The Gay Marriages of a 19th Century Prison Ship…

An incredible human story:

The New Yorker Desk

The Gay Marriages of a Nineteenth-Century Prison Ship

By Jim Downs

A prison hulk
Illustration from Shutterstock

In 1842, a court in Lancaster, England, convicted a young lawyer, George Baxter Grundy, of forging payment, and promptly sent him to serve a fifteen-year sentence in Bermuda, “beyond the seas.” The British Empire was expanding rapidly and was in desperate need of labor; by the time Grundy arrived, thousands of prisoners had been sent to the island to fortify British defenses in North America, hauling and cutting limestone to support military operations. It was a vicious system: the men, many of them colonial subjects from Ireland, had been torn from their homes, shipped thousands of miles away, and consigned to years of forced labor in a foreign land, all in service of empire-building. (In one sense, the men in Bermuda might have considered themselves lucky—if they had been sent to the penal colony in Tasmania, they would have had little hope of ever returning home.) Convicts lived on a handful of boats, called “hulks,” which were permanently moored in the naval harbor. Each ship housed hundreds of men; Grundy, like his fellow-convicts, lived with fifty other inmates in a crowded cell. The work was backbreaking, and the conditions brutal. Shortly after Grundy’s arrival, yellow fever swept across the island, and he watched in terror as more than a hundred other prisoners died. Grundy spent six and a half years in Bermuda; when he returned home, to London, he summarized his experience, in a scathing complaint to the Colonial Office, as “the most soul destroying and hellish ever devised by man.”

In his letter, Grundy charged the prison administration with several counts of mismanagement: gross and inhumane punishments; quartermasters and guards “guilty of drunkenness, debauchery, blasphemy, and theft”; and the absence of religious and moral instruction for the convicts. He asserted that the surgeon did not care for the sick under his charge, and that guards allowed convicts to work illegally in private businesses off the ship. But the full force of his contempt was reserved for his fellow-prisoners. Midway through his account, he apologized for what he was about to reveal, then described how, on the prison ships, sex between men was not only tolerated but conducted in plain sight. “I am prepared to prove that unnatural crimes and beastly actions are committed on board the Hulks daily,” he wrote. “For some years Sir I have wished for the opportunity I now have of bringing to light the foul deeds of a Convict Hulk. They are indeed Sir ‘seminaries of crime.’ ”

Read more of this incredible story:

Published by peter petterson

Father of four, grandfather of thirteen, and great-grandfather of six. Resides in Taita, Lower Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand. Living happily in retirement and enjoying the company of my many young descendants.

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