On days when the weather was tolerable, convict activities included menial work, fishing from the deck with homemade lines, playing cards, gambling, and even singing and dancing (especially after they had been drinking.) The log of Surgeon–Superintendent John Smith aboard the Clyde in 1838 records the activities on a typical convict voyage:
…cleaning and scraping, sprinkling chloride of lime by the water-closets, supervising the laundry, lancing abscesses, blankets become lousy and are soaked all night in the urine-tubs in the hope of killing the accursed insects; the coarse trousers give some convicts “excoriations of the scrotum and thigh;” prisoners squabble and are put in the cramping-box, a lad whispers about mutiny and spends the night handcuffed on deck; the soldiers and their women fight like Kilkenny cats---“a more undisciplined, quarrelsome, noisy set have seldom come together, yet the behavior of the Prisoners is quiet and orderly with little exception.” Surgeon Smith dispenses advice, purges, blisters and bleedings; he buries the dead (but very few men die); and there is a note of quiet gratification at the end, when Clyde warps into Sydney Cove and an official from the colonial secretary’s office asks the customary question of the mustered prisoners: Is there any complaint about the Surgeon? “No, no, God bless him, was the universal cry.”(1)
The convicts aboard the Canton were under the exclusive charge of the kind and decent surgeon, Dr. John Irvine of the Royal Navy. (The captain of the ship, Master John Mordaunt,(2) could only interfere in case of emergency.) The surgeon visited the prison daily to deal with any problems or complaints. At the end of the voyage he was paid, as compensation for his services, one guinea for each man that he landed at Hobart Town; thus it was to his advantage to keep the prisoners alive and healthy. For the most part he was successful: only two convicts were buried at sea, as compared to thirty on the Marquis of Hastings.(3)
Gemmell, Miller, and Grant enjoyed the personal attention of Dr. Irvine, thanks to letters of recommendation written to the surgeon by their kind friends in England. As a result James was appointed “surgeon’s mate,” and had “charge of the hospital, a room adjoining the prison, fitted up for that purpose, where he was quite comfortable.” Miller was appointed as a reading and arithmetic teacher to the prisoners. He and Grant had one berth to themselves, in the center of the prison near the hatchway: “…the fresh air which we enjoyed in consequence rendered our condition far better than it could otherwise have been.” Irvine also allowed them rations of sugar and flour, and an extra allowance of water to make their own tea. He gave them permission to go on deck whenever they wanted, and to stroll the “promenade of the forecastle, from which the other prisoners were excluded… a privilege highly prized.” Of course, this favored treatment incited the jealousy of the English convicts, who then went out of their way to annoy Gemmell, Miller, and Grant.(4)
Despite the better than usual accommodations and privileges, to Linus Miller this prison was “a floating Hell.” The continual conversation of the British felons was more than he could bear:
The most horrid blasphemy and disgusting obscenity, from daylight in the morning till ten o’clock at night, were without one moment’s cessation, ringing in my ears… I tried to close my ears and shut my eyes against all…With the assistance of books which were kindly loaned me by the surgeon, and by persevering in my efforts I… was enabled to shut out the dreadful sounds and live on in the midst of those horrors in an ideal world of my own.(5)
Since James had his own separate quarters, apart from the prisoners, he was able to avoid constant association with “those wretched men.” But he couldn’t escape the painful and private anguish endured during the long, dark nights when, as Benjamin Wait described,
…every noise was hushed save the lashing of the waves against the ship’s sides, the creaking of the helm, the occasional tread of the crew on deck, or the heavy breathings of the human beings about me, …my heart experienced every vicissitude of human misery and passion—sorrow and grief, gloom and despondency, anger and the extreme of despair endured to an extent seldom felt by man.(6)
- Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. 157.
- Miller, p. 252. According to the Canton’s ship records, 230 (of 240) men were landed. Ten must have died on the voyage. Miller reports only two deaths. There was an outbreak of scurvy on the Marquis of Hastings. After one year in VDL only 103 of the 240 Marquis convicts were still alive, mostly due to the effects of poor diet on the voyage. (Wait, p 125.)
- Miller, pp. 244, 246-7.
- Miller, p. 246.
- Wait, p. 125.