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The Royal Admiral

Fever on the Royal Admiral

From The Convict Ships, 1787—1868
by Charles Bateson

The gaol fever was also carried aboard the Royal Admiral, which sailed from England on 23 May 1800, but it raged less malignantly. She had embarked 300 convicts, 48 fewer than on her previous voyage, when Philip had considered her overcrowded, and 43 of her prisoners died on the passage. The Royal Admiral also carried 11 missionaries, having been chartered to convey them, after delivering her convicts, to the South Sea Islands. The surgeon was Samuel Turner, who previously had been surgeon of the missionary ship Duff, but he became ill of the fever and died on 2 June. Because he had some medical knowledge, acquired from theological college, James Elder was appointed ship’s surgeon after the demise of Turner.

On 23 June a reported plot to seize the ship threw the missionaries into something very like a panic. Dividing themselves into watches, they stood guard in the steerage from 8 p.m. until 7 a.m. each night. But no rising took place.

Four strange sail were sighted on 4 August. The Royal Admiral’s decks were cleared for action as she made all sail, and about five o’clock the boom of gunfire could be heard—a novelty, though doubtless an unpleasant one, for the convicts crowded in the stifling prison. The commodore of the convoy, Captain Rowley Bulteel, in the Belliqueux, 64, and the East Indiaman Dorsetshire compelled the French 40-gun frigate La Concorde to strike, while after a running fight lasting several hours another French frigate, the Médée, 36, surrendered to the East Indiamen Bombay Castle and Exeter. Next day fifty-nine prisoners from La Concorde were transferred to the Royal Admiral, and were soon complaining that the convicts had robbed them.

On 12 August the Royal Admiral arrived at Rio de Janeiro, after a passage of 81 days from England. Twenty-three convicts had died, and there were a further five deaths by 25 August. In addition to Surgeon Turner, four seamen, a convict’s wife and a convict’s child had also died, bringing the total death-roll to 35 persons. The Royal Admiral did not sail from Rio until 15 September, and when she reached Port Jackson on 30 November, after a passage from England of 181 days, the deaths among the prisoners had risen to 43. Almost all the survivors required medical treatment. The state in which the convicts had been embarked alone had been responsible for the large number of deaths and the great amount of sickness. On 10 March 1801, Governor King reported that the prisoners were still very weak, and later still, on 30 October 1802, he declared that many remained in a state of debility and would never recover the strength of men.

From the sailing of the First Fleet in 1787 until the end of 1800, 43 convict ships, including the wrecked Guardian and pirated Lady Shore, had sailed from England or Ireland for Port Jackson. Between them they embarked 7,486 prisoners—6,040 men and 1,441 women—of whom 705 men and 51 women died, a total of 756 deaths. The number landed at Port Jackson was 6,634, of whom 5,304 were men and 1,330 women. Thus, in this period one man died out of every 8.57 convicts embarked and one woman out of every 28.2 female prisoners put aboard in England or Ireland.

Statistics for the prisoners in these vessels are as follows:
Vessel   Embarked        Deaths        Disembarked
Britannia (1797)1444410113443
Britannia (1798)09602094
Minerva (1800)165263016226
Royal Admiral (2)30004302570

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