THERE were of course many things wanting at St. Kitts in the earlier period of its history. One of the most pressing needs was for malefactors. Malefactors were not only scarce, but they were fetching high prices, in spite of the discount allowed on taking a quantity. English malefactors, it may be explained, were in demand at St. Kitts to fill situations as servants and labourers, and to replenish the ranks of the island army.
Christopher Jeaffreson, he of the demi-castor hat and the wounded heart, made heroic efforts to obtain for his island a befitting consignment of criminals. He petitioned the authorities of Newgate Prison for 300 miscreants, and almost wept for joy when he received the order for the same.
But between getting the order and getting the actual footpads, rebels and shop thieves there is a great gulf fixed. Christopher found that he had to tip the chief gaoler at Newgate in the first place, and to tip him handsomely or not a convict would leave the premises. This avaricious official wanted from 45s. to 55s. a head for each jail-bird–an expensive matter when a covey of 300 is considered. Worse than that, there were underlings and assistant keepers, low-looking men with scars and black eyes, who grinned horribly at Jeaffreson when he stepped into the prison corridor after having disposed of the chief gaoler. These people, like the minor servants at a Swiss hotel, also wanted to be tipped, and hinted that they could make themselves even more offensive than they looked if they were not delicately subsidised.
Jeaffreson, after much keen negotiation, found it best to regard the consignment as mixed goods, and to take the whole lot, men, women and children, in one parcel. In this way he was able to obtain a cargo of malefactors, including some very prime specimens, as well as many classed metaphorically as soiled or damaged, for the sum of 45s. a head. As prices were ranging at the time this was considered to be a genuine bargain.
Mr. Jeaffreson’s difficulties, however, were not yet over. The malefactor trade has its drawbacks. This sum of 45s. per head did not include delivery or carriage. The purchaser was informed that the jail-birds would be turned out into the street in front of Newgate at a certain hour, and would be (with the chief warder’s compliments) at the purchaser’s disposal. This is equivalent to assuring the buyer of a zoological collection that the beasts and reptiles selected will be in the road by the gate of the Gardens at, or about, a definite time.
Mr. Jeaffreson had, in fact, to see his purchases safely conducted from Newgate to Billingsgate, where the convict ship was lying. To this end he must needs engage a guard of armed volunteers. Some of them would be his own friends, others would be club acquaintances, young bloods who were ready for anything, odd soldiers, footmen, watermen, and no doubt mariners from the convict vessel. The procession as it passed down Cheapside must have been one of the most revolting that historic thoroughfare ever saw. On either side would be the motley guard, some of the young bloods not quite sober perhaps, and some of the mariners already handy with their cudgels. In the centre would be the doomed men, handcuffed and chained together.
A fearsome company they would be, haggard men, hatless, barefooted and unwashed. Some would be cursing, some praying, some singing snatches of pot-house songs ; while somethe crazywould rend the air with maniacal laughter. The accompaniment of this hideous processional hymn would be the tramp of the guard and the clatter of the chains on the cobble-stones. There would be boys running by the side, eager to miss nothing ; and in the moving crowd not a few of the drunken companions of the gang, who, as they reeled along, would hiccough beery consolation to the voyagers. There would be slattern wives and weeping mothers too, who would try to press through the guard for one last grip of the manacled hand. The portly merchant would look his sternest as the rabble went by the little housewife who was about her shopping would draw her skirts aside and creep close to the wall, while from many a window both mistress and maid would gaze into the street with looks of loathing, which would soon change to looks of compassion.
The malefactors, when they reached Billingsgate, were dropped into barges and taken off to the convict ship, to start on a voyage the horrors of which are beyond imagining.
An account of just such a nightmare journey as they had knowledge of has been furnished by ” one of the sufferers.” He who wrote the log of this Ship of Sighs was one John Coad, a carpenter who took part in Monmouth’s rebellion, and was, as a consequence, sentenced by Judge Jeffreys to be transported to the West Indian Islands with 800 others.
Coad, still weak from his wounds, was kicked into the hold of a convict ship at Weymouth on October 17, 1685, near about the very year when Jeaffreson’s select party from Newgate were starting westwards. The destination of the rebel carpenter was Jamaica.
From his diary are to be gathered the following particulars of the sea passage. ” The master of the ship shut 99 of us under deck in a very small room, where we could not lay ourselves down without lying one upon another. The hatchway being guarded with a continual watch with blunderbusses and hangers, we were not suffered to go above deck for air or easement.” They were kept so short of food as to be nearly starved. ” Our water also,” writes Coad, ” was exceeding corrupt and stinking, and also very scarce to be had.” This was found to be ” a great affliction after they came into the hot weather.”
The hold, being without light or air, soon became a fetid human stye where filth fermented. ” By which means the ship was soon infected with grievous and contagious diseases, as the small pox, fever, calenture, and the plague, with frightful botches. Of each of these diseases several died, for we lost of our company,’ continues the chronicle, ” 22 men, and of the sailers and free passengers I know not how many. . . . Others were devoured with lice till they were almost at death’s dore.”
Those who know something of the stifling, breathless nights of the tropics, can imagine what the hold of this awful craft must have been when all was dark. Above fell the dismal tramp of the watch ; belowas if they were the dregs of the stinking airlay the survivors of the ninety-nine. Some sang hymns and prayed aloud, says Coad ; others cursed the ship and the sea, the squire of the village who had led them astray, and the fiendish judge who had consigned them to this pit of despair. Whenever there was a lull in the voices there would still be the creaking of the ship, the stertorous breathing of the dying, and the groans of the sick who, as the writer expresses it, ” lay tumbling over the rest.”
Possibly when sleep had fallen upon many, a man, delirious from small-pox, would spring up, and rush to and fro over the prostrate bodies with fearful shrieks, until he happily struck his head against a beam and fell down senseless.
Well may the follower of Monmouth exclaim, ” This was the straitest prison that ever I was in.”