[The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux.]
Written by Himself in 1819 re his time on the ‘Retribution’ on the hulk in 1810.
Every morning, at seven o’clock, all the convicts capable of work, or, in fact, all who are capable of getting into the boats, are taken ashore to the Warren, in which the royal arsenal and other public buildings are situated, and are there employed at various kinds of labour, some of them very fatiguing; and while so employed, each gang of sixteen, or twenty men, is watched and directed by a fellow called a guard. These guards are most commonly of the lowest class of human beings; wretches devoid of all feeling; ignorant in the extreme, brutal by nature, and rendered tyrannical and cruel by the consciousness of the power they possess; no others, but such as I have described, would hold the situation, their wages being not more than a day-labourer would earn in London. They invariably carry a large and ponderous stick, with which, without the smallest provocation, they will fell an unfortunate convict to the ground, and frequently repeat their blows long afterthe poor sufferer is insensible.
At noon the working party return on board to dinner, and at one again go on shore, where they labour till near sun-set. On returning on board in the evening, all hands are mustered by a roll, and the whole being turned down below, the hatches are put over them, and secured for the night. As to the food, the stipulated ration is very scanty, but of even part of that they are defrauded. Their provisions being supplied by contractors, and not by Government, are of the worst kind, such as would not be considered eatable or wholesome elsewhere; and both the weight and measure are always deficient. The allowance of bread is said to be about twenty ounces per day. Three days in the week they have about four ounces of cheese for dinner, and the other four days a pound of beef. The breakfast is invariably boiled barley, of the coarsest kind imaginable; and of this the pigs of the hulk come in for a third part, because it is so nauseous that nothing but downright hunger will enable a man to eat it. For supper, they have, on banyan days, burgoo, of as good a quality as the barley, and which is similarly disposed of; and on meat days, the water in which the beef was boiled, is thickened with barley, and forms a mess called “Smiggins,” of a more detestable nature than either of the two former!
The reader may conceive that I do not exaggerate, when I state, that among the convicts the common price of these several eatables, is, -for a day’s allowance of beef, one halfpenny;–ditto, of cheese, one halfpenny;–ditto, of bread, three-halfpence; but the cheese is most commonly so bad, that they throw it away. It is manufactured, I believe, of skimmed milk for this particular contract. The beef generally consists of old bulls, or cows who have died of age or famine; the least trace of fat is considered a phenomenon, and it is far inferior upon the whole to good horse-flesh. I once saw the prisoners throw the whole day’s supply overboard the moment it was hoisted out of the boat, and for this offence they were severely flogged.
The friends of these unhappy persons are not allowed to come on board, but must remain alongside during their visit; the prisoners are, it is true, suffered to go into their boat, but a guard is placed within hearing of their conversation, and if a friend or parent has come one hundred miles, they are not allowed above ten minutes’ interview; so that instead of consolation, the visit only excites regret at the parties being so suddenly torn asunder. All letters, too, written by prisoners, must be delivered unsealed to the chief mate for his inspection, before they are sent ashore; and such as he thinks obnoxious, are of course suppressed. In like manner, all letters received from the post-office are opened and scrutinized.
If I were to attempt a full description of the miseries endured in these ships, I could fill a volume; but I shall sum up all by stating, that besides robbery from each other, which is as common as cursing and swearing, I witnessed among the prisoners themselves, during the twelve month I remained with them, one deliberate murder, for which the perpetrator was executed at Maidstone, and one suicide; and that unnatural crimes are openly committed.“
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