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  • Writer's pictureMichael Murphy

A Living Hell: Surgeon Superintendents Changed Convict Transportation to Australia.

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The convict ship, Surrey.
The convict ship, Surrey, arrived at Port Jackson in 1814 having lost 50 convicts to disease. Etching by Geoffrey Ingleton. State Library of NSW.

The decision by the British Government in 1786 to establish a convict settlement in New South Wales initiated a series of voyages that brought untold suffering to those sentenced to transportation. Beginning in 1787, with what became known as the First Fleet, the subsequent sea passages descended into a living hell. The journey from England to the east coast of Australia was extremely difficult and probably beyond the contemporary persons imagination, but the voyages did improve by the 1830s to the point where it was far more humane in planning and practice. There were many contributing factors that brought about this reform, but it was the appointing of the surgeon superintendent that caused the most dramatic, and almost instantaneous, change in the conditions on board a convict ship.

Faced with an increasing incarcerated population in the mid to late 1700s, the British government settled on New South Wales as the destination for their convicts. Overcrowded Prison Hulks and gaols in England were a breeding ground for typhus and other infectious diseases, and the authorities of the time needed a solution to alleviate the backlog of prisoners.

This problem was exasperated when the transportation of convicts from Britain to America ceased due to the American War of Independence.

In May of 1787, eleven ships under Commodore Arthur Phillip left Portsmouth to establish the colony of New South Wales, after the site had been recommended by Captain James Cook. The First Fleet had twenty-four of the 775 convicts die on the 252-day voyage to Botany Bay.

Phillip had searched for a more suitable site to establish the colony than the one proposed by Cook; choosing a small cove within the well-protected natural harbour of Port Jackson, several miles north of Botany Bay.

The eagerly awaited Second Fleet arrived on 3 June 1790 at Sydney Cove. The voyage was a catastrophe in terms of mortality rates and the conditions endured by convicts. Roughly one-third of the 965 convicts of the Second Fleet died on route. To make matters worse for the struggling colony, the supply ship, HMS Guardian, struck an ice berg enroute to Port Jackson and was eventually beached near Cape Town.

Shackled harshly, and with water up to their waists, the overall state below decks onboard a convict ship to Australia during the early period of transportation was one of filth and misery. Incidents of barbaric cruelty were common. Convicts were confined below decks in cramped spaces and under double-irons, with ventilation so poor that candles would extinguish due to lack of oxygen.

The horrendous conditions, which resulted in high mortality rates, could trace its foundations to well before the various ships set sail.

Unscrupulous Contractors

The First Fleet, and subsequent voyages, were put out to tender by the Admiralty. The Commissioner of the Navy (Navy Board), a subsidiary of the Admiralty, supervised the tendering process and put forward regulations for the contractors to follow. The problem lay in the reality that the Navy Board wanted little to do with the process. The regulations put in place were broad in the sense that they didn’t specify requirements for the health of the convicts, and rules were flaunted in order to make profits.

Contractors would be paid close to eighteen British Pounds per head, regardless of the convict’s condition. Masters of the ship were often guilty of holding back rations from convicts with the view of selling them as surplus after disembarking their payload. Captains would also overload ships with personal cargo for re-sale at the colony, impinging on the already cramped conditions of the convicts. Ships were not kept clean, and quickly became a breeding ground for infectious diseases, such as: dysentery, scurvy and typhus, while those that became sick were not properly treated.

Treatment such as these forced authorities to change the way in which contractors were paid, withholding up to twenty percent of the fee until formal proof was presented to attest to the convict’s good health.

While illegal trade was conducted to the detriment of the convict’s health, corporal punishment was vicious to the point of being murderous. Captain Dennott (or Dennett), aboard the Britannia in 1797 inflicted punishment to convicts that defies belief; giving one convict in particular 300, and then a further 500 lashes. The convict died.

Astonishingly, Dennott was not disciplined, nor was the surgeon, who was later found negligent in his duty for not confronting the master with more purpose. Overall, the quality of surgeons aboard these early convict ships to Australia was of a low standard. They were often on the way to a posting, and were not bound by any formal agreement in terms of medical care, with the results speaking for themselves.

The number of deaths and poor condition of the convicts on these ships would eventually force changes in the way convicts were treated on subsequent convict voyages to Australia.

The role of surgeon aboard a convict ship was not a sought-after position. The pay was low, conditions were very tough, and the prestige was well below what could be found elsewhere. But their need was overwhelmingly apparent.

In 1792, it was stated that a government-approved surgeon was to be on each convict transport. Ships surgeons were to report on the general health of all on board, while also noting any indiscretions by crew, but at this point they had little true power. When war with Napoleon broke out, surgeons suddenly became in short supply.

The surgeon’s effectiveness even in this short period of 1792 to 1800, and prior to the introduction of the more powerful government-appointed surgeon superintendent, can be shown by the following statistics. Of eighteen voyages in this period, the mortality rate jumped from 1% with surgeons, 5% with intermittent supply of surgeons, and a staggering 16.6% mortality on convict ships without surgeons. Furthermore, conditions were so bad on these transports in regards to death from infectious disease, brought on by incredibly poor sanitation, that sixteen of the sixty-eight voyages that took place between 1788 and 1814 were defined as epidemic ships. Twenty or more deaths on one voyage was considered an epidemic.

The Atlas I (also known as the Hellship), was the extreme example of everthing that was wrong with convict transportation. Leaving Cork in late 1801 under Captain Richard Brooks, the disease-ridden ship arrived in Port Jackson in July of 1802 having lost 65 convicts.

Despite these glaring statistics, it was not until 1815 that the full effect of the surgeon on board convict transports would come into effect.

Redfern's Report

Dr William Redfern
Dr William Redfern wrote a crucial report in 1814 that improved the conditions onboard British convict ships bound for NSW

At the behest of Governor Macquarie, Dr William Redfern conducted a report in 1814 titled, Medical Aspects of Convict Transportation. The report was damning in relation to the conditions onboard the convict ships, and as a result, naval surgeons accompanied all convict ships to Australia from 1815. From that point, the new appointees were given the title of ‘surgeon superintendent’, with the rank of warrant officer.

Redfern’s ground-breaking report was born from letters and other evidence, such as James Hardy Vaux, who described the situation on the Minorca (1803) as: “the most distressing he has ever seen”. The arrival in 1814 of the convict ships: General Hewitt, Three Bees and Surrey, also played a vital role in Redfern’s case after all ships were found to have appalling conditions onboard.

The Surrey for example, had fifty deaths from diseases that could have been prevented if properly treated. Dr Redfern made recommendations in the main areas of: fresh air, clothing, diet, cleanliness (sanitation, disinfection, personal hygiene) and medical health, and the employment of a government-appointed, naval surgeon. Redfern’s proposal achieved almost immediate results upon implementation.

The role of the surgeon superintendent was an enormous undertaking. Apart from the treatment of illness, the responsibilities included: the condition and volume of rations (suppliers often measured short), fair distribution of rations, administration of lemon or lime juice daily (to prevent scurvy), cleanliness of quarters and the keeping of a thorough duplicated journal.

Authorities recognised the impact that these surgeons had on the convict voyages, and in time the surgeon’s authority increased on board to cover all aspects of care for the prisoners.

Elevated from warrant officer to commissioned officer, the surgeon superintendent was held in higher esteem, and the voyages became more cohesive, with the tension sometimes felt between master and surgeon, abated.

With their new-found respect, surgeon superintendents pursued the improvement in conditions on convict ships. They considered the impact of a prisoner being suddenly thrust into a crowded hull of a ship from a prison like Pentonville, which used a system of isolating prisoners, and then the ordeal of the journey itself.

By the 1840s, they saw the ships voyage as a place where moral and religious enlightenment could be achieved, and endeavoured to help the convicts by introducing schools and other incentive-based programmes to further their education, and therefore improve the colony.

The surgeon superintendents also delved deeper into the origins of the diseases that plagued the convict voyages. They looked at the state of convicts prior to embarking, with some surgeons being convinced that scurvy had its origins in the prison hulks.

Despite the advance in conditions aboard convict transports, it was still an arduous voyage, and ideas from certain individuals in regards to diseases such as scurvy were based on hunches, rather than fact.

Aboard the convict ship Ferguson, a surgeon by the name of Mr Charles Cameron recommended that the ship put into Rio de Janiero on account of the appalling sickness amongst convict and crew. Mr Cameron was convinced that nitre (saltpetre) was the miracle cure for scurvy, and went to great lengths to extract it from the ships store of gunpowder. The surgeon praised the nitre’s healing powers when patients improved; the interesting point being that he had mixed the saltpetre with lime juice.

The experiences on board a convict transport to Australia between the years 1787 and 1868 changed dramatically once a government-appointed naval surgeon superintendent was placed on every ship. The early unplanned voyages that were run by masters, who on the whole, had little empathy for the prisoners and their welfare, turned into catastrophic journeys of suffering with little regulation. Filthy, cramped conditions, which were vehicles for the spread of infectious disease may have gone unchecked if not for their shocking severity, which in the end, was just impossible to ignore. Still, it took reports to be submitted by influential people, and some twenty-seven years before firm steps were taken to control the large number of deaths and bring a measure of humanity and morality to the voyages.



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