From Here to Eternity – Thomas Barrett

‘Just three [3] weeks before half a continent had been declared Crown land in one of the most remarkable acts of plunder in modern times…five [5] men were convicted of theft and condemned to death, illustrating that property was more sacrosanct than life itself. Henry Reynolds, Searching for Truth-Telling, History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement From the Heart, NewSouth Publishing 2021


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


‘When leaving Botany Bay [25 January 1788] Phillip noticed two French ships in the offing…there would seem to be ‘some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six days’. Edward Jenks, History of the Australian Colonies, cited H.E. Egerton, A Short History of British Colonial Policy, Methuen, London, 1928


Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse [was] hanging around [at Botany Bay] on an expedition with two [2] ships’.  Professor Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book, eds. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, NewSouth Publishing Press, 2017


‘New Holland is a good blind, then,  when we want to add to the military strength of India’.  Anon.  to Evan Nepean, Frank Murcott Bladen, Historical Records of New South Wales, Vol.1 1892


Sydney Cove 1788 – 27 February:   One (1) month after disembarking from the ‘First Fleet’ convicts Thomas Barrett, John Ryan, Henry Lavell and Joseph Hall were charged with stealing food from the government store-house.

All were found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. ‘The arm of a large tree…fixed upon as a gallows’  the execution to take place that same day.

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

But only Thomas Barrett died that day

A small plaque at the corner of Harrington and Essex Streets in Sydney’s Rocks area marks Barrett’s fleeting presence in Australia. His passing goes un-remarked.

Thomas Barrett fashioned 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, 1985

2008 –  23 July, Melbourne: In July 2008 the medallion was offered for sale at auction as the ‘Charlotte Medal’.

The medal was purchased for one million [$1,000,000] AUD with assistance from Australia’s Cultural Heritage Account. It is on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum, Sydney the institution that drove its purchase for the nation.

image of charlotte medal

The Charlotte Medal created by Thomas Barrett


On the 10th of March 1788 Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse in La Boussole with  L’Astrolabe astern departed Botany Bay for home and were never seen again.

Each year  a ceremony, in memory of  La Perouse and his men, is held at the Sydney suburb of La Perouse.


Barrett’s execution was public theatre staged to instil terror into all spectators; be they the silent unseen First Australians, convict, soldier, sailor and La Perouse and his men,‘hanging around‘  in Botany Bay.

On ‘shaky evidence’ Thomas Barrett aged about 30 years, had been accused in company with three (3) others,of stealing food from government stores.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] 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, 1990

However it is a matter of record the day before – 26 February 1788 – each of the condemned men had received the ‘standard’ ration issued ‘troops serving in the West Indies’. 

Nevertheless at twelve (12) noon they appeared before a hastily convened court of military officers.

London – 1782:  Six (6) years earlier, at different times in 1782, each had appeared at London’s Old Bailey on various charges, found guilty and sentenced to death.

All had their death sentence forgiven on condition they were marked ‘ for transportation to America’.


Beginning in 1717 Britain ‘simply and cheaply’ exported to America some 50,000 convicted criminals reprieved death on condition of ‘banishment from the realm’.

On reaching America they were sold by the transporting merchant through his agent at regular ‘slave scrambles’  mostly to plantation owners. To be precise their ‘service’ – labour – was purchased for the term of sentence be it seven (7) fourteen (14) years or for life.

In 1775 conflict, America’s Revolutionary War of Independence (1775-1783) brought an abrupt halt to the lucrative British-American convict trade.

Legislation, The Hulks Act of 1776, allowed male prisoners sentenced  ‘for transportation to America’  wait out the war confined on hulks.  These rat and lice infested decommissioned ships were moored along the River Thames.   

Barrett, Lavell, Hall and Ryan spent nearly three (3) appalling years confined on the hulk Dunkirk and formed strong bonds. See: Mutiny on Swift and Mercury

The Back Story:  American Revolution 1775-1783

‘The American Revolution as John L. Gray notes in his forward,[America] was just one theater in a world war.

Although the Revolution had began in 1775 as a small series of skirmishes between British troops and American militia at Lexington and Concord Massachusetts, by the time of the siege of Yorktown, in 1781, Britain was becoming overwhelmed by the effort of fighting five [5] separate nation-states around the globe – France, Spain, the United States., the Dutch Republic, and the kingdom of Mysore, in India’. Essays in The American Revolution – A World War, David K. Allison, Larrie D. ferreiro, Smithsonian.  2013

1783: Britain lost the un-losable war and her ’empire in the west’ Connecticut, North and South Carolina, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia.

Post war the planned (1786) invasion of New Holland (1788) was among Britain’s initial moves to reposition for ‘unfinished business’  – global supremacy.


Paris – 1783 September:  The Treaty of Versailles (September 1783) brought a formal end to the American War of Independence.

Britain lost her ‘thirteen [13] middle colonies’  with them went Britain’s right to export her convicted criminals, Thomas Jefferson’s ‘rattlesnakes’ ,to America.

1786 – England, August:  At least two (2) attempts to surreptitiously resume ‘transportation to America’ , then openly to Africa, failed with heavy loss of life.

1786 – October: When Edmund Burke’s vehement opposition in the House of Commons put paid to Africa as a penal destination; ‘His Majesty ‘thought it advisable to fix on Botany Bay’.

At that time noxious smells were thought to be the source of contagious diseases and here was an opportunity to get rid of a ripe stench.

Disturbances on and, escapes from prison-hulks moored at the very heart of bustling London, added to fear of widespread ‘mob violence’  such as that of the 1780 Gordon Riots.


‘The administration gave no consideration to the date of expiry of sentences, and several of the First Fleet convicts 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. Angus and Robertson, 1984

1787 – Portsmouth, January: As early as the 6th January male prisoners were removed from hulks and boarded Alexander one (1) of six (6) chartered convict transports ‘bound for Botany Bay’.

1787 – May: On the 13th of May 1787 an expeditionary naval force of eleven (11) ships, fully funded by government known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, departed England for the invasion of New Holland.

1788 – Botany Bay, January 18/20: After a voyage of eight (8) months voyaging across 15,000 miles (23,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ via Spanish Tenerife, Portuguese Brazil and Dutch Southern Africa, the fleet arrived in Botany Bay between 18 – 20 January 1788. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head: Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse

‘On the first day of my arrival I [Hunter of HMS Sirius] went to examine the south shore in order to fix on a spot for erecting some buildings; but we found very little fresh water, and not any spot very inviting for our purpose’. Captain John Hunter RN, First Fleet Journal.

January 21: Taking Captain Cook’s charts of 1770′ ‘the Governor accompanied by me and two [2] other officers, embarked in three [3] boats….with the hope of discovering a better harbour, as well as a better country’. Hunter.

About nine (9) nautical miles north of Botany Bay they found the opening to the ‘better harbour’Mr Cook had given the name Port Jackson’.

Phillip chose a ‘snug’ deep-water cove for permanent settlement naming it after Home Secretary Lord Sydney.

January 23: ‘The boats returned [to Botany Bay] on the evening of the 23rd, with such an account of the harbour and advantages attending the place, that it was determined the evacuation of Botany Bay should commence the next morning’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, Ed. L.F. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1981

24 January- Botany Bay:  Next morning  ‘alarm’  Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse with La Boussole and L’Astrolabe appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay. The Sirius cannon refused entry forcing them back out into stormy seas.

25 January – Sydney Cove: ‘Consternation!  Phillip had failed to raise ‘English Colours’ at Sydney. Aboard HMS Supply, but held up by bad weather, he made Sydney Cove just on nigh-fall.

‘There would seem to be some justification for the saying “Britain won Australia by six [6] days”. Edward Jenks, cited H.E. Egerton British Colonial Policy, Menthuen, London 1928

26 January- Sydney Cove:  At first light Phillip landed and raised ‘English Colours’ the flag of Queen Anne.

‘Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove…to make  sure the French did not make the claim first’. Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book.  ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, NewSouth Publishing 2017 

During the day the English fleet managed a dangerous exit from Botany Bay. By dusk they were moored alongside HMS Supply deep within Port Jackson.


‘His [Phillip’s] failure to invite the French commander [to Sydney Cove] reflect some fear that he might be known as a spy’. Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip 1738-1814, His Voyaging

Governor Phillip and La Perouse never met but Phillip urgently needed to ascertain La Perouses’ intentions. He delegated the task to Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN his most trusted confrere.

‘By land’ King and Marine Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, the fleet’s chief scientific officer, made their way across to Botany Bay.

The pair dined aboard La Bousolle talking into the early hours and  well into the next day before being rowed back to Sydney Cove.

During their conversation Gidley King learned La Perouse had made two (2) unsuccessful attempts to land on Norfolk Island before moving onto Botany Bay.

King formed the opinion it highly likely, on leaving Botany Bay, the French commander would repeat his efforts to occupy and claim the unoccupied island over 900 nautical miles away.

Norfolk Island – January 30: Governor Phillip immediately commissioned Gidley King Lieutenant- Governor of Norfolk Island. King began arrangements for the voyage of two (2) weeks sailing time.

31 January: King boarded Lady Penrhyn next day and selected six (6) women convicts to seed the new English settlement.

 6 February:  Between 6am and 6 pm the fleet’s two hundred and twenty-two (222) women, their children – twenty-two (22) babies born on the voyage – ‘were rowed ashore’ from ships that had been their home for more than eight (8) months. 

‘At 10 pm a most outrageous storm of lighting, thunder and rain struck the settlement’. Lieutenant Ralph Clark. cited Moore. ibid.

7 February:  Proclamation Day – Captain-General, now Governor Arthur Phillip RN, without consent of its Peoples or entering into treaty with them Britain, by force of arms, took ‘effective occupation’ of New Holland the ‘fifth Great Continental Division of the Earth’.

Preparations for Norfolk Island went on apace. Nine (9) male convicts and six (6) female prisoners and two (2) doctors were selected. A Petty Officer from HMS Sirius, two (2) seamen and a number of marines with supplies for six (6) months were completed by the middle of February.See: Gender-  Genocide 

Norfolk Island: 14 February :At 6 pm  HMS Supply sailed out through Sydney Harbour’s towering headlands leaving a very unsettled settlement in her wake.


‘Killing a criminal achieved many ends simply and cheaply’.  Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London, Grafton, Harper Collins, London

Sydney Cove – 27 February:    The convicts were mustered ‘to see’  Barrett, Lavell, Hall and Ryan’s execution.

‘In case an insurrection or an attempt at rescue should take place….The battalion paraded under arms with fixed bayonets’.   Arthur Bowes- Smyth Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, Journal ed. Fidlon and Ryan, Australian Documents Library, 1979

While under the ‘large tree fixed upon as a gallows’  pressure was brought to bear on John Ryan. The youngest of the four (4) friends; ‘he turned king’s evidence…his irons were removed’.

A commotion came from stage right. Marine Adjacent Captain James Campbell strode to the front of the parade-ground. Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplain halted his sing-song prayers.

Campbell drew Provost Marshall Henry Brewer aside and handed him a twenty-four (24) hour stay-of-execution for Hall and Lavell. Act 2 – Blind Man’s Bluff a Double Bill 

‘The ‘lifer’ Barrett ‘who was the ringleader’ stood alone.  A Vicious Circle – The Hangman’s Noose

‘I dont think that he had the least thought that he was to Suffer but when the Provos Martial put a handkerchiff about his head he turned as white as a sheet’. Marine Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents Library, 1979


An actor was missing from this grisly production. London had failed to send a hangman – ‘a Jack Ketch’. A convict was forced to kill Thomas Barrett. See: The Ketch Connection – Thomas Barrett 1788 Sydney-  Michael Barrett 1868 London – Robert Ryan 1967 Melbourne

‘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’. Dr John White, First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents, Library, 1979

The man’s hands shook so much he botched placing the noose. Catch 22

Who hanged Thomas Barrett ? Dr White’s account of this despicable scene make it highly likely, a compromised John Ryan, he had ‘turned king’s evidence’, was forced at gun-point to take his friend’s life.

‘The wretchedness of the captive [was] acted out’.  Bound and blind-folded Barrett ‘mounted the ladder’ and out onto a platform rigged between the branches. The reluctant hangman was made to push Barrett over the edge and ‘launch [him] into Eternity’.

Barrett did not die from a drop-gallows. Aghast, the audience stood in fearful silence, watched him swing to and fro, twist and jerk as he strangled slowly from a rope hitched over a tree branch.

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


‘Killing a criminal achieved many ends simply and cheaply’  Governor Phillip’s selection of ‘the lifer’ was deliberate. As either a prisoner or combatant he fell strictly within the ‘rules of and disciplines of war’. 

Barrett was a re-offender. While the fleet was at Rio de Janeiro between August and September 1787, he forged quarter-dollars for marines to trade with at the colourful vibrant local markets.

Barrett with ‘friends’ across a wide range in this very singular population of marines, sailors and, merchant-men of nine (9) chartered vessels, represented a clear and present danger.

‘The Mercuries’  of which he was one ‘were the most feared of convicts’. According to Wilfrid Oldham there were approximately eighty (80) who had been recaptured after escaping before Mercury left English waters for the six (6) week voyage to America . See: Mutiny on Mercury and Swift.

At Sydney the ‘baddies’, five hundred and seventy (570) male convicts, exercised, drilled, ‘rationed as troops serving the West Indies’  out-numbered the enlisted. The sentiment among the merchant-seamen is unknown.

Phillip feared the charismatic Barrett would take advantage of the dangerous instability caused by the extraordinary arrival of La Perouse and his men on the 24th January 1788.

Norfolk Island: The departure of HMS Supply for Norfolk Island, just one (1) week after the women had set foot on dry land, no doubt added to the instability and energised many.

Barrett’s ‘foul carnival‘ execution ‘in case an insurrection should take place’ was a cruel but clever strategic diversion on Governor Phillip’s part.

‘Few personal documents relating to [Governor] Phillip survive; his low personal profile and the secret work in which he was sometimes involved help make him one of the least-known founders of any modern state – in this case Australia’. Nigel Rigby, Peter Van Der Merwe & Glyn Williams, Pacific Explorations, Voyages of Discovery from Captain Cook’s Endeavour to the Beagle, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, Bloomsbury,, Adlard Coles, London 2018 

It is one thing to forget history quite another to obfuscate and deliberately bury it. White Australia makes very little of La Perouse’s presence

Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove…to make  sure the French did not make the claim first’. Larissa Behrendt, The Honest History Book.  ed. David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, NewSouth Publishing 2017 

While Professor Larissa Behrendt’s knowledge of Australia’s modern history saw clearly the implications of La Perouse’s arrival in Botany Bay.

‘Insurrection’ the physical presence of the French was Governor Phillip’s reason for  ‘killing’ Thomas Barrett.

‘Our wealth and power in India is their [France’s] great and constant object of jealously; and they will never miss an opportunity of attempting to wrest it out of our hands’. Sir James Harris cited Michael Pembroke, Arthur Phillip Sailor Mercenary Governor Spy, Hardie Grant Books, 2013


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