Tavern of the Seas — by Lawrence G Green
COLLECTIBLE BOOKS: Jail was no picnic in 19th century Cape
Just the memory of life in the Breakwater Prison was enough to keep men on the straight and narrow afterwards
Crime in the early days of Cape Town was daring, and punishment brutal. "For human misery in the mass there has never been anything in SA to match the Breakwater Prison," Lawrence G Green relates in his book Tavern of the Seas.
In 1846 the Cape authorities decided that a breakwater should be constructed in Table Bay. It was to be built by convict labour, and in 1860 Prince Alfred (later the Duke of Edinburgh) pressed a silver trigger to tip the first load of stones for it.
Green says that was the first and last "touch of luxury in the whole enterprise".
For the next 50 years convicts — black, white and coloured — worked in the quarries and the harbour at back-breaking tasks. The prison became one of the most notorious in the world. "Here was the Old Newgate under our Southern Sun, which was comparable to Dartmoor and Devil’s Island," Geen writes.
Warders were former policemen, soldiers or deserting seamen. They were paid one shilling and eight pence a day. Apparently the food was good, as there always was one or two top-class chefs in the prison.
When the government decided to crack down on the practice of illicit diamond buying stiff sentences were introduced for the crime. Anyone caught in possession of uncut diamonds qualified for a sentence of five to 10 years in the Breakwater Prison. This exercise netted educated men such as doctors and lawyers.
The diamond and gold booms attracted many shady characters. Some became wealthy, but more ended up in the Breakwater Prison.
Life in prison was monotonous. The day started when the "rouse bell" sounded at 5am. Mealie-meal porridge was served, and work started a 6am, when the 1,000 or so inmates were marched off to the work sites. The dangerous ones wore chains. Stew and bread were served at noon and the workday ended at 5pm.
Strict precautions were taken to prevent escapes. In the early days white convicts were placed between two black ones to prevent communication between white prisoners. But escapes still occurred. Recaptured convicts had six months added to their sentences and received 12 (later 10) lashes of the cat o’ nine tails, which scarred a man for life. The cat had nine knotted thongs of whipcord and was soaked in brine.
One habitual escapee received more than 50 lashes for attempting to escape during his sojourn in the prison.
Laziness and petty offences earned the offender time on the treadmill.
On the credit side, however, books, draughts and chess were made available; and inmates received a slice of cake at Christmas.
Many men became so desperate and despondent that they were prepared to risk a flogging by the cat on the chance that they would escape. A few did get away.
As one warder remarked, the Breakwater did not reform the men, but it kept many straight for fear of being sent back there.
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