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PRISONERS in paradise Brenda Mortimer reveals the forgotten story of the convicts transported to Bermuda

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The Naval Yard at Ireland Island in 1848.

onvicted criminals are very well documented and often a detailed account of the convict’s life can be reconstructed from the various court and Home Office records. In the case of convicts transported to Australia, the records are relatively well known to historians. What is little known is that some were sent instead to work in Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius. We may think of the islands as being a sub-tropical paradise, but records at The National Archives, show just how difficult life could be for the prisoners there. Between 1823 and 1863 more than 9,000 convicts arrived in Bermuda to build the Royal Naval Dockyard. In the early years of the convict station, most served nearly all their sentence there. Later however, Bermuda was usually used as a preliminary holding place before the prisoner was sent to Australia. After the loss of the American colonies in 1776, there was no port to protect Royal Navy ships in the mid-Atlantic. After

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numerous skirmishes with American privateers, the government decided that a naval base was needed. Midway between colonies in Canada and the West Indies, Bermuda was the obvious choice. In 1809, work began on the construction of the Royal Naval Dockyard; it was a huge task and demanded a substantial workforce. Initially the work was done by slaves, but as there were few slaves on Bermuda and shipping slaves in from other colonies was expensive, progress was slow. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1823 authorising convicts to be employed in hard labour in any colony designated by the King. And after requests from the Master General and Board of Ordnance in Bermuda, Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, agreed that convicts should be used to complete the project. However, there was nowhere on the island to accommodate the men, so Peel decided to use hulks. Initially introduced in the 1780s hulks were decommissioned naval ships which held convicts in often squalid conditions before they were transported. The Antelope was fitted out to accommodate 300 convicts and 200 Royal Marine guards. She sailed from Spithead on 5 January 1824 arriving in Bermuda on 8 February. Records show that nearly all the convicts on

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board were young men in good health who had been chosen especially for the work. They had been convicted of minor offences and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. William Ball, for example, had been found guilty at the Old Bailey on 14 May 1823 of pick-pocketing. He was 25 years old, a watch maker, unmarried and in good health. Few had any experience of manual labour or of working in hot and humid conditions and yet with the most basic of implements, they were expected to hack out of hard limestone a

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TNA SOURCES

A map from the mid-19th century of Bermuda.

naval dockyard capable of sustaining the Royal Navy’s presence in the Atlantic. According to records, the first men were employed “in boring and blowing rocks and making a breakwater and on other public works in HM Dockyard at Ireland Island under the direction of the Naval Commissioner and other officers of the convict establishment.” Dockyard authorities soon realised that many more workers were needed if the project was to be completed quickly and requested that 300 more convicts be despatched. In 1826, the ship Dromedary arrived followed by the Coromandel in 1827 and the Weymouth in 1828. Now over 1,000 men worked on the project at any one time. Transportation to Bermuda was considered a much worse punishment than being sent to Australia. Although the voyage itself took a lot less time, once there, the convicts were housed in dark, dirty hulks and no ticket of leave (or parole) system operated. In Australia, convicts who kept out of trouble were allowed to apply for a ticket of leave after serving about half of their sentence, or eight years if they had been

This register from the Antelope shows the young ages of the men (often only in their late teens or early twenties), transported to Bermuda for fairly minor crimes such as poaching or stealing fowl. One interesting entry is for Alexander Aitken, aged 37, a surgeon, who got 14 years for causing an abortion.

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This sketch from the Illustrated London News in 1848 showing the the convict hulks Medway, Coromandel and Dromedary.

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transported for life. This allowed the convict to spend time working for himself so he could acquire money to buy goods and even land. The system was seen as an incentive to the convicts to behave well and make something of their lives in Australia. Even on prison hulks in England, most convicts only served half of their sentence before being eligible for remission. Bermudan convicts did not leave the island until they were well into the final year of the term; early release was only granted in exceptional circumstances. There were

mutinies and riots since there was no incentive or encouragement to behave well. Because conditions were harsh and Bermudan convicts had to serve the whole of their sentence, relatives and even the men themselves regularly petitioned the Home Secretary for mercy and asked for their sentences to be remitted. And it is in these petitions, now found in series HO 17 at The National Archives, that the stories of the convicts’ lives emerge. In September 1830, for example, the mother of Samuel and Thomas Bleakie petitioned the Home Secretary asking for Thomas to be pardoned and to be allowed to return home to his sorrowing wife and helpless children. The Bleakie brothers had been convicted at the Glasgow circuit court in Spring 1827 of passing two forged banknotes, and had both been sentenced to seven years’ transportation. They had been sent to Bermuda in late 1827 and Samuel died there in August 1829. The petition states that this was their first offence and that before the commission of the crime, they were honest and industrious men. The petition ends with the mother’s plea that she hopes that she might see her son again as she has “not long for this world.” On the back sheet of the petition the gaoler’s report states that their characters were bad before and after the trial and so, unsurprisingly, the plea was refused and Thomas was required to serve his full sentence in Bermuda. Another concern was what happened to the convicts as they neared the end of their sentences. No time-expired convict was allowed to be released into the community. Indeed the Bermudan legislature passed an Act in 1830 authorising magistrates to apprehend any convict who had been discharged and found at large in the islands. As they could not remain in Bermuda, they were sent back to England to serve out any remaining time on the hulks. In May 1838, the mother of Charles Morgan Salkeld petitioned the Home Office asking why her son had not been freed. He had been convicted of sheep stealing in December 1831 This entry from a medical journal of Bermuda Royal Naval Hospital shows an entry for Edward Butler, who received a fracture to the jaw “while in the act of fighting”. Tensions often ran high in the stressful circumstances.

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and his death sentence had been commuted to seven years’ transportation. He had spent nearly all the time in Bermuda but was returned to the Leviathan hulk in Portsmouth in January 1838 and was awaiting release. His mother was anxious to see him as, like Mrs Bleakie, she was not expected to live for very long as she had “an exposed artery that is expected very shortly to cause a sudden dissolution.” She concluded her petition with the plea: “The strong desire I have to see my child has influenced me to beg your Lordship’s intercession for his liberty.” The petition was answered on 1 June and marked “Nil” on the ground that Salkeld’s conduct was very bad on board the Antelope in Bermuda and he had been in solitary confinement several times. So Salkeld had no option but serve out the remaining six months of his sentence on board the Leviathan. Home Office records also show that convicts from other British colonies were sent to Bermuda. In September 1826, Morall Magoon had been convicted of forgery in the High Court in Montreal and sentenced to transportation for life. In 1831 he petitioned the Home Office, asking to be allowed to return to Canada to his wife, six young children and aged parents. With his petition, he enclosed a letter from the judges of the High Court stating that they had read affidavits confirming Magoon’s innocence and recommending him to mercy. Even this was not enough to persuade the Home Secretary to grant him a pardon as the petition is marked “Nil”. Later records are scarce and it can be difficult to trace exactly where convicts were sent after serving a period in Bermuda. Some went to Western Australia, Van Diemen’s Land and the Cape of Good Hope, although by the 1850s objections were raised by settlers to the arrival of such men. The Times reported in April 1850 that the Anti-Convict Association of the Cape had resolved that the convicts from Bermuda on board the Neptune should not be allowed to disembark in the Cape and had asked the Colonial Office to change the ship’s destination. After much correspondence, the Colonial Secretary agreed that the ship should continue to Van Diemen’s Land and the convicts complete their sentences there. Burial records of convicts are virtually non-existent before 1839 and there are very few marked graves in Bermuda. Death rates were high because of the poor living conditions in the hulks and the nature of the work. Admiralty records give a detailed account of F E B R U A RY 2 0 0 9

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the work undertaken in the Dockyard. They were ferried each morning from the hulks in chains, and made to perform the work of “horses” – dragging wagons loaded with stone to make the breakwater. Each evening they were taken back to the dark dirty hulks with little chance of any free time. They earned 3d a day, part of which was kept to pay for their food and the balance was given to them when they were released. They were entitled to 12oz of fresh beef and 8oz of vegetables every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday which may have been more than they were accustomed to at home. However, the accounts for the convict station for the three months from 1 January to 31 March 1825 seem to show that insufficient food was imported to feed all the inhabitants in the station in that period. The list includes 160lbs of bread, 140lbs potatoes, 3lb 121/4 oz tea and 91/2 bottles of gin. The poor diet must have been one reason why sickness was rife. Initially, the only medical facilities were on board the hulks. Once the convict station became established, a hospital was built on the island staffed by doctors and medical orderlies. Detailed records exist of the treatments given to the prisoners. In February 1825, four brothers, David, Thomas, William and James Messingham were convicted at Winchester Assizes of theft and

Above, the uniform convicts were obliged to wear in Bermuda included a smock embellished with his name, number and origin. The convicts’ principal employment was to quarry and cut stone for the fortifications.

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sentenced to be transported for seven years. They were all in their early twenties, agricultural workers and in good health, and so were obvious candidates to be sent to Bermuda. In June 1829, James was taken ill with dyspepsia, chronic diarrhoea and bouts of epilepsy, and became weak and emaciated. He was kept in the naval hospital and the surgeon, J Kennedy, ordered hot baths, sulphate of quince, arrowroot and small quantities of wine for the patient. After 26 days in the sickbay, James was considered sufficiently recovered to return to work. His brother William was also a patient in the naval hospital at the same time, but he was suffering from chronic dysentery and even though he was treated with “every possible attention” he died on 16 July. Although no record exists of where he was buried, the cost of his coffin was 20 shillings – a large sum for the time. The other two brothers completed their sentences and returned home in 1831 although David offended again and ended his days in Australia. These records show that in the early years, great care was taken of the sick as they were a drain on the establishment’s resources. However, once the Dockyard had been completed, conditions deteriorated. The Bermuda Historical Review includes memoirs by William Sydes who was confined on the island between 1838 and 1845. Sydes wrote that some convicts were so desperate to be sent home that they ground up glass and swallowed it, others blinded themselves or scratched their

legs to cause ulcers. Sick convicts were, sometimes, sent back to England. Generally, they were not released but were treated either on the hulks or in a penitentiary and were required to complete their sentence. By the mid 1840s, the Colonial Office and the officers in charge of the station were discussing the future of the hulk system in Bermuda. An outbreak of yellow fever in 1843 was made worse because of the dirty, dark and crowded conditions on the hulks. A shore prison was built on Boaz Island, which was completed in 1851, and housed 600 convicts. However another bout of yellow fever in 1853 signalled the end of Bermuda as a convict station, although it was ten years before all the convicts finally left. In the 40 years that Bermuda had been a convict station, over 9,000 men were held there, of whom, 2,000 had died. Brenda Mortimer is a non-practising solicitor and a volunteer editor at The National Archives. For the last six years she has been a member of The National Archives’s Local History Research Group and is currently editing the criminal petitions in HO 17.

TAKING IT FURTHER

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This page is taken from a register of baptisms and burials at Ireland Island between 1824 and 1848. On this page alone, for April and May 1842, there are six burials for men of the Dromedary hulk.

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The transportation of large numbers of convicts to Bermuda has been little researched, and because they were not allowed to settle in Bermuda, their records are incomplete. Those who managed to serve out their sentence in the harsh regime on Bermuda often then disappear from view. But for family historians who are unable to find their convict forebears in Australia, the Home Office records for Bermudan convicts may provide valuable clues. They certainly give an insight into the lives of the men who helped build the governor’s mansion and the naval station which was so vital in maintaining the supremacy of the Royal Navy in the 19th century. The mansion and the harbour works can still be seen today from the luxury cruise ships as they approach the island. The records you may need to use to research a Bermuda convict include Admiralty papers: Ireland Island baptisms and burials, 1826–1848 [ADM 6/ 434]; Convict hospital medical journals, 1824–1848 [ADM 101/8-11]. In Home Office papers, the quarterly return of convicts (1824–1863) in series HO 8, should list men who were in Bermuda and HO 11/16-18 contains transport registers (1850–1863) listing men sent to Bermuda with details of their crime. HO 7/3 is a register of convicts on the Coromandel, Antelope, Dromedary, and Weymouth hulks between 1823 and 1829. Petitions from prisoners’ families and friends are in series HO 17, between 1819 and 1839: details are available on the online catalogue at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue. There was an article in issue 59 of Ancestors magazine on these records. Another article in issue 40 looked at convict hulks.

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Prisoners in Paradise  

Article from Ancestors Magazine Issue 78, by Brenda Mortimer

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