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The C18 convicts who travelled over 4000 miles to freedom

Posted in Australia, Boats, Historical articles, History, Law, Travel on Thursday, 28 March 2013

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This edited article about Australia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 215 published on 26 February 1966.

Bryant family's escape, picture, image, illustration

Eight men, one woman and two small children faced dangers on the voyage such that they could scarcely hope to survive — but the horrors and hardships of the life they were fleeing from made any risk worth taking, by Bill Lacey

The boat was old and leaky. In it were eight men, one woman and two small children. The dangers of the voyage were such that they could scarcely hope to survive – but the horrors and hardships of the life they were fleeing from made any risk worth taking

Among the thousands of convicts who were transported to the Australian penal colony at Botany Bay at the end of the eighteenth century was a young Cornish smuggler named William Bryant.

When William arrived in Australia, he married a young and pretty female convict named Mary. Her crime, for which she had been banished to the other side of the world, had been the theft of a cloak.

The Bryants found life in the colony more grim than they had ever expected. Bullied by guards, they had to work from sun-up to sun-down, and they knew that the slightest break of the strict discipline would mean cruel punishment.

Not only was the life hard because of the “crimes” the convicts had committed in England, but natural conditions made it worse. Crops failed, and at night raiding parties of natives would drive off cattle meant to support the unhappy settlers.

William decided that he could not endure the life any longer.

“There is no hope left in this land,” he said to his wife. “If only we could escape back to Mother England.”

“How can we?” Mary said. “England is over twelve thousand miles away.”

But the idea of returning to England took hold of Bryant. He dreamed about it at night, and whispered to his friends about it by day. Most of them shrugged.

Still he would not give up. When a Dutch schooner anchored in Sydney harbour, Bryant managed to see the captain secretly. He offered him money for an old, leaky six-oared boat which he saw on the deck. In the colony money had no value, the real currency being food and tobacco, and because of this Bryant still had all the money he had brought out with him. The captain accepted it for the boat, and, not being a mean man, threw in two hundred pounds of rice an old musket, and a compass.

With these stores and eight gallons of water, the Bryants, with the two children they now had, and seven male convicts, rowed away from the colony under cover of darkness on the night of March 28, 1791.

The first stage of their journey back to Britain was north along the unexplored Australian coast. Soon after they had put to sea, it began to pour with rain – rain that was to continue to fall for the next five weeks, rotting their clothing.

The boat leaked so badly that, as soon as they thought they were a safe distance from the colony, they beached it in an inlet and attempted to caulk the warped planking with the only material they had available – crude soap. As they worked, they were surprised by a party of natives.

“Carry the boat down the beach and launch it,” Bryant told the others. “I’ll hold them back.” While her husband aimed his musket at the advancing natives, Mary Bryant followed the rest of the party with her baby in her arms, and her little girl toddling beside her.

With a blood-chilling war-cry, the natives charged. Bryant pulled the trigger, but the shot went wide. A spear thrown by the native chief gashed his shoulder. Using the musket as a club, Bryant knocked him to the ground. Another warrior ran up and was about to spear him when Bryant knocked him down too.

Over his shoulder, Bryant saw the boat bobbing in the surf. As he raced down the beach towards it, long spears fell about him, and boomerangs hummed past his head. When he was waist-deep, his friends dragged him aboard, while Mary clubbed his nearest pursuer with an oar.

The convicts headed north again. The coast was so rocky and the surf so heavy that they were unable to land. Thus three hideous weeks passed. Once a storm blew them out of sight of land, but the ex-smuggler Bryant knew enough about navigation to find his way back.

Then a second storm struck. Again they were swept out into the howling Pacific. Waves crashed over their boat, and in an endeavour to lighten it they threw even their spare clothing overboard.

At last the men slumped over their oars. Half starved, tortured by salt-water sores and utterly exhausted with fighting the gale, they had lost their will to live.

It was Mary who roused them. She began baling out the boat with her husband’s old felt hat, yelling above the noise of the wind: “Don’t give up! Think of the children!”

So the convicts continued their fight against the elements. An hour later they were miraculously swept on to the beach of a small island. Here they managed to kill a large turtle. They cooked it over a driftwood fire and then ate it. It was their first hot meal since they left the convict settlement.

They stayed on the island for six days, smoking turtle meat for the next stage of the voyage. This kept them going for nearly two weeks, until they rounded Cape York and found themselves in the huge Gulf of Carpentaria at the north coast of the Australian continent.

Now the tropical sun blistered their skin, and thirst was a terrible problem. Finally, just when it seemed they must die from lack of water, they reached a small island where they found a well at a deserted native village.

They had just managed to fill their casks when the natives returned and pursued them out to sea in their long war canoes. As the island began to disappear below the horizon, the natives turned back.

Bryant now decided to sail right across the five-hundred-mile-wide gulf, and, helped by a strong wind, the journey was accomplished in four days. But their food was almost gone, the boat was leaking worse than ever, and all aboard it were suffering from the effects of scurvy. They decided, therefore, to make for the Dutch island of Timor and tell the authorities that they were survivors from a wrecked English ship.

On June 8, 1791, they staggered ashore. The Dutch believed their story and treated them kindly, and as the weeks passed they regained their health.

But then came disaster. Bryant, who had had too much to drink, quarrelled with his wife and shouted at her: “I was good enough for you in Sydney, but it is different now we’re free. . . .”

His unfortunate words were overheard, and the convicts were arrested and forced to confess. They were shipped in chains to Batavia to await a British ship which would take them to England or Australia, where they would be punished for their attempt.

While they were waiting in jail, Bryant caught a fever and died. His two children died the following week. A naval ship took the rest of the fugitives back to England, but three more of them died on the long voyage.

The remaining five of the original eleven appeared at the Old Bailey in London on July 8, 1792. At the end of the trial, during which the whole amazing story of the convicts’ four-thousand mile bid for freedom was told, the judge said: “I could have you transported back to Australia, but in view of your sufferings you will be released.”

A great cheer went up, and it was echoed by the thousands who were waiting outside the building to hear the verdict.

Only Mary Bryant had tears in her eyes as she and her companions were led to the freedom they had suffered so much to win.

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