Dancing on convict ships.
Before leaving the Hulk, the convicts are thoroughly clothed in new suits, and ironed; and it is curious to observe with what nonchalance some of these fellows will turn the jingling of their chains into music whereto they dance and sing.1
Peter Cunningham was the Surgeon Superintendent on five convict transports between 1819 and 1828. He published an account in 1827 of his experiences on convict ships and within the colony – an invaluable chronicle touching on many aspects of social life. One curious observation is the description of convicts dancing in their chains: strange as this may seem to modern readers, the act of dancing in fetters belonged to a theatrical tradition.
The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay in 1728, was based around Newgate Prison and portrays the lives of thieves and whores, with notorious villains such as Jack Sheppard the famous highwayman and prison breaker, and Claude Duval, the highwayman. The music was adapted from popular tunes of the day, including ballads and folk tunes with the final act of the play featuring convicts dancing in chains. This became a standard theatre piece throughout the nineteenth century.
Another description of convicts dancing in chains comes from the convict ship Asia in 1824.
2 Lord John Russell in fetters, as Filch, dances while Daniel O’Connell, on the left, represents Peachum and Joseph Hume, on the right, Lockitt. Coloured lithograph by H.B. (John Doyle), 1836. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Dancing in Fetters in colonial theatres
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