Sounds of a Convict Ship
In general, journal writers did not record the mundane aspects of daily life on board a convict transports. No single writer, convict or passenger, paused the describe the sounds of a convict ship. The following is a compilation of a number of different sources.
- Gary L. Sturgess, 7 March 2016
In a high sea: ‘Wind whistles on deck, and ship works hard, groaning and creaking, and pitching into a heavy head sea, which strikes against the bows, with a noise like knocking upon a rock.’ (Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast & Other Voyages, New York: The Library of America, 2005, p.330)
When the ship was under full sail: ‘We turned-in and slept as well as we could, though the sea made a constant roar under her bows, and washed over the forecastle like a small cataract.’ (Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast & Other Voyages, New York: The Library of America, 2005, p.314)
Elizabeth Allbon, an emigrant to Sydney in 1879 found the nights particularly difficult: ‘its an awful sound to hear the waters rushing in the dead of night when there is nothing but that and the creaking of timbers’. (Andrew Hassam, No Privacy for Writing: Shipboard Diaries 1852-1879, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995, p.197)
She was not alone. On the Africana (1865), Mary Maclean and the other young women found it difficult to sleep with the noise – ‘We tumbel into our Bunks and try to Close our Ears and fall a Sleep as Soon as possible.’
". . . the Ship rocked Worse to Night than it has Done yet thair Was Suitch a ratteling of tins and Creaking of Wood enough to frighten a Green hand But We are almost regular tars. . ." (Andrew Hassam, No Privacy for Writing: Shipboard Diaries 1852-1879, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995, pp.114, 115)
William Reay on the Parramatta in 1877 wrote that the when the ship sail fast through a rough sea, the waves thudded against the bow. ‘I do not like those high seas as all you cannot sleep with it it makes such a Thundrous nose. . .’ (Andrew Hassam, No Privacy for Writing: Shipboard Diaries 1852-1879, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995, p.176)
James Bell, an emigrant who travelled to Adelaide in 1838, wrote about ‘the noisy waves’. (Richard Walsh (ed.), A Voyage to Australia, 1838-39: Private Journal of James Bell, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011, p.89)
Another emigrant, Jonathan Binns Were (1839), mentioned ‘the bursting of waves’. (Jonathan Binns Were, A Voyage from Plymouth to Melbourne in 1839, J.B. Were & Son, 1964, p.5)
Daily life on board the ship would be punctuated by the striking of the ship’s bells:
At noon, eight bells are struck, that is, eight strokes upon the bell; and from that time it is struck every half-hour throughout the twenty-four, beginning at one stroke and going as high as eight, adding one at each half-hour. . .
"The bells are sounded by two strokes following one another quickly, and then a short interval; after which, two more; and so on. If it is an odd number, the odd one is struck alone, after the interval. . ." (Richard Henry Dana, The Seaman’s Friend, Boston: Thomas Groom and Company, 1845, p.169)
And at the change of the watch, when the men below would be called up in a loud voice. (Richard Henry Dana, The Seaman’s Friend, Boston: Thomas Groom and Company, 1845, p.168)
Changes would be made throughout the day to the set of the sails, adjustments that the crew would recognise simply from the sounds. Of course, this would be accompanied by the calling of orders by the master or one of the mates, and it was mandatory for the crew members to reply, ‘Ay, ay, sir’. To those new on board ship, these sounds were unfamiliar and alarming. William Reay on the Parramatta (1877), two days after sailing from Plymouth: ‘the mate called all hands upon deck tonight enough to frighten you to death’. (Andrew Hassam, No Privacy for Writing: Shipboard Diaries 1852-1879, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995, p.163)
The sailors would usually sing as they were working in unison, such as hauling the anchor, rowing the boats or loading the hold:
"The sailors’ songs for capstans and falls are of a peculiar kind, having a chorus at the end of each line. The burden is usually sung by one alone, and, at the chorus, all hands join in, - and the louder the noise, the better. With us, the chorus seemed almost the raise the decks of the ship, and might be heard at a great distance, ashore. A song is as necessary to sailors as the drum and fife to a soldier. They can’t pull in time, or pull with a will, without it. Many a time, when a thing goes heavy, with one fellow yo-ho-ing, a lively song, like ‘Heave, to the girls!’ ‘Nancy oh!’ ‘Jack Crosstree,’ &c., has put life and strength into every arm. . ."
"The next day, the California commenced unloading her cargo, and her boats’ crews, in coming and going, sang their boat-songs, keeping time with their oars." (Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast & Other Voyages, New York: The Library of America, 2005, pp.250, 254)
When there was a storm or the sea was high, passengers would be woken by the sailors calling to each other as they worked the ship. William Shennan on the Crusader (1870): ‘Sleept fine till four Oclock when the howling of the wind and the crys of the sailors awoked me’.
Elizabeth Allbon on the Samuel Plimsoll (1879):
". . . awful confusion downstairs screaming and crying of women and children even the men were trembling it was an awful night the noise upstairs was dreadful what with the elements and the shouting of officers and sailors." (Andrew Hassam, No Privacy for Writing: Shipboard Diaries 1852-1879, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1995, p.199)
Ships setting out on a long ocean voyage carried a significant number of barnyard animals as food for the officers. Some passengers found the noises a comfort, but others found it deeply annoying.
Jonathan Binns Were, an emigrant on the William Metcalfe in 1839:
"We have also 20 sheep, 30 pigs, 2 cows, 15 doz. of ducks and fowls with some geese which of a morning make no inconsiderable noise and on first being aroused from your morning’s slumber, you may suppose you were in some farmyard did not the rolling of the Ship and the bursting of the waves destroy the otherwise pleasing illusion."
Several weeks later he was woken by the ducks ‘dabbling on the deck in sucking up the rain’. (Jonathan Binns Were, A Voyage from Plymouth to Melbourne in 1839, J.B. Were & Son, 1964, pp.5, 91)
John Hood, a free passenger bound for New South Wales in 1841, found the ‘abominable animal noises’ a profound nuisance:
"One of the greatest annoyances, and one for which I was not prepared, is the endless succession of abominable animal noises on board ship. It is seldom adverted to, I think, among the evils of the sea; and yet to me it is one of the greatest. Geese cackling, cocks and hens chuckling, ducks quacking, dogs barking, cows bellowing, horses neighing." (John Hood, Australia and the East, Being a Journal Narrative of a Voyage to New South Wales, London: John Murray, 1843, pp.36-37)
Linus Miller, a political exile from Canada, is the only writer known to have commented on the noise of the convicts’ chains:
"All hands were divested of irons soon after we sailed. – This is customary on board convict ships. Were it otherwise the clanking of chains would drown even the blasphemy of many voices." (Linus W. Miller, Notes of an Exile to Van Diemen’s Land, Fredonia, NY: W. McKinstry & Co., 1846, p.247)
On the early ships, where the men were usually kept in chains throughout, the rattling of irons would have contributed to the background noise of the ship for the entire six to eight months of the voyage.
Linus Miller also wrote of "the most horrid blasphemy and disgusting obscenity, from daylight in the morning till ten o'clock at night. . . without one moment's cessation. . ." (Linus W. Miller, Notes of an Exile to Van Diemen’s Land, Fredonia, NY: W. McKinstry & Co., 1846, p.246)