Convict Ship is ‘Bucket List’ Dive

The Success

The Success

George Wellington, a convicted pickpocket, embezzler and burglar was tied at the waist by a heavy rope and lowered into the foul smelling hold of the ship. It was the same way animals were loaded in the early 19th century. The Englishman’s treatment wasn’t much better than the pigs and sheep aboard the Success, one of many vessels in Australia’s “felon fleet.”

These convict ships were floating prisons that housed hardened criminals deemed hopeless for rehab and unworthy of doing time in their homeland jails. Australia was the United Kingdom’s New World and needed construction workers designated as “indentures” in its Down Under colonies. When the ship landed, the convicts became the custody of the governor who set up a penal colony that was a piece of cake compared to the suffering they endured in the 100 to 130-day voyage from England to Australia.

The Success, which later became a lucrative tourist attraction and a Great Lakes shipwreck, was typical of the fleet that carried the banished exiles. Some of the ships were owned by England, while others were chartered to deliver prisoners to the colonies. The ship’s masters and guards were subject to little English law once they left port. Thus they became, in many instances, seagoing torture chambers.

Between 200 and 300 convicts were housed below deck in cramped quarters. Hammocks and bedding were provided for those who followed the master’s strict rules, but a dark cell dubbed the “black hole” awaited violators. Convicts were manacled and chained for the slightest provocation and the whipping post awaited troublesome knaves and slackers.

There were frequent floggings with a cat-‘o-nine-tails, a whip with nine lines at the end, each containing three or more knots. Cruel masters and harsh discipline were handed out under deplorable conditions accompanied by outbreaks of scurvy, dysentery and typhoid. In the beginning, about 1788, frequent loss of lives forced the British to supply better provisions and medical support, but the cruel punishment continued.

The history and durability of the Success is impressive. Built in Burma, India, in 1840 the 135-foot barkentine sailed as a merchant vessel for eight years in trade between England and the East Indies. From1848 to 1852, she carried settlers on voyages from England to Australia. When the crew left in 1852 to seek riches in the gold fields, the Crown bought her for use as a prison ship. She sailed in this capacity for nine years and was so badly in need of repairs, she became an ammunition storage facility. The ship was finally scuttled in 1885 in the harbor at Sydney where she remained underwater for five years.

Like the legendary Phoenix rising form its ashes, the Success was raised, rehabbed and destined for greatness. She indeed became a “success” as a tourist attraction in Australia, England and Ireland. Spotting a perpetual jackpot of profits, an American bought the ship in 1912 and sailed it from Liverpool to Boston in 96 days.

The next 20 years were heydays for the owner as people flocked to tour the infamous convict ship, handle the torture devices and listen to lurid tales of human suffering. Contests were held to see who could spend the most time in the black hole. There was a waiting list for couples who wanted to be married aboard the ship. Popular everywhere she went, the Success tied up at ports in New England, the Mississippi, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes.

In 1943, a new owner purchased the ship, but three years later while docked near Sandusky, Ohio, vandals set fire to it as a prank on July 4, 1946. Thus the ship’s last hurrah was to provide an Independence Day spectacle for holiday celebrants.

Today, divers can glean a little history of a Great Lakes ship that recorded an amazing 106 years longevity.  One of the oldest ships sunk in the Great Lakes, the Success was grounded and broken up in Lake Erie close to shore off Port Clinton, Ohio. Its spine and ribs rise a few feet off the sand and mud bottom. Some of its teak planking and metal fittings are scattered nearby. Visibility in the 15-foot-deep water is usually poor and boat traffic heavy. But by gosh, I’m going to visit it. It’s on my bucket list. Put it on yours. Cheers!

About Ellsworth Boyd

Ellsworth Boyd, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, pursues an avocation of diving and writing. He has published articles and photo's in every major dive magazine in the US., Canada, and half a dozen foreign countries. An authority on shipwrecks, Ellsworth has received thousands of letters and e-mails from divers throughout the world who responded to his Wreck Facts column in Sport Diver Magazine. When he's not writing, or diving, Ellsworth appears as a featured speaker at maritime symposiums in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Philadelphia. "Romance & Mystery: Sunken Treasures of the Lost Galleons," is one of his most popular talks.
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13 Responses to Convict Ship is ‘Bucket List’ Dive

  1. Julie Clark says:

    I liked your article about the convict ships. I read where the ship, Success, sank in the late 1800s and was raised and refitted. Could this happen again since it is in shallow water off Port Clinton, Ohio? Thanks for a very interesting story!

  2. Tom says:

    May God rest their souls…

  3. Thanks for writing. No, the vessel can’t be salvaged since it is all broken up. Usually, when a ship such as this catches fire and is towed offshore, it is often dynamited so it won’t be a hazzard to navigation. There is not a lot left to see, but it would be fun to dive on it since it is in shallow water. It remains on my “bucket list” of dives. Thanks for writing. (P.S.-I had lunch with Clive and Dirk Cussler at Dirk’s home in Paradise Valley, AZ, on Oct. 5. On Oct. 6 I was the featured speaker at the Clive Cussler Collectors’ Society banquet & convention at the Millenium Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ. There was a nice turnout. Clive was there & signed books after the dinner.)

  4. Dive DC says:

    I was going through You Tube and I came upon the speech that you gave at the Clive Cussler Collectors Society Convention in Scottsdale. I liked it so much that I went to the Numa.net website and read all about the convict ship that you spoke about in your talk. It is quite interesting. And I enjoyed your talk too. I’m glad you mentioned Numa.net as I will now read your shipwreck articles each month.

  5. Sergio says:

    Hello to all,
    My name is Sergio and I write from Italy.
    Many compliments on the fascinating history.
    See you soon.

  6. To Dive DC–Thanks for your kind words. I have some interesting articles coming up on the website for the future. Stay tuned! E.

    To: Sergio: Hi Sergio. What part of Italy are you from? My wife & I visited Italy three summers ago and loved it. Cheers, E.

  7. Leonardo R. van Goens says:

    Hello!
    I ran into the Clive Cussler books when I bought four of them in a second-hand stand, and read them one after another. Not being really erudite, and an author myself (‘just’ one book published, two at the publisher’s now) I am amazed at Mr. Cusslers mastery over words and plots.
    Am going to his Plague Ship”" now, and I believe I shall enjoy it again, although to me, none tops “Corsair”. I agree with Tom Clancy’s remark on the title-page, but I met Mr. Cussler only through his novels.
    I hope to be able to purchase more of these marvellous books.
    Leonardo “Faith”
    Bonaire (diving paradise!)

  8. Judy T says:

    I actually fell over the Sea Hunters which was in the wrong place at the bookshop and purchased copies for my mad friends. Best book I have ever read. As a person who gets sea-sick on a wharf just watching boats move, I am now reading the 2nd book, which will never never be lent to anyone, ever! I love them both! Thank you Clive and all those who do this wonderful work.

  9. Michael says:

    As a ex Merchant Marine I enjoy Clive Cussler books for they give me back my sea

    Sea Legs and once again I’m back Sailing where I belong.

  10. John Hines says:

    It seems I read of this ship about 20 years ago in a book about shipwrecks in the great lakes. Sorry, I can’t remember the name of the book, but I remember something about a man who had been a prisoner on that boat, been released, and years later visited the boat and after seeing the black hole, came up on deck and jumped overboard and drowned. Can anyone verify that?

  11. I have read a lot of clive custler books I particularly like the ones that dirk pit is the main caracter, I am presantly reading”INCA GOLD” I am allways on the lookout for Clive Custler books . cheers LEN

  12. John: I hadn’t heard that story about the prisoner who returned to the SUCCESS and then jumped oveboard and drowned. You have motivated me to start looking around for some of the books written about the convict ships and checking out these stories. I’m sure there’s a lot of interesting tales about them. Cheers, E.

  13. Paul Rentz says:

    That photo you have of the ship, I have one that I think my great uncle took from about the same angle. I’m betting that’s at Boblo Island between Detroit and Windsor- do you know if that’s the location?

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