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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Convict escapes

This is one of a series of pieces that may or may not ever see the light of day in a book: it is more likely than not that I will be self-publishing my Colonial Concerns, from which this is taken, as an e-book: it turned into a huge opus (a quarter of a million words of Australian history) that frightens print publishers. If and when the e-book happens, I will edit this to indicate where it can be obtained. In the interim, this is available to students of all ages, complete with sources.
The First Fleet arrived with enough food to last the population two years. They also brought live animals, plants and seeds, but these were not for eating. One important source of fresh food for the early settlers was fish. There was a catch with relying on fish as a food source: there had to be boats around, and for some convicts, that was a temptation, but let’s look at the history of escaping back to the sailing of the First Fleet.

Many convicts hoped desperately to escape. Most of their attempts were acts of desperation with no chance at all. The masters of the convict transports were fairly desperate to stop escapes as well. Arthur Bowes Smyth noted in his journal, that the masters had to safely land, the convicts and deliver them “into the Care of the Governor … under the penalty of 40£ for every Convict that was missing” [1]

Given that penalty, it is surprising that when the fleet was at Teneriffe, a convict was allowed to work on deck while there was a boat alongside his ship, the Alexander, with oars in it. This was all too much for John Powers, who rowed away that night in what Smyth calls the jolly boat. Unwisely, Powers went ashore and fell asleep. Marines found the boat the next morning, then they found him, and they took him back to the ship.

Powers was then “heavily ironed”[2], but later in the voyage, he tried to start a mutiny, and in Sydney, he stole some boards and received 200 lashes in November, 1788. After that, he seems to have disappeared. Perhaps he just died and nobody bothered to take note of it.

Then again, he may have stolen some more boards, made a boat and went to sea, but if he did, he probably drowned. At the end of 1793, David Collins wrote a list of the losses in that year:

There died between the 1st of January and 31st of December, both inclusive, two settlers, seven soldiers, seventy-eight male convicts, twenty-six female convicts, and twenty-nine children. One male convict was executed; six male convicts were lost in the woods; one male convict was found dead in the woods; one male convict was killed by the fall of a tree, and two male convicts were killed by lightning; making a decrease by death and accidents of one hundred and fifty-three persons. To this decrease may be added, four male convicts, who found means to escape from the colony on board of some of the ships which had been here. [3]

The forger-artist, Thomas Watling was one of those who failed to escape on the way to Australia, but quite a few disappeared, rather desperately, once they came ashore in Australia. Four seamen from the First Fleet escaped at Cape Town, and only two were recaptured[4]. The chances for escapees were poor, though.
On the other hand, one Portuguese soldier at Rio asked to be taken on board the fleet so he could go with them to Botany Bay. Captain Phillip refused. [5]

Once in Sydney, convicts had three possible ways to escape alive:
* They could run away into the bush;
* They could stow away on a ship; or
* They could get or steal a boat and sail away.

Running away into the bush was always possible, but surviving in the bush was quite another matter, because the convicts had no idea of how to feed themselves, or how to stay alive, dry, and warm. Almost as soon as the convicts landed, two of them, Ann Smith and a Frenchman called Peter Paris (or Parris) went missing.

John White thought a Frenchman might have found more favour with La PĂ©rouse, but he added that “… the French commodore had given his honour that he would not admit any of them on board … he might have been concealed, through pity, by his countrymen, and carried off without the knowledge of the commanding officer”. [6]

If Smith and Parris had sailed away with the French, the two would have died with them when the French ships were wrecked, not long afterwards, but a large ship would always be safer than a small boat.

Hiding on a ship was hard to do. When the transport Neptune was unloaded in August 1790, she was bound for China to pick up a cargo, but before she left, the town-adjutant, marine lieutenant Long, searched the ship. He found a man and a woman hidden in the ship’s supply of firewood. [7] This was no chance search: among the convicts, there was little honour, and informers were everywhere.

Those who went off into the bush never lasted long. They had no idea of how to get food in the bush, no idea of how to stay warm and dry, and little chance of being helped by the Aborigines. [8] That only left stealing a small boat.

On the night of September 26, 1790, five male convicts took a small punt from Rose Hill and headed for Sydney. The punt would have been a death trap, once they left the shelter of Port Jackson, so the party, John Tarwood, Joseph Sutton, who had already been caught and punished after hiding on the Neptune, George Lee; George Connoway, and John Watson, took a small boat, and made a break for the open sea. [9]

Collins called this boat small and weak, but it had a mast and a sail, and enquiries revealed that the escapees had taken food for one week; their clothes and bedding; three iron pots, and some other utensils. Rather optimistically, they were planning to reach Otaheite, or as we would say now, Tahiti, which was a distance of more than 6000 km.

They were searched for in the harbour, and when no trace was found, the authorities concluded that they had sailed over the ocean which, as Collins put it, “… from the wretched state of the boat wherein they trusted themselves, must have proved their grave.”

In fact, they sailed up the coast as far as Port Stephens and put in there, Sutton later died, but the other four men were taken in by the local Aborigines, and when Captain Broughton of the Providence put in there during a storm in August 1795, he found four miserable, naked, dirty, and smoke-dried men who begged to be taken to Sydney.

By that time, each had a native wife and one or two had children, and according to them, the natives worshipped them as the spirits of their countrymen, which, after death, had gone away and then returned in pale human form. They had had enough.

Until that time, everybody assumed that Tarwood and his party had all died, and the same assumption applied to William Bryant and his family and friends, but Bryant was a Cornish sailor. He knew the sea, and he planned ahead.

The first thing people needed was secrecy over the time it took to get everything ready. You needed food, water, clothes, some sort of tent or shade cloth, tools, money, some sort of map and instruments for navigation. Most of all, you needed a boat big enough to sail in the open ocean, and you needed to know how to handle it.

Bryant had been tried for resisting revenue officers (as a smuggler) in Launceston in March 1784, and sentenced to death, but this was commuted to seven years’ transportation. Mary Braund (or Broad) was part of a family well-known as sheep-stealers, but she was charged with highway robbery. Found guilty, she was sentenced to death, commuted to transportation.

They married, and by 1791 they had two small children, and wanted to go home. They gathered another seven convicts: William Allen, Samuel Bird, Samuel Broom, James Cox, Nathaniel Lilly, James Martin and William Morton. Five of the adults including Mary Bryant had arrived in the First Fleet, the other four had come in the Second Fleet. William Bryant’s sentence had expired, three had been transported for life, the others had at least a year or two to go.

When they left Sydney at the end of March, 1791, his sentence had run out, but no records had reached Australia, so he couldn’t prove that he deserved to be free. Mary Bryant had two more years to serve, they had everything they needed, and only required a moonless night—and no ships in the harbour that might chase after them.

The snow Waaksamheyd had been chartered to bring food to the colony from Batavia (Jakarta) and when the frigate Sirius had been lost off Norfolk Island, Captain Hunter and his crew (they all survived) were placed on board to return to England.

The escapees had bought a chart of sorts from Detmer Smith, the master of the Waaksamheyd, along with a compass and a quadrant. William Morton and James Cox also knew something of navigation. Detmer Smith also sold Bryant muskets and food, the money coming from the fish that Bryant had held back and sold on the black market.

Waaksamheyd’s master had been a good friend, but the authorities might take over his ship to chase after them, so that ship had to leave port before they fled, but the officers knew Bryant had something planned, and they were watching him closely. There was a new moon on March 24, so on March 28, the moon would have gone by about 10 pm. Later in the week, there would be moonlight longer. They had to go.

He gathered his friends, they got the hidden stores together, and crept off into the darkness. Along the way, they dropped a handsaw, and they spilt a couple of kilograms of rice that were seen the next day [10], but nobody admitted to seeing them go off in the governor’s six-oared cutter.

Their plan was a simple one. They rowed into the harbour at Kupang (it was spelt ‘Coepang’, back then) on the island of Timor, and said they had been shipwrecked, a claim made more believable because they had a woman and children with them.

Somehow, the Dutch authorities discovered that these were really escaped convicts, so they locked them up. Then came a piece of really bad luck. HMS Pandora had struck a reef near Cape York, after searching for the Bounty mutineers, with 14 prisoners on board.
Taking to the ship’s boats, he and his whole ship’s company arrived in Kupang. Now Captain Edwards quizzed them, they confessed, and the game was up.

It might have been better if Edwards had still had his ship, because he would have set out for Britain, but now he needed to get all of these people home, and that meant going to Batavia  to find a ship to carry them all. Back then, Batavia was a disease-ridden death-trap, and it was diseases caught there which reduced the Bryant party to five survivors.

They travelled to the Cape of Good Hope, where they found H.M.S. Gorgon, returning from Sydney with some of the marines, including Watkin Tench, who managed to get many more details of their travels from Mary Bryant. Among other things, Tench says that one of the men let slip the truth when he was drunk. At the end, he wrote:
I confess that I never looked at these people without pity and astonishment. They had miscarried in a heroic struggle for liberty after having combated every hardship and conquered every difficulty.

The woman, and one of the men, had gone out to Port Jackson in the ship which had transported me thither. They had both of them been always distinguished for good behaviour. And I could not but reflect with admiration at the strange combination of circumstances which had again brought us together, to baffle human foresight and confound human speculation. [11]
 Ralph Clark (a notoriously poor speller) wrote in his journal as they sailed up the Atlantic on Sunday, May 1792:
Squaly weather with a great dele of Rain all this day last night the child beloning to Mary Broad the convict woman who went a way in the fishing Boat from P. Jackson last Year died about four oClock committed the Body to the deep Latd. 5–25 No. [12]
Of the party, William Bryant and his son Emanuel died in Batavia, Bird and Morton died on the way to the Cape of Good Hope, Cox either jumped or fell overboard on that same voyage, and Mary’s daughter Charlotte died in the Atlantic.

Mary Bryant, along with Allen, Broom, Lilly and Martin were charged with escaping transportation, for which the usual penalty was death, but they were merely sentenced to complete their original sentences in Newgate Prison. In May 1793, the writer James Boswell gained for her a free pardon, and later gave he a pension of £10 a year, on condition that she was of good behaviour.

The men were released in November 1793, and three of them disappeared from the record, as did Mary Bryant. One of them, Samuel Broom, alias John Butcher, may have enlisted in the New South Wales Corps. By 1795, a man of that name was back in Sydney, and he later obtained a grant of land. The dates make this unlikely, as the Butcher in question enlisted in May, 1792.

[1] This is from the transcript of page A1085095 of the State Library of NSW copy of Smyth’s journal. It is missing from the version in the National Library of Australia. (This often happens when one of the versions was the original, and another is a “fair copy”. Scholars say that the State Library version is probably a fair copy, and the National Library version is probably the original.)

[2] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, Introduction, page lxiv (with electronic searches, look for “heavily ironed”).

[3] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, chapter XXIII, page 278 (with electronic searches, look for “there died between”—this also finds the figures for 1792).

[4] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, Introduction, page lxxxii (with electronic searches, look for “fiscal’s people”).

[5] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, Introduction, page lxxv (with electronic searches, look for “soldier of the island”).

[6] John White, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, 1790, entry for February 8, 1788, available as, on page 72.

[7] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, page 107 (with electronic searches, look for “among the fire-wood”—include the hyphen!).

[8] See Arthur Phillip, The Voyage Of Governor Phillip To Botany Bay, page 118: in electronic versions such as, search for “starved”.

[9] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, pages 112–3 (with electronic searches, look for “Connoway”.

[10] See David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, volume I, p. 128-9, or online at (in which it is pages 153–4).

[11] This appears in a footnote to page 108 of Tench’s printed Complete Account. See Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson,, p. 147, or online e-text at

[12] Ralph Clark was clearly the worst speller in the First Fleet!

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