Old Tales of a Young Country

The Seizure of the “Cyprus

Marcus Clarke

ON THE 9th of August, 1829, the “Cyprus,” a vessel which was employed by the Government of Van Diemen’s Land to carry prisoners from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour, was seized by the convicts and carried into the South Seas.

The story is a romantic one, and if it does not equal in interest the story of the capture of the “Frederick,” of which I shall by-and-by have occasion to speak, it is remarkable as showing the condition of convict discipline in the early days of the colony.

Macquarie Harbour—abandoned in 1833—was in these days the Ultima Thule of convict settlement. Established in 1821 by Governor Sorrell as a station for the most irreclaimable of the desperadoes who were sent in shiploads from England, the discipline had gradually increased in severity until it became a hideous terrorism, which often drove its victims to seek death as a means of escape. The picture of the place, as drawn by Mr. Backhouse, the missionary who visited it in 1832, is most dismal. The scenery is wild and barren, the scrub and undergrowth impenetrable, and from the swampy ground around the settlement arises noisome and death-dealing exhalations. The surf beating with violence on the rocky shore renders approach difficult; and the westerly winds blowing with fury into the harbour, opposes sometimes for days the departure of the convict vessels.

This place was the last home—but one—of the felon. Once sent to “the Hell,” as the abode of doom was termed by the prisoners, return was all but hopeless. The iron-bound coast, the dismal and impassable swamps, the barren and rugged mountain ranges, combined to render escape impossible. Of the many unfortunates who made the attempt to regain their freedom, all save some eight or nine died or were retaken. The life of a convict at this hideous place of punishment was one continual agony. In those times, the notion of reclaiming human creatures by reason and kindness was unknown. Condemned for life to the settlement—often for small offences against discipline—the miserable beings were cut off from the world for ever. The commandant—usually some worthy officer selected from the regiment then in Van Diemen’s Land for his severity or strength of will—dealt with the men under his charge as the humour took him. The guard was always under arms, and had orders to fire on any man who attempted to escape. The lash was the punishment most in vogue, but those wretches whose hardened hides the cat had cut into insensibility were marooned on rocks within view of the prison barracks. The work was constant and exhausting. Robbers, murderers, and forgers, told off into gangs, felled the gigantic trees which grew in the neighbourhood of the harbour. Chained together like beasts, and kept in activity by the rarely idle lash, they bore the logs to the water-side on their backs. Every now and then some feebler ruffian would fall from exhaustion, and the chain would drag him after the main body until he rose again. A visitor to the place in 1831 says that he saw “something which he took for a gigantic centipede, which moved forward through the bush to the clanking of chains and the cracking of the overseer’s whip.” This was a log borne by a convict gang. Treated like beasts, the men lived the life of beasts. All the atrocities that men could commit were committed there. Suicide was frequent. Men drowned themselves to be rid of the burden of their existence. Three wretches once drew lots as to who should get a sight of Hobart Town. One was to murder the other, and the third was to volunteer his evidence. The lottery was drawn, the doomed man laughed ere his companion beat out his brains, and the two survivors congratulated each other on their holiday on the scaffold of Hobart Town gaol.

To this place Lieutenant Carew, with ten soldiers, set out to convey thirty-one prisoners. As not infrequently happened, the weather proved unfavourable, and the vessel put into Recherche Bay for shelter. The prisoners were all desperate men. Two of them had been before at “Hell’s Gates,” and detailed the horrors of the place to their companions. In the semi-darkness of the lower deck, where, chained in gangs of four, the miserable wretches speculated on their doom, it was proposed to seize the ship. A prisoner named Fergusson was the ringleader. “At the worst,” said he, “it is but death; and which of us wishes to live?” But the others were not so bold. Degraded by the chain and the lash, they yet clung to life as the one thing the law had not yet taken from them. There were wooden bars studded with nails fastened across their prison, and two sentinels with loaded arms kept watch at the hatchway. How could they—unarmed, weak, and chained—hope to succeed? But with Fergusson was a man named Walker, who had been a sailor, and he urged them on. “Once free, he could navigate the ship to China!” Six times did the trembling wretches essay the struggle with the soldiers, and six times did their courage fail them. At last a favourable opportunity presented itself.

Lying at anchor in the channel, with the land in sight, life on board the ship became tedious even to the officers. Lieutenant Carew, confident in his soldiers and their muskets, thought he would take a little fishing excursion. His wife was on board, but, for some reason or other, refused to accompany him. The surgeon, however, was eager for some amusement, and taking with them a soldier and convict, the two lowered a boat and went into the bay.

It was the custom to bring the men on deck by sixes and sevens for exercise, and it so happened that on this morning it was the turn of Fergusson and Walker’s gang. Fergusson, Walker, Pennell, M’Kan, Jones, and another, came up in their double irons, and clanked up and down under the supervision of the loaded muskets. Fergusson saw his chance—if ever he was to get it—had come now. “Now is your time, lads,” he cried; “the captain’s away; there are but the two men on deck.” Sulkily eyeing the muskets, Pennell and M’Kan refused. “You have failed me six times,” cried Fergusson with an oath. “If you don’t join me now, I’ll inform of your former plots.” This threat terrified them into compliance. A rush was made. The two soldiers idly staring over the bulwarks were knocked down before they could fire their muskets. The hatchway was secured, and knocking off their irons, the six were masters of the ship.

But the captain and soldiers below did not intend to surrender without a struggle. They fired up the hatchway, but without effect, and the other prisoners burst their nailed bars and joined their companions. A parley now ensued, the convicts promising to spare the lives of the soldiers if they gave up their arms. A volley was the only answer, and then two prisoners, by Fergusson’s directions, got buckets of boiling water from the galley and poured them down the hatchway. Panic-stricken by the knowledge that thirty desperate men were at liberty on the deck, and that the seizure of the vessel was only a matter of time, the scalded soldiers surrendered and passed up their arms.

Carew and the surgeon heard the firing, and came back with all speed to the vessel. Standing in the sternsheets, as the two rowers ran the boat alongside, he commanded the mutineers to return to their prison. A gun presented at his head was the not unnatural reply. Fergusson, however, had ordered the priming of the soldiers’ pieces to be wetted before they were handed up, and the gun missed fire. Now began another parley. Carew, anxious, doubtless, for the safety of his wife, promised that if the men would give up the ship he would say nothing of their conduct to the authorities at Hell’s Gates; but the easily-won liberty was too sweet to be resigned so easily. Confident in his own power, Fergusson told the mutineers that he could navigate the vessel to some foreign port, where they could defy the wrath of the Governor and the commandant. The prospect of the sheds and the cat, as contrasted with freedom and China, was not too tempting. As might have been expected, they refused.

A muster was now held upon the deck, and Fergusson formally called upon the convicts to join him. All but thirteen consented, and one of the sailors, possibly an exconvict himself, threw in his lot with the mutineers. Boats were lowered, and the soldiers and the thirteen were landed by the now armed convicts on the barren coast. With a generosity which to those acquainted with convict customs will seem somewhat strange, Mrs. Carew, with her children, was restored to her husband unharmed. Secure of safety, Fergusson ordered rations to be given to his late masters, and recommended them to make overland for Hobart Town. “The land party,” says Mr. Bonwick, “received 60 lbs. of biscuit, 20 lbs. of flour, 20 lbs. of sugar, 4 lbs. of tea, and 6 gals. rum.” The boats were taken back to the ship and hauled on board, and returning to their vessel the mutineers gave three cheers for their bloodless victory.

After a hearty supper and a pannikin of rum apiece, the seventeen set to work to organise their future plans. Some were for China, some for India, and two men proposed to go to one of the islands of the South Seas, sink the ship, and settle among the friendly islanders. After some talk, however, it was resolved to make for the Friendly Isles, where those who chose could remain.

With provisions for six months for 400 men, arms, ammunition, and a sailor captain, the mutineers felt that fortune had befriended them at last. A mid one knows not what wild thoughts of future liberty, the night passed rapidly away, and at daylight the next morning the marooned Carew and his companions saw the “Cyprus” spread her sails, and move slowly out of the harbour.

Then began the sufferings of the conquered party. They were on a desolate part of the coast; impenetrable scrub and impassable mountain ranges lay, for many a weary mile, between them and Hobart Town. It was impossible to communicate with the settlement at Macquarie Harbour; the country on that side was even more desolate and barren than on the other. Communication between the two places was most rare, and effected by that very ship which was now bearing the escaped party in safety to the South Seas. The only hope was that some passing vessel, either driven by stress of weather or urged by want of water, would put into the channel and take them off. The party in all consisted of more than 40 souls, and their slender stock of provision melted away like snow in the sun. Mr. Carew showed his courage. He apportioned out the victuals in equal shares, keeping the rum as a last resource. The soldiers were divided into watches, and he himself took his turn with the rest. Day after day passed with the same monotony of silence. The allowance of provisions was decreased, and despair began to sit heavily on their hearts. From east to west, from north to south, their haggard eyes turned in vain.

“The blaze upon the waters to the east,
The blaze upon the island overhead,
The blaze upon the waters to the west,
Then the great stars that globed themselves in heaven,
The hollower-bellowing ocean, and again
The scarlet shafts of sunrise, but no sail.”

At last hunger broke through discipline. Two men set off overland for Hobart Town, but, frightened at the perils before them, and menaced by hostile natives, returned. Five more attempted to head the Huon, and after coming near to death, were rescued. The others remained waiting for death.

Desperate, and with but two days’ provisions left, Popjoy, a convict, determined to try and make a boat. Assisted by a man named Morgan, he framed a sort of coracle of young wattle trees, and covered it with sailcloth. Over this a mixture of soap and resin was poured, to keep out the water. After many failures, the thing floated. It was twelve feet long, and propelled by paddles. During the last two days of its construction the party were without food. In this rude craft Carew embarked the remnant of his party, and, hoping against hope, got out to sea. Luckily, at a distance of twenty miles, they fell in with the “Oxelia,” and the poor fellows were brought safely to Hobart Town. Carew was tried by court martial, and honourably acquitted. Popjoy, who had been transported when eleven years old for stealing a hare, received a free pardon, and returned to England.

In the meantime the “Cyprus” was running for the Friendly Islands. The mutineers had chosen officers for themselves. Walker was captain; Fergusson, “dressed up in Carew’s best uniform,” lieutenant; and Jones mate. The days passed quickly by, liberty seemed before them, and all were in high spirits. Getting out of their course, however, they came to Japan. Here, in spite of Fergusson’s orders, seven deserted, and cast in their lot with the natives of that lovely spot. Fergusson went on, but seems to have begun to lose his prestige among the men. One Swallow, a seaman and convict, now appears to have assumed the command. This fellow seems to have been both powerful and intelligent. He was originally transported from England for rioting, but on the way out saved the ship at the hazard of his life. Allowed to roam the deck and assist the sailors, he contrived to enlist their sympathies, and when the transport arrived in Hobart Town they hid him in the lower deck and the vessel sailed away with him. The crew gave him rations. Despite a rigorous search, he was not found until after some weeks. The captain landed him at Rio, and he was soon again in London. There an old companion “peached” upon him, and he was sent back to Van Diemen’s Land. Half way to Hell’s Gates, the mutiny restored him once more to freedom.

To this man was the charge of the vessel entrusted, and he took her to China. On the way a boat with the name of “Edward” on its stern was seized, and Swallow, knowing that he could not account for the “Cyprus,” determined to try a new plan. There was a sextant in the cabin which had on it the name “Waldron,” and with that and the boat Swallow laid his plot. Abandoning the vessel, he appeared, with three others, as “shipwrecked sailors.” Swallow affected to be Captain Waldron, and exhibited his sextant as a proof of his story. The English merchants in Canton got up a subscription for them, and paid their passage home. Suspicion, however, was excited by the appearance of four more of the party, who did not know the captain’s name, but said “Wilson” for “Waldron.” Swallow, trapped again, was at his wit’s end. Arrived in London, the party were brought before the Thames Police Court, where a few days before a curious incident occurred.

Popjoy, having been landed by the mercy of the Crown in London, was cast upon the streets to find his way to gaol or starvation. Imprisoned from eleven years old, and knowing nothing save how to roll logs and cringe to the lash, the returned convict had taken to begging round about the docks. Begging, like stealing, was a crime, and he was brought before the Thames Police Court. There he told the story of the mutiny and the boatbuilding.

Though there was not criminating evidence, the appearance of “Captain Waldron” was somewhat strange, and the story of poor Popjoy—who had been honoured with several paragraphs in the newspaper town-talk—recurred to the mind of the bench. The suspected men were remanded.

This remand cost three of them their lives.

Strangely enough, a Mr. Capon, who had been gaoler at Hobart Town, was in London, and, attracted by the report of the case, he strolled down to the police court. One glance was enough; Swallow, Watt, and Davis were detected at once, and the whole party committed for trial.

Watt and Davis, tried as pirates and escaped felons, were hung in London. Swallow and the rest were sent back to Hobart Town. One was hung at the gaol, and the rest sent back to Hell’s Gates for life. Swallow managed to escape the death penalty, and went back to the chain. Twice more he tried to escape, but in vain. At last the weight of his doom broke his spirit, and he submitted to his fate. He worked in his irons for life, and died—still in yellow livery—at Port Arthur, a melancholy instance of a brave man crushed into brutality by a senseless system of punishment.

Five years later Popjoy died also. He made some endeavour to procure a pension from the Government, and only waited the arrival of documents from Hobart Town, formally attesting his services to Lieutenant Carew, to obtain it. In the meantime he obtained a seaman’s berth in a merchant-vessel, married, and seemed to have lived respectably. Coming from Quebec in a timber ship, however, he was wrecked off Boulogne. Taking to the boats, the crew made for the shore, but the sea was running with great violence, and Popjoy, with another, was washed overboard and drowned, and so never got his “pension” after all.

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