After our arrival in England, we were for some months on board the York Hulk, off Portsmouth… Grant and Miller came down with a gang of horrid looking wretches from Newgate, were sent to work, planned how to escape, but were informed on by Jacob Beemer, the Judas of the party, now a constable in Van Deiman's Land.(1)
During their first two weeks on the hulk, Miller and Grant were shackled in irons and forced to do hard labor on the docks—something the other Patriot prisoners had not been required to do. They left the hulk early each morning in a scow rowed by prisoners and labored at the dock until dark. After two weeks, the captain relented and assigned them to easy duty on Chelsea Beach. Each morning, along with four other prisoners and an armed guard, they pulled a cart to a spring about a mile away from the work site to draw the day’s drinking water for the work crew. This was their only task for the entire day. With time on their hands, they hatched a plan to escape into the country. They proposed to knock down the guard and grab his gun when they reached the spring. Then they would send him and the other prisoners back to the work site, bearing a letter that Miller had written. (The letter outlined the reasons for their escape and the injuries and insults they had endured under British tyranny.) They confided in Gemmell, telling him the details of their plan. He was happy to help by supplying them with a map of the area. At this time James was still expecting a pardon, so he asked for a copy of Miller’s letter to take home with him. Miller agreed.
On the morning of the planned escape Miller and Grant left with the other prisoners for the docks. Meanwhile, back at the hulk, James was anxiously awaiting the news of their success. When sufficient time had passed—time enough, he thought, for them to enact the plan—James told Beemer about the escape and showed him Miller’s letter. Beemer grabbed the letter from James’ hand and ran with it to the captain of the hulk. Captain Nicholson immediately boarded a scow for the beach. He was able to intercept Grant and Miller half an hour before they executed their plan, and ordered them to return with him to the York. On boarding the hulk they first saw Beemer, wearing a “malicious grin.” Next they spotted Gemmell. Devastated by his own foolish decision, he stood:
...leaning against the side of the ship pale as marble, as was always the case when he had committed some egregious blunder. I learned from him that in the unbounded joy of his heart, at the prospect of our escape, and supposing that we were already beyond the reach of treachery, he had made a confident of Beemer…Deeply mortified as I was, I could but forgive Gemmell his indiscretion, for I was certain he meant no evil. I had known him a long time as an honest-hearted young man, and to this day entertain great respect for him on account of his ardent attachment to the cause of Canadian liberty.(2)
Captain Nicholson was remarkably tolerant of Grant and Miller’s escape attempt. He knew that they were honorable men, and he even apologized for the harsh treatment of the first two weeks. Miller recorded that:
During the remainder of our stay at the hulk, Capt. N. was all that he had promised, a true friend. He could not have treated us better. As for the traitor, Beemer, he was scouted from one end of the ship to the other. Not one of the officers would speak to him, and even the convicts shunned him as a greater scoundrel than themselves.(3)
Several weeks later, in mid-September, a convict ship or “bay ship,”(4) as the prisoners called her, appeared like an omen of doom in the harbor off Spithead.(5) Two hundred forty men from the York and the Leviathan were selected for transportation; Gemmell, Grant, Miller, and Beemer were among them. In the end Sir George Arthur’s sentence of “mercy” was upheld, and the last four of the Short Hills prisoners were banished to Van Diemen’s Land, there to endure penal servitude for life.
As James’ descendants, living in an era of air travel, when almost any spot on the earth can be reached within twenty-four hours, how can we possibly comprehend such a voyage? We can only imagine the fear and despair they must have felt, as “before them yawned a terrifying void of time and space.” Even a voyage to the dark side of the moon “could hardly have been worse—at least one could see the moon from England.” That could not be said for Van Diemen’s Land.(6)
- Gemmell, New York Plebeian, transcription p. 9.
- Miller, pp. 231-234.
- Miller, p. 235.
- A bay ship was so called after “Botany Bay” penal colony in Australia.
- Spithead is a channel off Southern England between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.
- Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, p. 77.