A couple of weeks ago I gave a nod to subtopia’s article on Floating Prisons. This is a topic that gets more meaty the more contemporary the examples become. The intrigue levels reach new heights when the 21st century, nautico-military gun-vessels are spear shaped, warp radar detection and travel quicker than your average barracuda. Concomitantly, the further back one ventures, prison ships are mired in the shameful times of slavery and the dirty deeds of colonial conquest.
There is a period between these two paradigms, when American authority locked up American pioneers on prison hulks. When the western expansion became western settlement, predominantly centered about San Francisco, the authority of the time needed a “bulk” solution to the settling and incorrigible population. The quickest solution to the quickest lawlessness on the continent was the prison ship.
In 1851, the first prison on the west coast of America was established at Point San Quentin, but when it was established it was not bricks and mortar but beams and gulleys. The Waban, a 268-ton wooden ship, anchored in San Francisco Bay, was outfitted to hold 30 inmates. Subsequently, inmates who were housed on The Waban constructed San Quentin which opened in 1852 with 68 inmates. Unfortunately, I could find no images of The Waban.
I think it is interesting that a “prison-as-terminal” was immediately necessary when humans reached the edge of a continent. San Quentin prison replaced the archipelago of local jails across America as a permanent and expanding facility – the final stopping point for California’s early lawless contingent.
It is poetic that the first penological-structure chosen (based on practical needs) was one that straddled land and water; permanently moored, but temporary in its utility. Carceral use demotes the ship to ‘container’ and The Waban, like its inhabitants, entered its demise.
Anyway, just to prove its not all bad news for prison ships, above is one of the most famous. Success was reincarnated as a global museum traveling the world purportedly as a museum demonstrating the transportation horrors of the British Empire.
Here’s the skinny, “Constructed in built in Natmoo, Tenasserim, Burma in 1840. sold to London owners and made three voyages with emigrants to Australia during the 1840s. On 31 May 1852 the Success arrived at Melbourne with emigrants, and the crew deserted to the gold-fields, this being the height of the Victorian gold rush. Due to an increase in crime, prisons were overflowing and the Government of Victoria purchased large sailing ships to be employed as prison hulks. These included the Success, Deborah, Sacramento and President.
“When no longer needed as a prison ship as such, the Success was used as a detention vessel for runaway seamen and later as an explosives hulk.
“When the Victorian Government decided to sell the last of its redundant hulks, Success was purchased by a group of entrepreneurs to be refitted as a museum ship to travel the world advertising the perceived horrors of the convict era. Although never a convict ship, the Success was billed as one, her earlier history being amalgamated with those other ships of the same name including HMS Success that had been used in the original European settlement of Western Australia.
“A former prisoner, bushranger Harry Power, was employed as a guide. The initial display in Sydney was not a commercial success, and the vessel was laid up and sank at her moorings in 1892. She was then sold to a second group with more ambitious plans.
“After a thorough refit the Success toured Australian ports and then headed for England, arriving at Dungeness on 12 September 1895 and was exhibited in many ports over several years. In 1912 she crossed the Atlantic and spent more than two decades doing the same thing around the eastern seaboard of the United States of America and later in ports on the Great Lakes.
“The Success fell into disrepair during the late 1930s and was destroyed by fire at Lake Erie Cove, Cleveland, Ohio, while being dismantled for her teak on 4 July 1946. (Source)
The Success passed through the Panama Canal and spent 1915/1916 on the Pacific Coast. She drew huge crowds in Seattle. I found the image above at the University of Washington Archives, which was my main reason for constructing this post. Success also docked in Tacoma in 1916.
I guess I just like the fact the Success was repurposed so many times and for a long period of time was a museum to the macabre. Some commentators were bothered by Roger Cremers recent World Press Photo win in the “Arts & Entertainment” category for his photographs of Auschwitz tourists. I guess ‘Dark Tourism’, or Thanatourism, has always existed. 21st century generations may not be as perverse as we perceive.