Convict Years


John Boyle O'Reilly convict photo

John Boyle O’Reilly convict photo


On January 9th 1868, after a 3 month long voyage covering over 14,000 nautical miles, the Hougoumont finally dropped anchor into the turquoise blue waters of Western Australia. Australia as far as John was aware, was a land of aborigines, bondmen and slaves, and he wasn’t far wrong, as his first sighting of aborigines was on Rottnest Island from the deck of the Hougoumont and which would later inspire one of his poems:

And every time there was white blood spilled,
There were black men captured; and those not killed
In the rage of vengeance were sent away
To this bleak sand isle in Fremantle Bay;
And it soon came round that a thousand men
Were together there, like wild beast in a pen

The Dog Guard (excerpt) – John Boyle O’Reilly

John would again later evoke his Rottnest experience in his novel “Moondyne”: “Every eye witnessed the strange sight of gangs of naked black men working like beavers in the sand”. Established as an island prison by Governor John Hutt in 1838, Rottnest was used to incarcerate over 3,500 aboriginal men and boys, many belonging to different tribal groups whose customs and traditions clashed. Hundred of aboriginal people were to perish before the prison was closed down in 1931 due to several governmental reports of cruelty and negligence.

As the Hougoumont began to off-load its cargo of human misery onto barges off Fremantle’s South Jetty, dozens of men in prison garb stopped labouring on the 1,300 foot long wooden structure to gaze out at the new arrivals. These men were also transported convicts, used as labour on public works and private service throughout the Colony. Over 150,000 convicts had endured the 100 day plus voyage from England and Ireland, with most landing in New South Wales and Van Dieman’s, beginning with the first convicts on the First Fleet in 1788, while the Hougoumont would be the last of the convict ships to land on Australian shores. Under a piling summer sun, one by one, the barges drew alongside the impressive wooden jetty; the timber having been sourced from the nearby native forest and referred to by colonists as Swan River Mahogany. Swan River Mahogany (Jarrah), first collected in 1791 at King George Sound by Archibald Menzies, botanist to George Vancouver’s naval expedition, was a highly sought after timber commodity since European settlement began in 1829. Impervious to beetles, sea-borers, and termites, Jarrah in those days was exported to South Africa, North America, India, Europe, and China mostly as railway sleepers and telegraph poles.

Fremantle Prison cell block interior

Fremantle Prison cell block interior

As the Fenians in chains – shuffled their way along the wooden jetty towards shore; ahead stood the imposing double-storied limestone Commissariat building. The Commissariat, built in 1851 and constructed mainly by convict labour with the assistance of building “mechanics” (carpenters and masons) from South Australia, is the Maritime Shipwreck Museum and one of Fremantle’s major tourism attractions. As the chained men – stepped-off the jetty onto Western Australian soil, the glare of the searing sun would have had a blinding effect on their eyes and no doubt, on their minds. An uninvited audience of sun hardened faces would have greeted them. Some being Ticket-of-Leavers, men who had also been previously transported on convict ships like the Hougoumont. And for good behavior, had earned their freedom and allowed to move about the Colony, but restricted to movement beyond the Colony’s boundary, and especially to board a vessel for travel to some foreign shore.Amongst the inquisitive faces too, would have been members of the local Whadjuk tribe, the first people of Fremantle. To them the area was always known as Walyalup, and the nearby Swan River as Derbal Yaragan. The Wadjuck were one of thirteen tribal groups made up of Nyoongars and who occupied the land between King George Sound to the south and Champion Bay to the north.

Filing past the Commissariat, the Fenians would have entered Cliff Street, before turning right into High Street, with the march up Fremantle’s main thoroughfare bringing great intrigue to John’s inquisitive nature; observing the small community as it went about its daily business. Some would have stopped to stare at the ragged bunch of men, knowing well, that these wretched souls would be the last of their kind seen walking up the High Street, in chains. As the Fenians approached Fremantle Prison, its imposing 30 foot high-walls would have caused a fear to grow in their hungry bellies, a familiar fear harbored whilst languishing in some of Her Majesties notorious prisons not knowing which day may be your last. Fremantle Prison was built with convict labour beginning with the first convicts (75) to arrive in Western Australian on the convict ship Scindian on June 1st 1850 1850 and by 1868, the convict population had swelled to nearly 10,000. As the Fenians entered the fortress like building, they would have marched past the two administration towers which stood either side of the entrance, and which led into a small courtyard. They would have then passed through a steel barred gate – leading-out into the prison’s main courtyard. Directly ahead of them, stood the impressive double story Church of England Chapel astylar facade, with its grand Georgian hand-made glass windows, while behind the square-shaped chapel astylar – stood the rectangular 60 foot high Main Cell Block, which ran the length of the 400-foot long courtyard. They would have been then ordered to march forward – towards the chapel facade, before being ordered to then turn left, only stopping to a yell of halt, and then ordered to face the Main Cell Block, where from barred windows – skewed faces would have cautiously peered. This was “the Establishment”.

There is a shadow on a sunny wall,
Dark and forbidden, like a bode of ill;
Go, drive it thence. Alas such shadows fall
From real things, nor may be moved at will.
There is a shadow on my heart to-day,
A cloudy grief condensing to a tear:
Alas, I cannot drive its gloom away –
Some sin or sorrow casts the shapeless fear.

The Shadow – John Boyle O’Reilly

As the Fenians languished behind the walls of the Establishment, anecdotal stories of escapes were rife, with one such escape firing John’s fertile imagination: the escape of Welshman, Joseph Bolitho Jones. Jones, affectionately known as Moondyne Joe, had, to the great embarrassment of the Governor of the day; made a daring escape from the jail a year before the Fenian’s arrival. An experienced bushman, Moondyne was to become to John, a symbol of freedom, as somewhere out there in the inhospitable Western Australian bush, Moondyne was a free man, living-off the land, just like the Nyoongar. And what if he too, could learn the ways of the aborigine: read the seasons, build a shelter, observe the flora and fauna and source water and bushtucker. Perhaps then he too, could escape and eventually make his way back to his beloved Ireland.

Fremantle Prison Entrance

Fremantle Prison Entrance

After two weeks confinement in Fremantle Prison, John was instructed to gather his meager belongings and prepare to join a small party of convicts required for a road-building project near the port town of Bunbury, 120 miles south of Fremantle, named in honour of British explorer Lieutenant Henry St Pierre Bunbury in 1836. John bid a sad farewell to his fellow Fenians, before being escorted out the prison gatehouse and down to Fremantle harbour where the coastal schooner Wild Wave was waiting to take him south to Bunbury. As the schooner made its way out into Gage Roads, it tacked several times before heading south – passing Carnac Island and then Garden Island. Named Bertholet and lle Buach islands during a French maritime expedition off the Western Australian coast in 1801 under the command of Captain Nicolas Baudin.

The following morning, the schooner approached Koombana Bay,  just north of Bunbury, John noticing several tall sand dunes to starboard and known by white settlers as Australind. Koombana Bay was known to the Nyoongar people as the ‘place of spouting whales’. Australind, which linked both the Australian and Indian continents in name, was the location chosen by a failed colonial enterprise called the “Western Australian Company” which began in 1841, by the luring of hundreds of settlers from England and Ireland in promise of cheap real estate. However, by 1845, the scheme had failed, with many settlers losing their life-savings and unable to afford the fare back to the old country.

As the Wild Wave entered the sheltered waters of Koombana Bay, she would have lowered her sails and drifted towards the harbour’s elaborate timber jetty constructed with mostly convict labour four years earlier. While up on Casuarina Point; a cannon blast would have announced her arrival in port. But it would have been the sight of American whaling vessels anchored in Bunbury harbour, that would have lifted John’s spirits no end; especially with escape constantly on his mind. American whaling ships had been plying the west coast of Australia for decades, long before French and English maritime expeditions had begun to lay claim of sovereignty over the land.Trading between American whalers and the Nyoongar for fresh water, kangaroo meat and eucalyptus gum, in return for flour and sugar would have been brisk; this barter system being a way of life for nearly a century before white settlement began in 1829. Eucalyptus gum contained medicinal properties that helped keep scurvy and dysentery at bay during long voyages at sea.

However, due to the unsustainable slaughter of the giant mammal in waters off the coast of Western Australian, whaling was now on the wane, with timber such as sandalwood and jarrah being the main export commodity. As the Wild Wave tied-up alongside the Bunbury jetty, her passengers would have first disembarked, followed by the small contingent of convicts, under guard. Hobbling in leg irons, John would have followed in his guard’s footsteps – along the wooden jetty – passing stacks of lumber along the way, the lumber giving indications of intensive clearing of the native forest he had earlier admired from the deck of the schooner, as she made her way south.

Victoria St Bunbury, looking southwards, c 1870

Victoria St Bunbury, looking southwards, c 1870

In February of 1868, Bunbury’s population was around 300 people, not including the Nyoongar people, who were mainly confined to the outskirts of town. As the convicts were marched up Victoria Street to the Bunbury Lock-up, John would have been intrigued by the number of merchants that occupied the buildings fronting the main thoroughfare, such as shipwrights, printers, building suppliers, coachbuilders, saddletrees, tobacconist, furriers and surveyors including two impressive looking hotels. While he noticed that the more elaborate buildings, such as the convict lock-up, police station, post office, court house, and government residence, occupied land at the south end of town. Imprisoned at the Bunbury Lock-up for another few days, John was eventually sent to the Convict-depot in nearby Arthur Street and consigned to a convict road-gang southeast of town.For several weeks, he proved to be a hard toiler, while in the evenings, as the weary men sat around a campfire; John would recite his poetry inspired from his daily observations:

Only from day to day
The life of a wise man runs;
What matter if seasons far away
Have gloom or have double suns?
To climb the unreal path,
We stray from the roadway here;
We swim the rivers of wrath,
And tunnel the hills of fear.
Our feet on the torrent’s brink
Our eyes on the cloud afar,
We fear the things we think,
Instead of the things that are.
Like a tide our work should rise –
Each later wave is best;
To-day is a king in disguise,
To-day is the special test.
Like a sawyer’s work is life:
The present makes the flaw,
And the only field for strife
Is the inch before the saw.

Today – John Boyle O’Reilly

But John was to soon find himself the centre of attention and not from reciting his poetry. As one day, while clearing the bush to make way for a road, John refused to be member of a party of convict road-gang ordered to cut-down a huge tuart tree (Eucalyptus gomphocephala) standing in the way of the new road. Eventually, John’s action to save the tree soon came to the attention of the wife of the warder in charge of the road-gang. And it wasn’t too long before the word had spread throughout the district: that a convict has disobeyed orders, all because he wanted to save a tree. Consequently, due to all the commotion; the tree was eventually saved and the new road given a slight curve around the majestic giant.

Big Jim Maguire

Big Jim Maguire

It wasn’t too long before John’s cultivated ways came to the notice of the warder in charge of the convict road-gang clearing the bush south to the Vasse district, Henry Woodman. Woodman, a judge of good character, convinced his superiors that the young O’Reilly would, if given the chance; become a fine clerical asset to the convict works program and that he should be promoting to ‘Trustee’ convict. This position was to give John freedom of movement throughout the greater district; delivering mail and supplies to the various convict road-camps, at the same time; giving him the opportunity to meet the local Catholic priest Father Patrick McCabe, and a carter from Dardanup by the name of James Maguire.And it was these two men (along with several others) that would put together an elaborate plan that would help John escape to America.

It was the evening of February 17th 1869, when John quietly slipped away from his hut near the Bunbury racecourse convict-camp and into the nearby bush. Tripping over logs and branches, the poet would have had difficulties in getting his bearings, until he sighted the Southern Cross break-through the dusky sky above. He forged ahead in a northerly direction, the tinder dry bush crunching beneath his every step, with each step a gamble, as poisonous snakes were known to hunt in the bush on warm summer nights. Bull-ants, scorpions and centipedes too, would also be on the hunt, and once up the leg of a man’s trousers; their poisonous bite could leave the victim writhing in pain for hours. Ahead, he would have heard the familiar sound of the dominant-male kangaroo – slapping his large bony-tail on the hard parched ground – warning the rest of the herd, that something was in a hurry – heading in their direction, something not belonging.

Buffalo Beach, where O'Reilly made his escape

Buffalo Beach, where O’Reilly made his escape

It would take John nearly two hours to reach the planned rendezvous point, the big tuart tree he had managed to save months earlier, and there waiting in the shadow of the giant tree, sat James Maguire and another man on horses and with one to spare for the poet. The three men galloped their way north to the bridge over the Collie River, where they met another group of men with a rowing boat. Soon the poet was slicing his oar through the calm water of the river – towards the estuary, before entering a narrow channel that would lead the men and their rowboat out into the Indian Ocean. But all was not well, as the captain of the American whaler Vigilant paid to pluck the poet from the rowing boat, was nowhere to be seen. This conundrum would leave John stranded in one of the most isolated and inhospitable tracts of land on the coast, until a new escape plan could be organized by Father McCabe and James Maguire.

For two weeks, John would have had to use his newly learned bush-skills to survive, which involved digging beneath paperbark trees for water, trapping possums and quokkas for meat, collecting berries and digging-up yams. He would have had to eat his food raw, as lighting a fire would have only attracted the attention of his pursuers. Meanwhile, back in Bunbury, the hunt for the poet was in full swing, with black trackers, police and soldiers searching the bush and homes of known Fenian sympathizers. Finally, on the morning of March 3rd 1869, the American whaler Gazelle plucked the exhausted poet from the rowing boat and whisked him safely to America.

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