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2000-06, 326, Australiana, History, Warwick Hirst

Great Convict Escapes

A few years ago I was doing some research for a client in the Mitchell Library. He was interested in the history of Norfolk Island – particularly the convict era. While looking through a bundle of papers I came across a manuscript which on closer inspection proved to be the autobiography of a convict named James Porter who had been sentenced to transportation for life for stealing a quantity of silk and beaver fur. After describing his early years and how he came to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land he devoted the remainder of his narrative to recounting his numerous attempts to escape. These culminated in the hijacking of the government brig Frederick in 1834 at Macquarie Harbour, the infamous penal settlement on the bleak west coast of Tasmania. After disabling the guards and crew and then abandoning them on the shore he and nine companions sailed the brig clear across the Pacific Ocean to South America, which was then, as it still is today, a favourite destination for absconding villains.

My interest was immediately aroused. Here was a story of high adventure the equal of those enthralling World War II prisoner of war escape stories that I had devoured as a teenager. Among my favourites were (and still are) The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill, The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams and The Colditz Story by P.R. Reid. Like these writers Porter’s style is lucid and spare and a number of passages quickly caught my eye. For instance, he recalls how on one occasion he escaped from the Hobart Town chain gang by knocking out the guard and fleeing into the bush. His plan was to head south to the coast, steal a dinghy and cross the narrow channel to Bruny Island, where he hoped to be taken on board a whaling vessel. Unfortunately he was spotted by a party of soldiers who gave chase. He takes up the story:

I sprang into the channel keeping underwater as long as I could – the tide took me a great distance from my pursuers though not out of range of their muskets. I could hear the bullets fall into the water very close to me but did not receive any injury from them. I then struck across for Barnes’ Bay, hauled myself through a body of kelp or sea weed and by the time I made the shore I was nearly insensible – I crawled up the beach the best way I could and lay down entirely exhausted. I remained in this state for a length of time exhausted, cold, wet and hungry.1

After further adventures on Bruny Island, which included kidnapping a settler, Porter was eventually apprehended and sent to Macquarie Harbour for seven years and it was from there he made his successful escape to South America.

Having read Porter’s story it occurred to me that if one such manuscript had survived then possibly others had too. In my spare time I checked the library catalogues and discovered that indeed several other convicts had committed their escape experiences to paper. This then was the origin of my book. As I delved further I came across references to other great escapes. My research took me further afield – particularly to the State Archives of Tasmania and the Public Record Office in London. Eventually I had the basis of the book: six escapes based on the personal narratives of the escapers themselves. Supporting these documents I found a mass of contemporary government records, newspaper articles and other primary sources which overall confirmed the convicts’ own stories.

In their quests for freedom they encountered many trials and experienced much hardship and danger – their lives were constantly at risk whether they were negotiating uncharted waters, struggling through inhospitable bush, or fending off hostile natives. There was always the threat of shipwreck, starvation, and in some cases cannibalism, and if they were recaptured they could expect to be barbarously punished. They lived through exciting times and their stories are an important and lively part of our early history.

In the late 19th century Australia was a strange new land situated at the very edge of the known world. It was this remoteness, this geographical isolation that was a major reason for its selection as a British penal settlement. Admiral Sir George Young, who proposed a plan to the government in 1785 for settling convicts there, considered that escape from such a distant, such an inaccessible place as Botany Bay would be impossible. But in making this assessment he failed to take into account the human spirit. It is true that the formidable barriers of distance, impenetrable bush and wide oceans made escape from the colony a very difficult proposition, yet many convicts did nevertheless make the attempt. Most were recaptured, died in the bush of starvation, or were lost at sea. However a significant number did find their way to safety. Some even made it all the way back to Britain.

Within a matter of days of the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney a small group of convicts had evaded their guards and set out through the bush to Botany Bay in the hope of being taken on board the ships of the French navigator, La Perouse, which were riding at anchor there. However, he refused their appeals and they had no alternative but to return to Sydney and the inevitable punishment that awaited them. Over the next few years convicts occasionally took to the bush one or two at a time, but this changed dramatically with arrival of the transport ship Queen crammed with Irish convicts. According to Deputy Advocate General David Collins, “they went off in numerous bodies, few of whom ever returned”.2 And no wonder, because in their geographical ignorance they had conceived the notion that China was situated only 250 km to the north on the other side of a fordable river. In November 1791 one group of 21 set out with provisions for only a week. They eventually turned up back at the settlement, bewildered and exhausted. In the words of a contemporary, they were “so squalid and lean that the very crows would have declined the proffer of their carcasses.”3 Surprisingly, this failure did not discourage further attempts by other “Chinese Travellers”, as they were derisively known. Even as late as 1803 four convicts set out on foot from Castle Hill for China. Only one survived. He was found three weeks later half-starved on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.

Another fantastic rumour that circulated among the early convicts was that about 500 km to the west was another colony of white people where all the comforts of life would be provided without the necessity of working. In 1798 sixty convicts set out for this fabled paradise armed with a compass drawn on a scrap of paper to guide them. Needless to say they were unsuccessful. Even more bizarre was the belief held by some Irish convicts that if they headed south they would reach Ireland. According to Surgeon Peter Cunningham, this idea was based on the very Irish logic that, as Ireland was a colder country than New South Wales and as the cold winds blew from the south, therefore Ireland must lie in that direction.

Many of the convicts who fled into the wilderness clearly had little or no idea of where they were going. Yet without any evidence beyond rumour, the hope lingered that somewhere on this unmapped continent other rival settlements must exist whose inhabitants might be sympathetic to escaped prisoners of the British Empire. As a result, parties of deluded convicts continued to stumble about the unfamiliar and dangerous landscape, many to be eventually claimed by starvation or picked off by hostile Aborigines. In 1814 Richard Kippas, a prisoner for life, ran away from Windsor with seven other convicts. Their plan, such as it was, was to make their way across country to the west coast in the vague expectation of finding a Dutch settlement there. They got 300 km beyond Bathurst before turning back, having run out of food. One man died and the remainder were so debilitated that they had to spend weeks in hospital recovering from their ordeal.

However as the colony inevitably expanded and geographical knowledge improved, these chimerical destinations were replaced by more realistic objectives. Thomas Cook, author of that marvel-ous account of convict life, The Exile’s Lamentations, absconded from Port Macquarie in 1835 with sufficient supplies to get him to one of the stations of the Australian Agricultural Company about 200 km away. From there he pushed on to Maitland where he hoped to find work and eventually earn a passage by sea to Sydney. Sydney was the favourite goal of most runaways from the outlying settlements of New South Wales (in Van Diemen’s Land it was Hobart). There they could disappear in the crowd or, with luck get taken on board a ship. Even as early as 1793 this had been the aim of an enterprising character from the Second Fleet called John Crow who was serving a 14 year sentence for burglary. After breaking out of the lock-up at Parramatta he made his way to Sydney where he swam out to an American vessel anchored in the harbour. Unfortunately for him he was detected climbing on board and taken into custody. Shortly after, he escaped again by untiling part of the roof of the gaol. Once again he was apprehended and for this and other offences was sentenced to death. A few hours before his execution he tried to effect another escape by jumping down the privy. After he was hanged it was found that he had re-moved some bricks from the wall of his cell and it was David Collins’ opinion that given another day he would easily have escaped.4

Some escapees managed to survive in the bush by turning to banditry. In December 1791 Captain Watkin Tench of the marines noted in his journal that “there are at this time not less than 38 convict men missing who live in the woods by day and at night enter the different farms and plunder them for subsistence.”5 Six years later the problem had become acute enough for a shipment of guns to be specially ordered from England for the use and defence of settlers in the outlying regions. By the turn of the century a new word had been coined to describe these marauders – bush-rangers.

The first bushranger to achieve notoriety was John Caesar, a Madagascar-born convict known as “Black Caesar”. He was convicted of theft in 1786 and transported on the First Fleet for seven years. Within months of arriving in New South Wales he took to the bush with rations, an iron pot and a musket, but was quickly captured. He was a big muscular fellow described by David Collins “as an incorrigibly stubborn black … in his intellects he did not very widely differ from a brute; his appetite was ravenous for he could in one day devour the full ration for two days. To gratify his appetite he was compelled to steal from others, and all his thefts were directed to that purpose”.6

In all Black Caesar escaped four times, living in the bush for months at a time and plundering farms and shepherds’ huts on the outskirts of the town. A reward of 5 gallons of rum was posted for his capture and in January 1796 he was shot by a bounty hunter as he emerged from his hideout on the Liberty Plains (now the suburb of Strathfield). His only obituary was this blunt comment from Collins: “Thus ended a man who had given more trouble than any other convict in the settlement.”7

In Van Diemen’s Land, the repository for some of the most hardened types, the bushranger problem was particularly grave. The first settlement there had been established in 1803 and only four years later Governor William Bligh was expressing dismay at the number of escaped convicts infesting the interior. By 1814 the situation had failed to improve. The new governor Lachlan Macquarie’s solution to the problem was to offer an amnesty to all bushrangers who surrendered before 1 December of that year. However the unforeseen effect of this proclamation was that not only did it offer a pardon for past crimes but it also granted a licence to ravage the colony until the expiry date. In the end few bushrangers surrendered anyway and in desperation Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey declared martial law. But with insuffi-cient troops to enforce it, this measure proved almost as ineffective.

One of the few bushrangers who did take advantage of Macquarie’s amnesty was Michael Howe. A deserter from the British army, he arrived in Hobart in 1812, having been transported for highway robbery. He absconded the following year and linked up with a gang of bushrangers. Within months of surrendering he was back in the bush again leading another gang of desperadoes raiding and pillaging from one end of the island to the other. Styling himself “Lieutenant-Governor of the Woods” he actually carried on a correspondence with Lieutenant-Governor Davey, whose jurisdiction he impudently claimed was limited to Hobart town. His violent career finally came to an end in October 1818. He was cornered on the banks of the Shannon River by Private William Pugh in company with a stock keeper named Thomas Worrall. In the ensuing gunfight Howe was hit. As he staggered away Pugh ran up and battered his brains out with his musket butt. The bushranger was buried where he fell except for his head which was cut off and put on public display in Hobart.

The romance and heroism of James Porter’s escape is certainly absent from Howe’s exploits and even more so from the story of Alexander Pearce, the only man to escape from Macquarie Harbour twice. Pearce was a small pockmarked Irishman who had been transported for seven years for stealing six pairs of shoes. In 1822 he seized a small boat and with seven other convicts rowed to the far side of the harbour. From there they set out on foot through some of the most mountainous and inhospitable country in Australia. They hoped to reach Hobart where they planned to steal a schooner and sail to England. Pearce was the only survivor of a nightmare journey when one after another of his companions was killed and eaten by the remainder. When he was finally captured near Hobart in the company of some bushrangers the authorities refused to believe his horrific tale of cannibalism. There were no bodies to support his claims and they were sure that he was protecting his companions who, they believed, were still at large. He was shipped back to Macquarie Harbour and a year later he escaped again, this time with only one other convict. He was apprehended after a week, camped alone on a remote beach. In his pocket was a chunk of human flesh. This time he was believed and was promptly tried and hanged. Alexander Pearce’s escape was, of course, adapted by Marcus Clarke in his classic novel For the Term of His Natural Life, where Pearce is portrayed as the depraved monster Gabbett. An interesting postscript to the story is that after the execution the head was removed from the body and somehow made its way into the collection of an American phrenologist. It can be seen today, minus its lower jaw, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Survival in the bush was always a hazardous business for runaways and it was made more dangerous and difficult by the hostility of the indigenous inhabitants. From the earliest days convicts had provoked Aborigines by souveniring unattended spears, clubs, shields and canoes. The missionary Lancelot Threlkeld noted with horror that far worse than such thefts was the forcible abduction of Aboriginal women for what he described as “purposes which would not bear the light of day”.8 Even children were apparently not immune to convict lust. He wrote:

“I have heard at night, the shrieks of girls, about 8 or 9 years of age, taken by force by the vile men of Newcastle. One man came to me with his head broken by the butt end of a musket because he would not give up his wife. There are now two government men that are every night annoying the Blacks by taking their little girls.”9

Understandably the Aborigines were quick to retaliate to this sort of treatment. On 8 March 1788 Surgeon Bowes-Smythe noted in his journal that “the natives had killed several of the convicts who had eloped from Port Jackson & taken up their residence at Botany Bay”. In May Captain Watkin Tench reported that, among a group of convicts who had disappeared, “two who were employed as rushcutters up the harbour were most dreadfully mangled and butchered by the natives”.

Thirty years later things had not changed. Sgt John Evans reported that “the Hunter River Aborigines when in the woods will take the life of any person, soldier or other, who may happen to have given them offence at the settlement. They never forget anyone whom they have seen”. The authorities were not slow to take advantage of this hostility. By the 1820s Aborigines were being rewarded with tobacco, sugar, blankets and even money for turning escaped convicts in and their great skills as trackers were being utilised. “They accompany the soldiers sent in pursuit,” noted Commissioner John Bigge, “and by the extraordinary strength of sight that they possess, improved by their daily exercise of it in pursuit of kangaroos and opossums, they can trace to a great distance, with wonderful accuracy, the impressions of the human foot. Nor are they afraid of meeting the fugitive convicts in the woods, when sent in their pursuit, without the soldiers: by their skill in throwing their long and pointed wooden darts they wound and disable them, strip them of their clothes, and bring them back as prisoners.”10

Despite the convicts’ generally abysmal record in their dealings with Aborigines, in a few cases they were actually given shelter by tribes and protected from pursuit. After escaping from Port Phillip in 1803, William Buckley lived for 32 years with the Watourong tribe who believed him to be a reincarnation of a dead chief. When he finally returned to civilisation he had forgotten how to speak English. Meanwhile, far to the north, another escaped convict had come in from the bush with a similar story. John Graham had absconded from Moreton Bay in 1827 intending to make his way to China. After subsisting on fish and fern roots for several months he was recognised by an Aboriginal woman as the ghost of her dead husband. He stayed with her tribe for six years before returning to Moreton Bay.

Most of the early escapers headed into the interior. It was far easier to simply walk into the bush than to steal a boat or stow away on a departing ship. For some years only relatively few convicts realised that true freedom lay to the east beyond the Pacific Ocean, but gradually this realisation blossomed. Between 1803 and 1820 over 40 escapes and attempted escapes by sea were recorded involving close to 300 men and women. The pioneers of the sea route to freedom were probably the five men who seized a punt at Rose Hill in September 1790 and passed undetected down the Parramatta River to South Head. There they stole a small boat and put to sea, their aim being to reach Tahiti. Nothing further was heard of them until five years later they were picked up living with Aborigines at Port Stephens. Although they failed in their objective they had shown the way and other attempts to escape by sea rapidly followed.

Perhaps the most celebrated is the escape by Mary Bryant, a Cornishwoman who arrived in the First Fleet under a seven year sentence for assaulting a spinster and stealing a silk bonnet and goods to the value of 11 guineas. In 1791, with her husband William, two children and seven other convicts, she stole Governor Phillip’s cutter and sailed north from Sydney. After a voyage of nearly 5000 km they reached Timor after enduring gales, near shipwreck, starvation and attacks by hostile Aborigines and Torres Strait headhunters. It was a journey which bears comparison with William Bligh’s voyage to the same destination in an open boat af-ter the mutiny on the Bounty. Unfortunately, they were all arrested in Timor and shipped back to England in irons. During the voyage William Bryant, the two infants and four convicts perished. On arriving in England Mary and the remaining four were committed to Newgate Gaol. However, her story was widely publicised and attracted the compassion and, it has been suggested, the amourous attentions of James Boswell. He used his contacts in high places to obtain a pardon for her. He was also successful in gaining clemency for her four surviving companions.

What I find particularly fascinating about this story are its amazing links with the story of William Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty. As I have already mentioned, the Bryants’ voyage, as a feat of seamanship and endurance, compares favourably with Bligh’s own open boat voyage in 1789. Now, the person who was responsible for arresting the convicts and taking them back to England was Captain Edward Edwards who had been sent out in 1790 under orders to seek out and arrest the Bounty mutineers. He succeeded in capturing 14 of them on Tahiti and was on his way back to England when his ship, HMS Pandora, was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. The survivors, 99 in all, including ten of the mutineers, took to the ship’s boats and in the wake of Bligh and the Bryants passed through Endeavour Straits and on to Timor and their fatal meeting with the escaped convicts. This, however, is not the end of the story. In October 1792, Bligh visited Timor again, this time in HMS Providence during his second breadfruit voyage. The Dutch Governor had impounded William Bryant’s journal and he now showed it to Bligh, who was very impressed by the convicts’ exploits and arranged for a copy of the journal to be made. However, with time running out the copyist had only got through a small part of it. All that remains today is Bligh’s own brief summary and a few quotations which he entered into his log book. The whereabouts of Bryant’s original journal is a mystery. Most of what we know of the Bryants’ voyage comes from a short narrative written after his return to England by one of their fellow escapers, James Martin. Another relic from the voyage are two leaves of the wild sarsparilla vine. Bunches of these leaves were collected by Mary Bryant for making tea during the voyage. Apparently some were left over and found there way into James Boswell’s papers now at Yale University, where they are labelled in his hand “Tea leaves from Botany Bay”. In 1956 the University donated two of the leaves to the Mitchell Library.

Instead of stealing a boat some convicts preferred to build their own. In 1814 it was reported that 24 men had attempted to escape from Van Diemen’s Land in a boat of their own construction but once at sea bad weather forced them to return. This was evidently a decent sort of vessel but other efforts were rather more primitive. In an early attempt to escape from the hell of Norfolk Island one convict was desperate enough to put to sea on a door through which he had bored two holes for his legs. However he had not got too far off shore when one of his toes was bitten off by an unidentified sea creature and he too was forced to return. In 1827 three Macquarie Harbour convicts fashioned a slightly more sophisticated craft from two water casks, a night tub and part of a water closet. They were all drowned when their makeshift vessel broke up. To circumvent any further such attempts the commandant gave orders that in future all night tubs were to be made from iron tar barrels.

As Sydney with its deep water harbour developed from an isolated gaol into an important Pacific trading centre other opportunities for illegally leaving the colony opened up. Bluff American and British whaling captains, coming in for repairs and provisions, were not averse to replacing sick or injured crewmen with willing runaways. On 9 November 1794 the Resolution left Sydney on a whaling voyage but was observed next day hovering about the coast waiting, as it turned out, to pick up a boatload of escaped convicts. “The impropriety of the conduct of the Resolution’s master,” thundered an outraged David Collins, “was so glaring for there was not any doubt of his having received on board, without any permission, to the number of 12 or 13 convicts whose terms of transportation had not been served. To take clandestinely from the settlement the useful servants of the public was ungrateful and unpardonable.”11 But Collins raged in vain for to the tough, lawless whalers such sentiments were laughable and convicts continued to be absorbed into their crews as required.

The majority of convicts who escaped from the colony by sea did so as stowaways, sometimes with the connivance of sympathetic captains and crewmen. When the Endeavour sailed from Sydney for India in 1795 an astonishing 50 runaways were secreted on board. The escape of four convicts from Norfolk Island on the South Sea whaler New Zealander without her captain’s knowledge in 1813 prompted Governor Lachlan Macquarie to warn Earl Bathurst that “the facility with which convicts may effect their escape by means of shipping from any of the frequented harbours of this colony or its dependencies, notwithstanding every exertion to prevent it, is still so great that unless measures are adopted at home to terrify these fugitives from revisiting their native country in this manner by stealth, such desertions will become every day more frequent, as the commerce and shipping increase, and will be a serious evil unless speedily checked.”12

Macquarie’s pessimistic forecast was well founded. Writing in 1827 the surgeon Peter Cunningham, veteran of five voyages to Australia between 1818 and 1828, observed that:

a considerable number of convicts escape annually, likewise by concealing themselves in vessels about to sail from the colony … sometimes these people are concealed by the master to be useful to him on his voyage; but occasionally they slip onshore in like manner at the end of the voyage, without a single individual ever knowing they had been in the ves-sel.13

Of course the authorities regularly introduced security measures designed to prevent this exodus, but just as regularly they were circumvented. Governor Philip’s reaction to Mary Bryant’s escape was immediate. A sentry was posted on every wharf at sunset and no vessel was allowed to leave Sydney Cove without the authority of the officer of the guard. In addition the construction of boats longer than 14 feet was prohibited. However these precautions failed to dampen what David Collins wryly called “the spirit of emigration” among convicts. By 1800 masters of all incoming ships were required to post a bond of £200 not to carry away any convicts without the Governor’s permission and before departing every ship was invaded by constables with orders to winkle out any concealed absconders. When suspicion fell upon a vessel the hatches were fastened down and the ship was smoked with brimstone, an effective method of either suffocating stowaways or forcing them half blinded and choking onto the deck.

Sometimes ships’ captains were prepared to gamble on forfeiting their bond money by taking runaways on board. When the American vessel General Gates sailed from Sydney in 1819 there were eleven convicts concealed in the sail locker, all of them trained mechanics, procured by the master Captain Riggs. At risk was a bond of £500 but Riggs had made careful preparations. Because she was carrying a cargo of gunpowder the ship was not smoked, nor was she searched, an omission which smelt strongly of collusion between Riggs and the Chief Constable. The General Gates headed for New Zealand where Riggs indulged in some gun running to the Maoris. As part of the deal he offered to sell them two of the convicts who were skilled in repairing firearms, in re-turn for supplies of potatoes and pigs. Eventually he was arrested, brought back to Sydney and fined £6500, which included £500 for each convict.

One convict who stowed away successfully has left an account of his experiences.14 Unfortunately we do not know his name. After absconding from a wood cutting gang, sometime in the early 1840s, he and a mate named Mahony made their way to Botany Bay which they reached as darkness was falling. They concealed themselves among some rocks and in the morning spotted a ship lying some distance off shore. “We determined to swim to her,” he wrote. “We reached her, climbed by a line to which some pork was hanging, into the hold and I hid myself in a water cask.” After a while he heard the sound of a tarpaulin being hauled across the deck. This plunged him into a state of fright for it looked as though the crew was about to smoke the ship. However his fears proved groundless and for twelve days the two escapers remained concealed in the hold existing on a handful of mouldy biscuits. Eventually they were discovered. Fainting and half starved they were dragged before the captain who appeared to believe them when they denied they were convicts. But that night they heard the order for the ship to turn about and suspected that they were about to be taken back. Knowing that a lengthy stint on Norfolk Island awaited them, they preferred to take their chances in the sea and jumped overboard. A decidedly desperate thing to do but, as our convict relates, they were favoured by some good fortune. “After we had swum for some time,” he wrote, “Mahony said I think I am sinking – I said keep up your heart for I see what seems to be shoal water. I swam towards it , it was a canoe upset; I righted it, I helped Mahony into it, he upset it, again I put him into it and we reached the shore.”

As they later discovered they had been washed up on an island, possibly one of the Fijian group. On recovering they were assaulted by a band of natives and when Mahony showed some fight he was hauled off and eaten. The other convict, our narrator, was wounded in the shoulder by a spear but with the aid of a sympathetic native woman, who clearly took a liking to him, he crossed over to another island where he was picked up by a French ship. He was landed at Tahiti and from there got a passage on a ship bound for Liverpool. However once back in England he was recognised and arrested. His ultimate fate is unknown, but based on similar cases he would have been either hanged or sent back to New South Wales.

Occasionally some of the more ambitious convicts attempted to hijack a fully-rigged ship. In 1797 the Cumberland, rated as the largest and best government boat in the colony, was delivering stores to settlers on the Hawkesbury River when she was seized by some of her convict crew in collaboration with a party from the shore. After dumping the remainder of the crew in Broken Bay they stood out to sea. Two rowboats, well manned and armed, were sent in pursuit but the fugitives had too great a start and got away.

The brig Trial was lying at anchor near the Sow and Pigs rocks in Sydney Harbour in September 1816 when she was boarded by thirteen convicts from a working party at Macquarie Lighthouse. It was a dark night and the crew was taken by surprise. The convicts cut the cable and by sunrise were well away. Some months later a party of soldiers from the colonial vessel Lady Nelson came across the wreck of the Trial in an inlet (now called Trial Bay) at South-West Rocks, 350 km. to the north of Sydney. The local Aborigines indicated by signs that the convicts had built a boat from the wreckage but it had been swamped in heavy surf and they had all drowned. The captain, passengers and crew, including a woman and child, had apparently taken to the bush in an attempt to reach Newcastle but were never heard of again.

The seizure of the brig Cyprus in 1828 achieved such notoriety that it was turned into a highly popular ballad which exalted the convicts’ exploit as a truly noble attempt to break free from the chains of oppression. It concludes in the following stirring man-ner:

“Then sound your golden trumpets, play on your tuneful notes,

The Cyprus brig is sailing, how proudly now she floats.

May fortune help the noble lads, and keep them ever free

From gags, and cats, and chains, and traps, and cruel tyranny.”

The real story was of course rather more prosaic. The convicts’ leader was a remarkable man named William Swallow. He was a veteran escaper having bolted from Van Diemen’s Land on a previous occasion and made his way as a stowaway via South America back to England. Unfortunately he was recaptured and sent back to the colony. On the present occasion he masterminded the takeover of the Cyprus while she was en route from Hobart to Macquarie Harbour. With seventeen other convicts he seized the vessel while she was sheltering from a storm in Recherche Bay, an isolated inlet on the east coast of the island. After marooning the crew and passengers on the desolate shore – they were later rescued mainly due to the efforts of a convict named John Pobjoy who had refused to join Swallow – they sailed to New Zealand and then onto Tahiti. Unable to land there owing to adverse winds they recrossed the Pacific to Nuie, where a group of them elected to stay. Swallow then headed north to Japan. How-ever at that period the Japanese had a policy of self-imposed exile. Apart from a small number of Dutch and Chinese traders in Nagasaki, foreigners were not permitted to land on Japanese soil. As a result when the convicts sought refuge in Yokahama Bay they were driven off by gunfire.

Eventually the decision was taken to scuttle the Cyprus off the Chinese coast. The convicts posed as shipwrecked seamen and after further adventures five of them got back to England. But by great ill fortune John Pobjoy, who had received a free pardon, now turned up in London and identified them. They were charged with piracy and the subsequent trial caused a great sensation. It was in fact the last trial for piracy held in England.

The result appeared a foregone conclusion and while two of Swallow’s companions were hanged he himself was amazingly spared. The jury evidently believed his defence that he had acted under duress. He claimed that because of his knowledge of navigation his fellow convicts had forced him against his will to take part in the hijacking. Instead of being executed he was sent back to Van Diemen’s Land. It was his third enforced trip to the colony and his last. He died there of tuberculosis a few years later.

This was not the end of the story however. Such was the grip the whole saga had taken on the public imagination that it was dramatised and performed with success at a London theatre.

Swallow was one of very few escapers known to have got back to England. So what happened to the others? The ones who were not recaptured? Many of course just disappeared, leaving no trace – either they got safely away or they perished in the attempt. Naturally a successful escaper was not likely to advertise his whereabouts. However whaling captains and traders in beche-de-mer and sandalwood would report now and then of finding escaped convicts on remote Pacific Islands, or coming across them in India or various ports in North and South America. Our friend the surgeon Peter Cunningham wrote in 1827 of small colonies of runaways who had established a precarious existence on Kangaroo Island and the islands of Bass Strait where they lived on seals, kangaroos, shellfish and whatever they could get from passing vessels. He noted with amazement their readiness, as he described it, “to submit to live in a state of the utmost abject wretchedness, in the enjoyment of liberty”.15 Another favourite destination was San Francisco where in the late 1840s lived the Sydney Ducks, a community of lawless adventurers from Australia, many of them escaped convicts, who had been attracted to the Californian goldfields.

For those escaped convicts who were recaptured there was a variety of brutal punishments awaiting them on their return. Chief among these of course was the cat o’nine tails. Fifty lashes was the standard number, enough to strip the skin from a man’s back, but it could be more. Equally dreaded was a lengthy stint on a chain gang where shackled on each ankle with irons or chains weighing ten pounds or more they were employed in the back-breaking work of making new roads. Hanging was another fate awaiting captured runaways, particularly those who took up bushranging, and convicts who seized ships were liable to be charged with piracy, itself a capital offence. Returning to England before the expiry of a sentence also merited the death penalty.

Their success rate was understandably fairly low and the punishment for failure was dreadful to contemplate, yet convicts continued their attempts to escape, many of them time and time again.The lure of freedom was clearly strong but sometimes this was combined with other more practical motives.

The threat of starvation which hung over Sydney during its first few years provided the impetus for Mary Bryant’s escape while Thomas Cook was driven by the determination of seeing his beloved parents again. So desperate was William Swallow to be reunited with his wife and children that he made it back to England twice. On a more trivial level a Norfolk Island prisoner named John Williams bolted into the bush after losing the weekly allowance of provisions for his mess in a card game. He was a timid man and he feared the inevitable repercussions from his fellow prisoners.

For convicts incarcerated in outlying penal settlements like Moreton Bay, Macquarie Harbour and Norfolk Island escape provided their only respite from conditions which were at times almost beyond human endurance. These settlements were designed solely as places of punishment for multiple offenders and for some, escape from the incessant floggings and unremitting hard labour became an obsession. In their desperation to get away from these horrendous conditions some convicts were prepared to make what might be called the final escape. On Norfolk Island it was not unknown for convicts to murder an overseer or fellow prisoner in order to be sent to Sydney for trial – just to get off the island was considered worth the almost inevitable execution which followed. At Macquarie Harbour, Thomas Lemprière, the storekeeper there, told of a convict named Mayo who, without provocation, sunk an axe into the head of another convict. When questioned he explained that all his life he had been accustomed to tobacco and had often given the best part of his meals for a smoke. There was no tobacco at the settlement, so he must go without and would rather die; he therefore killed Jones that he might be sent to Hobart and hanged.16

Many convicts of course made no efforts to escape and were happy enough to quietly serve out their time. Colonial records show that new arrivals from Britain were the ones most likely to abscond. Having being brought forcibly to this very strange land they instinctively tried to break back to familiar surroundings. However once they overcame their longing for home they tended to accept their lot and adapt readily enough to colonial life. In fact many convicts enjoyed a better standard of living here than they had back in Britain. As long as a convict kept his head down he or she could prosper. There were plenty of opportunities for convicts with initiative who were prepared to work hard as witnessed by the mercantile empires developed by transportees like Mary Reiby and Simeon Lord.

The risks taken by convicts like William Swallow, Mary Bryant and James Porter in their quests for freedom were huge. They had to overcome enormous obstacles and the price of failure was distinctly unpleasant, not to say appalling. No doubt some of the escapers were out-and-out villains with convictions for serious crimes, while others had committed minor offences for which the sentence of transportation, from a modern perspective, seems unduly harsh. Whether or not we can feel sympathy for their plight we can surely admire their resourcefulness, their courage and their capacity to endure against great odds.

Warwick Hirst


  • 1 James Porter, Autobiography, DL MSQ 604, p.18.
  • 2 David Collins. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales.Vol. 2, Sydney: Reed in association with the Royal Historical Society, 1975, p.57.
  • 3 Peter Cunningham. Two Years in New South Wales. London: Henry Colburn, 1827. Reprinted Sydney, 1966, pp.282-283.
  • 4 Collins, Vol. 1, pp.271, 273.
  • 5 Watkin Tench. A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and a Com-plete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, reprinted as Sydney’s First Four Years (ed. L.F. Fitzhardinge). London: Library of Australia in association with the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1979, p.247.
  • 6 Collins. Vol. 1, p.58.
  • 7 Ibid, p.381.
  • 8 Niel Gunson (ed.). Aboriginal Reminiscences & Papers of L. Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, 1824-1859. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. 1974, p.45.
  • 9 Ibid, p.91.
  • 10 John Thomas Bigge. Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1966. (Facsimile of 1822 House of Commons Paper n. 448), p.117.
  • 11 Collins. Vol. 1, p.333.
  • 12 Historical Records of Australia. Series 1, Vol. 8, p.85.
  • 13 Cunningham. p.286.
  • 14 Anonymous Account of a Convict Escape. ML MSS 5536.
  • 15 Cunningham. pp.18-19.
  • 16 T. J. Lempriere. The Penal Settlements of Van Diemen’s Land.Launceston: Royal Society of Tasmania (Northern Branch), 1954, pp.31-32.


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