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The ghostly story of the floating "devil's islands" that were the prison ships of the 18th Century

BURIED deep in the pages of the not-too-ancient history of supposedly civilized peoples can be found this very vivid descriptive passage:

"Dr. Ullathome visited the ship to prepare some oi the condemned men for the death that awaited them. He went into the crowded cell to announce his mission and read the names of those who were finally adjudged to die. One by one the condemned men tell upon their knees as their names were read out for death and deliberately and calmly thanked God that the gallows was about to deliver them from that horrible and unspeakable place."

Inspiring a dread so great that men could prefer death to life, the British prison ships in use during the nineteenth century were a blot on the history of mankind. Indirectly the American Revolutionary War was to blame for their existence.

In the late 18th century there were 550 crimes listed in England which were punishable by hanging. Women and children were hanged for shoplifting a loaf of bread. The British began to find out that hanging for petty theft was s serious mistake. They then resorted to transporting criminals out of the country. For a time the British Treasury benefited from the scheme. Criminals were sent to the shores of America where they were sold as slaves to the planters, and $250,000 was added to the government coffers annually. But after the American colonies waged their successful revolution, that market was closed and the British were forced to look elsewhere to dispose of their undesirable countrymen. The Penal Settlements oi New South Wales were founded, and the floating torture chambers were brought into being.

The work of carrying convicts from England to the settlement was turned over to contractors. They carried on that duty under their government's military protection, and they received six cents per day for each convict's food allowance besides a tonnage rate. The stories told of the wolfish greed of those contractors and the murderous abuse of their task is home out by recorded fact. The longer the voyage lasted, the more money the contractor was able to demand. And if the convicts happened to die, he could pocket the money for their maintenance. Thus a businesslike understanding was established under which the human cargoes died off like rotten sheep. A report written by Dr. White, the Colonial surgeon, states that over two-thirds of the convicts were either dead or dying upon arrival. Many never arrived at their destination; they had been over-tortured and thrown into the sea.

The typical prison ship, when used as a transport, carried all the prisoners in two huge chambers. Hundreds of men, women, and children were chained to one another and to the sides of the hold where they remained for the entire voyage. With hardly any light, very little air, almost no food, and no provisions for sanitation, it is no wonder that most of them arrived at their destination in a dead or dying condition. According to the records, at least one hundred and sixty-five thousand convicts were transported from English ports in this manner while the system lasted.

Many of the ships were used later as stationary prisons. The "Success," one of the most notorious of the floating prisons, stood several miles off the coast oi Australia. In order to completely isolate the "Success" and prevent the escape of any prisoners, a cordon of buoys was moored around the yellow-painted hulk at a distance of seventy-five yards. Any person entering the circle without the proper password and identification was liable to be shot on sight.

Rows of cells were constructed below decks. They looked more like cages for wild beasts than a prison house for men. The massive iron-bound doors were fastened with huge iron hasps and heavy draw-bolts. The "Black Holes," in which special punishment was meted out to obstinate prisoners, were properly named. These stood in the corners of the lower deck and can best be described as small and tapering torture chambers. They measured only two feet eight inches across. The doors fitted as tightly as valves, excluding all air, except what could filter through the perforated iron plate that was placed over the bars above the door in order to make the hole as dark and oppressive as possible. A stout iron ring was placed about knee-high in the shelving back of the cell, and through this ring the right wrist oi the prisoner was passed and then handcuffed to the left hand. In this position he could not stand up straight or lie down, but had to stoop or lean against the shelving side of the vessel as it rolled with the motion of the sea.' In every cell on the ship the floor was worn into hollows, ruts, and grooves next to each doorway, by the constant jangling and friction of the prisoner's leg-irons as they stamped impatiently, waiting for the stroke of the bell that marked the times for meals or exercise.

Although there is not a single case of a successful escape on record, riots were of frequent occurrence on the "Success." Flogging was the most common means of punishment resorted to. As many as one thousand lashes were ordered and administered. A "doctor" was always on hand to time and direct the blows so that a glimmer of life might still remain.

In addition to the numerous other horrible punishments practiced upon the "Success" and other prison ships was the "compulsory bath." Ten prisoners were scrubbed at once in the large trough provided for that purpose. Three "well-behaved" prisoners scrubbed with the aid of long-handled brushes and the salt water which was made to spray over the bodies oi the men. There are ugly tales related of prisoners being brought straight from the flogging frame, with their backs torn and bleeding from the cruel lashes of the "cat o' nine tails," so that their wounds could be cleansed by the steady ?ow of salt water used, in order it was said, to prevent "inflammation."

The prison ship is now regarded as a thing of the past. The ill-treatment broke the health and spirit of would-be good citizens. There was no chance of reclaiming a man once the torture chambers of the prison ships were brought into play. Men became beasts; their hearts were filled with hate for the society which had banished them from all living things. Their sufferings led them to dwell upon the idea of the only means of escape—death. It is no wonder that Dr. Ullathorne was confronted with a group of deliriously happy men, men who had just been informed that they were on the way to achieving a peaceful end to all their torment—on the gallows.

The year 1870 was the last in which these floating prisons were used. Public indignation rose to such an alarming height that they had to he abandoned. These "floating hells" had served their purpose if only to prove that medieval physical torture methods had no place in a modern penal institution. In the modern prison the emphasis is placed on reform. Illiterates are taught to read and write, petty thieves learn useful trades, and many men are given a new lease on life.

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