Cosmopolitan Convicts? 19th-century convicts in Bermuda and Gibraltar

Dr Katy Roscoe shares some of her insights into 19th-century convict experience in Bermuda and Gibraltar from research she has pursued with the help of a Hakluyt Society Research Grant.


In this blogpost, I apply the concept of cosmopolitanism to an unusual group of people: convicts.

More than 12,000 British and Irish male convicts were transported to the British penal colonies of Bermuda and Gibraltar between 1824-75. During the day convicts worked on the Royal Naval dockyards, mostly quarrying and transporting stone for building projects, and were shut up at night on prison hulks or on-shore barracks.

To what extent did the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of these naval hubs shape the convicts’ ‘ways of being in the world’? Were convicts included in the bustling, mixed social worlds of these port-cities, or were they segregated? To answer, these questions, I refer to texts I examined at the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford) and the University of Nottingham Special Collections thanks to the generosity of a Hakluyt Society Research Grant.

Bermuda and Gibraltar were commercial centres which were also linked to imperial networks as military outposts and British colonies. The convict population reflected these global mobilities. Major Arthur Griffiths, stationed at Gibraltar from 1864-70 and briefly governor of the convict establishment in 1869, was a prolific author. In his fictionalised account Lola: A Tale of Gibraltar (1877), Griffiths described the inmates as follows:

‘It was a cosmopolitan collection of rogues herded together in this Gibraltar prison; to the pick of English ruffianism was added the scum of local society; Spanish smugglers rubbed shoulders with garroters from Whitechapel; a Greek sailor, sentenced to “life” for manslaughter … [and] Moorish pirates from the Riff coast’ (p. 273).

The convict establishment included both transported felons from Britain and Ireland and those convicted locally in Gibraltar: mostly Spaniards, but also sailors, soldiers and sojourners from around the world.

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‘Prison Hulks at Portsmouth’, frontispiece of Arthur Griffiths, Non-Criminal Prisons (c. 1900). Prisoners at Gibraltar and Bermuda were also housed in prison hulks. Author’s own photograph.

Tensions ran high between Britain and Spain concerning Gibraltar, and the convict establishment was no exception. In 1856 the former Governor of Gibraltar, Sir Robert Gardiner, described Gibraltar as having ‘an excess of alien population as nationally Spanish in habits, connexions, family, predilections, language and religion, as on the day Gibraltar was ceded to England’ (Gardiner, Report on Gibraltar, 1856, p. 19). Officials were concerned about how association with local Spaniards might ‘corrupt’ British soldiers, warders and prisoners at Gibraltar, threatening the discipline of the prison from the outside in.

The former governor, Gardiner, believed that the ‘demoralisation of the troops was caused’ by being ‘in contact with the disorderly hordes, [Spanish] men and women, employed in … smuggling’ (Gardiner, Report on Gibraltar, p. 44). Since soldiers oversaw convicts on the naval works, this could, in turn, encourage smuggling into the prison.

In 1868, the visitors to Gibraltar’s convict establishment raised similar concerns about ‘the deterioration of Warders’ through association with Spaniards. They complained that ‘a large number of them are connected by Marriage with local families … [which] is the source of the illicit correspondence that goes on between the Prisoners and their families at home’ (The National Archives, CO 91/295, F.E. Watt, Chairman of Visitors of Convict Prison, to Captain Twyman, Gibraltar, 26 Aug 1868, no. 9745/65). Warders’ local familial links allowed prisoners to keep relationships with their family across the seas alive, away from the state’s surveillance.

Officials also disliked direct contact between Spaniards and British convicts who were associated together on the wards at night. Griffiths complained that ‘association with locals’ resulted in more escape attempts, as ‘home’ convicts learnt there was no extradition treaty with neighbouring Spain, and made mad dashes across the border (Griffiths, Prisons Overseas, 1900, pp.160-61).

Convicts worked on dockyards and other naval works which were manned by local workmen, offering opportunities for socialising and illicit trade. According to Griffiths, ‘at Gibraltar, where “free” people came and went in the quarries almost unquestioned, large transactions were constantly afoot’ (Griffiths, Prisons Overseas, pp.165-6). In Bermuda, both ‘the private manufactures of prisoners’ and ‘shoes were … a regular article of traffick’ (Whittingham, Bermuda: Colony, Fortress, and a Prison, 1857, pp. 210-11).

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‘West end of Hamilton Wharf’, illustration in Frederick Whittingham, Bermuda: Colony, Fortress or Prison (1857), p. 38. Author’s own photograph.

Convict parties were marched to scattered work-sites across the Bermudian archipelago, so they frequently came into contact with the free populace. Ferdinand Whittingham, a former field-officer, describes how ‘few ladies liked to walk out… till after working hours’ because ‘pass[ing] through such number of convicts’ meant they were likely to be subjected to ‘verbal insults or disrespectful remarks’ (Whittingham, Bermuda: Colony, Fortress, Prison, pp. 210-11).

Sometimes, real romances blossomed. A convict named Lodge engaged in a relationship with a ‘woman of colour…who kept a small huckster’s shop in Ireland Island [Bermuda], outside the dockyard’ (Whittingham, Bermuda: Colony, Fortress, Prison, pp. 219-20). She left her husband, a black ‘sailmaker for 25 years working for the British government’ and departed Bermuda for England, taking £800 and the title-deeds to three houses with her. These kinds of relationships were not uncommon: some convicts stayed on at Bermuda after their sentence to work as warders, going on to have relationships and start families with local women.

Most central to ‘cosmopolitanism’ is global mobility. By that measure, convicts certainly qualify. They had – like the sailors, soldiers and settlers – travelled across the seas to get there. Some were transported directly from Britain and Ireland to Bermuda or Gibraltar, others were former-soldiers transported from other parts of the British Empire (especially Canada). Some returned directly home after serving their sentences, but others emigrated on to Western Australia in search of a better life. Once under sentence, they were mobile within the dockyards and to dispersed worksites offering opportunities to meet polyglot sets of free workmen, sailors and residents. Though enforced and constrained, convicts’ global and local mobilities meant their lives were certainly ‘cosmopolitan’.

Sir Robert Gardiner, Report on Gibraltar considered as a Fortress and a Colony (London, 1856).
Arthur Griffiths, Lola: A Tale of Gibraltar (New York, 1877).
Arthur Griffiths, Prisons Overseas: deportation and colonization, British and American prisoners today (London, c. 1900).
Glenda Slugg and Julia Horne, ‘Cosmopolitanism: Its Past and Practices’, Journal of World History, 21:3 (2010), pp. 369-74.
Frederick Whittingham, Bermuda: Colony, Fortress, and a Prison: or eighteenth month in the Somers’ Islands, by a field officer (London, 1857).

Dr Katy Roscoe is a historian of crime and punishment in the British Empire, with a particular focus on maritime geographies. She is researching convict-workers on the royal naval dockyards at Bermuda and Gibraltar as Caird-Sackler Fellow at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. In 2020 she will take up Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Liverpool researching ‘How Convicts Connected the World: Unfree Labour on British and Imperial Dockyards’. She was awarded her PhD in history from the University of Leicester in 2017 for her work on prison islands in colonial Australia. She tweets from @katyaroscoe.