Of all the wonderful escapes and rescues of Irish political prisoners from British dungeons down through the years none was as remarkable as the rescue of six Fenian prisoners from the penal settlement of Western Australia in 1876, 145 years ago this week. By Joseph Clarke.
The story with all its hazards and hairbreadth escapes reads more like fiction than truth.
In 1867 seven Irish Fenians were sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment for their part in The Rising. The seven condemned men were John Boyle O’Reilly, James Wilson, Thomas Darragh, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston, Michael Harrington and Martin Hogan.
After spending a few months in British Convict Prisons they were brought in chains in the early morning of October 15th, 1867 to Portland where the Convict ship, Hougemont with the menacing broad arrow painted on her hull awaited her abandoned human cargo of 300 odd men and women.
In the early hours of Friday, January 10th, 1868 she bore silently into the mist-shrouded harbour of Fremantle, and lay to for the break of day. The 10,000-mile ghastly voyage was over. The iron gates at the hatches were unlocked and opened; two by two the convicts were prodded up the iron ladders to blink in the sunlight. Their fetters were unloosed; there was no need now for chains. Escape from this convict settlement was almost unheard of.
A COUNTRY IN WHICH NOTHING LIVES
On arrival at the Prison all convicts were lined up on the parade ground and addressed by the “Superintendent of the Establishment”. He began by saying he was the representative of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Government in that penal settlement and that his word was law. He then read out the punishments for any infraction of the rules, and for most the punishment was death. He told them that no doubt they would have plenty of opportunities to escape, as they would work outside the walls of the prison proper. But he warned them; they were now in a country in which nothing lived. In that hellish country, he said, there were dense forests, where poisonous insects and death dealing snakes lurked. If by any chance they escaped those, they would die of thirst and starvation in the desert and their carcasses would be a feast for the carrion crows. And as for escape by sea, swimming to a vessel had never been done. The monster sharks saw to that.
When he had finished his harangue, John Boyle O’Reilly whispered to Darragh “There’ll be a way. There has to be a path to liberty. I swear it, Darragh, I swear I’ll find that path.”
And find it, he did. In little over a year on February 18th, 1869 John Boyle O’Reilly escaped from Fremantle in an American whaler, The Gazelle; but many a weary day and lonely night was to pass before the remaining six prisoners were to succeed in freeing themselves from the tyranny of Her Majesty’s Superintendent.
As days and months and years rolled by with never a letter to cheer or a friend to visit them, they finally thought themselves forgotten by their former comrades, abandoned to living death.
But far from forgetting their imprisoned comrades, John Boyle O’Reilly and John Devoy were planning one of the most dramatic rescues that had ever been attempted.
And that plan was to buy and man a Whaler.
Now on this long journey from Australia to America on the Whaler, The Gazelle, John Boyle O’Reilly had become very friendly with one of the officers, a Mr. Hathaway. And although this American had no Irish blood in his veins his sympathy was aroused for the Irish prisoners and the cause they served. So when O’Reilly told him of his plans he threw himself wholeheartedly into the idea. And it was he who suggested Captain George Anthony as the perfect man for this perilous mission.
And so a secret meeting was arranged in a darkly lit backroom of a ship’s agent in New Bedford, the headquarters in America of the whaling industry, now known to all from the novel of Moby Dick.
One can picture the astonishment of Captain Anthony when this extraordinary proposition was put up to him. Buy a whaler, sail over ten thousand miles and snatch six Irish prisoners from the claws of England’s mighty Empire.
For many minutes the Captain sat silent, his head slightly bowed. Then gently John Boyle O’Reilly reminded him that he was in the lucky position of being a citizen of one of the greatest freedom loving countries of the world. But that only a bare hundred years before, America had to fight the same enemy to win its freedom. Another long silence: then a few pertinent questions and Captain Anthony agreed to undertake the hazardous adventure.
A hectic time followed when a whaler had to be bought and made seaworthy and a crew engaged. The Whaler was named the Catalpa.
The only Irishman on board was Denis Duggan, a carpenter and member of the Dublin branch of the Fenians. He and the Captain were the only two who knew the dangerous voyage on which they were bound. The rest of the crew thought they were only going on an ordinary whaling expedition. When they were half way to Australia, Captain Anthony told his first mate, a Mr. Smith, their dangerous destination and added that if he wished he could land at the next port and return to the U.S.A. and he would think none the less of him for doing so, but Smith spiritedly replied: “Sink or swim I’ll stick by you”.
AN EXCITING MOMENT
In the Indian Ocean, a British steamer signaled to them to stop. For a few moments Captain Anthony feared that his mission had been discovered and that all was lost, but it happened that the English captain had broken his compass and wanted to find out where he was. They became so friendly that the English captain gave Anthony a map of the coast of Western Australia, the very thing he needed.
While the Catalpa was slowly making its way to Australia, John Breslin and another Irishman, Thomas Desmond had gone from America to Australia where they stayed in two different towns. Breslin who went under the name of Collins stayed in Fremantle. He pretended to be a wool buyer and, being of a very genial and gay disposition, he soon became popular with everyone.
He actually got to know the “Superintendent of the Establishment” who invited him to visit the prison. Needless to say he accepted the invitation and showed such interest that the Superintendent brought him through every part of the prison.
HOW CONTACT WAS MADE WITH THE PRISONERS
Breslin lost no time in calling on the local priest, Father Patrick McCabe, who sympathised whole-heartedly with the Fenian prisoners. He put Breslin in touch with an ex-prisoner called Will Foley who having served his sentence for his Fenian principles was now free but still living in Fremantle. By doing odd jobs inside and outside the prison he hoped to earn enough money to pay passage some day back to Ireland.
This Will Foley now became the key man in carrying messages from Breslin to the prisoners. Full well and secretly he did his job and was rewarded by being presented with his full fare back to his native land on the day of the escape of the six. Breslin’s first communication was written to James Wilson, the man from Newry. One can easily imagine Wilson’s feelings when he read that note. The first letter he had received for years, and what news it contained! To hear that Fenians had arrived in Australia to rescue him and his comrades. Bursting with excitement he hurried to his fellow prisoners to tell them the wonderful news.
But many a message passed from Breslin to Wilson before the final plans were completed.
In the talks between John Boyle O’Reilly and Captain Anthony, it had been arranged that the Catalpa would arrive off the coast of Western Australia about the end of February or beginning of March 1876. But it was not all plain sailing for Captain Anthony. Up to Christmas Eve, the night they crossed the equator the bark made good time, but for the next six weeks the prevailing winds were so light and unfavourable that they made scarcely any progress towards their distant goal in the Southern Ocean. Further delay arose when they ran into winds of gale force on the 10th February when they lost large portions of their canvas in this storm.
But at last the ship’s luck changed. The winds served strong and fair. Under full sail she logged more than two hundred miles some days, with the result that late in the afternoon of March 27th, the masthead look-out yelled, “Land ho! Dead ahead”
BRESLIN’S ANXIOUS WAIT
In the meantime, Breslin and Desmond who had now been over four months in Australia were beginning to get very anxious. February and almost all March passed with no word of the Catalpa.
Every morning Breslin studied the Harbour Bulletin Board for news of the ship’s arrival.
One can imagine his feelings when at long last on March 29th, he read:
“Arrived at Bunburry American Whaling bark Catalpa, out of New Bedford, Capt. Anthony, March 28th.”
Early the following morning Breslin took the stage coach to Bunburry about eighty miles south of Fremantle. And there he met the gallant Captain who had much to tell and more to hear. They made arrangements to go together along the coast to the place chosen by Breslin for the embarkation of the prisoners. A quiet sandy little cove near Rockingham, about twenty miles from Fremantle.
Everything was ready for the escape when a British gunboat, The Conflict, a swift running schooner-rigged ship, carrying two guns and thirty men, arrived off Fremantle. As the Catalpa was a slow sailing ship, she would have no chance against this British gunboat, so Breslin and Captain Anthony decided to wait until she had gone. As an excuse for remaining so long off Bunburry. Captain Anthony decided to overhaul and paint his ship.
At last the British gunboat sailed away and on Easter Saturday the final note was sent to the prisoners telling them to be ready on the following Monday, adding “We have money, arms, and clothes, let no man’s heart fail him, the chance may never come again”.
The long watched-for day dawned at last - Easter Monday, 1876, not the first, nor the last Easter Monday to become famous in Irish history.
At half past five that morning Breslin had the horses put to the wagons. He had engaged the two best pairs of horses in the town and he and Desmond were to drive the wagons up near the prison at a quarter to eight.
Fortunately all the prisoners worked outside the walls of the prison, Wilson and Harrington were in the same gang constructing harbour works. Hogan was engaged painting one of the houses of the officials.
Cranston was employed as a messenger in the stores and on that morning passed out quickly in a business-like way. Overtaking the warden in charge of Wilson and Harrington he produced a key and told him he was sent to take Wilson and Harrington to remove some furniture. The warden suspecting nothing told them to go with Cranston.
At the same time Darragh who was a clerk and attendant to the Church of England chaplain, took Hassett as if going to work in the same direction. They were joined by Hogan and all arrived at the meeting place at the very second arranged. They were immediately bundled into the two wagons and the horses whipped to a gallop. The first ten miles or so were good and they went like the wind but the last four miles near the strand was nothing but a rugged sand track. As they were nearing the beach a man hailed them with “What time will the Georgette be at the jetty?” Their hearts almost stopped beating, the Georgette was the Government guard boat which they thought was far away.
At last the beach was reached and prisoners and rescuers rushed towards the waiting boat. But with the exception of Captain Anthony, the crew of the boat, even now, didn’t know what they were waiting for in this lonely beach; and when they saw the wild looking men in such extra-ordinary clothes - the broad arrow prison uniform with great white linen overcoats - rushing headlong towards them brandishing weapons, it seemed as if they were being attacked and they prepared to defend themselves. One drew a sheath knife, another snatched a bucket, a third an oar and the poor prisoners were about to receive a queer reception when Captain Anthony in a loud voice re-assured his men.
As soon as the six were safely lying in the bottom of the boat, Capt. Anthony gave the order “Out with the oars, and pull for your lives! Pull as if you were after a whale!”
A NARROW SHAVE
They were only about half a mile out when a squad of eight mounted police drove up to the beach. Breslin signalled to them and posted by ocean mail - a bottle - the following letter.
Rockingham, April 17th 1876.
To His Excellency, the British Governor of Western Australia
This is to certify that I have this day released from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., etc., six Irishmen condemned to imprisonment for life by the enlightened and magnanimous government of Great Britain, for having been guilty of the atrocious and unpardonable crimes, known to the unenlightened portion of mankind as “love of country” and “hatred of tyranny”`; for this act of “Irish assurance” my birth and blood being my full sufficient warrant.
Allow me to add that in taking my leave now,I have only to say A few cells I’ve emptied (a sell in its way), I’ve the honour and pleasure to bid yougood-day From all future acquaintance excuse me, I pray!
In the service of my country, John J. Breslin
Their troubles were, however, far from being over. It seemed as if the elements were siding with the British enemy against Captain Anthony and his brave little crew. The wind arose, the sky grew black and threatening and the sea became heavy and cruel. The little boat was tossed about between mountains of white-crested waves, until with a crash the mast broke in half. The boat nearly capsized, but the Captain threw her head to the wind and the magnificent efforts of the crew kept her afloat.
Miles away the Catalpa was sighted, but owing to the monstrous seas, she was unable to see the little boat trying to reach her.
As evening and darkness approached imagine the horror of all on board the little boat when they saw the Catalpa turning around and making for high seas.
The gale increased as the night wore on, the seas dashed completely over the boat and all the men were kept busy in bailing out the water.
The Captain encouraged them by telling them he had often been out on far worse nights but he afterwards admitted that he thought he would never see land again.
Towards morning, however, the gale subsided somewhat, and as daylight approached courage and hope returned to the men. At sunrise everyone was overjoyed to see the Catalpa between them and land. The little boat had actually drifted out beyond the Catalpa in the darkness.
They all pulled at their oars again, but before they had gone very far, they saw the much-dreaded Government boat, The Georgette, coming out from Fremantle. The sails were at once lowered, the oars shipped, and the men lay down one on top of the other. The Georgette passed within almost half a mile and did not see them. It went out to the Catalpa, searched it and, of course, found nobody they looked for.
When it had sailed away the men in the little boat once again took up their oars and rowed with all their might. If only the Catalpa sighted them all would be well, but the high seas hid them alike from foe and friend.
At long, long last the man up in the crow’s nest of the Catalpa saw the little boat with its precious cargo, and reported his news to Mr. Smith, who ordered the ship to make for the little boat.
But this sudden movement immediately awakened the suspicion of the Government water police cutter, which also turned and spied the unfortunate little boat.
It now became a desperate race for life and liberty. The rowers under Capt. Anthony’s entreaties pulled as they never pulled before. They were rewarded by arriving a few minutes before the enemy. As they scrambled exhausted into safety, Capt. Anthony called to Mr. Smith to hoist the American Flag, and at the same time shouted to the police boat: “Gentlemen, you have lost the race!” The English Captain saluted and said: “Good-bye, Captain, good-bye.”
The scenes which followed aboard the Catalpa can be better imagined than described. The rescued men cheered Captain Anthony, Breslin, Desmond, and everyone connected with the enterprise. The best dinner the ship could supply was put before them, and for the first time in ten long years the men ate a hearty meal. Thinking their troubles were over those on board the Catalpa slept peacefully that night.
ANOTHER GAUNTLET TO RUN
Next morning about 6 a.m. the Georgette was seen again advancing full steam ahead and flying the British man-o-war white flag with St. George’s cross and Union Jack in the corner. As she came near it was seen that she was heavily manned and armed with a field piece. Breslin called all the men together and told them how serious the position was. They had the choice of fighting with a good chance of success or of surrendering and returning to the prison.
They all chose to fight.
The Georgette steamed up beside the Catalpa and fired a round shot from a field piece across her bows.
Without returning the fire, Capt. Anthony called out through his trumpet: “What do you want?” The answer came back: “Heave to!”
“What for?” shouted Capt. Anthony.
Georgette: “Have you any convict prisoners on board?”
Catalpa: “No prisoners here.”
Georgette: “I telegraphed to your Government; don’t you know you are amenable to British law in this colony? You have six convict prisoners on board, I see some of them on deck now.”
Breslin said to Capt. Anthony: “This man is trying to bluff us: he can’t send a message to Adelaide before Saturday next.”
Georgette: “I’ll give you fifteen minutes to consider or you must take the consequences. I have means to do it, and if you don’t heave to, I’ll blow the mast out of you.”
Catalpa: pointing to the American Flag, “That’s the American Flag; I am on the high seas, my flag protects me; if you fire on this ship you fire on the American Flag.”
At this stage those on board the Catalpa got ready their guns, collected some short, heavy logs, in order to hurl them on the enemy if they got near enough to attempt to climb into the ship.
This movement frightened those on board the British gunboat. Fearing that the American whaler was more heavily armed than she appeared, they decided discretion was the better part of valour, and made no further attempt to attack her.
For almost an hour the British gunboat followed closely the Catalpa, finally the Captain called out: “Can I come on board?” And Captain Anthony replied: “No sir: I am bound for the sea and can’t stop.”
Acknowledging defeat the Government gunboat turned and steamed back to Fremantle, where a crowd awaited on the pier. Great was their joy when they saw the Irish patriots had won.
Victorious and free the Catalpa pursued its course across the ocean to America, where Breslin, Desmond, and Capt. Anthony were received and feted as three of the bravest men who ever dared a glorious deed in the service of their country.