THE GREAT ESCAPE FROM SYDNEY COVE

1792 – March, Africa: ‘They [the 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, en-route from Sydney to England in HMS Gorgan with returning ‘First Fleet’ marines who had been stranded at Sydney Cove since January 1788 was astounded when, in March 1792, part of eleven (11) persons who escaped from Sydney sailed into Table Bay in a Dutch vessel as prisoners of Captain Edward Edwards RN commander of HMS Pandora.

The Admiralty had sent Edwards to Tahiti with order to round up and arrest the Bounty mutineers. 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 slipped silently through towering Sydney Heads out into the open sea and made for Timor.

THE BACK STORY

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth England: A large 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, known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ – sold as Britain’s first transportation fleet – was an invasion fleet. One-half of the fleet complement were convicted criminals however all 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, one hundred and ninety (190) female prisoner camp – followers. Many younger women were specifically chosen to satisfy the sexual needs of marine officers whose wives were not permitted to accompany them.

1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay:  Within 36 hours between 18 – 20 January 1788 the fleet anchored in Botany Bay.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: Three (3) days later, on the 23rd January, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe commanded by Comte de la Jean- Francoise La Perouse, arrived off the entrance to Botany Bay.

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: On Phillip’s orders the English fleet quit Botany Bay and sailed nine (9) miles fourteen (14 km) north to Port Jackson where Sydney Cove, a deep safe eminently defensible anchorage, awaited.

As the sun faded Captain-General now Governor Arthur Phillip, raised English ‘Colours’ – the Union Jack – and claimed British sovereignty over New Holland.

1788 – 10 February, Sydney Cove: On a sparkling February morning Mary Braund and William Bryant both from Cornwell, who sailed to their exile in the transport Charlotte, stood with four (4) other convict couples to be were married by Reverend Richard Johnson the fleet Chaplain who had earlier at Cape Town, baptised Charlotte their daughter.

1790

Two (2) years having passed Marine Captain Watkin Tench, whose ‘First Fleet’ Journal informs this narrative, greeted 1790 with intense trepidation.

1790 – 1 January, Sydney: ‘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, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth’. Tench. ibid

1790 – 6 March, Sydney: ‘Famine was approaching with gigantic strides’. In order to save the Sydney settlement from starvation Governor Phillip had his two (2) warships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, evacuate 50% of ‘his people’ to Norfolk Island where, in 1788, to stymie La Perouse, a satellite settlement had been established.

1790 – 19 March: HMS Sirius was to continue onto China for help. But on the 19th of March 1790 Sirius struck a submerged reef and sank. Her crew, one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Naval personnel were saved, but stranded now on Norfolk Island. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve from January 1788 to July 1790

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

At Sydney starvation approached with ‘gigantic strides’ 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.

It was a desperate decision for, without Supply there would be no trawling for fish, the Englishmen’s main source of protein and the Sydney and Norfolk Island settlements would be cut off not only from each other but from the outside world.

‘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 – 17 April – Batavia: Although the monsoon season was fast approaching HMS Supply set off for Jakarta in mid April. In despair 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’.

1790 – July, Batavia: Supply reached Jakarta in July 1790 where Lieutenant Ball RN, with assistance from Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, negotiated charter of a Dutch ship Waaksamheyd and arranged an early sailing date with Deter Smidt her master.

Midshipman Charles Ormsby was left in Jakarta in charge of a working party to audit the quantity and quality of provisions and supervise their loading.

1790 – 17 December, Sydney: Six months later – 17 December 1790 – Captain Smidt sailed Waaksamheyd into Sydney Harbour.

A week or so after Waaksamheyd’s arrival William Bryant, who had long planned an escape, sounded out Deter Smidt. At the time Governor Phillip and Smidt were engaged in acrimonious negotiations over a price to re-charter Waaksamheyd to retrieve the Sirius crew from Norfolk Island and take them to England.

Phillip was driving a hard bargain, so when Bryant approached Smidt he found a sympathetic ear. Smidt studied Will Bryant’s escape plan that entailed a daunting task. With seven (7) trusted companions William and Mary, their two (2) small children, Charlotte and baby Emanuel, planned to row an open boat to Timor a distance of 3,254 miles (5,200 km).

Bryant was buoyed 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, like the Bryants with no protection from the weather, survived a similar distance  – 6705 kms – to Timor.

1791

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

Most important of all Smidt gave Bryant Waaksamheyd’s projected sailing date so the escapees could use the excitement and commotion of his ship’s 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 a brave bid for freedom.

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 and the Sirius crew and take them onto England.

William Morton the escapees’ navigator 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 successfully 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. 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 1791. The locals, familiar with tales of shipwreck, accepted them without question.

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

Yet in time another such coincidence proved a huge negative.

‘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 – 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 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. The men when sufficiently recovered 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 the Governor learned a Dutchman – Deter Smidt – was implicated, with international protocols in mind, Wanjon 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 dungeon. But even if their situation had been more or less congenial it was not to last.

The previous year (1790) British 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 but fourteen (14) mutineers were captured, ironed and locked into a cage constructed on Pandora’s deck. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

1791 – 29 August, Great Barrier Reef: In a fierce storm Pandora ran aground on a coral reef and sank. But for the heroism of two (2) crewmen Joseph Hodges and James Moulter who defied Edwards all in the cage would have drowned. Hodges and Moulter broke in, cut though the prisoners’ 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 on the 12th of March 1792 where William Bryant and baby Emanuel had earlier died of fever.

EPILOGUE

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

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