Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Convict Ship Canton - 1840

Embarked: 240 men
Voyage: 112 days
Deaths: 2
Surgeon's Journal: yes
Captain John Mordaunt
Surgeon John Irvine
Arrived Van Diemen's Land 12 January 1840

Linus Wilson Miller and other American and Canadian Patriots were tried at Niagara and received a sentence of Death for High Treason and other offences. This was later commuted to transportation to Australia. At first confined in Fort Henry, they were later sent to England and held in Newgate Prison and various hulks while their cases were examined. The sentences of transportation were eventually confirmed and they were transferred from the hulks to the Canton along with numerous English felons for transportation to Van Diemen's Land.

After serving five years, Linus Miller returned to the United States where he wrote an account of his experiences in Notes of an Exile to Van Diemen's Land.

Surgeon John Irvine

Surgeon Superintendent John Irvine joined the ship at Deptford. He kept a Medical Journal from 24th August 1839 to 17 January 1840 - On 5th September the Guard was received on board consisting of two officers and 40 rank and file of the 96th and 80th regiments. At noon on that day the Canton was taken in tow by a steamer and dropped down the river. They arrived at Spithead on 13th September where the surgeon reported to the Office of the Rear Admiral Superintendent in the dock yard. He then went on board the Leviathan Hulk at Portsmouth to inspect the convicts to be embarked. (1) On the 14th September 240 prisoners were embarked from the hulks York and Leviathan.

The Canton departed Spithead on 22 September 1839.

Below is an extract from Chapter XIX with an account of the voyage of the Canton from Notes of an Exile to Van Diemen's Land: comprising incidents of the Canadian rebellion in 1838, trial of the author in Canada, and subsequent appearance before her majesty's Court of Queen's Bench, in London, imprisonment in England, and transportation to Van Diemen's Land by exile Linus Wilson Miller

Description of the Canton

The middle deck of the Canton, from the main hatchway forward, formed a floating prison for 240 men, during a voyage of two thirds the circumference of the globe. The accommodations were far better than we experienced on the 'Captain Ross.' Two tiers of berths, large enough for five men each, were fitted up on either side, and thirty hammocks were slung at night in the intermediate space. The height between decks was six feet eight inches. Two large hatchways, always kept open, but secured with iron bars, -ventilated the prison. The floor and berths were clean, and a proper regard to the health of the prisoners appeared to be scrupulously observed.


For convenience in rationing, they were divided into twenty-four messes of ten men each. Eleven ounces of ship biscuit of an inferior quality, one half pound of salt meat, one pint of pea soup, or five ounces of flour made into a plain suet pudding, one pint of sweetened tea for breakfast, and the same quantity of cocoa for supper, were allowed each man daily. A small quantity of wine, or lime juice, was also served to each man, as a preventive to scurvy, a disease well known on convict ships, and indeed any vessel in which salt provisions are used during a long voyage. Vinegar was likewise allowed for the same purpose. Two men were selected as cooks for the voyage, which duty they performed satisfactorily to all who were not particular about 'the peck of dirt.'


Twelve men were formed into a constabulary, whose duty it was to maintain order and report all irregularities to the surgeon, Dr. John Irvine, R. N., who visited the prison daily, and heard any complaints which the constables or men might make. The prisoners were under his exclusive charge, and the captain had no right to interfere, except in cases of emergency. He received from the government, as a compensation for his services, one guinea per man, for those only whom he landed at Hobart Town; thus making it his interest to treat them well. He was an Irish gentleman of mild deportment and Christian principles, and had served professionally in the British navy, for twenty years.

Military Guard

The safe custody of the prisoners was entrusted to Colonel Hulme, of the 96th, with a guard of forty men. Most of his regiment were already in Van Diemen's Land, and this officer was going out with the detachment to join them.

Departure from England

On Sunday, September 22d, 1839, at half past ten o'clock, A. M., the boatswain piped, 'All hands weigh anchor.'' As the sailors manned the windlass and half chanted, half sung, the customary song, so touching and appropriate to the occasion, it seemed to me that the anchor of hope, which held my soul to earth, was being torn from the rock of faith, and confidence in God. Though the storm of adversity had beaten hard upon me and I had been tossed upon the billows of affliction, hitherto my strength had been equal to the emergency, and I had found something to which I could cling, and defy despair; but now, the dark picture of the future, which my imagination drew, presented no light shade, no friendly beacon, to encourage hope, and render existence tolerable. The remainder of my days were, perhaps, all to be spent with the outcasts of earth, and friends, and home, and country, never to be enjoyed again, except through the kind offices of memory. There was but one source of comfort left, and I sought to avail myself of it. It was to trust in the prisoner's God. I knew that He who 'tempers the wind to the shorn lamb' would never leave nor forsake me, so long as I 'cast my cares upon him.' The view of Spithead was one of the finest which I ever beheld. In beating out of the channel, we twice passed near the lovely town of Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, long named, on account of its rich and delightful scenery, 'the garden of England.' It appeared to me a perfect paradise on earth, and I envied the poorest inhabitant, who dwelt amid such fairy scenes.

The Voyage

We were two days in making our way into the open sea. No sooner were the sails unfurled than sea-sickness commenced, and in a short time became general. There were only half a dozen persons in the prison who escaped the malady. 'Accounts were cast up' without ceremony, not only on the floor but in the berths; and our apartment was rendered truly horrible. An entire week passed before it could be properly cleansed. Meanwhile the horrors of the convict ship began to be realized by myself and comrades. I speak not of accommodation and treatment; both were as good as would have been expected, and far better than is usual on board vessels of that character; but to me the prison was a floating hell! The most horrid blasphemy and disgusting obscenity, from daylight in the morning till ten o'clock at night, were, without one moment's cessation, ringing in my ears. The general conversation of these wretched men related to the crimes of which they professed to have been guilty, and he whose life had been most iniquitous was esteemed the best man. I tried to close my ears and shut my eyes against all, but found this; a difficult task. With the assistance of books which were kindly loaned me by the surgeon, and by persevering in my efforts I finally triumphed and was enabled to shut out the dreadful sounds and live on in the midst of those horrors in an ideal world of my own.


Some kind friend in England having written to the surgeon in behalf of Grant, Gemmell and myself, every possible indulgence was granted us, which excited the ill-feelings of the English prisoners, who generally strove to annoy us as much as practicable, and this was not a little. Gemmel was appointed 'surgeon's mate,' and had charge of the hospital, (a room adjoining the prison, fitted up for that purpose,.) where he was quite comfortable. Grant and myself had a berth fitted up exclusively for ourselves, in the centre of the prison and near the hatchway; the fresh air which we enjoyed in consequence rendered our condition far better than it could otherwise have been. We also had permission to go on deck when we chose, and the promenade of the forecastle, from which the other prisoners were excluded, was a privilege highly prized. As for Beemer, he was generally treated according to his deserts; but the fellow made himself busy during half the voyage in fruitless endeavours to deprive us of the surgeon's friendship. Another favour allowed us was that of drawing tea, sugar and flour in lieu of such rations as we could not eat, and cooking our own tea. An extra allowance of water was given for the purpose.

I did not recover from sea-sickness until the voyage was more than half completed, and, as I was unable during the time to take much sustenance, I was reduced exceedingly low. The surgeon afterwards informed me that he had at the time, but slight hopes of my living to complete the voyage. When, however, I regained my health, my appetite ran to the opposite extreme, and if I failed to eat everything within reach, it must have been owing to some deficiency in my teeth.


All hands were divested of irons soon after we sailed. This is customary on board convict ships. Were it otherwise the clanking of chains would drown even the blasphemy of many voices. A school was opened during a part of the day, and all were allowed to attend who chose. Slates, arithmetic and spelling-books were furnished, and several teachers appointed by the surgeon, who usually spent a short time in our apartment during school hours. I was dubbed 'teacher;' but found the task of instructing old ideas 'how to shoot' rather dull.

There was so much wickedness constantly going on that but little progress could be made in anything good, and after a short time our number dwindled down to teachers only, all of whom knew too much to be instructed by the others, and so we had a vacation which lasted to the end of the voyage.


Favourable winds carried us quickly across the stormy Bay of Biscay, and we soon saw the peak of Teneriffe, at a distance of fifty miles, its head far above the clouds that intervened. As we approached the equator, a calm which lasted several days succeeded the north-east trades, and we had an opportunity of experiencing the almost insufferable heat, which never varies but slightly in that latitude. Although three pints of water were allowed each man to drink, they suffered extremely from thirst, and some of the poor fellows appeared to be more than half deranged in consequence. The health of the prisoners, owing, no doubt, to the habits of cleanliness which were strictly enforced, and the not unwholesome diet, was unusually good. There was at this time, but one prisoner in the hospital, and his complaint was of a pulmonary nature of long standing. 'Another cause for this general good health was, doubtless, the length of time the men were kept on deck. In favourable weather, they were not allowed to spend more than one-fourth of the day below.

Settling Quarrels

Although the quantity of wine allowed each man was small, its effects were always visible for a few succeeding hours. Loud talk, singing songs, spinning yarns, altercations, and fighting, were the order of the day the moment the wine was served out. I have often counted a dozen men settling their little quarrels at such times. A ring around the belligerent was always formed on these occasions by the 'lookers-on,' and seconds duly appointed to see fair play. The practice of fighting, among the lower classes of the English and Irish, is far more common than with my countrymen. Indeed, I do not recollect having seen but three or four instances of this disgraceful practice during my life in my own country.

A systematic code of laws, for the guidance of the principals and seconds, was universally known and observed. Kicking, striking, or offering any injury to an antagonist when down, 'gouging eyes,' so common in the civilized state of Michigan, or anything of the sort, was never dreamed of among these scientific warriors. They invariably fought from principle and according to law.

Wildlife at Sea

While within the tropics, the sailors caught several sharks. They were taken with a large hook, baited with a piece of pork which weighed four pounds. The habits of this terror of the deep are too well known to be particularized, and I will only add, that I ate a morsel of one which the captors of the huge animal cooked. The flesh was coarse and not over pleasant, I should judge, to an epicure's taste. An albatross was taken about the same time. The noble bird was observed swimming in our ship's wake, one calm day, and apparently busy in picking up something' eatable from the refuse thrown overboard. A book, attached to a line, baited with a small strip of red flannel cloth, and buoyed with a cork, was thrown out to tempt its avaricious appetite. It took the bait at once, and was immediately hauled on board, during which process it struck one of the sailors a hard blow with its wing. The size and shape was not unlike that of the swan. The body was clothed with a thick down, of snowy whiteness; its neck long and graceful, head bald, bill long and slightly curved, eyes large, dark and piercing, tail, when spread, of a light, and wings of a dark brown, long and arching. It measured from, tip to tip of the wings, fourteen feet seven inches. The sailors cooked it, and I ate the heart and liver, which tasted not unlike those of the wild duck of America. The albatross is the king of seabirds. They may generally be seen at all times in the warmer latitudes, sweeping through the air in circuits of about one-fourth of a mile, and never strike the air with their wings, but rise and fall in their flight with the most systematic grace.

Mother Cary's chickens frequently made their appearance, but were not always followed by a tempest, as sailors believe. They are a small, dark-colored bird, quick in their motions, and only fly in high winds, which accounts for their being considered as precursors of sea-storms. A large number of sea-gulls, of different species, were always-visible from the deck, and shoals of flying-fish were common.

Tristan de Cunha

Soon after sighting Trinidad, a barren, lofty rock, three fourths of a mile in circumference, the Canton tacked and stood toward the Cape of Good Hope. The south-east trade winds render it necessary for ships to sail thus far west, in order to 'double the cape.' On the 10th of November we arrived at Tristan de Cunha, a small island lying about fifteen hundred miles west of Africa, and hove to during the day for the purpose of obtaining some fresh provisions. We were soon boarded by the governor, accompanied by several of his subjects, among whom I soon discovered a countryman; from him I learned some interesting particulars of his adopted island home. The population was only fifty-nine, and consisted chiefly of shipwrecked mariners, of every nation in Europe and the new world. They obtained a livelihood by agricultural pursuits, grazing, and trading with the vessels which frequently touched there. They had, at that time, nine hundred head of cattle, and three thousand sheep. Their social and political condition may be described as follows: A community of property, a written code of laws of their own making, and suited to their peculiar condition, the execution of which depended upon the will of their governor or chief. A due observance of social rights and duties among themselves, and honorable dealing with strangers with whom they traded, were the leading characteristics of this singular collection of men. Several were married and had small families. The chief, (who enjoyed that honor from being the first settler and oldest inhabitant) had an African wife and three daughters, two of whom were married, and my informant added with not a little pride, that he had the distinguished honor of being the king's son-in-law, and when the old man died should be his successor. They acknowledged allegiance to no government except their own, and their independence had been tacitly recognized by the vessels of every nation by whom, they were visited. Hitherto, they had lived in peace and amity, and their laws had been, in general, strictly observed. I inquired of my countryman if he had no wish to return to the United States, but he promptly assured me that nothing could tempt him to abandon the island.

White Squall

After obtaining a quantity of fresh beef we again made sail, and in ten days doubled the cape, in doing which we experienced a terrible gale that lasted several days. The sea ran mountain high, and we ran before the wind under bare poles much of the time. We had favourable winds the remainder of the voyage, with the exception of a 'white squall,'' which suddenly carried away the mizzen, main and foretop-gallant masts, but as fair weather succeeded, new spars were soon erected.


The health of the prisoners continued good; only two deaths occurring during the voyage, one of which was the case of consumption before mentioned, and the other of apoplexy. They were both consigned to the watery deep, there to remain till the sea shall give up its dead. The burial service was read by the surgeon on each occasion; the captain, officers, soldiers, sailors, etc, being in attendance. The corpse was sewed up into a hammock, in one end of which two cannon balls were fastened to sink it beneath the surface; covered with the 'Union Jack' and placed upon a wide board, one end of which extended over the side of the vessel. When the words, so touching and beautiful for the occasion, were pronounced, we therefore commit his body to the deep,' etc the board was raised, a plunge succeeded, and the slight ripple of the parted waves, as we sailed on, soon disappeared. This was the end of our companion!

Arrival in Van Diemen's Land

On the 11th of January, 1840, we passed around the southern point of Van Diemen's Land, which, however, from a thick fog, was not visible; and I felt that I was nearing a new home of suffering and woe.

The Canton arrived in Van Diemen's Land on 12 January 1840 as the surgeon noted - after a pleasant and favourable voyage of sixteen weeks

There were two deaths, one was a case of confirmed Phthisis and the other a case of apoplexy. There were no cases of scorbutus and therefore the surgeon did not consider it necessary to touch at St. Jago or the Cape of Good Hope.

On arrival Sir John Franklin the Lieut. Governor of Van Diemen Land, and the Colonial Secretary congratulated John Irvine on his arrangements for the comfort of the convicts and for their personal healthy appearance. on disembarking at Hobart. [1]

Notes and Links

1). Prisoners convicted in Canada and transported on the Canton......
Thomas Aselton
Jacob Beamer
Thomas Carty
James Gammell
Michael Golden
John Grant
William Kerr
Linus Wilson Miller
James Park
John Quickfall
John Smith
Richard Wright

2). Other Convict Ships bringing prisoners who participated in the Canadian rebellion included the Buffalo in 1840 and Marquis of Hastings in 1839

3). Memorial for Canadian convicts sent to Tasmania - ABC

4). The James Gammell Chronicles - Elizabeth Gammell Hedquist

5). Political Prisoners

6). The steamer Meteor arrives at Portsmouth........The Spectator 1839


[1] UK, Royal Navy Medical Journals, 1817-1857

[2] UK Prison Hulk Books.