Insights on a Journey from Plymouth to Bahia, thence to Fremantle, by Bishop Mathew Blagden Hale on board the Nile.
The two insightful letters below were transcribed by Janice Hayes (nee Hale) for the DPS (Dead Persons Society) in Perth for its website. Janice is a descendant of Bishop Hale. Every effort has been made to contact Janice Hayes and the Moderator of the DPS Website for permission to republish these transcriptions, but to date my efforts have been without success.
The name of the friend to whom Bishop Hale sent the letters is unknown.
Convict ship ‘Nile’, Bahia, Nov 3, 1857
My Dear Friend – When you parted from me alongside the Nile on the 23rd September, you entertained serious apprehensions that we should not accomplish our voyage without disturbances. You had heard from different quarters the desperate character of some of the prisoners who had embarked, and there appeared to be but too much ground for your apprehension. I send you below some account of our proceedings; but cannot help first making some observations on the conduct of prison officials in England, in sending such characters as some of these we have on board to people a new colony. I firmly believe that the higher authorities composing the home government are sincerely desirous of dealing with Western Australia in a fair and honest manner; but it is not enough for employers and heads of establishments to intend honestly, they are bound to see to it that their agents and subordinates act faithfully and carry out their intentions properly and correctly. Now the compact with Western Australia with respect to the class of convicts to be transported, is that they shall be men selected for their good behaviour, men whose antecedents allow a reasonable hope that they will become reformed persons in their new country, and prove to be useful members of the community. That is the understanding no one attempts to deny; on the contrary, this was most fully admitted by witnesses who were examined last year before the Committee of the House of Lords. But, nevertheless, the prison officials in England whose duty is to select prisoners for transportation persevere in defiance of all obligation in sending out many convicts who are utterly unfit for the purposes of the colony.
If this had happened only once or twice one might charitably hope that it had occurred through inadvertence; but this practice of sending out desperate characters – men who have just escaped hanging – have been persevered in now for upwards of two years, in spite of the strong protests and remonstrations from a variety of different persons connected with the colony, in addition to the official representations from the present governor. The late governor, Captain Fitzgerald, and the present comptroller-general, Captain Henderson, both protested in the strongest terms against this system in the examination above referred to. The gentlemen last-named, in answer to a question put to him, stated it to be his conviction that if the system of sending out desperate characters was not discontinued it must soon put an end to transportation altogether. And assuredly this must the result. Can it be supposed for a moment the inhabitants of the colony however docile and tractable they may be, will suffer themselves to be made for ever the victims of so gross and fatal an injustice, and to have their country overrun with an class of men who are certain, if set at large, to fill the land with robbery and murder? Indeed there is no knowing to what extent of crime and violence such as these, where they have opportunities of acting upon large bodies of men who are not under the restraint of right principle, may proceed. At the end of 1855 there were more able-bodied men of the convict class in the colony than able-bodied men of the free class; no doubt the former class have at the present time a still larger majority than they had in 1855. Any drunken row or accidental riot occurring in any part of the colony might in a few hours be turned by a knot of desperadoes into a general rising of the convict population.
There is nothing in the condition or circumstances of the colony to prevent such a catastrophe; there is nothing to prevent frightful crimes lately perpetrated in India being again repeated in Western Australia. The handful of soldier and enrolled pensioners now in the colony who may be sufficient to uphold order and discipline in quiet times would be utterly unable to offer any successful resistance to an excited mob which would reckon its numbers by thousands. In fact, the colonists live, as it were, continually with a charged mine beneath their feet, and the system pursued by the mother country, of sending from time to time a regular supply of men ripe for any outrage, is a system exactly suited to the purpose of springing that mine, and bringing ruin and desolation upon the whole country.
If the colonists possess even the most moderate share of prudence, and any regard for the peace and safety of their families and their country (to say nothing of the moral condition of the community), they will without loss of time unite as one man and will with profound respect but with the utmost firmness, humbly petition her Majesty the Queen either to cause persons who faithfully fulfil her gracious intentions towards the colonists to be applied to select the prisoners for transportation, or else to release them altogether from the engagement which they have entered into to receive convicts from the mother country. To submit a continuance of the present practice is to acquiesce in a course of treatment, which must lead to results most disastrous to the colony and to all who are connected with it.
With respect to the conveyance of prisoners in convict ships, perhaps it may be of some use if I mention some circumstances which have in our own case tended greatly to promote the disorder and misrule which have unhappily prevailed in this ship. In my narrative below I shall refer to the want of an officer previously acquainted with the person of the prisoners. Where there is the slightest tendency to insubordination it is absolutely necessary that the governing powers should possess, or be able to obtain, a particular and personal knowledge of individuals amongst the dangerous classes. Further by means of their own eyes or the eyes of the others the might be able to keep watch upon every probable disturber of the peace to mark his every movement, that so they might stop the very first commencement of disturbance. It does not matter whether it is an empire or a gathering of twenty half clothed children, this knowledge of individuals must be the secret by means of which order must be maintained wherever there is any tendency to disorder.
In this case there were 270 men, many of them of desperate characters, and bent on mischief, turned loose together in a low half lighted prison between decks, without any officer in the ship who had previous acquaintance with the worst characters. It was not until the warders had obtained by dearly bought experience a knowledge of individuals that they could possibly deal with this unruly multitude.
In the darkness of the prison, it was perfectly easy for the leading rioters to conceal themselves in the crowd to avoid detection. The chief warder is apparently a very able man, and thoroughly acquainted with the duties of his situation; and if opportunities had been afforded him of forming acquaintance with the whole body of convicts before they left their respective prisons, I firmly believe that the insubordination might have been checked at its very first commencement. The want of a place of separate confinement in refractory prisons will also be hereafter referred to; and the evil consequences arising from this want will be forcibly illustrated by the circumstances which occurred. The neglect of a strict and vigilant watch of the men’s persons will also be noticed and its evil consequences shown. Having said thus much about the neglect of means which might here have been used to repress disorder, I will now say a few words about the means which might have been used to promote order, and to bring about a state of right feeling amongst the men; viz, a routine of useful and profitable employment, affording opportunities for imparting moral and religious instruction.
A scheme is laid down by authorities at home which looks remarkably well upon paper, marking out three hours and a half per day for school. But this nice looking scheme is completely destroyed by the actual posture of affairs. In the first place men are so closely packed in the prison that to distribute them all into classes in such a way as to enable them to perform their school duties is quite out of the question. In the next place, on account of the mutinous spirit which has been manifested and the threats which have many times repeated of taking the ship, it is not considered safe to open the prison and allow the duties of the days to be commenced before daylight as supposed by the scheme already mentioned. The prisoners are kept below until there is light enough for the men to be watched, and until the usual guard for the day is mounted. This upsets the “timetable” at once.
In the next place, under any circumstances, require a great amount of good humour amongst the men and their ready and active co-operation, to carry through the business of the day in accordance with the “scheme”. Where this alacrity is wanting it will easily be conceived that the performance of each duty will be prolonged beyond the time assigned to it, and that some portions of the time will be found quite unavailable for their intended purposes. In this way, amongst other more forcible pressures, the three hours and a half of school become squeezed away altogether.
In the next place, the supply of books for school purposes is miserably defective. Some of the men cannot read at all and others can only just put together short and easy words. For the men in this stage there are no books at all. There are other impediments to school keeping which have arisen out of the disturbed state of the prisoners. It is not considered prudent to allow more than one-third of the men to be on deck at the same time; so that they are obliged to come up for their airing in three different divisions. This tends greatly to destroy regularity of routine, and operate against a steady settling down to books. Again, slates cannot be used amongst the men. The first time the chaplain took the slates into the prison ten were stolen; they were no doubt taken by the riotous party; and there is every reason to believe that they were taken to be used as offensive weapons. The surgeon therefore has prohibited the use of slates.
These circumstances may serve to illustrate what an incalculable amount of injury and injustice is done to a large body of men by mixing amongst them in a convict ship a certain number of rioters and desperate characters.
With respect to the performance of our own ministerial offices; the prisoners have always two full services on Sunday, and prayers in the prison every evening. The chaplain is constantly among them either singly or three or four together. He has been most persevering in his endeavours to organise the school, but the utmost that he has been able to accomplish has been to induce the men whilst they are on deck for airing, to assemble in classes for a short time on the forecastle. Each class is presided over by a monitor, and the chaplain remains amongst them to exercise a general superintendence.
For my part, I take a class from the men remaining below. I am going regularly through the whole number in order that I may become personally acquainted with every prisoner on the ship. When the class ceases reading I conclude with a short lecture, or an exposition of some passage which has been read adding some words of personal advice or consul to the men.
Our Sundays have generally not been fine; on the two occasions when the weather has been favourable in the morning all hands have been assembled in the after part of the ship; the guards under arms and the ship’s crew on the poop; and the prisoners on the quarter-deck. Mr Wright read the services and I preached on both these occasions. The other Sundays, when the weather was not fine, Mr Wright and I divided the services, one officiating in the cuddy, and the other in the prison. The prisoner’s service, in the afternoon, is always held below.
I also addressed the prisoners on the occasion of their giving up the leading rioters when these latter was secured in the forecastle, as will be hereafter described. The surgeon-superintendent and the chaplain accompanied me to the prison, and I endeavoured to point out the folly as well as the wickedness of those who had occasioned the late riots. I commended warmly those who had stood forward in the cause of order and had given up the disturbers of peace. I spoke of the colony, from my personal knowledge, as a place affording them excellent opportunities of redeeming their characters and retrieving their lost position; and finally entreated them to make their peace with God through Jesus Christ, and to strive to prepare for a future life.
I must now proceed to give you some account of what has actually occurred in the ship. I have already alluded to the very unfavourable reports, which we heard upon our first arrival at Plymouth; and the ongoing on board. I certainly did not find things better than I expected. It was quite certain that there were amongst the prisoners a certain number of very desperate characters, and that those put on board at Plymouth were especially, taking them all together, a very bad set. The warder who came to the ship with those men said that they were as bad a body of men as the prison could produce. It was here also that a singular want of care and vigilance was manifested with respect to articles which the prisoners were allowed to bring on board with them. One of the soldiers of the guard in the ship discovered a life preserver in the possession of one of the convicts as he came over the ship’s side. Subsequently knives and files were found in possession of the prisoners; and it is not easy to account for their having these articles unless they brought them into the ship. Some implements of this description they retained amongst them undiscovered; and by these means some of the men who afterwards were put in irons were able to get the irons off, and thus to defy authority at a most important crisis. There can be no doubt that this successful resistance to the arm of the law contributed in no slight degree to aggravate the disturbance which eventually took place.
I think it very important to call attention to the circumstances that a certain portion of the convicts showed signs of insubordination from the time of their first entrance into the ship. They seemed bent upon mischief; and not only were insolent and troublesome, but declared boldly that the ship should never reach Australia.
The minds of both of the sailor and warders appear to have been unsettled by the state of things prevailing. Nine sailors refused to work, on the plea that when they signed articles they were not aware that the ship was to carry convicts. These men were landed and taken before the magistrates at Plymouth, and were sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. Two warders likewise refused duty, and they were also put ashore at Plymouth.
After we got to sea it was evident that the prisoners were in a very unsettled and unsatisfactory state of mind. There was a constant tendency to insolence, and several depredations were committed by them whilst they were upon deck for their airing.
Upon one occasion the harness cart in which the meat for the cuddy table was kept, was plundered. Upon another occasion the chief mate discovered a prisoner in the act of carrying off a goose from the longboat; he pursued him and recovered the goose. This gave rise to jeers and taunts from the other prisoners upon deck; some shouted to him that he had better count the sheep and see whether they were all right. This offender was punished by being put into the “black box”, which is a box something larger than a coffin, and when a man is put into it is either left standing in a perpendicular position or laid down upon the deck, close by the station of a sentry. Another man was detected in the act of passing down an iron crowbar from the deck into the prison; he was also punished by a period of incarceration in the black box.
The evening of Thursday, Oct 1, Mr Wright went below to the prison to conduct the service as usual. The prisoners sang some verses of a hymn, and then commenced screaming, whistling through their fingers, using abusive language, shouting out, “We’ll do for you,” and uttering other threats of a similar character. The surgeon-superintendent was standing by the hatchway, a little behind Mr Wright; and after a time they both retired, finding it impossible to proceed with the service. Mr Wright informed me that a similar disgraceful scene had been enacted upon a previous occasion, before I joined the ship at Plymouth.
The night of the 4th October one of the warders on duty on the prison was assaulted and injured, another warder also received a blow. For this and other disorderly conduct six men were seized on the deck the next afternoon, Monday, October 5, just as it was getting dark. These men received corporal punishment, and one who appeared to be the ringleader, was detained in the “black box”. The other five were ironed and sent below with the rest of the prisoners. In a very short time, however, they all five freed themselves from the irons, no doubt by means of the files which had remained undiscovered in their possession. Whilst we were sitting at tea in the cuddy, a little before seven o’clock, an alarm was raised of a disturbance in the prison; everything was immediately in confusion and the cuddy table deserted. It was impossible to ascertain at the time what was really the matter, the women and families of the soldiers and warders were afraid to remain in their own place, and came in great alarm into the cuddy and on the poop. In about fifteen or twenty minutes the chief warder was led forward from the hatchway bleeding, and apparently considerably injured.
It appeared that the surgeon-superintendent whilst below in the prison heard a missile whiz forcibly past him, and on looking round saw the chief warder had received a violent blow on the jaw. The missile was immediately picked up, which proved to be a piece of sand-stone attached to an old handkerchief in such a way as enabled the thrower to hurl it like a sling. The chief warder was obliged to remain off duty for some days. The surgeon has now reason to believe that the blow was intended for him, and he has been told that a deliberate plan had been at one time in course of information to take his life.
The following night, Tuesday, Oct 6, the rioting was renewed, and this time carried to still greater lengths. As the night advanced the prisoners became exceedingly disorderly, at first singing in a loud and boisterous manner, proceeding then to hurrahs and cheers, and getting on by degrees to a complete riot. Many of the men who had been glad to have remained quiet were compelled to leave their berths by the violence of the more turbulent. Hitherto the practice had been kept up of placing one of the warders in the prison during the night. The warder who was upon this duty upon this occasion remained during these proceedings in fear and trembling until he was at length withdrawn. He reported that the number of violent rioters was about 30 or 40, who rushed up and down the prison from end to end, becoming thereby more and more excited. At one time they made an attack upon the bars under the hatchway, at another time they directed their efforts to the after bulkhead (the partition which divides off the prison from the rest of the ship). For my own part, knowing the effect which may be produced by the mere brute force of so large a body of powerful men in a state of violent excitement, I entertained very considerable apprehensions that the bulkhead would give way.
I need not say that during all this time great alarm prevailed among the women and families of the soldiers and warders, they all left their berths and the places which they usually occupied, and as they had done the night before came crowding in a terrified manner into the cuddy and up on the poop.
From nearly the commencement of the disturbance the guard had been under arms, and the men mustered and furnished with cutlasses, ready for any emergency. When the bulkhead and bars were attacked, which was perhaps about 12 o’clock, a party of the guard was marched to the bars down the hatchway in order to intimidate the rioters, with a show of firing in upon them. The prisoners then assailed the officers and surgeon superintendent with the most violent abuse, telling them the mode in which they would be murdered respectively when they got them into their hands; two were specified who were to “walk the plank”, another was to be cut up piecemeal – they even threatened the manner in which the women were to be treated. The appearance of the soldiers at the prison bars seemed however, to have the effect of restraining their actual violence; and, after a time, the tumult gradually subsided. By about one o’clock quiet was again restored.
After this the prison still continued in a very unsatisfactory and unquiet state, sundry acts of violence and petty thefts having been committed amongst the convicts. On the night of Monday, October 12, about 11 o’clock the officer on guard came to the surgeon superintendent to report that an aggravated assault had been committed upon one of the convicts. After some consultation it was determined that a party should enter the prison immediately and seize the offenders. The surgeon superintendent, accompanied by the mate of the ship and two or three soldiers, proceeded to act upon this determination, and it appeared that a party of the most desperate of the prisoners (no doubt the same men who had occasioned the previous riots) had been plundering several of their fellow prisoners, especially taking biscuits; many of the prisoners were thereby exasperated against them, and readily rendered assistance in bringing forth and handing out several men who were known to be the principal rioters. The general desire to get rid of the whole party was manifested by their pulling out and passing up one man before he was even demanded. The men were in this way taken from the prison, put in irons, and kept to receive corporal punishment in the morning. This flogging they received soon after daylight, but there were being no separate place of confinement, and were allowed again to mix with the rest of the prisoners. What could be worse, or tend more to renewed rioting, that these men lashed into fury by their punishment; and thinking to be revenged upon the other prisoners who had given them up, should immediately have the opportunity given to them of exciting the passions of their comrades, and of instigating them to further violence. For my own part I entertained so strong a belief with respect to the generally unpromising state of affairs, that in the course of the forenoon I requested the surgeon superintendent, the captain of the ship, and the commanding officer to allow me to express my views to them. These officers kindly assembled in the surgeon’s cabin, and then I formally stated my belief that things were getting worse and worse, and that I fully expected that unless some effectual steps were taken to put down the rioting, serious disturbances attended with bloodshed, and probably loss of life, must inevitably accrue. I ventured to propose as a remedy that we should put into some English station, either Ascension Island or St Helena, in expectation of meeting with a ship of war bound for England, with a view to transmitting again to the mother country some five or six of the most desperate prisoners. This plan, however, appeared to be impracticable. The surgeon and commanding officer expressed an opinion that they would not be satisfied in giving up the prisoners; and the captain stated that, from the present position of the ship, great delay and difficulty would be occasioned by making either of the islands which I mentioned. The correctness of my opinion, however, as to the posture of affairs was fully born out before the close of the day. In the course of the evening one of the warders reported that the men, whilst upon deck, had appeared to be in a disturbed and excited state, that they had been endeavouring to procure offensive weapons, had contrived to secrete some sticks, and that the boatswain missed five belaying pins which he had seen in their places in the morning. In fact, it was evident that a serious riot was intended during the night. Upon receipt of this intelligence the surgeon determined to retake the men who had been flogged in the morning, and keep them in irons and separate from the rest of the prisoners during the night. Six of the men were brought out and made fast accordingly. Seeing no prospect of getting the ship freed from these leading rioters, I took an opportunity of having further conversation with the captain of the ship in the evening. I repeated again to him what I had said in the morning – that I was firmly persuaded unless something was done to prevent it, the prison rioting would get worse and worse, and would be eventually attended with very serious consequences, and I urged upon him the imperative necessity of finding a place in the ship which could be fitted up as a refractory prison. I suggested the hold, but he said it would be quite impossible to fit up any place there. At last he thought of the forecastle. It is the practice in convict ships, to have the sailors in the after part of the vessel, and therefore, the forecastle (usually occupied by the sailors) is in the convict ships available for other used. The captain came to the conclusion that this place could be fitted up as a refractory prison, and the plan when announced to the surgeon and the commanding officer was warmly approved of. By the evening of the next day, Wednesday, the 14th, all the arrangements were complete; a chain was fixed in the forecastle on the starboard side, and the six riotous prisoners, being already in irons, were made fast to the chains. They persevered in their insolent bearing even up to this time, and said to the surgeon and those who were fastening them in a threatening manner, “You will have to pay for this”. Up to this time scarcely a night had passed without some disturbance or act of violence occurring in the prison. I am now writing sixteen days after the six ringleaders were separated from the other prisoners, and no disturbances of any kind has occurred in the prison during that period. Those men have not only boasted of their achievements in breaking out of gaols and freeing themselves from irons, but they are given proof of their skills in the last normal accomplishments; they are therefore watched with untiring vigilance. Some of their colleagues have attempted to confer with them, while taking their daily airing on deck. These men have been paraded before the guard, that their persons may be known; and they have been informed that they will be punished in a summary manner if they are again detected in communication with the prisoners in the forecastle. One day a written communication from those men was intercepted. It was an earnest appeal to the other prisoners written with considerable spirit, exhorting them to hold well together, to be true to one another, to make common cause with the sufferers in chains, together with an admonition not to forget the traitor who betrayed them. It is not known who is particularly alluded to in this last expression, probably one of the prisoners who assisted in giving them up to the surgeon. I must now mention another circumstance, as tending to illustrate the state of affairs in general.
A gang of eight or ten prisoners had been employed during the whole time as deck-washers for the forepart of the ship. The head of this gang was a fat, burly, good-humoured looking prisoner, named J………., formerly a sailor who is known throughout the ship as “Boatswain J……”. All the men of the gang have appeared to conduct themselves in a quiet orderly manner, and do their work satisfactorily (A…. Is one of them, and has hitherto behaved himself apparently with great propriety; being quiet and respectful in his demeanour and active in the discharge of his duties). They are on the deck nearly the whole day, and are permitted to move about the ship and take part in what is going on in a way that is not allowed to the other prisoners. On Friday, Oct 23, one of the warders overheard some of these men in conversation, and he gathered that a plot for taking the ship was on foot amongst them. Although he did not hear enough to gather any certain information, the surgeon-superintendent considered it quite necessary to make a counter move to defeat any scheme which might be going on. He had himself perceived (or thought he had perceived) a difference in A……..’s manner for the last few days; he therefore displaced half of the gangs, viz. those whom he judges most likely to be tools in the hands of boatswain J……, and put in their places men who on other departments, had conducted themselves well and appeared to be worthy of trust. He has reasons for thinking that it would not be politic to displace J….. And A….. At the present time; and the changes which have been effected here have been made without any words or explanation. He observes that J…., although not displeased himself, shows evident signs in his looks and manner of being much put out and disconcerted, and he is thereby greatly confirmed in his belief that some scheme was in contemplation; and that the warder was not mistaken in his suspicions.
Wednesday, October 28 – This morning a displaced member of J….’s gang was paraded before the guard, together with another prisoner, as men suspected of holding intercourse with the prisoners in the forecastle. The surgeon had himself overhead from them which induced him to take this step. In the afternoon this same man and four other were reported by the sentry as having been improper proximity to the forecastle, and every preparation was made for inflicting corporal punishment on the chief offender. There was no evidence, however, that they actually communicated with the prisoners in the forecastle and after making great promises of more careful conduct for the future, they were dismissed by the surgeon with severe cautions. Three of these were men lately displaced from the deck-washers gang.
Friday, Oct 30 – Today another prisoner was out and paraded before the guard as one who was to be particularly noticed. This is a very young fellow bearing countenance every indication of recklessness and daring. He is said to be the one who hurled the stone in the handkerchief on the 5th inst., and wounded the chief warder, but I believe the evidence against him as regards to this affair is not quite satisfactory. He was brought today in consequence of its being reported that he had been overheard to say that he was ready to lead an attack; that the bullets would go over his head, and that he would break through the barricade.
Monday, Nov 2 – Yesterday the weather was rather showery and we had the prison service below. I took the whole service, and Mr Wright officiated in the cabin. I preformed the whole service with a sermon again in the cuddy at 7 p.m. The cuddy was quite filled by the soldiers, warders and their families. This morning, I am sorry to say, corporal punishment was again inflicted. One of the men punished was one of the six in irons; his offence was threatening the chief warder, and declaring that he would take his life. The other two men were punished for smoking below. The surgeon exhausted all other means in endeavouring to put a stop to this practice, which is of course, one extremely dangerous to the whole ship.
(A subsequent letter contains sub-joined passages.)
Convict ship ‘Nile’, Jan 1 1858
Approaching the Coast of Western Australia
My dear Friend, – I wrote to you at the beginning of November from Bahia, Brazil, giving you an account of our voyage up to that time, and of all the anxieties we had undergone in consequence of misconduct of some of the convicts. I have now every reason to express the most heartfelt gratitude to the Almighty God for the favour which had been shown us in this latter part of our voyage. We have been favoured in every way since we left Bahia. We have had fair winds and a quick passage, and the prisoners have not been to us an occasion of anxiety or alarm.
We reached latitude 44 deg. south on the 1st of December; being at the same day in the meridian of Greenwich, in the parallel of latitude just mentioned, viz. 44 deg. South, our captain determined to make the greater part of his running eastward. The period at which we were in that latitude was as you are aware, just at the height of summer in this hemisphere, and yet we experienced some very cold and indeed, wintry weather. This great change in temperature took place about the 27th November, and the cold weather continued for a month, viz. to a day or two after Christmas day. We left our southern parallel, December 23, in longitude 90 east, and since that time have been gradually creeping to the north. The thermometer, during the greater part of the time above mentioned, while in latitude 44, was generally about 55 deg. In the cuddy; several times it stood at 55 deg., and twice it was observed as low as 46 deg. And 47 deg. The usual temperature on deck during the middle of the day was about 45 deg., or 46 deg. When you consider that this was during the height of summer and that the corresponding parallel of the northern hemisphere runs through the mild climate of the South of France, &c., the lowness of the temperature will appear remarkable. Our captain, who has been thirty years at sea, and has rounded the Cape of Good Hope every year during this period is of the opinion that the season must have been quite an unusual one, arising perhaps from some very extensive break up of ice, and drifting of large quantities to a distance from the South Polar regions.
We were constantly fancying that we might get a sight of an iceberg, but nothing of the kind appeared to us. We had fine strong winds nearly the whole time above-mentioned from the S.W. and W. We had four or five gales sufficiently strong to reduce us to close reefed topsails; once we had to lay to.
We have run from the meridian of Greenwich to this place (close upon 115 deg. of longitude) in 31 days; and as our ship is by no means a fast sailor, this is sufficient to show the character of the winds we have been favoured with. The prisoners, as I have already stated, have caused but little anxiety of late. In fact, there is no difficulty in preserving order in convict ships when the ships are supplied with the requisite appliances, and the prisoners become individually known to those who have care of them. The six men who were put in irons, and confined separately in the forecastle before we reached Bahia, are still in the same condition; and will be handed over to the authorities of Fremantle with their irons on.
They have been constantly endeavouring to keep up a communication with the other prisoners; and have urged them to use violence to rescue them; but their movements are watched with untiring vigilance, and all their schemes defeated. About the beginning of December, there appeared to be a disposition to mischief in some few men in the main prison, the members of one mess. It was understood that they intended make an assault upon the surgeon superintendent and two of the warders; and they were providing themselves with bottles to be used as offensive weapons. The surgeon consequently required all bottles to be delivered up, and frustrated all their intention. Upon another occasion, about the same time, he felt it advisable to station a few soldiers at the main hatchway while he went his rounds. About the same period there was a rumour abroad that a plan was arranged for effecting the rescue of the six prisoners in irons, as a counterplot to this, the surgeon, without making any remarks or observations upon the subject, caused the port forecastle to be prepared fitted up for the accommodation of close prisoners in a similar manner to the starboard forecastle, where the six men are confined. It is presumed that the intending champions did not like this demonstration, as no further steps were taken in the matter of the rescue, but these were measures of precaution. I believe I am correct in saying that not a single open act of insubordination has been committed, since we left Bahia.
With respect to the previous part of the voyage, many little things have transpired since I wrote my former letter, all rending to show the care and method with which the gang of desperadoes had prepared their measures for taking the ship, and the atrocious character of their designs. Two prisoners have died during the voyage; one from pulmonary disease, the other from a complaint of the liver. It appears that in both instances the disease had been serious, and was of old standing before the men left England. The surgeon superintendent has been most assiduous and anxious in his attention to the men during the whole voyage. He has had a most difficult task to perform, and he has performed it most ably and efficiently. The disturbance which occurred during the first month are to be attributed to the large number of desperate characters amongst the prisoners, to the fact that the persons characters of the men were wholly unknown to those who had the care of them, and to the imperfect arrangements of the ship. The school occupations of the men have gone on much more satisfactorily since the first month of the voyage. I am informed by Mr Wright, the chaplain, that several of the men have made very great progress indeed. The general demeanour during the performance of Divine service has now been most orderly and satisfactory. The two men who died gave earnest attention to Mr Wright’s ministration, during the latter part of their sickness, and appeared to deplore their former evil life. But alas, a hurried repentance upon a death-bed is, at the best, but a melancholy termination to a life of crime. Mr Wright and I share the Sunday services between us, one officiating in the prison, and the other in the cuddy. I have generally taken the prison service on Sunday morning. The prisoners have formed a very excellent choir, and sing remarkably well; and the attention and orderly behaviour during the whole time of the service has been most striking. Being myself so familiar with the character of the Australian country and the details of pastoral occupations, I have given lectures to the prisoners on these subjects, also upon their own future prospects and positions in the colony. The men manifested the deepest interest in those lectures, and I trust they have been of use to them.
January 7 – It is with feelings of heartfelt gratitude to Almighty God that I now inform you that the Nile cast anchor at Fremantle about 10 o’clock p.m. On the 1st inst. we were at the meridian of Greenwich Dec 1, and therefore we had run the whole of our east longitude (115 degrees) in exactly one month. The refractory prisoners and two or three invalids were landed the day after our arrival, the rest remained on board until the 5th.
I am happy to say that the majority of our men give much satisfaction to the superintendent of the prison (so far as he is yet able to judge) by their general appearance and demeanour of the conduct on board of this majority, we have every reason to speak well, and one cannot but lament for their sakes, as well as on every account, that the desperate characters who caused all the disturbances were sent into the ship. Since our arrival I have been favoured with a sight of the ‘paption’ (?) of one of the desperadoes, and it is a perfect mystery to me how any person holding a responsible position could ever reconcile it to his conscience to turn such a man loose into a ship with 269 other convicts, knowing there existed in that ship no sufficient appliances for the permanent safe custody of a dangerous person; and knowing also that no warder or officer in the ship had been forewarned or cautioned with respect to this man [George Woodcock]. I may safely say that the crimes and outrages committed by this one man if divided amongst ten convicts, instead of being all accumulated upon one, would stamp each of the ten as desperadoes, utterly unfit for the purpose of colonisation. This man is known to have passed under feigned names and aliases to the number of at least 15 to 20, he has been traced and identified in no less than seventeen different prisons in England. He has been guilty of violent conduct, murderous assaults upon the warders, attempts upon governors of prisons, breaking out of jail, and outrageous behaviour of every description so many times as to defy all attempts to record them all. He has become so madly and desperately furious that, for the safety of others, it has been found necessary to keep him lashed down hands and feet for upwards of a fortnight together.
This is the man who is sent to Western Australia in the face of the most distinct understanding that the best and most orderly prisoners are to be selected for transportation to this colony. In addition to this he possesses far more than average ability, has considerable command of apt, forcible language, and great fluency of speech. He has been noted in the English prisons and has distinguished himself on board the Nile by his daring infidelity, and the bold blasphemous expressions which he makes use of. In fact if we could imagine any persons indulging a wish to do the greatest amount of injury possible to a ship’s company and the inhabitants of a colony no more direct method could have been taken to carry this wish than to turn loose amongst them such a lend-like (?) criminal as this. He had scarcely embarked in the ship before he commenced to prepare for further violence by picking the pocket of the warder who brought him off of his life-preserver. (This is quite a different affair from that of the life-preserver which was taken from a prisoner coming over the ships’ side, as mentioned in my former letter). Happily, another prisoner took the weapon from him and gave it up to the authorities. I trust the events which have taken place on board the Nile will operate as a caution and henceforth we shall receive from England such convicts only as have conducted themselves with some kind of propriety in prison of whom we may entertain some hope that they may, by God’s grace become reformed; and become eventually creditable members of society.
I am MATHEW, PERTH