Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Historical Note on the Chain Gang

“Nothin’ worse than the sound of the chain.”
-Sam Cooke

While the origin of the shackled worker remains unknown, the first recorded chain gang was the direct effect of the slave ship Lathamas, commissioned by the infamous Captain Isaac Jennings. According to the ship’s log, in 1794 Jennings set out on his third voyage by way of Barbados through the Granada Islands. Buying a shipment of Ecuadorian slaves, Jennings then set sail for New Zealand. Due to a weather system and rocky sea, the Lathamas changed course and arrived in Australia in the spring of 1795. Sea-torn and weary, Jennings soon took fancy with a local maid, deciding instead to keep his ship at port and try his hand at farming. Keeping 15 of his strongest slaves for himself, Jennings chained his workers together with his local white slaves, all hardened criminals and outcasts from England, using the shackles he harnessed from the ship’s bow. With his new method, Jennings was able to keep his slaves from running away, as well as allow him to beat his workers accordingly, with little effort. With the Australian drought in full force, however, Jennings lost many slaves to gangrene caused by the constant pull of the chains. Jennings returned to the sea in 1780, choosing instead to transport criminals from England to Australia, rather than slaves. The chain gang method Jennings brought to greedy land owners and prison colonies was most famously used in Botany Bay Prison, where European noblemen often visited, returning to mainland with their new knowledge. The chain gang remained a staple of prison life until 1955, when it was ruled an inhumane working condition.

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