The Convict Death Fleet
Australia's Second Fleet - 1790
by Jenny French
In 1790 the ships that comprised the second fleet of convicts sent to Australia arrived in Port Jackson. The majority of the convicts that hadn't died on the voyage (one ship alone had a death rate of 33%) were that ill that they were unable to walk. Those that weren't carried onto the beach were barely strong enough to crawl ashore. A small town of tents was set up at the landing place to act as a temporary hospital - the colony was barely two years old and on the verge of starvation and had just received not 1017 able bodied convicts (the numbers despatched from Portsmouth) but instead found that it now had to care for 759 starved, abused and near to death individuals.
The safe guards that were in place for convict transportation to America were missing from the procedures for transportation to Australia. This difference between the pre-War of Independence transportation of convicts to America and the current transportation system to Australia was acknowledged by the British Government, however, its implications were not really appreciated by the officials or those in charge of the supervision of the convicts to Australia.
The ship's contractors for the Second Fleet were Camden, Calvert & King and were previously involved in the transportation of slaves to America. As these ships were chartered, not owned by the British Government, they were ordinary merchant ships hired at the lowest rate and usually small and fitted out by the navel agent. A lot of these transports were "wet" ships with musty, dark prison areas that were wet due to water seepage. When passing through the tropics the stench aboard must have been indescribable, the nauseating smell of disease, of stagnant bilge water, rotting timbers and the foul reek of unsanitary conditions. The contractors supplied their own agent, the guards, the surgeon and the ship masters and crew. Most of the crew was hard drinking, brutal, illiterate and often recruited from taverns and other such places. The naval agent and the commander of the guards were officers of His Majesty Service.
The naval agent was often responsible for a group of convict ships, and the supervision at sea was exercised in very different circumstances. As it was impossible for the ships to stay together due to weather conditions etc, this freedom from all surveillance allowed the ship's officers, contractor's agent, guards or anyone else to treat or abuse the convicts as they chose. The only time that the Navel Agent could exercise any authority was before sailing or when the ships anchored at a port of call. Some naval agents did take the time to visit with other ships of the transport but these visits were few and far between, and was an ineffective way of checking up on the unscrupulous ship's masters, incompetent surgeons or the conditions of the prisoners themselves. As many of the prisoners had already spent months, or years, in prison or on the hulks it wasn't unusual for a large proportion of them to be sent aboard the transport ships in an emaciated and sickly state and already suffering from infectious or contagious disease.
The British Government did have regulations in place for the treatment of prisoners. These regulations stated that prisoners should be fed and given access to the deck daily for fresh air and exercise and that they should also be cleaned and fumigated regularly. But these precautions were frequently neglected either through ignorance or inefficiency of the officers on board the ships. These regulations did not appoint responsibility to any Officer/rank to ensure that these tasks were undertaken and, as a result, conflicts of interest between the various officers on board arose. This left the convicts entirely at the mercy of the officers and contractors agents once they were at sea.
One responsibility of the fleets Naval Agent was to ensure the trip was completed with minimum delays, but it was up to the ship master to decide how long to stay at sea or in port etc, the navel agent also had the responsibility for the convicts' health as did the ships surgeons. There was no togetherness between the naval agent and the commander of the guard, even though they were officers in His Majesty Service, and both were in charge of the prisoners! When the Naval Agent was aboard his own ship, his status and powers were so ill defined, that he was unable perform his duties, add to that the dishonesty, inefficiency and incompetence of most of the naval agents and we have the disaster that was the Second Fleet waiting to happen.
The conditions aboard the convicts ships were gloomy, dank and unsanitary, and disease would take the heaviest toll of convicts, primary among these were scurvy, dysentery, typhoid fever and smallpox. But on the Second fleet starvation would take the highest & heaviest toll of the prisoners chained below the decks. The Second Fleet consisted of the transport ships Neptune, Scarborough, and Surprise with John Shapcote as the Naval Agent in charge. As the fleet sailed from Portsmouth on the 19 January 1790 a total of 939 male convicts and 78 females embarked, and only 692 males & 67 females landed at Port Jackson, of those landed more than 500 hundred of them were sick or dying. The mortality rate on this fleet was to be the highest in transportation history to Australia.
The journey from England to the Cape of Good Hope took 84 days and 46 convicts would die aboard the Neptune (the final toll for this ship would be 150 men and 11 women), Scarborough lost 85 convicts and Surprise 38 convicts. The death of 46 convicts, between England & the Cape of Good Hope - exactly double the combined death rate of the Scarborough & Surprise was proof that the convicts were not only mistreated during the final stage of the journey but right from the start, with the naval agent being aware of it. Convicts must have been dying around him, but, Shapcote in his reports, stated that the soldiers and convicts aboard the ship were ill with scurvy, and said nothing adversely regarding the conduct of the officers or crew towards the mistreatment of convicts. John Shapcote sailed on the Neptune, possibly because there were female convicts aboard that ship and it was on this ship, his ship, the highest mortality rate occurred.
There is no evidence to suggest that Shapcote was a party to the inhumane treatment and brutality dished out by the ships masters, but there is ample evidence of incompetence and the inadequacy and gross negligence of the navel agent. The evidence given at a later inquest showed that the prisoners were starved to death, despite taking on fresh provisions at the Cape of Good Hope, chained to one another constantly below deck, in irons that were barbarous and used previous for slave transportation, refused access topside and were stapled to the deck. Floggings with the cat-o'-nine-tails were very brutal, excessive and also very common.
The fleet remained at the Cape of Good Hope for about 16 days. Perhaps due to the naval agent's conflicting interests (his duty to complete the voyage with minimum delays but also his responsibility for convict health), it didn't seem to occur to the naval agent that a longer stay in port might have been beneficial for convicts. John Shapcote died soon after leaving the Cape, it was during this part of the voyage to Australia that the deaths rate of convicts increased, and the contractors surgeon Augustus Jacob Beyer aboard the Scarborough, did nothing to protect the convicts. In reality the health & welfare of convicts during the voyages came second, the first consideration was the emptying of the gaols & hulks. Aboard the Surprise, when the weather turned rough the ship took on water, the convicts were waist deep in water at one stage, scurvy and other diseases were raging unchecked through the holds, and through all this the prisoners were being deliberately starved to death, as were the convicts aboard the Neptune. On board the Scarborough, due to a reported mutiny, the prisoners were closely confined below decks which contributed to their deaths, but food was not deliberately withheld from them. The ringleaders of the attempted mutiny were flogged and beaten while the more dangerous of them were stapled to the deck.
When the Second fleet landed at Port Jackson it must have been a sickening sight. When the officials boarded the three transports they were confronted with the sight of convicts, most near naked, lying where they were chained. Most were emaciated with a lot dead in their chains or very close to death. The majority of the convicts were unable to speak, walk or even get to their feet. All were degraded, covered in their own body waste, dirt and infested with lice- and all exhibited the savage brutality of beatings or floggings as well as the visible signs of the starvation they had endured. My ggggg grandfather Edward Field was one of those guards aboard the Scarborough - It seems that they all managed to avoid or escape prosecution for their brutal treatment of convicts on voyage of Second Fleet to Australia.
An inquest into the treatment of the Second Fleet convicts was called upon the return of the ships to England. Charges were laid against the Ships masters and their surgeons. Not one person stood trial - all of them disappearing into obscurity before arrests could be made, or a trial held.
The death rates for the ships were one death to every 3.1 convicts embarked on the Neptune, one death to every 3.5 convicts embarked on the Scarborough and one death to every 7.1 convicts embarked on the Surprise.
The following people were to be charged and brought to trial - The Ships Master Surgeons Nicholas Anstis - Surprise. William Waters - Neptune and Donald Trail and William Gray - Scarborough. John Marshall, Augustus Jacob Beyer (this was their second trip out). John Marshall was the ship Master for the First Fleet voyage of the Scarborough to Australia (he also reported a mutiny attempt during this voyage). Nicholas Anstis was the chief mate on the Lady Penrhyn for the voyage of the First Fleet to Australia. The contractors' agent was George Whitlock. The naval agent was John Shapcote on the Neptune
ADDENDUM - Provided by Michael Flynn
Donald Trial, master of the ship Neptune and his chief mate were tried at the Old Bailey in 1792 for murder. The story of the trial is told in my book "The Second Fleet: Britian's Grim Convict Armada of 1790" (Library of Australian History, 1993. I hope you'll correct this error.
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Last modified: March 20, 2006