“You prisoners of New South Wales,
Who frequent watchhouses and gaols
A story to you I will tell
‘Tis of a convict’s tour to hell.”
– by Frank “The Poet” MacNamara, transported to New South Wales, 1832
Banishment. A single word that struck fear in the heart of a 18th century convict. Why? Because it meant involuntarily leaving everything you knew for a world of savages. And that was if you actually survived the journey to get there. Depending on where you were banished too, the journey could take up to six months. Six months in the bowels of a prison ship, chained to others, with not enough room to stand or sleep. Elbow to elbow with your fellow prisoners, you could have ended up here for simply stealing a loaf of bread for your starving children. Children you would most likely never see again.
By the time of the American Revolution, the American colonies were no longer a viable option for offloading prisoners from Mother England’s overflowing prisons. As a result, the British government looked elsewhere. It was in the year 1788 that the first 736 convicts were loaded onto a ship, bound for the landmass that would become Australia. Among them was a seventy year old woman who had simply stolen some cheese to eat. During the journey, those in the hull were susceptible to disease like typhoid and cholera, seasickness, hunger, and completely unsanitary conditions. Often the very clothing covering them was actively rotting away. The only respite from the misery was a daily visit above deck. Due to these conditions, up to a third of the convicts would die before the ship even arrived in New South Wales.
When the First Fleet arrived to Botany Bay, they found a natural harbor and land only inhabited by the native Aborigines. Soon, they set about clearing land for a permanent settlement. As part of their sentence, all convicts, men and women, were assigned to hard labor, often working 12-14 hour days. At first they lived in tents, with six sharing one tent. Later on, more permanent housing was built and the convicts were allowed to marry. Despite this, punishment was severe for any violation of the laws set forth by the governor. Sentences of up to a hundred lashes were dolled out often to discourage disobedience, escape, and revolt.
During the first three years, crops continuously failed and were soon abandoned. As a result, hunger was a constant in the lives of the residents of New South Wales. Available food was rationed from the few supplies remaining. There was fear that even those goods would either rot or be consumed before any additional provisions arrived from England. This never ending threat of starvation drove a small group of convicts to attempt an extraordinary escape. They stockpiled food and supplies over a period of time so as to not cause notice. Then, one night in March 1791, they stole the governor’s skiff and set out to travel over three thousand miles to the Dutch island of Timor and what they thought would be freedom. Among this group was couple named William and Mary Bryant, along with their two small children, Charlotte (named for the ship on which she was born) and Emmanuel. They had met and married upon arrival in New South Wales and would become famous for their escape.
The Bryants and others in their small group would eventually make it to Timor. Once there they posed as survivors of a shipwreck until their story wore thin and they were arrested. Their incredible voyage, 1200 miles of which was in open ocean, echoed one made by Captain William Bligh about a year earlier. Blight was set adrift after Fletcher Christian’s mutiny on board The Bounty. Unlike Mary Bryant, Bligh didn’t have two small children to contend with. After being arrested by the Dutch, the group was sent back to England. Poor Mary lost both of her children, ages five and two, as well as her husband, on the return voyage to England. She was eventually pardoned and spent the rest of her days back home in Cornwall.
The story of Australia’s first settlement by Europeans is a harsh one, but many of the men and women who survived the initial settlement, went on to make new lives in the strange new land.
But they would never see England or the family they left behind, again.
Cover image: Sydney Cove, 1808 by John Lewin