This group is looking at the maritime and aesthetic legacies of carcerality as well as the material manifestations of modern slavery and human consequences. As part of this, we are examining the equivalences between historic prison hulks and modern floating detention and prison facilities in terms of making use of waterways for warehousing people and extracting their labour. This work touches upon the economic relationships both between the British Empire and (penal) colonies and between companies and the prison industrial complex today. We find that in many cases throughout history, prison and detention vessels were meant to be temporary or were authorised by means of political justification based upon a so-called temporary need to alleviate capacity pressures.

Maritime Legacies of Carcerality

As common European imperial practice, since the early seventeenth century sentences mandating transportation to overseas colonies and a regime of hard labour were deployed as a form of punishment to the poor, the unruly, and those deemed as threats to society. This phenomenon was particularly prevalent in the British Empire. More importantly, penal transportation was used as a legitimate practice of labour mobilisation for the New World. Punishment was commodified according to the demand for indentured servants in the colonies. As the forced labour of convicts was bought and sold by shipping contractors, fixed sentences (ranging from a term of seven years to life) were adjusted so felons would serve additional years to make them more attractive to prospective buyers in comparison to indentured servants. As Maxwell-Stewart stated, “Work-orientated punishments were commonly justified in early modern Europe because they returned a public good."

Transportation became an integral instrument of the criminal justice system, which was susceptible to the fluctuations in demand within the colonial labour market. Over time, around 44,000 British convicts were sent to the American colonies, in particular to Maryland and Virginia. However, as a consequence of the American Revolution and subsequent independence, the North American colonies closed their ports and Britain lost its main convict distribution channel, leading to prison overcrowding and a carceral crisis. The situation was especially dire in London, where two-thirds of convicts at the Old Bailey had been sentenced to transportation (around 283 a year).

As a response to the problem of prison capacity, in 1776 Parliament passed the 'Hulks Act', and Britain began refitting decommissioned merchant and naval vessels into floating prisons known as hulks, which were moored in rivers and estuaries. Hulks had previously been deployed to hold prisoners of war during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). In the new phase, the Justitia became the first prison hulk to be moored in the River Thames in August 1776. Initially, hulks were supposed to be a two-year, temporary measure to hold prisoners in wait, facing transportation, until the transatlantic trade in convicts could be resumed, or until alternative sites to ship convicts could be found. Thus, the floating prisons were managed privately, often by former transportation contractors. However, rather than embarking on a costly prison-building programme to deal with the lack of carceral facilities, hulks were quickly introduced across the country, and the 1776 Act, kept being renewed allowing for this continued warehousing of prisoners for over 80 years.

In order to pay the costs of incarceration, convict labour was employed in public works such as improving the navigability and riverbanks of the River Thames, the development of the Arsenal and dockyards in London. As described in the University of Leicester’s Carceral Archipelago research, *“In these locations, the work of convicts increased the efficiency of dockyards. […] Convicts provided a cheap and efficient workforce, and rather than build new barracks to house men, prison hulks could be acquired at little cost and towed from site to site.” *****

This work was often strenuous, and convicts were subjected to harsh discipline, including flogging, being locked in irons and below-deck confinement. Appalling sanitary conditions and overcrowding aboard the hulks meant the rapid and frequent outbreak of epidemics such as cholera, dysentery and typhus, with extremely high mortality rates among prisoners. In such a punishing environment, mutiny and mass-escape attempts were also a reality. An account from the 1770s in the PortCities collection describing the view of the River Thames notes that, “hulk after hulk, hung with bedding, clothes, weed and rotting rigging, lined the river like a floating shantytown” (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. William, Edward C. “Convict hulk Discovery, at Deptford.” Engraving c. 1829. National Maritime Museum, London. Available at

Fig. 1. William, Edward C. “Convict hulk Discovery, at Deptford.” Engraving c. 1829. National Maritime Museum, London. Available at

In 1787, a little over a decade after the introduction of the hulks, Britain had found a new destination to resume transportation: New South Wales in Australia. In Asia, it was feared that the introduction of European convict labour would upset pre-existent systems of exploitation based on racial hierarchies, thus, British and Irish convicts were transported to penal colonies in Australia, whilst Asian and Eurasian prisoners were sent to the East India Company-run penal settlements and funneled through the Asian ‘factories’ to work on infrastructural projects. This strategy secured a labour force and supported imperial trade, mutually benefiting Crown and Company (see fig. 2). The hulks, however, continued to be used as a holding place for those waiting to depart and even up to 1840s, they still housed over 70 percent of English convicts. The 1776 Act continued to be renewed and in 1823, parliament authorised the use of hulks in British colonies. This was implemented in Bermuda in 1824 and in Gibraltar in 1842, where convicts were also involved in public infrastructure projects and employed in dockyards. Despite the remote location in the colonies, the British hulk establishment guaranteed that convict labour did not interfere or compete with other flows of Atlantic slave or indentured labour. As noted in the Carceral Archipelago research, “…hulks occupy an interesting position in the history of the nineteenth century British prison system. They were both social and restrictive spaces, and are famed for their reputation as ‘hell on water’ epitomised.”

Fig. 2. Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish. “Transportation in the British Empire to Atlantic and Australasian destinations 1615–1875.” In A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, edited by Clare Anderson, 184. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Accessed March 23, 2020.

Fig. 2. Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish. “Transportation in the British Empire to Atlantic and Australasian destinations 1615–1875.” In A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, edited by Clare Anderson, 184. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Accessed March 23, 2020.

From the mid 1840s in Britain, with the construction of new land-based prisons such as Parkhurst, Pentoville, Brixton and Chatham, and amidst strong reformist criticism of the anomalous incarceration regime in hulks, these began receiving fewer convicts, housing mostly those unfit for transportation or the rigours of prison, until the Hulks Act was finally allowed to expire in 1857. In the colonies, convicts were still held in hulks for the next decades (more than 9,000 until 1863 in Bermuda and another 4,000 until 1875 in Gibraltar). In the new prisons, transportation was still the norm with the introduction of the notion of exile, where convicts could choose to serve probationary sentences and be granted pardon in exchange for accepting voluntary deportation to colonies.

Prison hulks, penal transportation and the deployment of convict labour had a critical role in the history of the British Empire. Experimentation with this form of labour, especially in the colonies, paved the way for the introduction of slavery, reorganised flows of indentured servitude both in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and impacted military conscription. Policies regarding sentencing and transportation were shaped to fill the needs of colonial labour markets. According to Clare Anderson, “the British catapulted convicts into an economic system that had been established through conditions of labour unfreedom. Convicts joined slaves as foundational links in chains of commodity production and export that stretched from imperial hinterlands to imperial ports. In this, alongside other workers, convicts played a key role in the globalisation of capital.” The legacy of this system endured even after it was dismantled in Britain, in the form of compulsory military service and forced work on dockyards around the Atlantic, decades after the abolition of slavery. As stated by Maxwell-Stewart, “If Foucault’s disciplinary moment arrived, it did so at least in the context of the British and Irish prison system (…) owed much to a prior colonial disciplinary trajectory—a carceral archipelago that linked penitentiary, hulk, dockyard, military service, factory and colonial farm.”

From Bodily Punishment to Prison 'Reform'

Imprisonment as we know it today was not in use as the main method of punishment until the eighteenth century in Europe (nineteenth century in the US). Predating the rise of prisons, modes of punishment included transportation and forced labour, as aforementioned; public execution; banishment; and appropriation of the accused’s property.

It is worth noting that the prison itself came about due to the concerns of ‘reformers’ to create a ‘better’ system of punishment. Talk of ‘prison reform’ does not suggest the betterment of the incarceration system. ‘Prison’ and ‘reform’ are intrinsically linked in that the Prison was the reform of punishment. Prison is already the ‘humane punishment’.