2024 marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of 300 convicts on board the "Antelope"

By Dr Anna McKay, University of Liverpool

History | January 23, 2024

Reading time: 11 minutes

On 5 January 1824, HMS Antelope set sail from Spithead, near Portsmouth in Hampshire, carrying an unusual cargo: convicts. Three hundred men, selected for their youth and strength, were sent 3,000 miles from England to Bermuda, alleviating some of the overcrowding in prisons across England. Far from home they were to provide the labour for one of the largest public works projects in Bermuda, serving the needs of the Empire by building the Royal Naval Dockyard. Over the next 40 years, convicts quarried stone and constructed various structures including housing, ordnance depots, naval and victualling storehouses, workshops, administrative buildings, roads, and wharves. Two hundred years ago, the Antelope arrived in Bermuda on 8 February, just under a month after it departed Spithead, and the first convicts were put to work.

Watercolour panorama of the Dockyard titled “The Naval Base on Ireland Island in the Bermudas” by Captain Henry Rolfe R.N., 1839

After the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812, Bermuda was given the status of an ‘imperial fortress’. To secure the Royal Navy’s strategic control of the Western North Atlantic, the British government invested heavily in a formidably defended fleet base and dockyard at Bermuda where squadrons could pause for repairs and supplies. At home in England, prisons were overcrowded, and reformers and administrators were trialling new forms of punishment. Among these was the expansion of Britain’s convict transportation initiative. Previously, during the seventeenth century, Britain sold British and Irish convicts into contracts of indenture managed by private merchants. With the loss of the American colonies after the War of Independence, Britain looked elsewhere to send convicts, most notably Australia. By 1822, the Home Secretary Robert Peel suggested combining hard labour with transportation. The construction of Bermuda’s new fleet base and dockyard presented another ideal opportunity to expand the Empire’s convict transportation scheme. The Island’s position in the Atlantic was isolated enough to prevent escapes, far removed from the public eye, and was suffering from a labour shortage thanks to yellow fever epidemics in 1818 and 1819. 

When the Antelope sailed, officials couldn’t have known that the convict station in Bermuda would last for 40 years. Locals fiercely objected to the plan. A letter printed in The Bermuda Gazette in 1830 raised concerns about the island becoming a penal colony, asking:

Are these men to be turned adrift upon us? Is this little Colony to be inundated with such a swarm of felons? It is perfectly clear that the Government in England never contemplated spreading such a pestilence among us.’

Locals argued that there was not enough food on the island to support the unwanted new arrivals. But unlike convict colonies in Australia and elsewhere, convicts were not allowed to remain in Bermuda after their sentence was complete. Some were sent on to Australia, while others returned home to the UK. 

“Hall of History” mural, by Graham Foster: Uniformed convicts breaking and shaping hard rock at the Dockyard, with a convict hulk in the background

The first convicts in Bermuda had been convicted of offences that may not be considered serious by today’s standards. The most common offences were theft. Thomas Adams, aged 22, was a bricklayer. He had been convicted in 1823 for stealing a woollen greatcoat and received a sentence of seven years. John Lane, an 18-year-old baker from Wells in Somerset also stole clothing and received seven years. 21-year-old William Finch from Preston was a tailor who had stolen a watch and shared the same sentence. Henry Laddick, aged 18 from Devon, was convicted of stealing one duck and a bag. The convicts came from all over the country, from England, Wales, and Scotland.

Records suggest that many of Bermuda’s male convicts were selected as they were fit, young, and strong workers. Others were chosen for their skills. One year after the Antelope arrived, the Commissioner of the Dockyard Captain Thomas Briggs wrote to the Navy Board in London stating that a further 100 convicts could be sent from England. Captain Briggs suggested that ‘they should be selected from those who have served the trades therein specified: masons, house joiners, plumbers, painters, plasterers, horse shoeing smith and farrier [and] clockmaker – to attend repairs of yard clock’. These men were duly sent out

Not all men were single: some were married with children, leaving their families destitute. John Melvin from Aberdeen was convicted of house-breaking, and was separated from his wife, while weaver William Naismith from Stirling had a wife and child. Both men were separately convicted of robbing houses, but each received pardons, and returned home within a few years. Convicts routinely sent petitions to the government asking for early release. In many cases, wives and family members petitioned on their behalf, supplying character references from upstanding members of their communities. Hezekiah Draper, aged 20, left behind a wife and child. He was a tinker, selling and repairing pots and pans, who received a life sentence for horse stealing. Draper was sent to Bermuda on board the Antelope and was then transferred to the Dromedary hulk in January 1827. He was pardoned in 1831 and saved the fate of transportation to Australia.

Some men attempted escape before they were even transported. Wool stapler Joseph Hooper, who had been convicted of assaulting someone with intent to rob them, had come close to successfully escaping from Maidstone Gaol. In addition to escapes, the behaviour and character traits of convicts were also recorded. On the hulks in England awaiting transportation, Hooper’s subsequent behaviour was described as ‘orderly’. Conversely, John McGill, a labourer from Inverness in Scotland had been incarcerated for theft and received a different remark in the prison registers: his character was marked down as ‘very unruly and disorderly’, and that on the hulks he was ‘very bad’, and had been punished, likely by enduring a spell of solitary confinement or having his rations reduced.

1860 sketch of convicts from the “Medway” hulk in Bermuda, “Four convicts with guards”. Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

When the first 300 men arrived in Bermuda, there were no barracks or prisons on the island large enough to house them. Instead, the Antelope ship was converted into a floating prison, commonly known as a hulk. Moored close to the Dockyard on Ireland Island, it held around 230 convicts and, over the next forty years, was joined by seven other ships. Many of these had previously transported convicts from Britain to the Australian colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. Others had sailed settlers to Cape Town, South Africa. On board the prison hulks, convicts slept in hammocks like sailors, ate in ‘messes’ of six men, and were rowed to shore to work. They wore straw hats to protect them from the sun, and white uniforms. Their prisoner numbers and the name of their hulk were stamped on the fabric.

Clipping of illustration ”Convict dress at Bermuda” from Illustrated London News 17 Jun. 1848.

Working in Bermuda was different from home; the sub-tropical climate, with its mild winters and warm summers, and hurricanes, struck a contrast to England. Even local flora and fauna were potential menaces; in February 1824, Christopher Price suffered from an upset stomach and was admitted to the Antelope’s hospital ward. When interviewed, he told the surgeon that he had been on duty at the Dockyard at Ireland Island and had eaten some prickly pears, which he believed were the cause of his discomfort. Others clearly suffered from sunstroke; the surgeon recorded the sickness of convict James Coot, writing, ‘while at work in the sun [he] was attacked with headache and shivering’. While working in the quarries, reflected glare from the white stone and sunlight made some men temporarily blind. Those who returned home to England became known as ‘Bermuda men’.

The convict workplace was full of risks. Edward Griffiths was one of the first men to die in Bermuda. He had been working as a boatman, ferrying convicts from the hulks to the dockyards while exposed to the elements. The surgeon recorded that he was attacked with ‘shivering accompanied with pain in the right side of the chest’ and terrible coughing. He was sent to hospital but died within two months. William Whiteway was working on the ships’ side when he was attacked with vertigo and fell into the sea, and then suffered from rheumatism. Lawrence Kenworthy, a carpenter, dislocated his wrist when falling from a scaffold. Others were treated for hernias and abdominal pain after lifting heavy stones in the quarries.


Convicts Daily Statement Form. The form shows the number of convicts employed on Public Works from the Boaz Island Prison. Dated 21, August 1862. National Museum of Bermuda

Bermuda’s Royal Naval Dockyard was far more diverse than those in England. Across the period, convicts worked alongside free and enslaved black Bermudians, as well as white military workers,  including Royal Marines who served as dockyard guards, and Royal Engineers who took part in construction projects. As the Bermuda convict station expanded, prisoners from other British colonies were sent to the hulks. In 1825, Augustine Kennedy was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in Quebec, and joined the Antelope. Many Canadian and Caribbean military deserters who tried to abscond from service also served time on Bermuda’s hulks from the 1830s onwards. During the famine years, a huge influx of Irish convicts were sent to the Island.

The intermingling of different groups within the Dockyard provided an opportunity for convicts to build relationships with locals, including black male labourers and black women who operated as hucksters in the Dockyard selling fruit and vegetables.There is even an account detailing a romantic involvement between a convict and a local woman. This account, recorded in a narrative of Bermuda, meticulously penned by British officer, Colonel Whittingham, unveils a historical scandal and affords a captivating insight into the complex social dynamics woven into the fabric of the Island. 

Mrs. Romeo was a local woman who operated a huckster shop outside Dockyard where she sold various goods to dockyard workers and convicts. Her relationship with a convict named Lodge, whom she had met through her work in Dockyard, caused a scandal when she decided to leave her husband for Lodge. Upon Lodge’s release, she fled to England with him, carrying £800 in gold and the title deeds to three houses.

Unfortunately, the relationship with Lodge did not last, leading Mrs. Romeo to return to Bermuda. However, her homecoming was met with challenges. Dockyard authorities denied her access to Ireland Island and her husband rejected her. She ultimately found refuge with her mother in Spanish Point.

This captivating account not only unravels the personal drama of Mrs. Romeo but also highlights the broader dynamics of relationships between convicts and locals during a pivotal period in Bermuda’s history. Though there are no other known examples of the more intimate relationships between locals and convicts, it is clear that convicts were able to interact with locals and build relationships.

Some of these interactions allowed opportunities for convicts to supplement their rations and gain access to prohibited items like alcohol. Convicts were permitted the occasional measure of rum, but anything more was seen as a security risk. Drunkenness was the root cause of many riots and escape attempts – convicts lashed out at their guards, and tried to steal boats or board ships that were bound for New York.

As time wore on, the Bermuda convict station became more nuanced. In 1838, the Governor of Bermuda, William Reid, was given control of the convicts, instead of managers back in London who took weeks to reply to urgent letters. This meant that officials could act quickly when riots and disturbances took place. As the public works continued, convicts gradually moved to barracks on shore, and the increasingly outmoded prison hulks were broken up for scrap. The convicts who continued their sentences back home in Britain or were sent on to the Australian colonies left the Island in changed circumstances: they had earned small sums of money as labourers, and been taught to read and write.


Original watercolour of Convict Hulks in Dockyard c. 1848. National Museum of Bermuda

The Antelope arrived in 1824 and served as a hulk until 1845. Other hulks included the Coromandel, Weymouth, Tenedos, Thames and Dromedary, some of which were stationed at St George’s at the east end of Bermuda. Objects recovered from the Dromedary can be seen today in the ‘Prisoners in Paradise’ exhibition at the National Museum of Bermuda. These dice, dominoes, cannons, and rosary beads help us understand more about the lives of the convicts who lived and worked on the Island across the 19th century. In total, around 9,000 convicts were sent to Bermuda over a 40-year period. Convicts left an indelible mark on the landscape. Working with enslaved people, free local labourers, and British military workers, they completed numerous public works throughout the Island, including roadways, breakwaters, Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, the Commissioner’s House, and the majority of the buildings and wharfs still standing in Dockyard today.

In Sandys Parish, across the road from the ornate gravestones of the Naval Cemetery is a quiet graveyard. Here, only nine gravestones represent approximately 2,000 convicts who are believed to have died on the Island during their incarceration. A short distance down the road on Watford Island, there is a second graveyard with the unmarked graves of convicts. 200 years on, we recognise the parallels between Bermuda’s convict labourers and prisoners across the world today – we read of prison overcrowding, and debates around work and education behind bars, and see governments deporting prisoners to islands and modified ships. Bermuda’s convicts are part of a larger, global story of incarceration and empire. They lived, worked, and died in harsh conditions so that Britain could project an image of strength to the world.  

Further reading:

‘Prison Ship (Hulk) Registers’, 1811-1843. Available via FindMyPast (subscription only). Original record held by The National Archives, Kew. Series: HO7/3 – Antelope hulk, Bermuda.

‘UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals’, 1817-1856. Available via Ancestry.com (subscription only). Original record held by The National Archives, Kew. Series: ADM 101.

The National Archives, Kew. ‘Colonial Office and predecessors: Bermuda, Original Correspondence’. Series: CO 37 (onsite only, but records are described at item level).

Clara Hollis Hallet, Forty Years of Convict Labour: Bermuda 1823-1863 (Bermuda: Juniper Hill Press, 1999).

Bermuda National Trust has more information on the island’s cultural heritage, including the convict cemetery and convict bath houses: https://www.bnt.bm/heritage/

Anna Lois McKay (2021) ‘Allowed to die’? Prison Hulks, Convict Corpses and the Inquiry of 1847, Cultural and Social History, 18:2, 163-181, https://doi.org/10.1080/14780038.2021.1893917

Bermuda National Library – Digital Collection, Bermuda Royal Gazette: Access issues dated 1784-1964 (free): https://bnl.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/BermudaNP02 

Clare Anderson, Convicts: A Global History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).


YouTube, Dr Edward Harris, James Smith and Andrew Birmingham: ‘Bermudian Heartbeats: Blood, Sweat, Toil & Tears, The Story of Dockyard, Casemates, & Convicts’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhC6vjm0PEg

YouTube, Dr Anna McKay: Lunchtime Lecture: ‘Convict Hulks and Transportation from Cork Harbour in the 19th Century’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyrAmxWxuSM 

Dr Anna McKay is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the History Department at the University of Liverpool. She researches prisoners across the British empire – from convicts to war captives – with a particular focus on floating prisons known as ‘hulks’. 

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