HL Deb 26 July 1860 vol 160 cc181-3

rose to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to a recent statement in the Bermuda Convict Establishment Report, 1860, page 15, by the chaplain, as to the condition of the convicts. In every other part of the British Empire the system of hulks had been abolished, but it was retained at Bermuda. All persons who had turned their attention to the subject said that, from want of space, and other causes it was perfectly impossible to exercise a supervision over the convicts, and to enforce discipline among them on board of hulks. By the last Returns, of 1,500 convicts in confinement at Bermuda, two-thirds were confined in hulks. The effect of this on the prisoners would be best described by quoting a passage from the Report of the Chaplain. The rev. gentleman said:— It is my painful conviction, after some years' experience of the matter, that the great majority of the prisoners confined in the hulks become incurably corrupted, and that they leave them, in most cases, more reckless and hardened in sin than they were upon reception. He then went on to describe convict life between decks in this very strong language:— Few are aware of the extent of suffering to which a prisoner is exposed on board the hulks, or the horrible nature of the associations by which he is surrounded. There is no safety for life, no supervision over the bad, no protection to the good. The hulks are unfit for a tropical climate. They are productive of sins of such foul impurity and unnatural crime that one even shudders to mention them. In the close and stifling nights of summer the heat between decks is so oppressive as to make the stench intolerable, and to cause the miserable inmates frequently to strip off every vestige of clothing and gasp at the port-holes for a breath of air. A mob law, and tyranny of the strong over the weak, exists below, which makes the well-disposed live in constant misery and terror; and when the passions of these lawless and desperate men are excited by quarrels among themselves the most deadly and murderous affrays are the consequence. The spectacle on board the Medway hulk upon the 1st of June last, when one prisoner was slain and twenty-four desperately wounded, would have appalled any humane heart. The hulk was a perfect shambles, and a frightful scene of uproar, excitement, and bloodshed. Suffice it to say, that a mere handful of warders was powerless to deal with the armed mob below decks. All that could be done was to fasten down the hatches, and when the work of butchery and carnage was over descend below to fetch up the dead and wounded. It was not too much to say that if this statement were true the Bermuda hulks were practically a repetition of Norfolk Island and all its abominations. He was for punishing criminals as severely as their crimes merited, but the State was not justified in treating them in such a manner that when they went out into the world again they were infinitely more depraved than before. It might be doubted whether the Chaplain's feelings had led him to over-colour this picture, but he was afraid that was not the case. The mere fact of the existence of the hulks was very much in favour of his statement, and its accuracy was confirmed too by the very significant words with which the medical officer concluded his Report:— Permit me, in conclusion, to state, there are many subjects connected with the well-being of the convict establishment, of which I could wish to make some observations, but decline doing so, as it would doubtless be considered unbecoming in me to extend my remarks to subjects not affecting my own department. He observed that last year there were not less than 1,200 prison offences committed, and that alone augured an unwholesome and unsatisfactory state of things. It was stated that the accommodation for the officers was so miserably bad that they were constantly resigning; that fourteen officers were crowded in a room thirty feet long by thirty feet wide; and that the changes by resignations prevented their becoming acquainted with the individual habits of the convicts under their charge. The Governor was absent when the Chaplain's Report was sent off, but his locum tenens accompanied the Report with the comment that he did not see any good reason why the conduct of the men at the hulks should be worse than in a prison on shore. If it were not worse it would be contrary to all experience. The Governor, after his return to the island, wrote a despatch, in which he said he had read the Chaplain's report with astonishment, and that he hoped he had been enormously imposed upon by the accounts of the prisoners. He feared that, if there had been any imposition, the Governor, and not the Chaplain, had been the subject of it. He trusted that Her Majesty's Government would order the most searching inquiry, and that, if the Chaplain's account proved correct, no consideration would deter them from dealing summarily with the matter, and, if necessary, abolishing the hulks.


said, the Governor of the island had expressed a doubt about the accuracy of the statements contained in that Report, while at the same time he paid a high tribute to the merits of the Chaplain. Steps had been taken for the purpose of obtaining further information upon the subject, but no answer had as yet been received to the inquiries which were made.