A VICIOUS CIRCLE – THE HANGMAN’S NOOSE

‘The death penalty was brought to Australia with the First Fleet’. Mike Edwards, The Hanged Man, The Life and Death of Ronald Ryan, 2002.

1788 – 26th January, Sydney Cove: About 750 (570 male and 193 female) of England’s convicted criminals disembarked from the ‘First Fleet at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788; among them Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: One (1) month after landing – 27 February – these four (4) young men stood under‘ a large tree fixt as a gallows’. 

Britain’s invasion and colonisation of New Holland brought the First Nations’ Peoples starvation, disease and a racist caste system based on colour. Well practised retribution was meted out when they dared to challenge the predators who stole their land and plundered their resources.

Although the unjust consequences of invasion stand in plain sight, because of widespread ignorance of our nation’s history in mainstream non-Aboriginal Australia, these go largely unrecognised and unacknowledged or, if acknowledged, ‘blamed’.

‘Imagine if we had suffered the injustices and then were blamed for it’. Paul Keating Redfern Speech, Paul Keating, 10 December 1992.

1788- 27 February, Sydney Cove: How was it Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan came to be standing under that ‘gallows tree’ in Sydney, February 1788 and how was it that Thomas Barrett died alone that day?

The punitive way the English dealt with their own people reveal them malicious and vindictive in the extreme. ‘Infuse universal terror’; if for no reason other than the fate of these four (4) Englishmen provide insight and shed light on the treatment meted out to Australia’s First Peoples their brutal intersecting stories need to be told. See: Arthur’s Algorithm

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: Thomas Barrett died a slow agonising death hanged from a make-shift gallows at 5pm on Wednesday 27 February 1788.

Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, wrote in his journal; ‘I dont think that he had the least thought that he was to suffer…the body hung for an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows’. See:  From Here to Eternity – Thomas Barrett: 

Thomas Barrett was ‘the maker of the Botany Bay Medallion…a skilfully engraved metal medallion inscribed with a brief description of the voyage…and a representation of the Charlotte at anchor in Botany Bay’. Mollie Gillen, Founders of Australia, Library of Australian History, Sydney.

THE BACK STORY

1718 – England: Under the Transportation Act of 1717[18] – Britain exported 50,000 convicted criminals, at the rate of 1000 a year, to her American colonies where the transporting merchant, who purchased them from government, sold them. More accurately to cover costs and make a profit he sold their ‘service’

Lock, stock and labour – convicts were purchased by local plantation owners. Few had skills, some women were employed as house servants, most men worked in tobacco and cotton fields alongside Negro slaves shipped in from Africa.

1775 July, Lexington:  In 1775 conflict between Britain and America, the War of American Independence (1775 – 1783), interrupted the convict trade.

1776 – April, London: Legislation, the Hulks Act, allowed male convicts reprieved death ‘for transportation to America’ be confined on decaying ships – hulks – moored along the River Thames.

1782: By the end of 1782 the shooting war was over. After eight (8) years of conflict England’s gaols and prison-hulks were overflowing with convicted criminals sentenced ‘for transportation’ but with nowhere to go.

1783 – September, Paris: Britain lost the war. The Treaty of Versailles brought a formal end to the American War, via its terms Britain lost her ‘thirteen (13) middle colonies’ and off-shore prison.

However in August, before pen was put to paper, the Home Office charged with finding a destination for its increasing army of convicted criminals, decided to  take up where it had left off in 1775 and resume transportation to America.

Whitehall took this decision despite being aware, as early as 1776 the American Congress had legislated to ban any future importation of criminals, those Thomas Jefferson dubbed ‘rattle-snakes’.

The Home Office issued a transporting contract to George Moore a merchant who, prior to the war, specialised in shipping convicts to America.

1783 – 16 August, America: Moore’s vessel Swift sailed for America on 16 August 1783 with one hundred and forty-three (143) convicts. Most prisoners, including Joseph Hall, were taken from various prison-hulks moored along the Thames River.

Joseph Hall: His Back-Story

1782 – 9 January, London: Joseph Hall in company with two (2) others, appeared in the Old Bailey at the beginning of January 1782 charged with demanding money with menaces. His victim gave evidence; ‘they said if I did not give them money they would blow my brains out’. 

Found guilty, all were sentenced to death, reprieved and commuted ‘for transportation to America’ most boarded hulks to await shipment.

1783 – 6 August, America: Joseph Hall with his two (2) robber companions were among one hundred and forty-three (143) prisoners crammed into Swift when it sailed for America. Not far into the voyage some forty (40) or so ‘rose on the crew’ and drove the ship into shore at Rye on the Sussex coast.

Hall with one (1) of his original partners-in-crime escaped in the confusion. All were recaptured and charged with ‘return before expiry’. Under the Transportation Act of 1718being at large within the kingdom…return before expiry’ attracted the death penalty.

Eight (8) were executed the majority, received a reprieve and were commuted again ‘for transportation to America’. Hall, sentenced for fourteen (14) years, found himself imprisoned once more in a Thames hulk.

1784: Meantime in early 1784, Lord Sydney of the Home Office issued George Moore a further contract, for shipment of one hundred and seventy-nine (179) convicts on Mercury another of Moore’s ships.

1784 – March, America: Towards the end of March 1784 Joseph Hall, Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and John Ryan, ‘for transportation to America’, were taken from various prisons and hulks to board Mercury.

1784 – 4 April, Devon: By the time Mercury sailed from Gravesend on 4 April 1784 our four (4) men were ready to take advantage if an opportunity presented. In rough seas off the Devon coast at Torbay some convicts, led by Thomas Barrett ‘rose on the Mercury crew’.

Some prisoners fell into the sea from commandeered lifeboats and drowned in freezing waters. Others, including Joseph Hall, were plucked to safety by HMS Helena.

1784 – May, Exeter: Barrett, Lavell and Ryan escaped into the Devon countryside. All were eventually recaptured and thrown into Exeter gaol. A special Commission, established to investigate the mutiny and punish the escapees, sat at the Exeter Guildhall.

The Commission ruled those prisoners rescued by HMS Helena; ‘had not left the kingdom’ were ‘remanded to former orders’. Those who made it onto dry land, charged with ‘being at large within the kingdom, were condemned to die.

All death sentences were repealed on condition the prisoners be exiled ‘from the realm’. Sentenced ‘for transportation beyond the seas’ they went to various gaols, most returned to the hulks.

1784 – June, Thames River: After Mercury the lives of Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan followed a similar trajectory. Reunited on the hulk Dunkirk unsurprisingly, during three (3)  difficult years imprisoned on Dunkirk, they formed strong bonds.

1787 – February, Botany Bay: In 1787 each was selected for transportation ‘beyond the seas’  – to Botany Bay on the ‘First Fleet’.

Henry Lavell: His Back Story

1782 – 1 September, London: Henry’s crime was not run-of-the mill for a ‘First Fleeter’. On 11 September 1782, then a presentable young man aged about eighteen (18) years, Henry Lavell appeared in the Old Bailey charged with forgery.

1782 – 4 December, Old Bailey: The judge adjourned his case remanding Henry in custody. When Lavell reappeared in the dock three (3) months later, 4th December 1792, the indictment read; ‘forging a bearer bond for (10) guineas and presenting it at the bank’.

Found guilty Lavell’s death sentence was commuted ‘for transportation to America for the term of his natural life’.  He spent nearly a year in one of London’s filthy gaols.

1783 – October, Thames River: The following year, October 1783, Lavell was transferred to an even more appalling prison – a Thames hulk.

1784 – 26 March, America:  Henry Lavell was among one hundred and seventy-nine (179) prisoners who boarded Mercury for the voyage to America.

However, as with Swift in 1783, some Mercury convicts including Lavell and our ‘Three  Musketeers’ –  Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall and John Ryan; ‘rose on the crew’ took over the ship at Torbay escaped into the Devon countryside were recaptured and returned to the hulks.

John Ryan: His Back Story

1784 – 14th January, London: In the depth of a bitterly cold London winter, John Ryan, then aged about fourteen (14) years, stood in the dock of the Old Bailey charged with theft of a woollen coat. Found guilty, sentenced for seven (7) years ‘transportation to America’, he was imprisoned in Newgate gaol to await shipment.

1784 – 30 March, Torbay: John Ryan boarded Mercury and escaped at Torbay. From then until Wednesday 27 February 1788 at Sydney Cove, Ryan’s life was in lock-step with Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and Joseph Hall.

Why were these four (4) men at Sydney Cove thirteen thousand (13,000) miles (21,000 km) from their homeland – England?

‘The administration gave no consideration to the date of expiry of sentences, and several of the First Fleet had been tried as early as 1781 and 1782. As seven years transportation was the most common sentence, many had already served five-sevenths of their time on embarkation, and six-sevenths on disembarkation at Sydney Cove’. Dr John Cobley, Crimes of the First Fleet, Vol. 1, 1982.

Britain, after the Swift and Mercury debacles, looked to Africa. At least two (2) attempts to send convicts to the fort settlements at Goree and Cape Coast Castle, ended in failure with heavy loss of life.

1785: Two (2) more attempts were at the planning stage when, in late 1785 Edmund Burke in the House of Commons led parliamentary opposition to Africa as a destination for Britain’s convicted criminals. See: Amigos – Three Amigos + One

1786 – August, London: On the advise of one (1) man, Joseph Banks the celebrated botanist who accompanied Captain James Cook on the Endeavour voyage in 1770, Britain’s Treasury commanded the Admiralty assemble a large fleet of ships in order to transport her convicts, not to Africa a voyage of four (4) weeks, but to Botany Bay, New Holland (Australia) a voyage of eight (8) months to a virtually unknown land on the other side of the planet. See: A Tale of Two Cities: Quebec 1759 – Sydney 1788

1787 – 11th March, Portsmouth: Lavell and Ryan left Dunkirk in March 1787 and boarded Friendship, one (1) of six (6) transports chartered to make the long voyage from England to Botany Bay.

A day or so later Thomas Barrett and Joseph Hall were taken off Dunkirk and clambered aboard Charlotte another troop transport.

1787 – 13 May, Botany Bay: The large fleet of eleven (11) ships, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ sailed from Portsmouth, England bound for Botany Bay.

This armed convoy with a complement of 1500 souls under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN, consisted of  two (2) warships HMS Sirius & HMS Supply, six (6) transports Friendship, Charlotte, Alexander, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn & Scarborough, three (3) stores-ships Fishburn, Borrowdale & Golden Grove. 

‘In determining the ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [570] male convicts’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1990.

All males on the ‘First Fleet’ were fed as combatants. An invasion fleet – two (2) warships, six (6) troop ships and three (3) support vessels is an accurate and realistic description of the ‘First Fleet’. See: When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When It Was The First Fleet

1788 – 26 January, Sydney: Barrett, Lavell, Hall and Ryan disembarked in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.

1788 – 27 February, Sydney: A  month later – Wednesday – 27  February – the four (4) friends stood in chains under‘ a large tree fixt upon as a gallows’. 

They were accused ‘on shaky evidence’ of robbing or conspiring to rob the government store. ‘Shaky’ because records show the full ration had been issued the previous day it is so highly likely this was a false ‘convenient’ charge  Nevertheless all were found guilty and sentenced to die before sunset.

Pressure was brought to bear on John Ryan the youngest; ‘he turned king’s evidence [and] his irons were removed’. Then there were three (3) Barrett, Lavell and Hall.

‘When they arrived near the tree Major Ross recd. a respite of 24 hours for Lovall & Hall . Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal.

Hall and Lavell were given a stay-of-execution for twenty-four (24) hours to return next day to the ‘gallows tree’. See: Act 2  Blind Man’s Bluff – Hall & Lavell

‘but Barrett who was a most vile Character was turn’d off abt. Half past 6 pm’… I dont think that he had the least thought that he was to suffer but when the Provos Martial [sic] put a handkerchief about his head he turned white as a sheet. Ralph Clark. ibid.

No hangman came with the ‘First Fleet’; a fellow-convict was forced to kill Thomas Barrett.

‘It was sometime before the man could be prevailed upon to execute his office nor would he at last have complied if he had not been severely threatened by the Provost Marshall Mr Brewer and Major Ross threatened to give orders to the marines to shoot him’. John White, Chief Medical Officer, First Fleet Journal.

Given Surgeon White’s harrowing account of Barrett ‘s execution and the macabre sensationalism of the following two (2) days  evidence, albeit circumstantial, suggest a compromised John Ryan – ‘he turned king’s evidence’ – was forced to kill his friend.

‘The body hung for an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows’. Clark. ibid.

1788 – 28 February, Sydney: Next day – Thursday 28 February – in torrential rain, the grotesque drama continued. At 3 pm, twenty-four (24) hours having passed, Joseph Hall with Henry Lavell stood once more under the ‘gallows tree’.

After prayers and rituals of execution, Hall and Lavell hand over hand followed each other up the ladder into the tree and out onto a platform ‘fixt between the branches’. They prepared to die a slow lingering death as they witnessed Barrett had suffered the previous day.

1788 – 28 February: For the second time, again at the very last moment, Hall and Lavell had their nooses removed. Reprieved death they were sentenced to be chained for an indefinite period on reduced rations onto a small rocky outcrop in Sydney Harbour. They knew it as Pinchgut, we know it as Fort Denison.

‘For here was an opportunity of establishing a Jack Ketch who Should, in all future Executions, either Hang or be Hanged’. See: Ketch Connection

1788 – 29 February, Sydney: Next day – Friday 29 February 1788 – came the third act of this gruesome drama albeit with different players.

‘In extreme misery’ four (4) prisoners William Shearman, Daniel Gordon, John Williams and James Freeman shuffled in chains to the ‘large gallows tree’.

As on 28 February – and, previously at Barrett’s hanging, exhausted convicts assembled. Again the battalion paraded with musket, bayonet, fife and drum. Shearman, Gordon and Williams were granted conditional pardons, their nooses were removed and they joined the audience.

‘with the rope about his neck’ James Freeman, a young man not yet twenty-one (21), heard his death sentence confirmed.

‘But while under the ladder, with the rope about his neck, he was offered a free pardon as condition of performing the duty of the common executioner as long as he remained in this country, which after some little pause, he reluctantly accepted’. First Fleet Journal, Chief  Surgeon  John White.

A vicious story with a vicious ending. See Catch 22 – James Freeman

There can be no doubt the sadistic rigmarole of these three (3) days was staged by Governor Arthur Phillip RN not only to impress the ‘might of British law’ on the assembled convicts and soldiers, but to induce fear into a watching, unseen Aboriginal audience.

‘The pattern of conflict in Australia ran parallel to the pattern of settlement. From the early days around Sydney Cove the hostility of the Aboriginal peoples to the depredations of the whites was clear to all….To deny the existence of a state of war is to deny the status of combatants to Aboriginal peoples, with all the important attendant psychological ramifications’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1870, 2001

In silence the warriors moved away certain they faced a dangerous and treacherous enemy. The cruel antics and malicious twists and turns of these three (3) days made them very aware, these people could not be trusted.

To survive against such overwhelming odds they would have to tread carefully to defend their land and protect their resources. Any gesture of friendship offered by these white strangers, would be self-serving In this the First People were not wrong.

EPILOGUE: HALL, RYAN, LAVELL

1790 – March, Sydney: ‘We had now been…[thirty-four (34) months] from England in which long period …no supplies…no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th of May 1787, the  day of our departure from Portsmouth. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

1790 – March, Sydney: The ‘First Fleet’ Robinson Crusoes had now been stranded at Sydney Cove since January 1788. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve from January to July 1790

1790 – 6 March, Norfolk Island: ‘No supplies…no communication whatever‘ a desperate Governor Phillip could wait no longer. On the 6th March HMS Sirius and HMS Supply evacuated 50% of the non-Aboriginal population from Sydney to Norfolk Island in order to save them from starvation. Among them Joseph Hall, John Ryan and Henry Lavell.

1793, Sydney: Joseph Hall returned to Sydney in 1793 and died there, date unknown.

1796: Norfolk Island: John Ryan was recorded living on Norfolk Island in 1796.

1801: England: Henry Lavell’s story ended very differently. In 1801 he was living in Sydney and about that time received a full pardon and returned to England.

When Henry Lavell sailed away in 1801 he left behind a son, James Lavell born in 1788.

‘I can assure you there is in some of them [Aboriginal women] a proportion, a softness, a roundness and plumpness in their limbs and bodies…that would excite tender and amorous sensations, even in the frigid breast of a philosopher’. George Worgan, First Fleet Surgeon, letter to his brother in England.

While each man’s story in its own way throws light on the plight of the First Australians post 1788 it is Lavell’s story, coupled with the writings of  Surgeon George Worgan, that hold particular significance for the First Nations’ Peoples.

Like the death penalty, smallpox and syphilis, the seeds of the ‘Stolen Generations’ came with the ‘First Fleet’.

1828: In ‘First Fleet Families’ compiled by James Hugh Donohoe, Henry Lavell is named as father of James Lavell whose Aboriginal mother is not named. The 1828 census records James living in Sydney but made no mention of his mother.

1788- 1868: Gender disparity characterised the transportation of British criminals to Australia .Between 1788 and 1868 Britain transported 163,000 convicts to Australia. Of these only 25,000 were women with one-half of this number (12,500), going directly to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). See: G for Gender

An even worse demographic applied in West Australia where Britain shipped zero (0) female and ten thousand (10,000 ) criminals to swamp a numerically small population of free Englishmen.

The magnitude of this imbalance of the sexes threatened the future biological integrity of Australia’s First Peoples. Such gross gender disparity constitutes the crime of genocide. See: G for Genocide

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