‘The full force of laws against theft was imposed from the moment the expedition arrived in Sydney. At the end of February 1788 five [5] men were convicted of theft and condemned to death, illustrating that property was more sacrosanct than life itself.

The sentences were carried out at public hangings, which the whole convict population was forced to watch’. Henry Reynolds,  Searching for truth-telling, History, Sovereignty and The Uluru Statement From the Heart, NewSouth Publishing, 2021


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


1788 –  27 February, Sydney Cove: Four (4) convicts John Ryan, Thomas Barrett, Henry Lavell and Joseph Hall stood before a hastily  convened military court accused ‘on shaky evidence’ of robbing or conspiring to rob food from the government storehouse.

‘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.’. Henry Reynolds. op.cit.

Found guilty all were sentenced to death. The execution to take place later that same day.

‘The arm of a large tree was fixt upon as a gallows’. Arthur Bowes Smyth, Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, First Fleet  Journal, Australian Documents Library, 1979

These four (4) men were mates. Their strong friendship had been forged during three (3) difficult years imprisoned in Dunkirk a prison-hulk moored in the River Thames. See Mutiny on Mercury and Swift

Under the ‘gallows tree’ pressure was brought to bear on the youngest John Ryan; ‘he turned king’s evidence [and] his irons were removed’.

At 5pm, Marine Captain James Campbell approached Mr Brewer the Provost Marshall with a twenty-four (24) hour stay-of-execution for Hall and Lavell. Their nooses were removed.

No longer part of the action they became part of the audience.

Only Thomas Barrett died that day.   ‘The lifer who was the ringleader [was] launched into Eternity’. See: From Here to Eternity

‘The body hung for an hour and was then buried in a grave dug very near the gallows’. Lieutenant Ralph Clark, First Fleet Journal, Australian Documents Library, 1979


1788 – Thursday 28 February, Sydney:  At 3pm, twenty-four (24) hours having passed, Joseph Hall and Henry Lavell again stood under the ‘gallows tree’.

As  the day before at Thomas Barrett’s execution all convicts and naval personnel assembled. The battalion ‘in case an insurrection should take place’ paraded with fixed bayonets.

Drums and fife, loud and intimidating the day before, muffled now by the din of pelting rain.  ‘All the time’ Clark says ‘it rained as if heaven and earth was coming to the end’.

The fleet Chaplain Reverend Richard Johnson prayed over Hall and Lavell as the  rituals  of execution – nooses and blindfolds – were performed.

At 5pm hand-over-hand they climbed the ladder into the murder tree. Pushed out onto a platform ‘fixt between the branches’ both prepared to suffer the slow lingering death they had witnessed Thomas Barrett die the day before.

The action halted when Marine Captain David Collins, the garrison’s judge-advocate, handed Provost Marshall Brewer a reprieve signed by ‘His Excellency Governor Arthur Phillip’.

In lieu of death Joseph Hall and Henry Lavell would be chained indefinitely onto a rocky island in Sydney Harbour on a reduced ration. The Eora Peoples knew the place as Mattewanye, convicts called it Pinchgut, we know it as Fort Denison.

Sodden, exhausted and hungry this very diverse crowd dispersed.

Unaware next day they would stand on the same soggy ground to witness the final act of savage cynicism in this trilogy of terror. Why?  ‘In case an insurrection should take place’.

‘When leaving Botany Bay [for Sydney Cove 25 January 1788] Phillip noticed two [2] French ships in the offing…there would seem to be ‘some justification for the saying that England won Australia by six [6] days’. Edward Jenks, History of the Australian Colonies, cited H.E. Egerton, A Short History of British Colonial Policy, Methuen, London, 1928


‘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

Catch 22 – James Freeman

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