Napoleon’s words come back to haunt us as a prison barge for our times sails in

Tim Adams

Prison ships have forever been associated with the worst excesses of English injustice. On the eve of Waterloo, Napoleon stiffened the resolve of his troops by demanding: “Soldiers, let those among you who have been prisoners of the English describe to you the hulks, and detail the most frightful miseries which they endured!”

A search back through the archives of the Guardian and the Observer sees the phrase invariably used as a shorthand for draconian horrors. One advert from 1896 invited visitors to come and experience “Manchester’s latest and best sensation: a prison hulk 100 years old”, shown “as when full of prisoners” with “high class wax models”.

This weekend, to our national shame, the idea of a prison barge sails out of those archives and back into the news pages. The Bibby Stockholm, currently being refitted in Falmouth, is to moor at Portland, near Weymouth, to house 500 asylum seekers. Will future generations again be invited to look back and imagine the lives of the desperate people incarcerated offshore, and the wealthy democracy that put them there?….