‘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, reached Botany Bay in the middle of January 1788.

‘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

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.

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

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’. 

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

Well practised retribution was meted out when any of dared to challenge the predators who stole their land and plundered their resources.

‘Imagine if we had suffered the injustices and then were blamed for it’. Paul Keating Redfern Speech, Paul Keating, 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 and conquest;  gross gender imbalance, starvation, syphilis,  the death penalty 1788 , the smallpox virus that in 1789 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 they 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’? 

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

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’.  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.

In America the transporting merchant who had purchased them from Treasury, on-sold them. More accurately to cover costs and make a bigger profit the merchant sold their ‘service’.

Convicts lock, stock and labour, were offered for sale at regular ‘slave scrambles’. Most were purchased by plantation owners.  Women worked as farm labourers or house servants.

Few men had skills, most worked 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 in 1775 conflict between Britain and America, the War of American Independence (1775-1783), interrupted the convict trade.

London – 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. It is held French intervention ‘virtually assured American Victory’.

Yorktown1781 October:  The surrender of the survivors of General Charles Cornwallis’ large army to a combined French and Patriot force in October 1781 heralded the end of Britain’s campaign to save her ‘New World’ colonies.

The shooting war was over by the end of 1782. After eight (8) years of conflict England’s gaols and prison-hulks were overflowing with prisoners ‘for transportation to America’ but with nowhere to go.

After lengthy negotiations terms of The Treaty of Versailles were ratified in May 1783 . Under its terms Britain lost her ‘thirteen (13) middle colonies’ and the right to export criminals there.

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 from various prison-hulks moored along the Thames River.

Joseph Hall: His Back-Story

London – 1782 – January 9: In company with two (2) others, Hall 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’ and 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.

Sussex:  Not far along into the voyage some forty (40) or so prisoners ‘rose on the crew’ and drove the ship ashore at Rye on the Sussex coast.

Hall in the confusion with one (1) of his partners-in-crime escaped. 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) men were executed. The remainder, reprieved death again, were commuted ‘for transportation to America’. Hall, sentenced to 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 the month Joseph Hall, Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and John Ryan, taken from various county prisons and Thames hulks were on board Mercury  ‘for America’.

Devon: 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. A 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 escapees.

It 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 death.

All were repealed on condition they be exiled ‘from the realm’ But now to America beyond the seas’.  Most returned to the hulks.

After 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’. 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 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 Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and Joseph Hall.

Sydney Cove – 1788 February 27: Why in 1788 were these four (4) men at Sydney Cove thirteen thousand (13,000) miles (21,000 km) from their homeland?

‘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.  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. Dr John Cobley, Crimes of the First Fleet, Vol. 1, 1982.


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 fort settlements at Goree and Cape Coast Castle, ended in failure with heavy loss of life.

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 his 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

Portsmouth – 1787 March 11: Lavell and Ryan were taken from Dunkirk in March 1787 and boarded Friendship, one (1) of six (6) transports 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.

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, marine and prisoner, were fed as combatants ‘serving in the West Indies’. 

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

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


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

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

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 making it 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) Barrett, Lavell and 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 and 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 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. 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’.

Again, 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.

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 in Sydney Harbour and given reduced rations.

The convicts called it Pinchgut we know it as Fort Denison.

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 27- 28 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 stood ‘with the rope about his neck’ – the 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’. Chief  Surgeon John White, First Fleet Journal

A vicious story with a vicious ending and the beginning of a vicious history. 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 ‘terror’ 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 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, 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 maarooned 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’ a desperate Governor Phillip could wait no longer in order to save them from starvation he ordered HMS Sirius and HMS Supply evacuate 50% of ‘his people’ to Norfolk Island  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.

England – 1801: 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.

‘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 a son, James Lavell born in 1788.

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

Daniel Gordon, thought to have been a freed slave who stood 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 and 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 is thought to have drowned some time around 1830.


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

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  introduced addictions and diseases alcohol,  dispossession, dispersal, fragmentation, dependence , depression,  despair in the face of excessive imprisonment, scant accountability for rape, or ‘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

Paris – 1783  September:  The ceremonial signing bringing America’ Revolutionary war to a formal end took place in September 1783.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply