the purpose of regulating their affairs and ensuring that they received their rightful share of the rations.

When one of their number stole a watch belonging to the inspector of convict ships, Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, who was regarded as a friend of the convicts, the prisoners organised a court or tribunal to force the offender to hand it back.

And when they felt that they had been denied their fair share of rations, they organised collective protests, refusing to take any provisions until the deficiency was corrected. These protests continued throughout the voyage, and with very few exceptions, the captain responded to their concerns.

While it is unlikely that the convicts organised themselves in this way on every voyage, there was no doubt a great deal more collective action than the official records reveal. From the perspective of the ship's captain or the naval agent, this would have come across as insolent, even mutinous, conduct.

It is a field deserving of a great deal more attention.

- Gary L. Sturgess, 12 February 2016

Prisoners of War

Self-government seems to have been common amongst prisoners of war throughout the American War of Independence:

". . . the prisoners themselves tried to regulate the general level of cleanliness as much as possible, and to regulate the conduct of the prisoners as a whole through a surprisingly formal set of bylaws enforced by the captives, not the captors. These bylaws prohibited swearing and drunkenness, encouraged prisoners to be as clear as possible, banned smoking between decks because of insufficient ventilation and the effect the smoke had on the sick, and advocated the observance of the Sabbath. Theft was forbidden entirely. Prisoners that broke the law were subject to punishment handed out by other captives, and the system was generally approved of." (Johnathan Pope, ‘Law, Tradition and Treason: Captured Americans During the American Revolution, 1775-1783’, Masters Thesis, University of New Brunswick, April 2003, pp.70-71)

Hillsborough (1798)

22 October 1798 onwards – Many papers carried the following story:

"Sir Jerome Fitzpatrick, Inspector of Health to the hulks, &c. went a few days ago on board the ships at Langston Harbour, to inspect the health of the prisoners, several of them about to be sent to Botany Bay; when some expert gentleman, whose health he was humanely inquiring after, found means to ease him of his gold watch, chain and seals." (Star, 22 October 1798; Edinburgh Advertiser, 23 October 1798, p.1)

When they heard of this, the convicts organised themselves and tracked down the thief, returning the watch.

"Some time ago, Sir Jerome Fitzpatrick’s watch was stolen on board a convict ship in Langston harbour, which he has since recovered in the following extraordinary manner: On hearing of the theft, the convicts, sensible of the services Sir Jerome had rendered them, formed among themselves a Board of Honour, from which they elected a Grand Jury to receive the bill of indictment against the accused person, whom they were determined, if a true bill was found, to proceed to try, on the Wednesday following, in case the watch was not previously restored. They also declared, that if he was found guilty, they would inflict the most summary and exemplary punishment on the culprit. This had the desired effect, and on the day before this Grand Jury of convicts was to sit, the watch was handed to the officer of the military guard." (The Ipswich Journal, 3 November 1798, p.6)

30 October 1798 – More sick convicts were sent to the gun deck. In the dead of night, 12 seamen took one of their boats and escaped. They let the convicts know, and a council was held among the convicts to determine whether they should seize the opportunity to mutiny. (William Noah, Voyage to Sydney in the Ship Hillsborough 1798-1799. . ., Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1978, p.13)

31 October 1798 – The convicts refused the bread given under the government allowance. (Noah, p.14)

11 November 1798 – Convicts continued going on deck. They refused their meat because they did not think it was the allowance. Each mess was served with a six gallon keg of water. (Noah, p.15)

13 November 1798 – The convicts received the beef they had refused. They seem to have refused the bread, and were served rice. (Noah, p.15)

2 December 1798 – Dr Van der Kemp (the missionary) wrote:

"A set of depraved beings more vicious and more determined on mischief, perhaps, was never found. Before they left the harbour their turbulent spirit was so manifested that the lives of some naval officers were in the most imminent danger." (Kemp, p.18)

There is no other mention of this incident.

16 December 1798 – Three more convicts from the Fortune came on board, and two of the sick were sent ashore. Thomas McCann was also sent ashore. He and another man had been sentenced to death for mutiny at the Nore. The seaman had complained about McCann, claiming that he was a dangerous man. They said he would not sail if he was on board. He was always demanding redress to the prisoners’ grievances, and they feared he would lead a mutiny. McCann did not want to go back to the hulks and wished his fellow convicts every happiness on their voyage. (Noah, p.19)

(Thomas McCann was one of the Nore mutineers. He had been on the Sandwich, and had originally been sentenced to death. He was Irish. It is unclear whether he was actually guilty, since there seems to have been confusion between himself and another man who looked like him, and both could not have committed the crime. But he boasted that he was the person who handed Captain Bligh over the side of the ship in the mutiny. He was finally transported on the Minorca.

In 1807, he was found guilty of having a part in a planning Irish mutiny (note: this was in Bligh’s time). He was given a conditional pardon in 1812. He escaped from the colony in 1818, but was retaken and returned from India on the Greyhound and sent to Hobart – Noah, p.19 & Manwaring & Dobree, The Floating Republic, p.277; Philip MacDougall, ‘The East Coats Mutinies: May-June 1797’, in Philip MacDougall & Ann Veronica Coats (eds), The Naval Mutinies of 1797: Unity and Perseverance, Boydell Press, 2011, p.158; R v O’Dwyer and Ors, 1807, Macquarie University Cases; Ann-Maree Whitaker, Unfinished Revolution: United Irishmen in New South Wales, 1800-1810, p.208)

28 December 1798 – We get some idea of convict justice from Noah’s account of how they punished a convict named ‘Muckbolt’ who they found had been informing on them to the Captain. This was brought to their attention by one of his mates whom he had told:

". . . they was determd to Cob him to now what he had sayd this mode of Punishment is by giving as many Stripe on the Bare Back side as they are sentenced this was Inflicted & on his receiving One Dozn he ownd to some part of what he had told which so enrag’d them that they give him another Dozn when he confess’d the Hole they then perswaded him to but a Hankerchief in his Mouth when they gag’d him and then made his 2 Dozn 12 Dozn this severe treatment liked to have cost him his Life but they was not contentd they forc’d two Needles thro his Tongue which hinderd him from puting it in and some would allmost have gone so far as to have pulld his Tongue out Other was for Cuting the peice Off But this was over ruled by them that had some feeling for the Sufferings he had allready receiv’d." (Noah, p.22)

9 February 1799 – The convicts petitioned the Captain:

"Petitioned the Captain for something to be allowed in lieu of our beef, finding it impossible to eat it being so salty that our water would not quench [he wrote ‘squence’] the thirst it occasioned.

"They were told they might have 6lb of flour per mess in lieu, made into a pudding, which was accepted. They had parted with their burgoo and pease in lieu of beef when they needed more water. Tuesday was a grand day, he wrote – boiled rice for breakfast and pork for dinner.

"Could I here describe the miserable situation of upwards of two hundred of my fellow prisoners. Many of them was persons brought up well who, for trifling offences, had been banished from their families and homes, and now involved in a state of wretchedness and misery, staring on one another, not knowing one moment that we might be plunged into the arm of death, so lousy, so full of diseases, the poorness of living short of water in a hot country, with no nourishment made out situation truly deplorable. It was, one would often think, enough to soften the heart of [the] most inhuman being to see us ironed, handcuffed and shackled in a dark, nasty, dismal deck, without the least wholesome air. But all this did not penetrate into the breast of our inhuman Captain, and I can assure you that the Doctor was kept at a distance and so strict was he looked after that I have known him to sit up till opportunity would suit to steal a little water to quench the thirst of those that were bad, he being on a very small allowance for them." (Noah, pp.30-31)

23 March 1799 – Noah wrote that they were expecting to make land. Of the convicts: "many far spent and much exhausted for want. Sent a petition imploring forgiveness and begging for God’s sake to be relieved from their handcuffs and shackles, and though done in the most humble manner, had no effect." (Noah, p.35)

3 April 1799 – At the Cape. Eight officers came on board and addressed the convicts. They stated their wants and were much surprised to be told that they would be redressed, and that fresh provisions would be sent. Joseph Foster died. (Noah, pp.38-9)

3 June – One of the convicts (one of the sweepers) complained that their cook was embezzling flour and plums. Noah said that the complaint was well supported. The cook was removed from his position and nothing more was done. (Noah, p.49)

4 June 1799 – Shortly after sailing from the Cape. This day the convicts found their plum pudding much bigger and better, owing to Mr Crossley taking it upon himself to see the convicts’ provisions weighed. There was concern that after the loss of almost a hundred men, the convicts might bring him to account. (Noah, p.49)

10 June 1799 – In the afternoon, it began to blow hard again, accompanied by rain and thunder. "A neglect of the stockfish not being served the convicts caused the cook to be called aft, though it was seldom any of it could be eat. However, he was reprimanded and told to resign." Mutton broth served to the sick with tea in the afternoon. (Noah, p.50)

26 June 1799 – Stiff breeze and heavy showers, with heavy thunder and lightning. Noah mentioned a ball of fire falling onto the deck from where it had gathered in the foretop masthead. There it exploded, shaking a number of the crew and convicts on the gun deck and orlop deck. "We was in a sad condition but by pressing the Captain to relieve us from our miserable situation, he ordered the battens to be nailed over with tarpaulins." (Noah, p.53)

14 July 1799 – A report was spread that the convicts meant to take the ship. The convicts sent a letter to the Captain seeking to know the author. He treated the request with contempt, but appears to have believed the rumours. (Noah, p.58)

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