The Wreck of the Convict Ship ‘George III’

In 1835, the British convict ship George III struck an unmapped rock off Tasmania and sank. 134 people died, most of them prisoners being transported to Tasmania to serve their sentences at hard labor. The story has some interesting wrinkles that make this a very gameable template for a sea voyage at your table, and it gives us a lens through which to look at the imperial British sentence of ‘transportation’.

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The Wreck of ‘George the Third’ by Knud Bull (1850)

‘Transportation’ was an imperial British punishment that sought to turn the nation’s poor into a source of wealth and a means to expand the empire. It was a sentence applied often to criminals guilty of small crimes, usually triggered by hunger or desperation. Convicts were packed onto ships and sent overseas. The American colonies were a popular destination. After the revolution, focus shifted to Australia. The first ship carrying white settlers to Tasmania (an island south of Australia) in 1803 had convicts aboard her. Countless more would follow.

In Tasmania, convicts were first kept in barracks and forced to clear land and construct roads and buildings: doing the hard work of expanding the empire. They were guarded by the very same red-coated soldiers who were busily genociding the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Even if a convict did escape, where would they go? Tasmania is surrounded by rough seas and the locals were – for some inexplicable reason – not fond of British people. But if a convict did complete their sentence, they were set free. Most such then joined the colony as settlers.

As the decades went by and the colony filled out, barracks and chain gangs declined in importance. Instead, most convicts were loaned out to white settlers as free forced labor. Their masters legally couldn’t whip them, but the government would happily flog a convict’s skin clean off just on the say-so of his master. And if a convict’s term was coming up, his master could lie about his behavior and get years tacked on to his sentence, thereby prolonging the utility of his laborer. Convicts who reoffended while serving their terms were sent to the prison camps of Port Arthur and Port Macquarie, where conditions were so bad that some men killed one another so they would then be hanged and thereby end their torment. (You couldn’t just kill yourself, because then you’d go to hell – this way you had time between the murder and your execution to repent.)

The differences between convict laborers and slaves in the British Imperial system were largely that convicts remained legal persons, retained certain limited rights, their children did not inherit their condition, and their own condition would probably end in their lifetimes. While the convicts’ plight was certainly slave-like, this was not chattel slavery.

The similarities between the transportation system and penal labor in the United States should not escape our notice: working for less than a dollar an hour (for no pay at all in some states), and if you refuse to participate, it can be seen as ‘bad behavior’ and you can be thrown in solitary or be denied parole.

The convict barracks in Brisbane, 1832

The George III was a fairly typical convict ship. She was a 400-ton square-rigged sailing ship. She was old and poorly maintained. In place of ordinary cargo, her hold contained a giant iron cage in which the convicts were kept. She departed London with a complement of 308. 200 of these were convicts, all male, 40 of them children. The remaining 108 were the crew, the soldiers who guarded the convicts, some of the families of the same, and two doctors.

Things went bad quickly. First, the ship encountered terrible weather in the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. Imagine, if you will, an iron cage containing 200 souls, all seasick and throwing up on one another, with no movement of air, but with freezing seawater dripping in through every seam. It was also discovered that the ship had insufficient provisions. The soldiers and crew were in no danger, but the convicts had not enough fresh food to prevent scurvy. As the George III cleared the North Atlantic, she became trapped windless in the unreliable zone near the equator. There, every day two convicts died of scurvy. The captain could have stopped in Cape Town or Rio to take on fresh supplies and save lives, but he opted not to. As I said, the rest of the ship was in no danger. The two doctors did what they could, but scurvy has only one cure and they could not – or chose not to – provide it.

While the ship was trapped windless near the equator, a fire broke out on board. It seems there was some sort of accident involving liquor and an open flame – the details are unclear. The fire spread and soon threatened to enter the ship’s magazine where the soldiers had stored great quantities of gunpowder. The crew released the convicts so that anyone still well enough to stand could help extinguish the blaze. This was a gamble, but risking the convicts taking over the ship seemed worth it. The powder was kept in kegs made of copper, not wood. As the flames reached the magazine, the copper kept the kegs from detonating, but also made them terribly hot. Two convicts leapt into the fire, grabbed the kegs with their bare hands and threw them overboard. Both suffered terrible burns. Their reward was to die of scurvy before the ship reached Tasmania.

A ship fire illustrated in 1845

The George III finally reached Tasmania, though storms washed away half her superstructure while she was crossing the Indian Ocean. Less than 50 miles from her intended port, one final fatal tragedy befell her. George III was passing through the D’Entrecasteaux Channel at night. Going by the charts, it was the right call. The prevailing winds should have taken her speedily to Hobart, and if the winds were against her, there were plenty of sheltered anchorages. The captain set a lookout and – just in case – had a ‘leadman’ take regular soundings of the depth of the channel by hurling overboard a lead weight on the end of a length of rope. By marks on the rope, the leadman could monitor the depth of the water and verify George III wasn’t going somewhere she oughtn’t.

Then the water started getting shallower. Fast. Way too fast for this to be a result of the ship going off-course. And then the lookout heard the sound of crashing surf. It’s a sound we associate with the sea, but really it’s the sound of waves in very shallow water. The captain ordered a new course, yet before the helmsman could even turn the wheel, there was a terrible shock and the crack of snapping timbers as the ship struck a rock: a previously-unknown rock that appeared on no charts. The moon clouded over. And from nowhere, the sea began to rise.

The captain took stock. He set a small boat in the water to inspect the damage and see about the possibility of refloating the ship. But every swell that rolled in from this newfound storm lifted George III up and then smashed her back down on the rocks below. The mainmast toppled over and took the other two masts with her. This timber too smashed against the hull with each wave. And water rushed into the hold where 200 men and boys (less those dead from scurvy) were locked in an iron cage, unable to escape.

The D’Entrecasteaux Channel on a much better day.
Image credit: JTDocs, released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Desperate people can sometimes do the impossible, and the weight of panicked convicts forced open a hole in the cage large enough for one man at a time to crawl through. While others floundered and drowned in the cage, the few escapees rushed the hatch to get up on deck. The soldiers were waiting. They fired into the mass of men and boys below, killing between one and three. One of the two doctors went below to be with the convicts and calm the situation. There were no more shots and the soldiers let the convicts – those who had not yet drowned in the cage – up on deck. 

The ship’s longboat was readied to carry passengers and crew from the sinking George III to shore. The convicts were informed they would be the last to leave. They did not rush the boat and instead seem to have accepted their fates. When the ship finally sank, not all the survivors had been evacuated. All told, 134 people who had survived the fire and the scurvy perished when the ship went down. Not a single one of the 40 boys survived the voyage.

There was a scandal, then an inquiry. The public was briefly outraged but lost interest. Most of the focus was on the shots fired into the hold; nobody seemed to care about the dozens of men dead by scurvy. The inquiry brought about no change. It feels weird to say it, but I take some relief in that. It seems these days that the news cycle is so fast that we’ve already forgotten yesterday’s outrage before today’s even arrives. But I guess that’s not unusual – maybe we’ve always been like this?

View of Hobart Town by Knud Bull (1853)

At your table, the doomed voyage of the convict ship George III is a great template for a memorable sea voyage (or space voyage or whatever). In your fictional campaign setting, there’s no reason your version of the ship can’t have a few cabins for paying passengers. This lets the PCs be outsiders in the drama to come. When the scurvy sets in, can the party convince the captain to make a stop for fresh provisions that will save the convicts? If scurvy’s not a reasonable danger in your campaign, long exposure to this region’s seawater might induce some easily-treatable disease that afflicts only those squatting in the leaky hold, not those safely up on deck. Or maybe the engine is missing some paneling that would keep radiation from leaking into the convicts’ cage.

When the fire (or a comparable shipboard calamity) strikes, how does the party react? Do they free the convicts? Do they have any memorable interactions?

And when the ship strikes an uncharted rock or invisible asteroid, are the PCs able to free the convicts? Can they stop the guards from firing into the mass? Can they save 138 trapped souls from drowning or getting spaced?

In real life, the George III went down basically right outside its destination. That’s also a great model for fiction! Even after all this peril, the voyage is kind of a success for the party. They got where they were going. That means you can insert this whole adventure right into the middle of an ongoing story without interfering with any plans you might have for the campaign.

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Source: Vanished Fleets: Ships and Men of Old Van Diemen’s Land by Alan Villiers (1931)

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