IF, IN THE NEW YEAR of 1788, the eye of God had strayed from the main games of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa, and idled over the huge vacancy of sea to the south-east of Africa, it would have been surprised in this empty zone to see not one, but all of eleven ships being driven east on the screaming band of westerlies. This was many times more than the number that had ever been seen here, in a sea so huge and vacant that in today's conventional atlases no one map represents it. The people on the eleven ships were lost to the world. They had celebrated their New Year at 44 degrees South latitude with “hard salt beef and a few musty pancakes.” Their passage was in waters turbulent with gales, roiling from an awful collision between melted ice from the Antarctic coast and warm currents from the Indian Ocean behind them, and the Pacific ahead. High and irregular seas broke over the decks continuously, knocking the cattle in their pens off their legs. The travellers knew they were past the rocks of sub-Antarctic Kerguelen Island and were reaching for the dangerous southern capes of Van Diemen's Land, which they intended to round on their way to their destination.
What would have intrigued the divine eye was the number of vessels—though they travelled in two sections, each division separated from the other by a few hundred miles. So far in the history of Europe, only six ships had come into this area named the Southern Ocean, which lay between the uncharted south coast of New Holland (later to be known as Australia) and Antarctica's massive ice pack. In 1642, a Dutchman, Abel Tasman, a vigorous captain of the Dutch East India Company, had crossed this stretch to discover the island he would name Van Diemen's Land after his Viceroy in Batavia (now Jakarta), but which would in the end be named Tasmania to honour him.
His ships, a high-sterned, long-bowed yacht named Heemskerck and a round-sterned vessel of the variety called a flute, the Zeehaean, were of such minuscule tonnage as to be overshadowed by HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure's roughly 400 ton each. These last two, still tiny vessels by modern standards, less than one-third a football field in length, came through the Southern Ocean in 1774 under the overall command of the Yorkshireman James Cook. The Resolution travelled well to the south near the Antarctic ice mass, and rendezvoused with Adventure at the islands Tasman had named New Zealand. Then in 1776, the Resolution and the HMS Discovery, again under Cook, could have been seen in these waters. And that was all.
What were these eleven ships that in 1788 followed the path of Cook and Tasman to the southern capes of Van Diemen's Land? One might expect them to be full of Georgian conquistadors, or a task force of scientists to suit the enlightened age. If not that, then they must have carried robust dissenters from the political or religious establishment of their day.
The startling fact was they carried prisoners, and the guardians of prisoners. They were the degraded of Britain's overstretched penal system, and the obscure guardians of the degraded. Any concepts of commerce and science on these ships were secondary to the ordained penal purpose. Few aboard had commercial capacities, though a number of the gentlemen were part-time scientists. Their destination was to be not a home of the chosen, or even a chosen home, but a place imposed by authority and devised specifically with its remoteness in mind. The chief order of business for all of them, prisoners and guardians, was to apply themselves to a unique penal experiment.
The merchant ships of the fleet were to return to Britain after discharging their felons, picking up cargoes of cotton and tea in China and India on the return journey. But because this outward cargo was debased, some in Britain expected never to hear again from the fleet's passengers. It was believed they would become a cannibal kingdom on the coast they were bound for, and—one way or another—devour each other.
THE IDEA OF EXPELLING CONVICTS to distant places was not new. It had occurred to European powers from the fifteenth century onwards, once they began acquiring huge and distant spaces in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. As a policy, it could solve many problems at the one time, including the problem which in modern days would be designated NIMBY, Not In My Backyard. But the chief difference of opinion soon emerged. As early as 1584, Hakluyt's Discourse for Western Planting proposed that “sturdy vagabonds” should be sent away to the colonies so that “the fry of the wandering beggars of England that grow up idly and burden us to this realm may there be unladen, better bred up, and may people waste countries.” Francis Bacon, however, debated the wisdom of unloading miscreants on far-off dominions in his essay Of Plantations. “It is a shameful and unblessed thing, to take the scum of people, and wicked and condemned men, to be the people with whom you plant.”
In reality, Hakluyt would win the debate with Bacon. It was “the scum of people, and wicked and condemned men”—and women—who made up the cargo of the criminal transports found in the Southern Ocean in the New Year of 1788. It would not have consoled the condemned on those wind-tossed mornings as they stirred and complained in their 18 inches of space on the convict decks that, uniquely placed as they were, they were also part of a long European tradition of transporting the unfortunate and the fallen, beginning with Cromwell's transportation of many Irish peasants, sent as labour to the plantations of the West Indies, and progressing to the 1656 order of the Council of State that lewd and dangerous persons should be hunted down “for transporting them to the English plantations in America.”
In Britain, colonial penal arrangements were recourses governments thought of regularly. When prisoners were landed in the American colonies throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, settlers would buy a prisoner's labour—generally for seven years—at the auction block. The master took over the prisoner and troubled the authorities only in the case of escape or major unruliness. Between 1650 and 1775, some tens of thousands of prisoners were sent on these terms to America, perhaps as many as 120,000. Sometimes vagrants and the poor— “idle person lurking in parts of London”—would voluntarily let themselves be transported and sold with the criminals.
The trade in convict or indentured servants was attractive to the British government because, unlike the prison system, it cost them little. Merchants would transport them cheaply, sometimes for nothing, in return for what could be earned through selling the convicts' labour. In fact, merchants often found this trade in white servants cheaper than that in African slaves. Between 1729 and 1745 the two chief contractors in London sent to America an average of 280 prisoners a year each, up towards 600 a year in total. Based on auction prices in Baltimore between 1767 and 1775, a convict's labour cost between £10 and £25, and it was possible for an affluent convict to bid for himself and do his time as, effectively, a free agent. But very few transported convicts could afford to buy their own labour or return home from Virginia, Maryland, or Georgia, even if they survived the “seasoning period,” the first few years of malaria and other diseases which killed two out of five inhabitants of Virginia; and so the convict engaged in field labour was likely to find an early grave in American soil.
In extolling the benefits of transportation for the home nation, the British government gave little attention to the impact it had on the region that received the felons. One North American colonist was left to complain that “America has been made the very common sewer and dung yard to Britain.” “Very surprising, one would think,” wrote another American colonist in 1756, “that thieves, burglars, pickpockets and cutpurses, and a herd of the most flagitious banditti upon earth, should be sent as agreeable companions to us!” Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was faced with the same problem of post-colonial denial as later generations of Australians, and wrote unreliably that he did not think the entire number of convicts sent out to the American colonies would amount to 2,000, and “being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom and propagated little.”
THE MEN AND WOMEN SURVIVING on flapjacks and desiccated salted beef and pease—a porridge of compacted peas—in the great Southern Ocean convict flotilla in 1788 owed their location to the pressure on British prison populations. A new Transportation Act in 1780 had sought to make transportation more obligatory than it had been up to that point.
The offences for which a prisoner could be transported under the accumulated Transportation Acts of Britain made up an exotic catalogue. Quakers could be transported for denying any oath to be lawful, or assembling themselves together under pretence of joining in religious worship. Notorious thieves and takers of spoil in the borderlands of Northumberland and Cumberland, commonly called “moss-troopers” and “reivers,” were also subject to transportation; similarly, persons found guilty of stealing cloth from the rack, or embezzling His Majesty's stores to the value of twenty shillings; persons convicted of wilfully burning ricks of corn, hay, or barns in the nighttime (crimes generally associated with peasant protest against a landlord); persons convicted of larceny and other offences; persons imprisoned for exporting wool and not paying the excise on it; persons convicted of entering into any park and killing or wounding any deer without the consent of the owner; persons convicted of perjury and forgery; persons convicted of assaulting others with offensive weapons with the design to rob; vagrants or vagabonds escaping from a house of correction or from service in the army or navy; persons convicted of stealing any linen laid to be printed or bleached; ministers of the Episcopal Church of Scotland suspected of support for Bonnie Prince Charlie, exercising their functions in Scotland without having registered their letters of orders, taken all oaths, and prayed for His Majesty and the Royal Family by name; persons returning from transportation without licence; persons convicted of entering mines of black-lead with intent to steal; persons convicted of assaulting any magistrate or officer engaged in the salvage of ships or goods from wrecks; persons convicted of stealing fish in any water within a park, paddock, orchard, or yard. Besides the penalty of transportation, between 1660 and 1819, 187 statutes providing for mandatory capital punishment were passed on the same principles to add to the nearly fifty already in existence. This was all a disordered and unfocused attempt to produce what would be called in modern times “truth in sentencing.”
One sees in the long list a heavy emphasis on the sanctity of two institutions: property and the Crown in the guise of the Royal House of Hanover. The Irish and certain Scots were resistant to the Crown as it existed; and as for property matters, William Blackstone, author of Commentarieson the Laws of England, thought with his eminent friends Dr. Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith that “theft should not be punished with death,” but Parliament went on churning out statutes which did just that. The very lack of a British police force meant that legislators needed to impress the people with the terror of the law.
In theory, frequent public executions should have cut down on crowding in gaols. But even the lawmakers, members of the Commons, might mercifully take up the special cause of a prisoner, and the way the statutes were applied by magistrates, judges, and juries was inconsistent and ill-coordinated, depending in a given courtroom and amongst the jury on feelings either of compassion for the accused—for example, terms commonly used to explain leniency included the prisoner being “too young,” or “a poor unfortunate girl”—or else of sometimes gratuitous outrage.
Some of the women prisoners and many of the males on the great Southern Ocean fleet owed their presence on the prison decks to their youth or good looks. Many of them had had their sentences of death commuted, and in other cases juries had adjusted the official value of goods stolen to bring it below the level prescribed for hanging. Not that the prisoners, taking the air on the squally deck while their blankets dried out, called down blessings on the British criminal justice system. The accused prisoner generally came in front of the courts at quarter sessions or assizes without the judge or jury enquiring too closely into whether a confession had been beaten out of him, and generally without legal counsel. Curiously, a first offender in theft cases was entitled, by a legal technicality, to claim the grotesque medieval “benefit of clergy.” The imputation was that the court could not prove the prisoner had not received divine orders, or the early rites prior to ordination which would make him a member of the clergy, and thus subject to special consideration by the civil courts.
Once that was out of the way, the trial proceeded more briskly than in modern times—the Georgian version of a day in court was a quarter of an hour. Major cases all ended with acquittal, transportation, or the death penalty, also called the “hearty choke with caper sauce,” “nothing more than a wry face and a watered patch of breeches,” and “dancing the Paddington frisk.” About one in eight of those committed for trial was sentenced to death, but (based on figures concentrated between 1761 and 1765) few more than half of those sentenced to death were executed. Between 1749 and 1799 in London and Middlesex, the yearly average of those executed may have been only thirty-four, with perhaps 200 hanged across the nation.
Yet the executions were a frightful public spectacle. From the mid 1780s they occurred outside Newgate prison itself. There, on a spring day in 1785, James Boswell, the Scottish writer and familiar of Dr. Johnson, watched nineteen criminals, including thieves, a forger, a stamp counter-feiter, and others who had illegally returned from transportation, “depart Newgate to the other world.”
King George III attended to reprieves himself, sitting in council at St. James's Palace, and receiving advice and lists of prisoners from judges and recorders. Though he was severe on forgers—indeed, it was still possible for women forgers to be burned at the stake—he generally accepted the advice of the trial judge, as did the Prince Regent, the future George IV, during his father's illness and lunacy, and remitted most of those recommended to his mercy to sentences of transportation.
The condition of the gaols of Britain in which the transportees and other prisoners accumulated in such numbers owed much to the neglect of government and the fact that these dingy buildings, ill-aired, ill-lit, and epidemic-prone, were run under licence and as enterprises. To be a prison warder was not to be a servant of society but a franchise-holder, entitled to charge inmates a scale of fees of the warder's own devising. Many if not all prisons had taprooms run for profit by the keeper, and John Howard, a prison reformer, discovered in one London prison that the tap was sub-hired out to one of the prisoners. In another, Howard was told that as many as 600 pots of beer had been brought into cells from the taproom during one Sunday. From such sources as the taproom and those private apartments he could rent out to superior convicts, Richard Ackerman—keeper of Newgate for thirty-eight years and a dining friend of James Boswell and an associate of the great Dr. Johnson—left a fortune of £20,000 when he died in 1792.
In 1777 the first painstaking survey of conditions in English prisons, Howard's The State of the Prisons, was published, and gaol reform became a popular issue. Howard was a Bedfordshire squire who had been appointed to the sinecure of county sheriff some years before. To everyone's amazement he took his duties seriously, was shocked profoundly by his visits to sundry prisons, and became the most famous of prison reformers. In his tract, Howard depicted a cell, 17 feet by 6, crowded with more than two dozen inmates and receiving light and air only through a few holes in the door. The “clink” of a Devon prison was 17 feet by 8, with only 5 feet 6 inches of head room, and had light and air by one hole 7 inches long and 5 broad. In Canterbury, Howard found there were no beds but mats, unless the prisoners paid extra. In Clerkenwell prison, those who could not pay for beds lay on the floor, and in many other prisons inmates paid even for the privilege of not being chained while in the shared cells, or wards, as they were called. Howard claimed that after visits to Newgate the leaves of his notebook were so tainted and browned by the fearful atmosphere that on his arrival home he had to spread out the pages before a glowing fire for drying and disinfection.
The most infamous of prisons, old Newgate, was burned down by a mob in 1780. Prisoners were readmitted to the rebuilt prison by 1782. New Newgate prison was divided into two halves: the master's side, where the inmates could rent lodging and services, and where those who had committed criminal libel, sedition, or embezzlement were kept; and the more impoverished section, called the common side. Earlier in the century, the writer Daniel Defoe, who himself had been thrown into Newgate for theft, described it through the eyes of his character Moll Flanders, in terms which seemed to be just as true of the post-1782 new Newgate: “I was now fixed indeed; it is impossible to describe the terror of my mind when I was first brought in, and when I looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place…. The hellish noise, the roaring, the swearing and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful, afflicting things that I saw there, joined to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself.” Both in Moll Flanders's day and in the 1780s, tradesmen in Newgate Street were unable to take the air at their doors for fear of the stench of the prison.
Though prisoners and visitors had access to the taphouse, where they could buy liquor, and there were several communal rooms, a chapel, a separate infirmary for men and women, and exercise yards, only the most basic medicine was given in the two infirmaries. Doctors often refused to enter the prison for fear their own health would suffer. Yet every day, ordinary people came to visit or sightsee, as we might now visit a zoo. Prostitutes worked their way around to service visitors and prisoners who had cash, and the turnkeys received a pay-off from this traffic as well. Meanwhile, unless the men and women in the common wards had relatives and friends to bring them food, they lived off a three-halfpenny loaf a week, supplemented by donations and a share of the cook's weekly meat supply. Their bedding was at the discretion of the keeper. One of the motivations for joining gangs, or criminal “canting crews,” was that if imprisoned, the individual criminal was not left to the bare mercies of the gaol authorities. For hunger hollowed out ordinary prisoners in the common wards in severe English winters like that of 1786–87.
In that last winter in England for many convicts who would soon find themselves on the departing fleet, one visitor noted that there were in Newgate many “miserable objects” almost naked and without shoes and stockings. Women prisoners in the wards were “of the very lowest and most wretched class of human beings, almost naked, with only a few filthy rags, almost alive and in motion with vermin, their bodies rotting with the bad distemper, and covered with itch, scorbutic and venereal ulcers.” Many insane prisoners added to the spectacle for the sightseers.
Despite all the criminal and capital statutes, the prison populations had gone on growing before, during, and after the American War, and crimes abounded. The legendary Irish pickpocket Barrington could boast that “in and about London more pickpockets succeed in making a comfortable living than in the whole of the rest of Europe.”
But the Revolutionary War in America meant less transportation occurred even though more were sentenced to it. And so, the 1780 Act having failed to relieve the gaols, a further Act of Parliament passed in 1783 allowed the removal of convicts from the gaols on land to the dismasted hulks of old men-of-war moored in the Thames, and at Portsmouth and Plymouth, where they could do labour around the river pending their transportation. The British government, prevented by rebellious Virginians and vocal Nova Scotians from offloading its dross, was restricted to transporting fallen souls a few miles by rowboat rather than across the Atlantic. During their confinement on the prison decks of the hulks, prisoners were allowed to save their wages. The time of their detention here was to be deemed part of the term of transportation.
The hulks, an eyesore detested by respectable London and unpopular with convicts, were both a phenomenon and an enterprise. Duncan Campbell, the hulk-master, was a highly interesting Georgian figure, a reputable man and a good Presbyterian Scot. He had begun in the convict-transporting business in 1758, carrying felons to Virginia and Maryland. Since then Campbell had seen a great change in the penal-maritime business, and not only because of the war in America. In April and May 1776, even before the American colonies were lost, an end was enacted to the good old practice of placing “the property and the service of the body of the convict” for sale on American auction blocks. Now the convict and his labour belonged wholly to the Crown. Nor could wealthy convicts buy themselves out of servitude anymore.
On top of that, the revolution in America threw the affairs of Campbell and others “into dramatic disarray.” The amounts lost by British creditors in America, when Americans refused to pay British merchants' bills, meant that Campbell had a dizzying fortune of over £38,000 owing to him from gentlemen in Virginia and Maryland. But in modest ways the war in America also compensated Campbell. He continued to receive in his hulks more of the convicts sentenced to transportation. His initial contract, worth £3,560 a year, was for a dismasted hulk (he named it Justitia) of at least 240 tons to house 120 prisoners, mainly from Newgate, with necessary tools and six lighters for the convicts to work from, as well as medicines and vinegar as a scurvy cure, and the means to wash and fumigate the vessel. By 1780 he had accommodation for 510 convicts, and had purchased a French frigate, the Censor, and “an old Indiaman” which he named Justitia II. He had a receiving ship, the Reception, and a hospital ship, the converted Justitia I. On Campbell's receiving ship, the prisoner was stripped of the vermin-infested clothes he had worn in Newgate or elsewhere in the kingdom, bathed, and held for four days while being inspected for infection by three efficient surgeons employed. The high death rate on Campbell's ships, and also on the less well administered hulks moored in Portsmouth and Plymouth by other contractors, was partially the result of diseases prisoners had contracted originally in the common wards of city and county gaols. “The ships at Woolwich are as sweet as any parlour in the kingdom,” Campbell asserted with some pride.
Many of the prisoners aboard the flotilla in the distant Southern Ocean in 1788 had less enthusiastic memories of these river-bound prisons. Though Campbell himself had a reputation for decency, the Act of Parliament setting up the hulks called for prisoners to be “fed and sustained with bread and any coarse and inferior food” as a symbol of their shame, with misbehaviour to be punished by “whipping, or other moderate punishment.” There was on top of that the hulks' peculiar below-decks dimness, the frock of sewage and waste which adorned the water around them, and the horror of being locked down at night on the prison deck and abandoned to the worst instincts of the established cliques. The British thought of the hulks as a temporary expedient, but they would not be able to get rid of their floating prisons in the Thames and elsewhere until 1853—indeed, the hulks would make an appearance in Dickens's Great Expectations.
What Campbell could not control was the habitual brutality and extortion of some of the guards, or the savagery of locked-down prisoners towards the weak or naive.
Periodically reacting to complaints from their constituents, London's members of Parliament and city aldermen kept telling the government that the prisoners on the hulks should be transported anywhere convenient—to the East or West Indies, Canada or Nova Scotia, Florida or the Falklands. But the administration continued with the hulks, for except for the rebellious North American colonies, no one place seemed the right destination for transportees.
Because they were put off by estimates of expense of transportation to New South Wales of £30 per felon, six times the cost of transportation to America, a Commons Committee considered the possibility of Gibraltar, or the Gambia and Senegal Rivers in Africa. In the bureaucratic circles of Whitehall, New South Wales fell in and out of fashion as a destination throughout the mid-1780s. Everyone was aware that New South Wales was still surely a region for small, well-planned expeditions, rather than for an unprecedented experiment in mass transportation and penology. So a draft letter from the Home Office to the Treasury, dated 9 February 1785, described the country upstream on the Gambia River in West Africa as abounding with timber for building, the land as fertile and plentifully stocked with cattle, goats, and sheep, a place where tropical food would grow readily and the natives were hospitable. The site suggested was Lemane, up the river some miles and distant from the malarial coast. Convicts could be left to themselves: “They cannot get away from there for there is not a person who would harbour them.” By April 1785, Pitt's government seemed to have decided on this version of transportation. The only cost would be £8 per head for the journey out and the hiring of an armed vessel as a guard ship on the river during the trading season. Admittedly, “upon the first settlement, a great many of the convicts would die.” But over time, as the land was better cultivated, “they would grow more healthy.”
Botany Bay in New South Wales, on a coast Cook had visited in 1770, had an eloquent proponent, though for a different reason than the penal one. Mario Matra, an Italian-American from New York and loyal to the Crown, had sailed as a gentleman in Cook's company and claimed to be the first European to have set foot in Botany Bay. He had more recently visited New York during the American Revolutionary War to recover what he could of the Matra family property, and disappointed, returned to London in 1781, where he found a great number of fellow American Empire Loyalist refugees living in squalor. With Britain doing little for the loyalist Americans, Matra drafted a pamphlet addressed to the British government, A Proposal for Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales to Atone for the Loss of Our American Colonies. American Empire Loyalists should be sent as free settlers to New South Wales, and wives should be supplied to them if necessary from amongst the natives of New Caledonia or Tahiti. “Settlement could be a centre for trade with East Asia or a wartime base for attack on the Dutch colonies of Malaya…. And thus two objects of the most desirable and beautiful union will be permanently blended: economy to the public, and humanity to the individual.” Without mentioning convicts, Matra nonetheless brought attention to New South Wales as a potential destination for inconvenient people other than loyalists.
Though Sir Joseph Banks promoted Matra's proposal to the government, the Tories fell and the Whigs came to power, and Lord Sydney, a Kentish squire in his early fifties, inherited the Home Office, including responsibility for prisons and colonial affairs. Even he, though sympathetic, was not as much interested in the fate of loyalists as he was in the pressingly urgent matter of the prisons and hulks. On 9 December 1784, he wrote to the mayor of Hull, who had asked for the removal of his city's convicts to the hulks, saying that not a person more could be at present admitted to them. Sydney answered similarly to a request from Oxford.
Lord Sydney, later first Viscount Sydney, was a political operator whose real name was Thomas Townshend. He already had a solid political career, having been Secretary of War in a previous government and then Home Secretary under both Shelburne and Pitt. He was thought to be a good man who lived an orderly life in Chiselhurst and avoided the extremes of drinking and sexual adventure which characterised people like Sir Joseph Banks and James Boswell. Oliver Goldsmith depicted him as the sort of lesser talent with whom great spirits such as Edmund Burke had to deign to negotiate. But he shared with Burke a passionate dislike of Lord North, the British Tory prime minister, and applied himself to the settlement of the American Revolution which had begun under North's government. His sympathies lay in particular with those loyal subjects who would lose their American lands, savings, and standing, and he was involved in organising a new home for American loyalists in Nova Scotia, where there would grow a city named in his honour.
In 1779, the most significant witness to appear before the Commons Committee on colonies was Sir Joseph Banks, a great naturalist, commentator, sensualist, and society figure. On Cook's Endeavour, as leader of a number of distinguished artists and scientists, the young Banks became so famous from his Botany Bay discoveries of new species that Linnaeus, the famous Swedish scientist, suggested that if New South Wales were proven to be part of a continent, the continent should be called Banksia. Now a man in his early forties, the bloom of outrageous health and intellectual energy on his cheek, Banks was liberated from all want by the rent of small tenants and the agricultural income of family estates at Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire. Even though, in the journal of his voyage as a young scientist with Cook, Sir Joseph described Botany Bay as barren, he urged the committee to consider that it might be suitable for transportation, and that there was sufficient fertile soil to sustain a European settlement. From there, too, escape would be difficult, he said. The climate was mild, there were no savage animals, and the “Indians” around Botany Bay, estimated at hardly more than fifty, were not hostile.
Sir Joseph Banks was asked whether he thought land for settlement might be acquired from the Aborigines “by Cession or Purchase.” Banks said he thought not, that there was nothing you could give the Aborigines, or Indians, in return for their soil. He told the committee that the blacks were of wandering habits and would “speedily abandon whatever land was needed.” The Aboriginals were blithely nomadic; New South Wales was terra nullius, no man's land.
In the end, this Commons Committee left the question of transportation destinations open, but also recommended the building of two penitentiaries, where the prisoners would be kept in solitary confinement with hard labour. By 1786, however, no progress had been made on the sites of the penitentiaries and the government had decided to begin transportation again. Crime levels had jumped because of the sudden discharge of members of the army and navy after the war in America. Lord Sydney was left to write, “The more I consider the matter, the greater difficulty I see in disposing of these people.”
So by the end of 1785, Prime Minister Pitt and Lord Sydney and his Undersecretary, a former naval purser named Evan Nepean, were still looking for a scheme. They considered Africa again, a tract of country on the west coast between 20 and 30 degrees South latitude, near the mouth of the river Das Voltas (now the Orange River), where there were copper deposits. Convicts could be shipped out in slaving vessels which could then proceed up the coast and pick up their accustomed cargo of African slaves to take to America and the West Indies. The many American families that were still anxious to live under British rule could be sent to Das Voltas to serve as the discipliners and employers of the convicts. In preparation, the government sloop Nautilus was sent out to survey the Atlantic coast of Africa up to about modern Angola, but its ultimate report was that the country was barren, waterless, hopeless.
In March 1786, Londoners and their aldermen again petitioned against the unsatisfactory solution represented by the hulks. They reminded the government that demobilised and unemployed sailors would make a mob and, imbued with the fancy American ideas of the rights of man, would set convicts free and burn the hulks. The hulks had brought the risk of mayhem and uprising as well as shipboard epidemics to within a long boat's reach of shore.
At last, in August 1786, Cabinet finally plumped for New South Wales, the preposterously distant coast Cook had charted sixteen years past. Londoners rejoiced that a decision had been made to resume transportation. They believed it would mean an end to the river hulks.
A London alderman wrote to Jeremy Bentham, a young political philosopher with ideas about prisons who was then in St. Petersburg in Russia, visiting his brother, who had a contract building ships for Catherine the Great. Bentham was developing a plan for a panopticon penitentiary, a huge circular prison where every prisoner would be visible from the centre—an idea which Bentham had derived from observing the way his brother had organised his office in the St. Petersburg shipyard. The alderman told him the “government has just decided to send off 700 convicts to New South Wales—where a fort is to be built—and that a man has been found who will take upon him the command of this rabble.”
From the alderman's letter it sounded as if contemporaries saw the task of leading the expedition to New South Wales as potentially destroying whoever was selected for command. The man the government chose was an old shipmate of former purser, now Home Office Undersecretary, Evan Nepean—a forty-nine-year-old Royal Navy post-captain named Arthur Phillip, a man of solid but not glittering naval reputation, with some experience under fire. He had been at sea since the age of thirteen, and had no connection with the British penal system. But that did not worry the non-visionary Tommy Townshend, Lord Sydney. He just wanted a robust fellow to mount a flotilla and empty the hulks for him.