Now we have looked at a voluntary monster in Ned Low and a bad seed in Dona Ysabel. But what of the victims of cruelty? Men and women who simply, out of need, took what wasn’t theirs and found themselves in the most miserable situations possible due to their government’s unwillingness to deal with the social problems piling up around it like cord wood. The story of the First Convict Fleet to leave England for Botany Bay in May of 1787 is an excellent example of many average people being guilty by association, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just unfortunately hungry.
In a time when stealing a loaf of bread regardless of your poverty could get you hanged, Britain had developed a simple way of dealing with her dredge: transportation. At first, people were sent to the Americas and to the colonies that would become the U.S. in particular. While transportation to Canada was not unheard of, it was less common and the U.S. becoming an independent nation put an end to that out. The whole thing became a serious annoyance by the mid-1780s.
Convicted criminals who had their sentences commuted from death to transportation were squirreled away in rotting prison hulks anchored along the Thames while the courts decided where to send them. When the forgotten ships began to deteriorate and the stench became overwhelming (ah, August on the Thames), the citizenry of London demanded redress. And that the hulks and their occupants be gotten rid of.
This is when the High Court hit upon the idea to send the people who were rotting with the ships around them to what would become Australia. Botany Bay had, of course, already been explored by Captain James Cook and the judges saw an opportunity to get rid of their criminals and turn a profit for the state. The lot of them would be packed into ships, sailed to the South Seas and put to work farming for the greater good of Britain. Of course there were “oversights”; no one bothered to provide the “colonists” with tools for farming or even building shelters. Then too there was the fact that 95% of those heading out were city dwellers from birth who had no notion of farming or livestock or even fishing.
Ignoring these rather gaping holes in their plan, the judges sent eleven ships carrying 560 male and 191 female prisoners off to Botany Bay. The new Governor, Arthur Phillip, was a sea captain by trade and had no more knowledge of working the land – or for that manner running a penal colony – than the unfortunate criminals he was to oversee. 211 marines were also along to guard the prisoners and men and women were separated aboard the ships by an iron fence on deck and stout bulkheads below. None of the ships were exclusively male or female as far as prisoners went, and over ten children and two infants who would be born during the passage accompanied their mothers on the journey.
Trouble began early. Keeping the prisoners separate was one thing but it seems as if no attempt was made to keep the sailors away from the women. Drunkenness was a surprisingly large problem on all the ships, with sailors sneaking extra grog rations and offering them to the women in return for favors. Those discovered at this type of sport were flogged mercilessly, sailors and women alike. Repeat offenders, at least in the female category, would have their heads shaved. Further trouble would lead to being chained below deck, denied food and/or the wearing of thumbscrews for inordinate periods including up to two weeks.
The daily conditions were brutal aside from ongoing punishments. The ships were, for the most part, brigantines and they were packed full. Each ship averaged 110 prisoners plus sailors, officers and marines. The facilities were no more than would be expected on any Royal Navy cruise in a ship of such size and because of stored rations and water, space was at a premium. And still the prisoners continued to act up. As Philip put it in his log while writing about the female prisoners, “… punishment could [not] deter them from making their way through the bulkheads to the apartments assigned to the seamen.”
Better behaved prisoners were given privileges including more time on deck. Some prisoners were even allowed to marry, which was considered good for the issue of fornication and good for Britain; marriage would mean more hands to labor in Botany Bay. There must have been a number of prisoners who were overwhelmed by the situation. Suicide attempts, and two actual suicides, occurred more than once.
The brutal eight month journey must have made many a prisoner look forward to his or her destination. Even without knowing what they were in for, two feet on dry land with open space all around must have seemed like heaven. What a crushing disappointment it must have been to drop anchor in Botany Bay on January 18, 1788 and find a virtual desert awaiting you. Philips would not allow his prisoners to disembark but sent shore parties to scout out a more favorable location. On February 2nd the fleet put in at what was then Port Jackson, the future site of Sydney, Australia.
Sailors, marines and male prisoners rowed for shore and began erecting a makeshift tent city. Four days later the women were told they would be taken ashore and many of them treated the occasion like a holiday. They primped as best they could, combing their hair and putting on what clean clothes they had. As the sky above them darkened and a driving rain began to pour down, the female prisoners made landfall just before sunset.
Their joy was short lived as the male prisoners, who had for the most part been left out of the sexual license aboard the ships, rushed the women and threw them down on the mud and sand. The remaining 188 girls and women were repeatedly and savagely raped by over 500 men. Doubtless some of the sailors joined in and the abuse, according to Philip who gave no thought to trying to stop it, continued throughout the night.
The horror did not stop there. Starvation and misery awaited the new colonists and Philip, much like many of the Governors who would follow, became a martinet who would happily allow his men to dole out 500 lashes on a whim. Escape was close to but not impossible; in fact a very small number of people did manage to get away from Port Jackson. But that is another story for another time.
Header: Prisoners awaiting transportation via history.org