Monday, July 25, 2005

The Jail Ship On Stonecutter's Island

Thanks to all of you for your story suggestions. I'll be incorporating them over the next couple of weeks. And Madame Chiang, if you have any specific streets you'd like to hear about, I'd be happy to oblige...

In the 1860s, Hong Kong's crime rate had fallen somewhat from its first two decades, but the number of criminals in the Colony had still remained obstinately high. Also there were frequent arrests and convictions of many members of the Chinese community that might not have occurred had they known the laws of the land. In the 1850s, for instance, according to research conducted by local historian Christopher Munn, it is estimated that fully 8% of the Chinese population of Hong Kong came before its courts, which is high by any standard.

Hong Kong's problem at the time was that there wasn't really any place to house all these criminals. Victoria Prison, which earlier Hong Kong residents had speculated was a desirable place for Chinese criminals to end up, because they were fed, had become massively overcrowded. The prisoners were frequently left together in common rooms, where medical witnesses of the 1860s reported were filthy, with extremely low hygiene standards and where prisoners were 'committing unnatural acts' with one another. Also, on January 12th and March 14, 1863, according to E. J. Eitel, successive gangs of prisoners had successfully made their escape from Victoria prison using the storm drains underneath the gaol.

For that reason, Charles Ryall from England was appointed the new superintendent of the prison system. His solution was to put many of the new prisoners on a disused ship's hulk, The Royal Saxon, and to park the ship just off of Stonecutter's Island, a small plot of land in Victoria Harbour ceded to Britain at the end of the Opium War in 1860. It had a granite quarry, but Ryall thought it suitable to house prisoners there as well. As Eitel says:

"Things went on well enough so long as a gunboat and a military guard were provided to guard the hulk, but when these were withdrawn, frequent attempts at rescue were made by outside associates of the prisoners."

There were also many mishaps, and one tragedy in particular, which occurred on July 23rd, 1863, [142 years ago last weekend!] is worth relating. During the transfer of 38 prisoners from Victoria Prison to the hulk, the boat carrying all of them capsized. As all of them were chained and manacled, all of them drowned and went to the bottom.

What really made it clear that this hulk idea was not going to work, though, were the events of April 21st, 1864. That day, over 100 prisoners, on a signal, overpowered their guards, undid their manacles, and escaped on junks that 'just happened' to be lying nearby. Ryall had in the meantime been fired and a new superintendent brought in. Mr. F. Douglas, according to Eitel, was able to quickly improve the conditions at Victoria Prison, which apparently soon became known as the "Douglas Hotel."


閒人白話 said...

This is an interesting piece of history.. i am currently studying victoria gaol history and come cross your blog, the information before 1870s is really hard to find. Can you kindly provide some sources which i may know more details of stonecutter gaol or more? Thanks a lot!!

閒人白話 said...
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