x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A Merciless Place: African prison colonies and a fate worse than death

Emma Christopher brings to life Britain's doomed 18th-century convict experiment, in which prisoners were transported to remote African outposts and forced to endure brutal conditions.

A Merciless Place
Emma Christopher
OUP Oxford
Dh49
A Merciless Place Emma Christopher OUP Oxford Dh49

In Britain, until the early 19th century, it used to be observed that "one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb". The phrase hardly did justice to the astonishing variety of crimes that were punishable by death - around 225 by the late 18th century, according to Emma Christopher's new book, a number which included such heinous offences as stealing hedges, blackening your face in disguise, being in the company of gypsies for a month, and even, for children aged seven to 14, "strong evidence of malice". With so many acts liable to result in a journey to the gallows, it was said that Britain saw "an orgy of public slaughter" in the 1780s.

A decade before, however, the condemned often received royal pardons, but at a price. In an age when lengthy prison sentences were virtually unknown there was still another suitably drastic punishment - transportation. By 1773, nearly 50,000 convicts had set sail for years of banishment and indentured labour, by no means all for capital offences - a Francis Otter was sentenced to 14 years transportation in 1746 for stealing a loaf of bread - but not as yet to Australia, the destination traditionally associated with transportation. They went to America.

Once the 13 colonies began their war of independence in 1775, however, this ceased to be a viable option. Many in America had long complained about their lands becoming a dumping ground for "the refuse of Great Britain and Ireland ... the poorest, idlest and worst of mankind". The convicts would certainly not be accepted once the king's writ no longer ran across the Atlantic. Where could they go instead? It soon became obvious that the first solution tried, of using old, unseaworthy hulks anchored in the Thames to house these prisoners, was unsatisfactory. Not only were their miserable conditions on full view to the populace of London, they quickly became so ridden by disease and crippled by their work dredging the riverbed that the chances of reform - nominally the aim of imprisonment - were non-existent.

"Circumspectly turning a deaf ear to the rebuke from American colonists that transporting convicts to them had been an insult," writes Christopher, "Britons decided that transportation itself was not a flawed policy; rather, a new destination was needed. The answer was a whole new colony."

Eventually, that place proved to be New South Wales, in which, notwithstanding the keenness of so many present-day Australians to claim descent from jailers and warders, rather than from the "cons", criminals really did manage to break with their pasts and build new and worthwhile lives.

In the meantime, however, London's politicians experimented with a location closer to home. And it is this calamitous tale, "the lost story of Britain's convict disaster in Africa" as the subtitle puts it, that is the subject of A Merciless Place. No catastrophic superlative is over the top in describing how this new destination gained - and fully deserved - so dire a reputation that within a few short years one high court judge declared he would rather hang prisoners than despatch them to the West African coast.

The expedition was inauspicious from the start. The two captains in whose ranks the convicts were to be transported, Kenneth Mackenzie and George Katencamp, had planned to raise independent companies to fight for glory and prize money in the American campaign.

To their dismay, when the War Office inspected their men many were rejected as too young, too old or too short, while those who appeared to be good military stock were transferred to other regiments. They were replaced by "the very dregs of society", convicts from the Savoy and Newgate prisons and the hulks moored at Woolwich and who boarded Mackenzie and Katencamp's ships still in leg irons. And their destination was to be not America but the Gold and Slave Coasts of West Africa, there to defend Britain's forts and do battle with the Dutch.

On the way they stopped at the island fortress of Goree, off the coast of Senegal; it was then that the conditions they would have to face began to be apparent. "It was not only the acute pestilence, although the swellings appearing on every exposed inch of the men's flesh soon testified to those horrors ... nor was it just the rivers of sweat dripping down their backs and foreheads as they stood to attention in their grossly impractical woollen uniforms under the vicious sun. Far worse were the tales of sickness, scant food and the omnipresent spectre of death."

By the time they arrived at Cape Coast Castle, this last had already taken its toll: one fifth of the men who had started out from London had perished, including Katencamp. Neither after such a long voyage did they find themselves particularly welcome. The Company of Merchants, which managed Britain's trade in the region, had forcefully protested against convict soldiers being sent to their aid. In the presence of "such Banditti", wrote the Company's secretary, the local Africans would "soon learn to dispise [sic] the White Man".

It was not long before the new additions were to live down to such expectations, and worse. Mackenzie's craven behaviour during initial skirmishes against the Dutch was, complained a fellow officer, "notorious", while his companies' commanding ranks were swiftly so depleted by death, and their ranks by desertions, that one captured outpost was left under the command of William Murray, a convict soldier who had escaped the hangman's noose more times than he deserved. Murray's rule of "terror, laxity and utter dissipation and dissolution" was only ended when Mackenzie sentenced him, on the grounds of mutiny, to a particularly gruesome death: he was tied to a cannon and a ball was fired directly through his chest.

Nor was this the only punishment meted out by Mackenzie of such severity that he was later tried for his crimes in London. Men under his command were regularly flogged, sometimes receiving up to a possibly fatal 1,500 lashes, and then thrown in with the slaves in the dungeon. No wonder they were driven to mutiny.

But Mackenzie also managed to alienate the local population at Mori, one of his stations, to such a degree that they surrounded the fort, cut off its supplies, and eventually seizing the captain, stripped and beat him and sent him off with the warning that if he ever returned "they would cut him to pieces".

By September 1783, only a year and a half after they had arrived on the Gold Coast, what was left of Mackenzie and Katencamp's companies were disbanded. When not ill-treated or sick, the convict soldiers had complained of not being paid, while to the horror of the British governors in the region, the handful of female prisoners, who were excluded from the military, had been prostituting themselves to local African men.

The previous year the governor of Goree Island had reached a similar verdict about the suitability of taking on human cargo. When 20 convicts were unloaded to join his already starving garrison he simply turned them away, telling them they "were all free men" - not that they were in any position to enjoy their new liberty.

Christopher relates this overlooked historical interlude with pace and detail, while placing it thoroughly in the context of an 18th century Britain reeling at the unthinkable loss of its American colonies, in which vast swathes of the capital were stinking slums where cutthroats and criminals ruled, but in which such was the poverty and threat of starvation that the vagaries of the law seem unspeakably harsh in hindsight. "Being caught shoplifting or hooking a purse from a pocket was not so much a matter of shame as sheer bad luck. Only the rather better-to-do could afford the luxury of seeing morality in the ownership of a handkerchief or a teaspoon."

At the same time, and despite the stiffness of the punishments, one is surprised to hear of the relative fairness of the courts and the willingness of judges to give offenders the benefit of the doubt. It is a relief to hear of rays of enlightenment among the stench and gloom. Christopher also peoples her book with a vivid cast of characters including Jonas Hanway, "philanthropist, founder of the Marine Society and early advocate of the umbrella", and Charles O' Hara, the first governor of the colony of Senegambia, who went on to have the ignominious distinction of being "the only man personally captured in battle by both George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte".

This is a grim story, and one that the tourist boards of West African states may well prefer not to feature in their promotional literature. But it is a fascinating one. And never can the ends of the Earth, as Australia's shores would then have appeared, have struck a prisoner as so appealing as after news of this penal experiment reached London. So terrible, indeed, it is a wonder that it was ever forgotten.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.