THE GREAT ESCAPE FROM SYDNEY COVE

1792 – March, Africa: ‘They [Botany Bay escapees] had miscarried in a heroic struggle for liberty after having combated every hardship and conquered every difficulty’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961.

1792 – March – Cape Town: Captain Tench, aboard HMS Gorgan en-route from Sydney to England with returning ‘First Fleet’ marines who had been stranded at Sydney Cove since January 1788 was astounded when some of eleven (11) convicts who had escaped from Sydney in 1791 sailed into Table Bay in a Dutch vessel, prisoners of Captain Edward Edwards RN. See: HMS Gorgan and the Botany Bay Escapees

A year earlier – 28 March 1791 – convicts Mary and William Bryant baby Emanuel and Charlotte aged three (3), with seven (7) trusted companions, oars muffled on their stolen row-boat – Governor Phillip’s cutter – slipped silently through towering Sydney Heads out into the open sea and made for Timor.

The Admiralty gave Captain Edwards command of HMS Pandora and sent him to Tahiti with orders to round up and arrest the Bounty mutineers and bring them to England for court-martial. See: Pandora’s Box 

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth England: The ‘First Fleet’ a large armed squadron of eleven (11) ships with a complement upwards of 1500 souls – 1300 men and 200 women – under command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN – sailed from England on 13 May 1787 – bound for Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

The convoy sold as Britain’s first transportation fleet was an invasion fleet. One-half of the fleet complement were convicted criminals. Its five hundred and eighty (580) male convicts were rationed as ‘British troops serving in the West Indies’. See: Convict Transportation – The Hulks Act & How The Mindset of Slavery Came To Australia in 1788

Of the fleet’s two hundred and twenty-one (221) women, thirty-one (31) were marine wives and one hundred and ninety (190) female prisoner camp – followers. Many younger prisoners were chosen specifically to satisfy the sexual needs of marine officers whose wives were not allowed to accompany them.

1788 – January 20, Botany Bay:  Within 36 hours between 18 – 20 January 1788 the fleet anchored in Botany Bay. See: Lieutenant William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame’

1788 – January 21, Port Jackson: On Monday 21st of January Captain Phillip left Botany Bay with a scouting party in three (3) small cutters. They sailed northwards entering through the towering heads of Port Jackson and came upon what Phillip described as; ‘the finest harbour in the world…here a thousand sail of line may ride in the most security’.

Just as important was a ‘snug cove’ where ‘ships can anchor so close to the shore that, at a very small expense, quays may be made at which the largest ships may unload’.  

1788 – January 23, Botany Bay: Phillip returned to the initial beach-head- Botany Bay – with news the ‘First Fleet’ had found its home.

1788 – January 24, Botany Bay: In the early hours of the 24th January, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe , commanded by Comte de la Jean- Francoise La Perouse, arrived off the entrance to Botany Bay. The Sirius cannon denied them entry forcing the French back out to sea.

1788 – January 25, Sydney Cove: Phillip quit Botany Bay and sailed nine (9) miles (14) km to Sydney Cove arriving there just on dark.

1788 – Saturday 26:: At dawn Phillip landed with a few sailors and marines. A flag-pole was built, ‘English Colours’ – the Union Jack of Queen Anne – was raised; ‘three volleys were then fired as the band played the first part of God Save the King between each volleyand Phillip claimed England’s victory over France. See: Only Men ? aside from seagulls how many white birds were on the ground at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 – None

Phillip had ordered the English fleet follow him as soon as bad weather abated. Their exit from Botany Bay was difficult and dangerous. Not until 8 pm that night-  26th – did the remaining fleet anchored alongside Supply.

‘Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business necessary to be performed immediately after landing, it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form until the 7th of February 1788’. Tench. ibid.

1788 – Monday, 28 December: Men, marines and those convicts fit enough began landing. The following ten (10) days were a whirlwind of activity preparing the settlement. Marines supervised the convicts albeit with a reluctance urged on them by Major Robert Ross their commanding officer.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross [and] the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursued against him’. John Moore, First Fleet Marines, Queensland University Press, 1987

1788 – February 6: Between 6 am and 6 pm the one hundred and eighty-nine (189) women prisoners were rowed ashore from what have been home for just on a year.

1788 – February 7: ‘The 7th of February was the memorable…spit and polish day…on which Phillip’s commission was read to the public’. Moore. ibid.

1788 –  February 10: On a sparkling February morning Mary Braund and William Bryant both from Cornwell, who sailed to their exile in the transport Charlotte, stood dressed in their best with four (4) other couples.

Rev. Richard Johnson the fleet chaplain, who had baptised Charlotte their daughter at Cape Town, performed the first of many marriages he was to celebrate in European Australia. See: Four Weddings and a Funeral (Coming shortly)

1790

1790 – 1 January, Sydney: ‘ No communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth. We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England in which long time no supplies [from England] had reached us. From the intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off. Tench. ibid.

1790 Marine Captain Watkin Tench, whose ‘First Fleet’ Journal informs this narrative, greeted 1790 with intense trepidation. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve from January 1788 to July 1790

1790 – 6 March, Norfolk Island: In order to save the Sydney settlement from starvation and with; famine was approaching with gigantic strides’ Governor Phillip had his two (2) warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, evacuate 50% of ‘his people’ to Norfolk Island. See: Smallpox – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

1790 – 19 March, China: HMS Sirius was to continue onto China for help. But caught by fierce winds on the 19th of March Sirius swung on her anchor, struck a submerged reef and sank. Her crew, one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Naval personnel were saved, but stranded on Norfolk Island a satellite settlement established in February 1788, to stymie La Perouse and his ships on their fateful voyage home. See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies.

1790 – April, Sydney: Lieutenant Henry Ball RN, Captain of HMS Supply, returned to Sydney with the devastating news. HMS Sirius was lost and with her all hope of a China rescue. 

With Sydney on the edge of disaster Phillip had no option but to send HMS Supply on a three (3) month voyage to Batavia, modern day Jakarta. There her captain, Lieutenant Henry Ball, was to buy tons of food and medicines and hire a large vessel to bring them to Sydney as soon as possible.

Governor Phillip’s decision was a desperate one. Without Supply there could be no trawling for fish, the Englishmen’s only source of protein. The Sydney and Norfolk Island settlements would be cut off not only from each other but from the outside world – no escape.

The measure of Phillip’s desperation is clear the ration; ‘per week to every child more than eighteen months old [and] every grown person  two & one-half pounds of pork, two & one-half pounds of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease…under eighteen months old, same  quantity of rice and four, and one pound of pork…salted between three and four years.. rice a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it’. 

1790 – 17 April – Batavia: Although the monsoon season was fast approaching HMS Supply set out for Jakarta in mid April. Tench turned to Virgil’s Aeneid; ‘Truly did we say to her ‘In te omnis domus inclinata recumbit’ – ‘Thou the support of all [t]his tottering house’. See: Missing in Action HMS Sirius & HMS Supply

‘HMS Supply, captain Ball, sailed for Batavia. We followed her with anxious eyes until she was no longer visible….Everything which zeal, fortitude, and seamanship could produce, was concentrated in her commander’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – July, Batavia: Supply reached Jakarta in July 1790 where Lieutenant Ball RN, with assistance from Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, who was to return by ‘any means’ to England with an ‘Anon’ covert letter of immense importance, negotiated the charter of a Dutch ship Waaksamheyd and arranged an early sailing date with Deter Smidt her master.

Midshipman Charles Ormsby stayed in Jakarta to audit the quantity and quality of provisions and supervise their loading. Many of his working party, eleven (11) seamen, like one-half of Captain James Cook’s crew on his Endeavour voyage, contracted malaria and were buried there. See: Captain Cook -Caught Short 

1790 – 17 December, Sydney: Six months later – 17 December 1790 – Captain ,Smidt sailed Waaksamheyd into Sydney Harbour loaded with tons of supplies.

William Bryant, a Cornish fisherman before his tangle with the law, had long planned an escape. A few weeks after Waaksamheyd’s arrival Bryant sounded out Smidt.

At the time Governor Phillip and Smidt were at logger-heads engaged in acrimonious negotiations over a price to re-charter Waaksamheyd and have her retrieve the Sirius crew from Norfolk Island and take them home to England.

Phillip was driving a hard bargain, so when Bryant approached Smidt he found a sympathetic ear. The Dutchman studied Will Bryant’s escape plan that entailed a very daunting task.

Will’s plan was to row an open boat, with Mary his wife and seven (7) trusted companions to Timor, a distance of 3,254 miles (5,200 km). A task made even more daunting as William and Mary had two (2) small children Charlotte and baby Emanuel.

Bryant was buoyed however when Smidt related the story of Captain William Bligh RN. The previous year (1789 in mid-ocean) Captain Bligh and eighteen (18) crew, had been forced off HMS Bounty at gun-point, by a group of mutineers led by Lieutenant Fletcher Christian RN, Bligh’s second-in-command.

The Bounty men in an open row-boat that, like the Bryants, had no protection from the weather, survived a similar distance  – 6705 kms – to Timor.

In preparation Mary began to collect and hide food-stuffs. Will stashed hooks, hand-lines and nets. Deter Smidt supplied a compass, quadrant, two (2) guns with plenty of ammunition and detailed charts of the Great Barrier Reef.

1791

Most important of all Smidt gave Bryant Waaksamheyd’s projected sailing date so the escapees could use the excitement and commotion of his own departure to cloak their flight.

1791- 28 March, Sydney: At midnight on 28 March 1791, with oars muffled on their stolen boat – Governor Phillip’s cutter – the ‘Botany Bay escapees’ set out for Timor in what Tench recognised ‘a heroic struggle for liberty’.

1791 – 28 March, Norfolk Island: At first light Captain Smidt sailed Waaksamheyd down the harbour and set his course for Norfolk Island to retrieve Captain John Hunter, the Sirius crew and take them home to England.

Meantime William Morton, the escapees’ navigator, had set his course due north. Look-outs were posted, strict attention was paid to Smidt’s charts and further north, along the Great Barrier Reef, dangerous coral outcrops were skirted.

The escapees landed when and where they could to collect fresh water, rest and repair make-shift sails and caulk their leaky craft. In the far north – at Cape York and Arnhem Land – they were challenged and chased out to sea by Aborigines in large craft equipped with sails and out-rigging.

Northern Aborigines had modelled their boats on those of the Macassans who each year visited the area to harvest the sea-slug a delicacy they traded with the Chinese.   See: A Very Convenient Theory – Smallpox – it Was the Macassans Stupid . 

1791 – 5 June, Coupang West Timor: Exhausted, hair bleached, skin scorched and weathered by wind, salt and sun, all eleven (11) escapees reached the Dutch trading post of Coupang on Timor Island at the beginning of June. The locals, familiar with tales of shipwreck, accepted them without question.

The long-bow of coincidence also helped the escapees. Two (2) years earlier (14 June 1789) another group of Englishmen, Captain William Bligh and survivors of the Bounty mutiny, had arrived at Coupang in similar condition, telling a similar tale.

‘Between Holland and England war was so frequent it was virtually a sporting fixture’. Despite this William Van Este, Timor’s Dutch governor, although seriously ill, made Bligh and his men welcome offering them shelter, food and clothing.

1791

1791 – June. Timor: Likewise in June 1791, when the Botany Bay castaways reached Coupang, Governor Timotheus Wanjon, who succeeded his father-in-law, was also generous to these ragged newcomers.

One, James Martin wrote; ‘the governor behaved extremely well to us, filled our bellies and cloathed double with every [thing] that was wore on the island’.

Governor Wanjon probably believed the British government would pick up the tab for these shipwrecked souls as had been done for Captain Bligh and his men.

Timorese women delighted in Charlotte and baby Emanuel, they treated Mary with great kindness as she settled down to care for her family. When recovered sufficiently the men found work but with work came money and rum.

It was Will Bryant, with so much to lose who proved the weakest link. Drunk, he was overheard boasting of the escape. When Governor Wanjon learned that a Dutchman – Deter Smidt – was implicated, with international protocols in mind, felt obliged to arrest them.

There are conflicting stories as to whether their confinement was reasonable or oppressive. One version has them allowed to shop and mingle with the locals. Another has them confined in a castle. But even if their situation had been more or less congenial it was not to last.

The previous year (1790) the Lords of the Admiralty gave Captain Edward Edwards RN command of HMS Pandora and orders to hunt down, arrest and bring the Bounty mutineers to England for court-martial.

Lieutenant Fletcher Christian RN, instigator of the mutiny had fled Tahiti for Pitcairn Island where HMS Bounty was destroyed. Fourteen (14) mutineers stayed at Tahiti living happily with the locals.

Edwards arrested them and made preparations to return to England. He ordered a cage be constructed on Pandora’s deck. The mutineers were treated with savage brutality. Starved, shackled to its floor, sealed in by a heavy hatch. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

1791 – 29 August, Great Barrier Reef: After leaving Tahiti on her passage to England at night Edwards took Pandora, too close to the shore-line and when a storm blew up she ran aground on a coral reef and sank.

But for the heroism of two (2) crewmen Joseph Hodges and James Moulter, who defied Captain Edwards, all the caged prisoners would have drowned. Hodges and Moulter broke in, cut though their irons and helped them scramble into life boats.

1791 – 17 September, Timor: Pandora’s survivors, more dead than alive, reached Coupang in mid September 1791 and life changed for the escapees from Botany Bay.

‘We told him [Edwards] we was prisoners and had made our escape from Botany Bay. He told us we were his prisoners’.   

1792

1792 – 12 March, Africa: Captain Edwards with his surviving crew and assorted prisoners arrived at Cape Town from Batavia. But without William and baby Emanuel both had died of malaria and were buried at Jakarta. Six (6) more of the original eleven (11) escaped convicts would not see England again.

EPILOGUE

1792 – 7 July, London: James Boswell appeared at the Old Bailey in July 1792 to defend Mary Bryant and her four (4) surviving companions each charged with ‘being at large within the kingdom before expiry of sentence’ a charge that, in the eyes of British justice – Transportation Act 1717-18 – merited death. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat For the Botany Bay Escapees

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