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

Botany Bay – 1788 – January, 18-20: Approximately 750 (570 male and 193 female) of England’s convicted criminals, reprieved death on condition they be exiled ‘from the realm’ reached Botany Bay in the middle of January 1788.

Among them among Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan friends from years of imprisonment in gaols and on prison hulks moored along the Thames River.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the convicts…the standard adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney 1990

Sydney Cove – 26 January: The entire fleet relocated nine (9) miles (14km) north to Sydney Cove on the 26th of January.

Port Jackson – 27 January:The landing of a part of the marines and [male] convicts took place the next day, and on the following, the remainder [of the men] disembarked’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1961

27 February: One (1) month later – 27 February – Barrett, Lavell, Hall and Ryan stood beneath‘ a large tree fixt as a gallows’. See: From Here To Eternity

Britain’s invasion and colonisation of New Holland imposed  on Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples a racist caste-system based not only on colour but in time on shades of hue.

Well practised retribution was meted out when any dared to challenge the predators who plundered their resources and stole their culture, stole their children, stole their land, stole their lives and continue to do so.

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

Although the myriad injustices that followed Britain’s invasion stand in plain sight, because of widespread ignorance of our shared history in mainstream non-Aboriginal Australia, they go largely unrecognised and unacknowledged.

Even when acknowledged the consequences for the First Australians of Britain’s 1788 invasion, conquest, the death penalty  starvation, dispossession, dispersal,  gross gender imbalance –   genocide, syphilis –   starvation – the smallpox virus 1789 that killed 50% of Sydney’s Aboriginal families, are simply swept under the carpet. 

Infuse universal terror’; the punitive way the English dealt with their own people reveal them malicious and vindictive in the extreme.

If for no reason other than their stories provide insight and shed light on the ‘terror’ meted out to Australia’s First Peoples the fate of four (4) Englishmen and their brutal intersecting stories need to be told. See: ‘Terror’ Arthur’s Algorithm

Sydney Cove –  February 1788: How was it Thomas Barrett, Joseph Hall, Henry Lavell and John Ryan came to be standing under a ‘gallows tree’ within a month of arriving at Botany Bay.

At 5pm on Wednesday 27 February 1788. Thomas Barrett died a slow agonising death dangling from a make-shift gallows.

I don’t 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’.  Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal See:  From Here to Eternity – Thomas Barrett: 

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, 1985


England – 1718: Under the Transportation Act of 1717[18] Britain exported 50,000 convicted criminals, at the rate of 1000 a year, to her American colonies.

On arriving In America the transporting merchant, who had purchased them from Treasury, on-sold them. More accurately to cover costs and maximise his profit the merchant sold their ‘service’.

Lock, stock and labour convicts were offered for sale at regular ‘slave scrambles’.   Women worked as farm labourers or house servants.

Few men had skills most were purchased by plantation owners to work out their sentence  -7, 14 years or life – in tobacco and cotton fields alongside Negro slaves shipped in from Africa.


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

England – 1776  April: Legislation, the Hulks Act, allowed male convicts reprieved death ‘for transportation to America’ to be held over  and confined on decaying diseased ships – hulks – moored along the River Thames. Female prisoners were excluded from hulks

Saratoga – 1777:  Not long after America issued a Declaration of Independence in 1776 Britain’s General John Burgoyne lost his large army to America’s General Horatio Gates  at Saratoga.

In 1778 France seized the opportunity to strike at Britain and entered the fray in support of General George Washington’s Patriot rebel militia.  Massive amounts of French money, munitions and military know-how ‘virtually assured  [an] American Victory’.

‘Without the direct intervention of Britain’s adversaries, France and Spain, on America’s side, the colonies could not hope to prevail against the superior British army and navy to win their independence outright’. Larrie D. Ferreiro, Brothers At Arms, American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It, Vintage, Penguin Random House, New York 2017

Yorktown1781 October:  A month after a French naval squadron under Admiral De Grasse’s command  prevented the landing of reinforcements and heavy artillery ( Chesapeake September 1781) in support of General Charles Cornwallis the survivors of his large army surrendered to a combined French and Patriot force in October 1781.

The Siege of and Battle for Yorktown heralded the beginning of the end of Britain’s campaign to save her thirteen (13)  ‘middle New World colonies’.

Paris – 1783:  The shooting war in North America was over by the end of 1782. After lengthy negotiations terms of The Treaty of Versailles were ratified by May 1783 and signed off formally in September 1783 .

Under its terms Britain lost Connecticut, North and South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and the right to export criminals there.

After eight (8) years of conflict England’s gaols and prison-hulks were overflowing with prisoners reprieved death ‘for transportation to America’ but with nowhere to go.

Nevertheless in August 1783 the Home Office, charged with finding a destination for an increasing army of convicted criminals, decided to  take up where it had left off in 1775.


Government issued a ‘transport’ contract to George Moore a merchant who, prior to the war, specialised in shipping convicts to America. Whitehall took this decision despite being aware, as early as July 1776, the American Congress had legislated to ban any future importation of those Benjamin Franklin dubbed ‘rattle-snakes’.

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

Joseph Hall: His Back-Story

London – 1782 – January 9: Hall in company with two (2) others, appeared in the Old Bailey at the beginning of January 1782 charged with demanding money with menaces.

Their victim gave damming evidence; ‘they said if I did not give them money they would blow my brains out’. 

Found guilty and sentenced to death the three (3) were reprieved. Commuted ‘for transportation to America’ they were sent to the hulks to await shipment.

America – 1783 – August 6: Joseph Hall with his robber mates were among one hundred and forty-three (143) prisoners crammed onto Swift when it sailed for America in August 1783.

Rye – Sussex:  Not far along into the voyage some forty (40) or so prisoners ‘rose on the crew’ and drove the ship ashore at Rye. In the confusion Hall with one (1) of his partners-in-crime escaped.

All were recaptured and charged with ‘return before expiry’. Under the Transportation Act of 1718return before expirybeing at large within the kingdom’ attracted the death penalty.

Eight (8) men were executed. The remainder, again reprieved death, were commuted ‘for transportation to America’. Hall, sentenced to a further fourteen (14) years, found himself imprisoned once more on a Thames hulk.

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

Gravesend: By the end of March Joseph Hall, Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and John Ryan, taken from various county prisons and Thames hulks were on board Mercury ‘bound for America’.

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

A number fell into the sea from commandeered lifeboats. Some drowned others, including Joseph Hall, were plucked from the freezing waters by HMS Helena.

1784 – May, Exeter: Barrett, Lavell and Ryan escaped into the Devon countryside. It is said  few made it as far as London.  All were eventually recaptured and thrown into Exeter gaol.

A special Commission sat at the Exeter Guildhall to investigate the mutiny and punish the mutineers.

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

All were repealed on condition they be exiled ‘from the realm’ But not to America –  beyond the seas’.  Most returned to the hulks.

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

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

Henry Lavell: His Back Story

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

December 4: The judge adjourned the case and remanded him in custody. When Lavell reappeared in the dock three (3) months later, 4th December 1782,  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 either Newgate or the Fleet River prison.

The following year, October 1783, he transferred to an even more appalling prison – the rotting hulk of a ship moored in the Thames River.

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

As with Swift (1783) , some Mercury convicts including Lavell and our ‘Three  Musketeers’ –  Barrett, Hall and young John Ryan; ‘rose on the crew’ at Torbay took over the ship, escaped into the Devon countryside. Recaptured they returned to the hulks.

John Ryan: His Back Story

Old Bailey – 1784 January:   In the depth of a bitterly cold London winter John, then aged about fourteen (14) years, stood in the Old Bailey dock charged with theft of a woollen coat.

Found guilty, sentenced for seven (7) years ‘transportation to America’, he was lodged in Newgate goal to await shipment.

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


‘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.

Sydney Cove – 1788 February 27: That is why in February  1788 these four (4) young men found themselves at Sydney Cove thirteen thousand (13,000) miles (21,000 km) from their homeland.

Africa – 1783-4:  After the Swift and Mercury debacles, Britain looked to Africa as a penal destination. At least two (2) attempts to send convicts to the West African fort settlements at Goree and Cape Coast Castle, ended in failure with heavy loss of life.

London: 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.

It is said Burke’s passion and eloquence put an end to Africa as a penal destination.  See: Amigos – Three Amigos + One

Whitehall -1786 August: On the advise of just one (1) man, Joseph Banks the celebrated Royal Society botanist, who accompanied Captain James Cook to Botany Bay on the Endeavour voyage in 1770, Britain’s Treasury commanded the Admiralty assemble a large fleet of ships.

Known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ its task was to transport 1500 souls, not to America a voyage of six (6) weeks, or Africa a mere four (4) weeks, but a voyage of eight (8) months across thirteen (13,000) thousand miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ to New Holland ( Australia) on the other side of the planet. See: Apollo 11 – Fly Me To The Moon

But where was Edmund Burke? He had moved on the next thing – the impeachment of Warren Hastings.

Portsmouth – 1787 March 11: Lavell and Ryan were taken from Dunkirk in March 1787 and boarded Friendship, one (1) of six (6) transports and three (3) supply ships chartered to make the long voyage to Botany Bay.

A day or so later Thomas Barrett and Joseph Hall, removed from Dunkirk ,clambered aboard Charlotte another troop transport.


‘The Way of War is A Way of Deception. When able, Feign inability; When deploying troops, Appear not to be.’  Sun-Tzu, The At of War,  Penguin ed. 2002.  

Botany Bay – 1787 May 13: The ‘First Fleet’ departed England ‘bound for Botany Bay’ with a complement of 1500 souls under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN in mid-May 1787. All males, marines (245 ) and prisoners, were fed as combatants ‘serving in the West Indies’. 

The fleet comprised two (2) warships, HMS Sirius & HMS Supply (200 naval personnel) six (6) troop transports Friendship, Charlotte, Alexander, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn & Scarborough three (3) stores-ships Fishburn, Borrowdale & Golden Grove (approximately 440 merchant seaman).


In British eyes it [the First Fleet], if it has been noticed at all, as a small, peace-time convoy, which founded a colony’. Roger Knight, Studies [no. 10] From Terra Australia to Australia, eds. John Hardy and Alan Frost, Highland Press, Canberra 1989

An invasion fleet is an accurate description of the ‘First Fleet’. See: A Riddle – When was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet?  When It Was The First Fleet


‘The [eighty]  Mercuries were the most feared of the convicts’.

Sydney Cove 1788 – January 26: Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell, Joseph Hall and John Ryan landed in Sydney Cove in January 1788.

27 February: 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 ‘without distinction’ – except for alcohol – the full ration for ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ had been issued the previous day.

I ist highly likely this was nothing more than a ‘convenient’ trumped-up charge.  Nevertheless all were found guilty and sentenced to die before sunset.

While under the tree pressure was brought to bear on John Ryan the youngest; ‘he turned king’s evidence  his irons were removed’.

Then there were three (3) Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and Joseph Hall.

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

Hall and Lavell were given a stay-of-execution for twenty-four (24) hours to return to the ‘gallows tree’ next day‘. 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 don’t 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. 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 [had] 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.

28 February: 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 again stood beneath the ‘gallows tree’.

After prayers and rituals of execution, Hall and Lavell hand over hand followed each other up a ladder into the tree and out onto a platform ‘fixt between the branches’.

They prepared to die a slow lingering death as they had witnessed Barrett suffer the previous day.  And for the second time at the very last moment Hall and Lavell had their nooses removed.

Reprieved death they were sentenced to be chained for an indefinite period onto a small rocky outcrop, Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour, and given reduced rations.

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

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

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

As before 27th- 28th February exhausted convicts assembled.  Once more ‘should a insurrection or rescue take place’ 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.

James Freeman a young man not yet twenty-one (21) years  ‘with the rope about his neck’ -heard his death sentence confirmed. See Catch 22 – James Freeman

‘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’. Chief  Surgeon John White, First Fleet Journal

A vicious story with a vicious ending.

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 ‘terror’ into a watching, unseen Aboriginal audience.

The beginning of a vicious history.

‘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

The warriors moved off silently certain they faced a dangerous treacherous enemy. The cruel antics and malicious twists and turns of these three (3) days made them very aware, these alien ghostly 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 decorated in scarlet would be self-serving.

In this the First Nations’ People – were not wrong.


Sydney -1790 March: ‘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

The  Robinson Crusoes of the ‘First Fleet’ had now been marooned at Sydney Cove since January 1788. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve Sydney Cove from January to July 1790

Norfolk Island – 1790 March 6: ‘No supplies….no communication whatever’ a desperate Governor Phillip could wait no longer in order to save ‘his people‘ from starvation and ordered HMS Sirius and HMS Supply evacuate 50% of them to Norfolk Island. Among them went   Joseph Hall, John Ryan and Henry Lavell.

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

Norfolk – 1796: John Ryan was recorded living on Norfolk Island in 1796. To protect him on Norfolk Island it appears his name may have been changed.  (See: post-script)

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

‘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.

The seeds of the ‘Stolen Generations’ came with the ‘First Fleet’. 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.

In ‘First Fleet Families’ compiled by James Hugh Donohoe, Henry Lavell is named as father of James Lavell born in 1788.  His Aboriginal  mother’s name however is unknown.

1801: When in 1801 Henry Lavell sailed home to England he left behind his son, James Lavell the first known named Aboriginal-Anglo child born in 1788.

1828: The census of 1828 census records James Lavell living in Sydney. Again there is no mention of his Aboriginal mother.

Daniel Gordon, thought to have been a freed slave who foought with the Loyalists against Washington’s rebels continued to get into trouble. His skills as an actor seems to have saved him from punishment on more than one occasion. After spending some time on Norfolk  Island he died in Sydney in 1818 aged 80 years.

John Williams, one of two ‘black‘ convicts of the same name, both roughly the same age was probably born in Jamaica. After receiving a conditional pardon he joined a sealing ship ended up across Bass Strait on Kangaroo Island. He is thought to have drowned some time around 1830.

John Williams has  living Jamaican-Anglo-Irish descendants who are rightly proud of their heritage.


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.  One-half of this number (12,500), went directly to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). See: G for Gender

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

As for the  deliberately introduced addictions of sugar, alcohol and tobacco –  dispossession, dispersal, fragmentation, dependence , depression,  despair in the face of excessive imprisonment, scant accountability for rape, continuing ‘black deaths in custody’,  chronic diseases,  rheumatic heart, eye,  kidney, diabetes and metabolic disorders –  ‘we’‘and from all the lands on earth we come’  …’blame them’. See: The Ketch Connection

Post-Script:  After viewing an episode of ‘Who do you think you are’  – SBS TV – this writer believes John Ryan may have living relatives at least one with a well known profile. 

In British eyes it [the First Fleet], if it has been noticed at all,  was a small, peace-time convoy, which founded a colony’. Roger Knight, Studies [no. 10] From Terra Australia to Australia, eds. John Hardy and Alan Frost, Highland Press, Canberra 1989

*****The ‘First Fleet’ was an invasion fleet and no-one knows that better than the English historian Roger Knight. 

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