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Mason County Memories

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Convict Ship Success History Column Dave Petersen There are many unusual stories on the high seas and one of those is of the Convict Ship Success. This ship traveled from Australia, England, and many other ports as a real life example of the horrors of the English Prisoner Transport System. The ship had several owners and ultimately came to be owned by an American who brought the ship to the United States in 1912 and eventually to a tour of the Great Lakes. Our illustrations are from one of her ports of calls on the Great Lakes taken by Erhardt Peters in 1924. The ship was touted as the last Convict Ship in the British Fleet that conveyed prisoners from England to the penal colony of Australia. A circa 1924 brochure proclaims that the ship was constructed in 1790 but upon examination of the history of the ship we find that even that is not true. Launched at Natmoo, Burma in 1840, the ship was constructed of Teak and built for the Indian trade out of Calcutta, the ship was sold in 1842 and used in transporting Immigrants to Australia. In 1852 during the Australian Gold Rush the crew deserted the ship and made for the gold fields to try their luck at unearthing riches. The ship was then sold to the Victorian State Government and it was a this time that the ship was converted and cells added to house prisoners as one of five prison ships, she was used to store munitions, and other uses until 1885 when she sank in the harbor. Like many other vessels that sank at one time this one was raised again in 1891. Interest in the old ship was great and instead of being converted to a barge she was fitted out as a convict ship complete with wax figures of convicts and other relics and toured around the country. In 1895 she was taken to England and in 1912 to the United States. The promoters were not about to let the truth get in the way of a good story and the stories of the Convict Ship grew beyond the truth of that particular ship rather quickly. The ship was not intended by the government to have survived, the other prison ships were sold with the stipulation that they were to be broken up, but the paperwork on the Success did not contain that clause allowing it to survive, be refitted as a convict ship and floating museum to illustrate a dark side of British Penal History. While the Success was never a prison transport ship this type of transportation did exist during a period of time from about 1787 to 1868. Prisoners were housed below decks, often chained and after the first successful voyage conditions deteriorated and many did not survive. Disease, Dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, harsh masters, and cruel discipline reduced the numbers of the convicts transported. The British attempted to improve the system and a bounty was paid to the Captains for the safe delivery of the convicts in a successful effort to improve the chances of survival aboard the ships. A booklet was produced in 1924 which sold for 10 cents, it proclaimed that she had been visited by over 20 million people. Quoted here, " Aboard her are now shown in her original state all the airless dungeons and condemned cells, the whipping post, the manacles, the branding irons, the punishment balls, the leaden tipped cat o nine tails, the coffin bath and the other fiendish inventions of man's brutality to his fellow man." The stories in the booklet proclaim a person, even a youngster of 8 like Burgess (exhibit 54) could be sent off to the penal colony in Australia for even a petty offense, one that today would merit a small fine, or less then 30 days in jail might warrant deportation and prison for 7 to 20 years under harsh conditions. There were upwards of 200 offenses that would merit transportation. Others such as Daniel Morgan (exhibit 26) along with his gang was reputed to have murdered 92 people and was known as the arch fiend of Australia. Little wonder that young Burgess grew up to be a forger, highwayman, and leader of a gang that claimed 30 lives. All in all the presence of the Success in the Great Lakes adds yet one more interesting story of Maritime lore to our colorful history, the fate of the Success? In 1946 on July 4th she burned to the waterline in Cleveland Ohio. If you have a story or photos that you would like to share please feel free to contact me at 757-3240 or davep@blackcreekpress.com

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