Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 24

For him no wretches, born to work and weep,

Explore the mine, or tempt the dangerous deep.

A second sessions of the Supreme Court from that of Rashleigh’s condemnation was now proceeding, and by the time it had ceased, our adventurer was judged sufficiently recovered to be forwarded to the place of his destination. Accordingly, one day, shortly after the termination of the trials, about 130 miserable beings, among whom, of course, was our adventurer, were linked to a long chain and marched through the streets, heavily ironed and strongly guarded, until they reached the public wharf, where a small colonial coasting vessel called the Alligator was then lying in readiness to receive them.

They were duly marched on board and were stripped quite naked before they were permitted to descend into the hold, that appeared to have been prepared for their reception, a rough floor having been laid over the shingle ballast. As fast as each man got below he was secured by his fetters to a chain, which in its rum was strongly fastened to the planking beneath, so that it was absolutely impossible for him to walk, even if the height of their place of confinement had permitted such a motion. But this was by no means the case, as, from Rashleigh’s description of it, the distance from the floor to the upper deck could not have been more than three and a half feet at the furthest, and the vessel being very small, the number of men referred to were actually squeezed in so tight that it was perfectly impossible for them to be in any other position than upon their sides, while from their close proximity one to the other, they quickly began to perspire so profusely that reeks of vapour almost as dense as smoke could be perceived rolling up the hatchway, the closing of which, if it were but for half an hour, must have resulted in inevitable suffocation to the whole herd of hapless wretches.

Ralph had read a great deal respecting the horrors of the slave trade, but never until now had he any faint conception of the shocking reality; and the only thing from which he could draw consolation was that as they had got but about a hundred miles in all to sail, the voyage and consequent suffering would be but of brief duration.

In a short time the vessel unmoored and the wind being fair, soon cleared the harbour and got out to sea, where a fresh gale appeared to be blowing; for the Alligator pitched heavily and shipped many billows, which, of course, making their way through the open hatchway into the hold, were at first hailed with delight by the parched sufferers below, whose feverish bodies were cooled by this immersion in the briny fluid. But in a little while the water increased in their prison to such an extent that they were obliged to adopt very painful positions in order to keep their heads above it. For several hours did this continue, until the captain was obliged by a shift of wind to put into a haven under his lee called Broken Bay; and then the unhappy convicts thought themselves fortunate in having the water pumped off, leaving them the wet floor to repose upon.

In brief, their voyage lasted forty-eight hours, during which period they were parched with thirst, very few being so fortunate as to obtain a single drink of water. Half a rotten and mouldy biscuit to each man formed their sole sustenance; and to crown all, they were cramped into a noxious hole, rather than hold, where the mephitic vapour arising from the breath of 130 men was increased by ordure, urine and excrement of every kind, among which the sufferers lay perforce.

This scene of complicated horrors, the intensity of which was in no whit lessened by the ruthless character of the inmates of this floating hell, was at length brought to a close by their arrival at Newcastle, where they shortly afterwards landed, naked as they were, upon the beach, and were compelled to perform sundry very necessary ablutions before their clothing was returned to them.

Here they remained until they were inspected by the military commandant, a personage of stern and uncompromising severity, the absolute rigour of whose sway well merited the appellation bestowed upon him of “King of the Coal River.” Immediately on the close of this muster they were told off to various scenes of labour; and it fell to the lot of Rashleigh, with seventeen others, to be drafted for employment in the old coal mine, so called to distinguish it from another shaft, which had been recently commenced.

At the mouth of this work they were received by an overseer, the natural fierceness of whose grim physiognomy was not lessened by a plentiful griming of coal dust. He quickly called his clerk “to take the likenesses” of those whose ill fortune had newly subjected them to his oppression. The clerk, a miserable, half-starved, downcast-looking, ragged being, soon performed his avocation with fear and trembling at the oft-repeated rude threats of his stern superior, and the men were lowered consecutively into the darksome orifice that appeared to gape for them.

On their arrival at the bottom of the chasm, a scene that had at least novelty to recommend it to our adventurer met his wondering gaze. Seven low passages appeared, that opened into the space around the termination of the shaft. They were dimly illuminated by small lamps; but at the farther extremity of each avenue there was a perfect coruscation of blazing lights, in front of which various groups of men were plying different branches of their thrift in toilsome haste, their extra diligence being apparently occasioned by the presence of the superior who had received the new-comers, a specimen of whose brutality they had an early opportunity of witnessing; for no sooner had he landed ftom the skep (bucket) in which he descended than his vigilant eye rested on one of the waggons that a party of prisoners had dragged along one of the passages. This not being filled to his liking, he, without any ceremony, but with many distasteful terms of abuse and energetic oaths, began to lay about him with a stout cudgel he carried, and dispensed his forcible favours so heartily that in a few seconds not one of the luckless gang belonging to the waggon in question was standing erect. After having thus knocked them all down, he began next to beat them until they arose again, and fairly cudgelled them off out of sight with the waggon.

On his return after this agreeable exercise, rather out of breath, he turned his attention to the new-comers, and dividing them into parties of six, he gave each subdivision charge of a waggon; and these led the way through one of the long galleries, followed by the waggons, until they all arrived at the end, which was an open area of considerable extent, where two or three large fires of coal were burning, by whose light, aided by that of their lamps; the miners were delving out masses of coal, at an immense heap of which he finally paused, directing a man who appeared to be overseer of this part of the work, to “take the new chums in charge, and set them on”. This was quickly done. They were told to fill their waggons with coal, to draw them back to die opening, and there to upset the contents as the man at the shaft should direct them.

They continued to do this, stimulated by the blows and threats of their harsh taskmaster, until night, when each received a small portion of boiled grains of maize and much less rotten salt beef, which, with water, formed their whole food. The wretched miners soon after lay down in any part of the works they thought fit, bedding being here totally unknown except to the deputy overseers, and clothing of any kind whatever unworn by the workmen. In fact, the extreme heat of this subterranean place of abode, arising from want of air, and enhanced by the numerous fires maintained, would have rendered the lightest apparel an encumbrance. As for beds or blankets, there were various heaps of sand, which, being loose, were soft enough; and on these such of the convicts as were curious about lying luxuriously used to repose themselves.

The luckless wretches condemned to this kind of labour only left the mine once a week, on Saturday afternoons, when they were all drawn up and compelled to wash themselves and their clothing in the salt water; and after the latter articles wEre dry, all were marched to the convict barracks, where they abode until daylight on Monday morning, at which period they resumed their labour.

The first Saturday afternoon of our adventurer’s sojourn at this miserable spot, as they were all bathing together in the sea, he noticed that not one of those who had been there longer than himself was without certain highly significant marks upon the back or breech, most frequently, indeed, on both, that told of the recent and severe application of the cat. A man to whom he remarked that “punishment was plentiful enough here apparently”, replied with a grin, “Aye. There’s plenty of that, anyway; and so you will say soon, for to-morrow is pay day.”

Ralph did not choose to ask any further questions, and they were soon after, to the number of five hundred, shut up in a spacious room of the prisoners’ barracks, where they were left to pass the night on the floor as they thought fit.

Just at dawn the next day, being sunday, they were aroused by the hoarse voice of a convict barrack officer, who turned them out into the yard of that edifice, where they were all drawn up around some implements, which the increasing light soon showed Rashleigh were triangles for securing men about to be flogged. Beside these implements was placed a table, at which sat apparently a clerk; and four scourgers stood beside the triangles, having their instruments of torture laid in fell array upon a long bench near them.

Our exile had scarcely completed his survey of all these dread preparations when the clash of arms and the roll of a drum announced the approach of the haughty potentate who was to set all this machinery of suffering in motion. An opening was quickly made in the ranks of assembled convicts, and the “Captain” marched in, attended by a sergeant’s guard of soldiers, who fell into a double rank behind him as he took his sEat at the table.

“Dash my old rags,” said a fellow standing near Rashleigh, upon observing that the commandant was dressed in his suit of full regimental uniform. “Look out, my lads! The cove has got on his fighting jacket. It’s a-going to be a regular field day!” And full many a wretch who knew the signification and truth of this prediction writhed HIs back in anticipation of the warm infliction so many of them were doomed to taste ere long.

The clerk now opened his book. The overseer of the coal mines was first called on. He made his appearance, and a loutish reverence, to the awful authority, who ordered him sternly to begin his punishment list.

“Charles Chattey” stood foremost on this black beadroll, and when this name was shouted by the stentorian lungs of one of the scourgers, a little duck-legged Londoner stood forth.

“What’s he been doing?” enquired the “Captain”.

“Neglected his work, Your Honour,” was the brief reply.

“One hundreds lashes,” was the equally prompt sentence. And the luckless wight was stripped and tied up in a twinkling at one of the triangles.

Three others were tried in as many minutes and took their places at the remaining sets.

The drummer, having received the signal, began to tap his drum in a slow and deliberate manner, marking time for the lashes, as they were inflicted by the willing and brawny arms of the flagellators, who were selected for this office from among the most muscular prisoners that would accept such a hideous berth, which, as before remarked, entailed upon them ever after the execrations of their fellow-convicts. And even while they held it, in this place, they were looked upon with distrust by their superiors, a constable always standing behind the back of the operating scourger with a stout stick, with which he scrupled not to strike the striker when his blows did not fall heavily enough upon the back of the culprit who was undergoing punishment.

In short, not to dwell too long upon so revolting a scene, about fifty men received more or less lashes, but none fewer than 75, the commandant at the same time vigilantly superintending the infliction of the scourge, and frequently, towards the conclusion, stimulating the nearly jaded floggers to increased exertion by threats of punishing themselves. Nor was this ceremony concluded until long after nine o’clock, when the men in the ranks were dismissed to their wretched breakfast of boiled corn grains, half a pound of which, with an equal quantity of very badly cured meat, formed the daily allowance of each convict.

With reference to the above examinations, as they were called, it is to be observed that the ceremony of an oath to the truth of the complaints being deemed superfluous, so, in like manner, was the form dispensed with, of asking the unlucky wretches charged with misdeeds what defence they had to make. The convict overseers simply stated their causes of complaint, when a sentence of some kind followed immediately as a mere routine of duty.

The next day Ralph Rashleigh returned to the darksome scene of his labours in the mine; and all that week himself and his companions wrought at removing the huge pile of coal to the shaft. This was only completed by dint of extra haste, under the threats of dire punishment, in case of failure, from their overseers, in time to admit of their leaving the mine with the others on the ensuing Saturday. On the day following this the commandant performed his usual Sabbath morning’s service, when more than four thousand lashes were “served out” as they called it, among about fifty men. This day was subsequently spent like the other Sunday. namely, in lounging about the large hall of the prisoners’ barracks, to which they were restricted when out of the mine, where they resumed their labour next morning, Ralph being that day attached to another party, whose duty it was among them to deliver a certain quantity of coals at the pit’s mouth daily, failing which, in the briefly expressive language of the overseer, “they’d be flogged till they did”.

In this dreary mode did our unhappy adventurer spend nine tedious months of starvation and unremitting labour, during which period he received 650 lashes for deficiency in the allotted task and other trivial offences. At length, he was one Sunday brought before the commandant on a charge of incorrigible laziness preferred by the principal overseer of the coal mine, and that officer administered one hundred lashes to him as a parting salute, directing that he should on the following day be sent to work naked in the limeburners’ gang.

After receiving his punishment, our exile was delivered into the care of the gaoler in order that he might be confined until he was forwarded to the place of punishment specified in his sentence; and the same afternoon an incident occurred which perhaps may afford to the reader some slight idea of the state of affairs in Newcastle at that period.

The commandant had six milch cows allowed to him for the supply of his household. So much of their produce as was not consumed in the state of milk was set aside and the cream taken off it to be manufactured into butter for his table. After this was skimmed, the refuse was given to the pigs; but there was a young scamp of a convict boy, who belonged to a party allotted for the service of supplying “Government house” (the commandant’s residence) with fuel, and this youngster, as it appeared, was in the habit of watching his opportunity, as soon as the skimmed milk was given to the inhabitants of the sty, when he would insinuate himself into their society to partake of the luscious meal.

The poor pigs seemed not to thrive so well as they might have been expected to do, while jack the woodboy got as round as a butt; and the commandant’s lady, who commiserated the lean state of her favourites — for she was very partial to pork — thought some surreptitious means must be resorted to in defrauding them of their dinners, which she resolved to see given to them herself for the future. Strange to say, even this tender solicitude did not seem to produce the wished-for effect. The dame was certain that they did get their food; and yet they got no fatter. At last an accident unveiled the mystery.

The commandant, upon this day, in returning to the house from the garden, heard an outcry in the pigsty. As he passed the back of it, looking over, he perceived an ancient sow, who had been named Lucy in honour of his lady, and she, being naturally irate at the injustice of the horrid peculations she had daily witnessed, seemed at length to have screwed up her courage to the sticking point, and was no longer to be kept away from the trough by the intruder that had taken possession of it, and who, alternately swilling the wash and kicking the rightful owner to keep her off, now lay at full length enjoying this delicious mess.

The commandant, equally enraged with the ill-used animal, had yet the prudence to suppress his wrath for a few minutes, because he was so placed that although he could see part of a human body in the sty, yet he could not tell who it was, and if he had spoken, the intruder might easily escape without his being able either to stop him or see his face.

Under these afflicting circumstances, the grave and haughty commander felt himself called upon for exertion; and he actually ran round the house, through the hall, calling lustily upon his lady, who followed him to the back yard, full of wonder at what could be the matter; when lo, right before the pigsty, the commandant halted, puffing and blowing with the unusual exertion. His lady joined him there. The angry officer, quite out of breath, could only point at the depredator, who, unaware of the approach of any interruption, still continued to enjoy his unhallowed meal.

“Oh, you scoundrel!” shrieked the lady.

The detected pig robber raised his head. Horror upon horrors, his eye caught that of the commandant, who roared out for a constable, whom he sent off for the scourgers, resolving that this atrocious offence should meet equally prompt and condign punishment.

In a few seconds six flagellators, bearing their cats and triangles, hastened to the spot. Jack was seized up by the wrists and feet.

“Give him a hundred!” roared the commandant, and observing that the officiating flogger only pulled off his frock, he ordered him also to doff his shirt and stationed another scourger behind the man who was about to punish the delinquent, with orders, if the first did not do his duty, that he was to flog him. The punishment now began; but whether it was owing to the obstinacy of the culprit or the fear of the flagellator preventing his exertion, Jack endured four or five lashes without wincing, far less crying out.

“Harder, sir, harder yet!” roared the commandant, who now quite lost his patience; and he ordered the second flogger to set on flogging the first.

Still the woodboy scorned to betray any pain, until the “Captain” cursed and swore like a maniac that neither one nor the other of the scourgers was striking at all! And he set a third operator to punish the second, a fourth to punish the third, and so on, until the whole six scourgers were pegging away at the backs of each other, the first one flogging the woodboy, and the commandant himself lashing the last with his horsewhip. Under these extraordinary circumstances, no regard was of course paid to the number of lashes inflicted, and it was not until the “King of the Coal River” was quite worn out that the scene terminated by his dismissing all the scourgers upon the spot and sentencing the woodboy to work at the limeburners, by which means Ralph Rashleigh came into possession of the tale.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05