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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Port Arthur

Penitentiary at Port Arthur, Tasmania
taken 2008
GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons

Linus Miller and Joseph Stewart had not been seen since their escape on August 29, 1840. They had reached the outskirts of Hobart Town, when some constables spotted them and were soon in hot pursuit. Rather than risk being shot on sight, they surrendered to the authorities after an absence of twelve days. They asked permission to return to their group at Lovely Banks, but instead were sentenced to two years of hard labor at Port Arthur.

The landlocked bay of Port Arthur, which James called “this place of torment,” is located on the Tasman Peninsula, sixty miles from Hobart. Fortunately James was never sent there, but he was well aware of its horrors. This naturally picturesque and peaceful setting was home to one of the world’s most feared penal colonies. The town itself is situated on a point, connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. “The escape of prisoners is prevented by chaining large savage dogs so close to each other across the neck [of land], that a man cannot pass between them without being seized and torn in pieces.”(1)  As a deterrent to disobedient or rebellious behavior, the convicts at the various road stations were warned that a more severe punishment than they were enduring at present awaited them at Port Arthur. Ironically, several Patriots endured suffering at this place named after Sir George Arthur, the man most responsible for the severe sentence dealt to them at Niagara.

Miller and Stewart suffered unbearable hardship for more than a month in the carrying gang at Port Arthur, transporting timber, some of it as long as forty feet and as wide as eighteen inches square, on their shoulders. At six  feet, Miller was the tallest man in the gang of twenty (ten men supporting each side), and when he was forced to stand upright, he bore nearly the whole weight of the log on his shoulders. Already “reduced almost to a skeleton,” and having no padding in his jacket, the sharp, jagged edges of the heavy timber scraped the skin from his shoulders. His jacket became red and stiff with congealed blood from the wounds.(2)  Miller and Stewart soon became so weakened that they were transferred to the invalid gang and worked in the government garden. Miller also worked for a time in the washhouse, laundering the prisoners’ shirts. Miller’s manual labor soon ended when he was chosen by the Reverend J. A. Manton to be the clerk of the church and the school keeper (in charge of the evening school for the prisoners.) At the end of his two-year sentence, Miller obtained a comfortable position in the home of the Commissariat Officer, General Thomas Lempriere, as tutor to his children. Later Miller was hired “at a handsome salary” as the law clerk in the Hobart Town office of Edward MacDowell, the first barrister in the Australian Colonies. Joseph Stewart obtained a good paying position at the Port Arthur signal station, tending the telegraph. Both men were eventually better off than some of the Patriot prisoners who remained on the road station, but their tickets of leave, as well as their pardons, were held up for a year as a result of absconding. Miller finally received a pardon in July 1845. It was not until September 25, 1845, that he was able to find passage home, arriving in January 1846 after six years in Van Diemen’s Land, an absence of eight years in all.(3)

While at Port Arthur, Miller and Stewart became acquainted with the Chartist prisoners mentioned by James in his account. John Frost, a radical former mayor of Newport, along with Zepheniah Williams and William Jones, led an uprising in Newport, Wales. Miller wrote, “Frost and Williams were both excellent men, and deserved a better fate.”(4) James was also well aware of the Chartist prisoners at Port Arthur, and expressed empathy for their plight:

It was to this place of torment, that Mr. Frost, late Mayor of Newport [Wales,] with Williams and Jones, his comrades concerned in the Welsh outbreak, were sent; though some of the ablest lawyers and judges in England declared their conviction and sentence to be at variance with law. They were at first treated better than the other wretched beings there, but bad is the best usage of Port Arthur, so they also put out to sea in a whale boat, were pursued, taken, and Williams put in irons - in the day time he was made fast to a long and heavy chain fastened to an iron ring in the wall, and kept at hard labor stone-breaking, and Frost and Jones found their condition changed much for the worse. The editors were friendly to these Welshmen, but they could learn little and effect nothing. I am satisfied that in England they have no correct idea of Frost's sufferings; his letters dare not tell the truth.(5)
  1.  Snow, part II; Miller p. 347.
  2. Miller, pp. 332-36, 338.
  3. Miller, pp. 341-348, 351-355, 368; Snow, part II.
  4. Miller, p. 342.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 7-8. Chartism is the campaign begun in 1838 in support of the People's Charter. At a time when the right to vote was severely limited, the Charter demanded the vote for all men.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Green Ponds and Bridgewater

After Lieutenant-Governor Franklin’s visit to Lovely Banks in September (springtime in the Southern Hemisphere), he ordered that the Canadian prisoners be marched to the convict station at Green Ponds, about twenty miles from Hobart Town.  The superintendent at Green Ponds was Robert Notman, a Scotsman known to the prisoners as “Old Bobby Nutman.”  He had a reputation on the island of being a hard and cruel taskmaster, but to the Patriot prisoners he was “the most humane and indulgent overseer we found during our residence on the island.  (He) thought none the less of us, for being sent there for political offences.  He allowed some of our party to be overseers of the rest of us.” 

Notman soon left to return home, and Captain Wright, “an inhuman, overbearing, unprincipled, incarnate devil,” took his place. Fortunately, Captain Erskine, the district magistrate, sympathized with the Canadians, and they could depend on him for fair treatment:(1)

[We] found a friend in the Hon. Capt. Erskine, son of Lord Chancellor Erskine, and brother to the Ambassador from England, who had married an American lady.  This noble youth won the affections of us all by listening to our complaints when cruelly used, and doing justice on the felons who had maltreated us.  His heart was full of kindness and humanity, but his conduct gave offence as being at variance with the policy Sir John Franklin had been directed to pursue, and the station was soon broken up.(2)

James recalled a disheartening speech given by Franklin when he visited them at Green Ponds in March 1841—a speech that certainly didn’t reflect any compassion, and must have created a wave of resentment among the American prisoners.  Franklin ordered his secretary to read aloud a letter he had received from Lord John Russell(3) concerning their treatment.  In the letter Russell instructed Governor Franklin to “give those political prisoners any indulgence you may think proper, with the exception of allowing them to return home, to endanger the safety and well-being of the North American colonies.”(4)  No doubt Franklin would have also announced, as a warning to the whole group, that Miller and Stewart’s escape attempt had failed, and that their punishment was severe:

[Franklin] had received a letter from Secretary Lord Russell saying that our release rested entirely with the Governor General of Canada, who, if he could arrive at the conclusion that our release would not endanger the public safety, and prove the signal for renewed troubles on the frontier, might permit us to return home, but that so far as the condition of Canada was yet known to the government of England our return was considered highly dangerous; that there was but little probability we should ever be permitted to leave the island; and that his instructions were not to allow any of us a free pardon.  He added, that as American vessels visited Launcestown and Hobart Town, he would keep us all in the interior, even after our first two years expired; that we might not hope to be taken off by the sympathy of American seamen, but that if such a case should arise, the British and American governments being on the best possible terms, we would be demanded of the United States authorities, given up, brought [back].  As for Linus Wilson Miller, they would keep him in the coalmines…to the last hour of his life, as a warning and an example to others.(5)

It seemed to the captives that Franklin now had the authority to grant them “liberty of the island,” but “the old Granny,” as they called him, remained true to his reputation and granted no such indulgence. Instead he announced that, at the end of two years from the time of their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, if their conduct was good, they would be granted “tickets of leave,” that would allow them freedom within a selected district on the island. In other words, they would be held to the same rules of the probation system that were applied to all felons.  True to his word, he kept them ten more months on the road gangs before granting them tickets of leave.(6)

Sir John Franklin was dismissed from his post in Van Diemen’s Land in 1843. A few years later he was appointed commander of an Arctic expedition to search for the Northwest Passage. Although the mission was a success, it cost Franklin his life. When his ship failed to return to England, officials assumed that he and his crew had died of starvation, but their true fate wasn’t known until the icebound ship was found twelve years later.  Modern scientific tests on the frozen, preserved remains of the crew revealed that some had died from exposure, some died of scurvy, and others of lead poisoning from food stored in badly soldered cans. On hearing of Franklin’s death in the Arctic, James told William Wheeler, in an interview many years later, that he didn’t harbor any malice towards Sir John:

Governor Sir John Franklin(7) …afterwards so miserably perished with all his crews while exploring the Arctic seas in search for the Northwest passage.  [James] claimed that the treatment of the Canadian patriot exiles by Sir John was most brutal and uncalled for, but asserted that he harbored no enmity now against the man who had been so severely dealt with by an all-wise providence and had gone to his reward.(8)

James and his fellow Patriots worked on the roads at Green Ponds for about eight months (approximately mid-September 1840 to May 1841.)  Here they suffered harsh punishment under the tyrant superintendent Captain Wright.  Extended work hours lasted from before dawn till after dark, and rations were scarce, as Wright skimmed off the best meat for his own use.  He answered any complaints with a sentence of several days in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water.  Although there is no evidence that any of the Patriots were ever flogged,(9) they were required to witness the punishment of the other felons:

In a regular show of intimidation, old hands who had been sentenced at Picton were brought to Green Ponds in order to be flogged. Marsh recollected that every ‘few days’ they were ‘obliged’ to witness the ordeal of a poor fellow’s back being laid bare before lining up to receive their breakfast. The ritual of state-inflicted violence was clearly calculated to discourage all further thought of escape.(10)

While at Green Ponds, two Patriots, Aitchison and Smith, became overseers, and very strict ones at that, to the disgust of many of their friends.(11)  James refused to accept a position as overseer and claims that as a result he was sentenced to one month at the dreaded treadmill, a torture device that also served a practical purpose—grinding corn for public sale:

The superintendent of the convict station on which I was employed last year [1841], appointed me an overseer, a sort of a spy upon fellow prisoners, and insisted on my acceptance of that unpleasant office.  To decline was to incense him, yet I flatly refused it, and was therefore immediately sent to the treadmill a month - very fatiguing to the legs it surely is, and the vile wretches whose company one is obliged to keep, double the punishment…(12)

Linus Miller and Joseph Stewart also endured one month’s punishment on the Green Ponds treadmill in September 1840, after their escape attempt, and before being sent to Port Arthur:

…an immense wheel, about thirty feet in diameter and sixty feet in length, was kept in constant motion fourteen hours of the twenty-four, by thirty prisoners. Every four minutes, one of the men descended from the wheel at one end, while another mounted it at the other; each man upon the wheel thus periodically shifting two feet towards the place of descent, which was reached in two hours.  All who were too poor to purchase exemption from the overseer, were obliged to ascend the wheel in turn, and perform the novel, but very hard labor, of stepping from slat to slat (which were fifteen inches apart,) as it turned upon its axis. [Joseph] Stewart and I, owing to the hardships and privations we had lately experienced, were very weak, and being poverty stricken, were of course, obliged “to tread out the corn,” as it was significantly termed; and, but for the privilege of changing, (giving each other a “spell,” when half way through,) could not have accomplished our tasks.(13)

The convict record for James Gemmell shows that he spent three months apart from the rest of the group. The one and only offense listed on his record occurred on March 16, 1840, while in his first assignment at the Brown’s River Probation Station. He was tried for “making skewers for his own benefit,” and sentenced to three months hard labor on the road gang at Bridgewater.(14)  (There was a fireplace in the hut at Brown’s River, and it is easy to imagine James trying to roast a fish or a dead opossum over the fire with his makeshift skewer, in order to stave off the hunger that constantly plagued him.  He wrote, “Never once in those two tedious years did I go to bed otherwise than hungry.”)(15)  Apparently he did spend a short time at Sandy Bay with the men from the Buffalo, before doing his time at Bridgewater.  He then returned to the rest of the group at Lovely Banks in June 1840.  James refers to his first stint at Bridgewater, where the road gangs were building a causeway and bridge across the Derwent River: “I was next placed in the Bridgewater chain-gang for two months, and kept standing in water handling stone and building piers.”(16)

At Green Ponds, Captain Wright often took advantage of the Patriot prisoner’s skills for his own use. Once he sent two men to cut timber, sold it, and kept the money himself. The Patriots, tired of Wright’s abuse, reported him to Magistrate Erskine, and Wright was dismissed from his post for his illegal dealings. The Green Ponds station was then broken up, and in May 1841 the men were marched to Bridgewater, another road station located on the Derwent River about twelve miles from Hobart Town.(17)  (This was James’ second stint at Bridgewater.) After just fifteen days at Bridgewater, their party, which now numbered about seventy-two men, was separated for the first time into small groups of ten to twenty and sent to different stations on the island to work alongside the English felons. Sixteen months had passed since their arrival in VDL. The records are unclear, but James may have been part of the group of twenty-two that went with Samuel Snow back to Browns River. Others went to stations at Jerusalem, Constitution Hill, Mount Direction, Salt Water Creek, Rocky Hills, and New Town.  At most of these stations the Patriots were “spared from the worst excesses of hard labour on the roads,” and worked at billeted positions such as cooks, carpenters, and metal workers.(18)
  1.  Miller, p. 349; Snow, part II.
  2. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 9.
  3. Lord John Russell, the home secretary in charge of the British Penal System, was a reformer and critic of transportation.
  4. Miller, pp. 318-320
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 10. Miller actually never worked in the coal mines.
  6. Snow, part II; Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 10; Miller, p. 349.
  7. “The Patriot exiles are unkind to Franklin, who did try his ineffectual best for them. When the Marquis of Hastings arrived late with a group of politicals he was able to separate out the politicals for work assignment with settlers, but changes to the convict system in 1840 made such discrimination impossible for later arrivals. He wrote to Lord John Russell seeking direction to whether the politicals could be treated differently to common felons, Russell took a long time to consider the question, during which time they were put into work gangs.” (Pybus, note #16 in Snow, part I.)
  8. William F. Wheeler, “The Late James Gemmell,” p. 2.
  9. One Patriot, Michael Morin, did receive ‘twenty-five stripes’ at Port Arthur. (Pubus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 113.
  10. Pubus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 137.
  11. Pubus, American Citizens, British Slaves, pp. 134-5.
  12. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 7.
  13. Miller, pp. 319-20.
  14. Pybus, American Citizens, pp. 113, 221.
  15. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  16. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 7; Hughes, p. 387: “… one of Colonel Arthur’s favorite public works—a causeway and bridge over the River Derwent, part of the main trunk road from Hobart to Launceston.”
  17. Pybus, American Citizens, pp. 144-6.
  18. Snow, part II; Miller, pp. 349-50; Pybus, American Citizens, p. 148-9.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lovely Banks

Sometime in June 1840, the rest of the group (minus the four escapees from Sandy Bay) made a three-day forced march into the interior, thirty-six miles from Hobart Town, to another road station called Lovely Banks, no doubt to prevent anyone else from escaping.  Here they would remain through the winter. This isolated valley, filled with oak forests, was one of the most beautiful spots on the island, yet here they were assigned some of the hardest labor they had experienced. The work site was located a mile and a half from the station, and frequently the prisoners had to return this distance to their huts “through the cold and rain after a hard day's toiling, and have to lay down for the night with our clothes drenched with water, and no fire allowed us to dry them.”  There was no fireplace in the huts.(1) James described the miserable daily routine:

We were…employed in digging trenches, breaking stone, sawing blocks for pavements, and dragging stone and timber like cattle, for we had neither horses nor oxen. At the Lovely Banks Station every four of us had a hand-cart, and our task was to haul a load of flint stone, nearly a cubic yard, a mile, through rain and sleet, and return fourteen times a-day. Thus we had fourteen heavy horse loads to draw daily, in all a distance of fourteen miles, and the cart to drag back the other fourteen, being 28 miles a day, I having fourteen lbs. of chains on while our fare was nearly two pounds of coarse brown bread, with a pint of water gruel to breakfast and another to supper, and about half or three quarters of a pound of meat and half a pound of vegetables at dinner. At night, after eleven hours of severe toil, we were locked up in miserable huts, and as it is rainy in winter, we were often dripping wet, but never allowed to go near a fire.(2)

James Gammell’s claim that he was chained in irons while working on the roads is not corroborated by the other accounts.  It is true that many of the British felons who tried to escape were flogged or forced to work in chains, but Samuel Snow records that “so far as our party were concerned, I never knew of a man’s being whipped or compelled to wear irons.”(3)  The overseers did threaten many of them with flogging, and even erected triangles for the purpose. The Patriot prisoners, however, made it clear that if any attempt were made to flog even one of them, the rest would “openly rebel.”  One of the Patriots dissembled the triangles on the night after they were erected, carried them on his back to a small lagoon, and dumped them in the water. Nothing more was heard about the triangles.(4)

The prisoners suffered under the abuse of cruel overseers, who were pardoned British felons. Overseers persecuted men who were sick, like Robert Marsh, and forced them to work beyond their strength, or compelled men, like Hiram Loop, to work barefoot when their shoes were completely worn through. In desperation, Marsh made a complaint to the magistrate, who ordered a medical examination. Marsh was declared to be an invalid, “incapable of performing any heavy labor,” and the overseer was severely reprimanded. This one rare instance of fair treatment was not the norm at the Lovely Banks station. Usually any complaints of abuse were either ignored, or resulted in further punishment to the victim.(5)

The winter months of June, July, and August (southern hemisphere) were especially miserable. No extra clothing was allotted as a protection against the rain, snow, and cold. In fact, at times the prisoners didn’t even receive their normal clothing allowance: one jacket, one pair of trousers made of coarse fabric (and no mention of underwear), one striped cotton shirt, and one leather cap every six months, and one pair of poor quality shoes (and no socks) every four months. The shoes fell apart well before new ones were issued, and uniforms for several of the men were usually too small.(6)  Hard labor on the roads from dawn till dark continued throughout the winter, even though many were without shoes, and most were half-starved. Miller wrote that “in the morning when the party went to their labor,” those who were barefooted left their bloody “footsteps in the frost.” At dark they returned to their huts, where there was no fire, and slept in their wet clothing until “another day called us to toil and slavery.”(7)  On Saturday afternoons and Sundays they were not required to labor on the roads:

One shirt at once was the royal allowance and we had Saturday afternoons, and a little soap, allowed us, on which to wash and mend our wretched garments. When we took off and washed our shirts on Saturdays we had to go without them till they dried on Sundays.(8)

At the end of August 1840, word reached Lovely Banks that an American whaler had been seen at port in Hobart Town. Linus Miller suggested that he might be able to persuade the captain to take them all on board. It was a wild idea, but any hope of survival under their present conditions was fast dwindling. They all agreed that only two would leave and try to make it to Hobart Town. Linus Miller and Joseph Stewart, carrying some blankets and a small supply of food, scaled the wall of the prison yard without being seen by the night watchman, and escaped into the bush. All of their comrades watched them go, and hoped and prayed for their success.(9)

Not long after the escape, Governor Franklin visited Lovely Banks, and in a fit of rage he delivered a severe reprimand to the rest of the group. He warned them that if any attempted to escape, his soldiers had orders to shoot them on the spot. He also said that even if they should make it to the United States, he would send his military to bring them back. (The captives realized that this last statement—and likely the rest of his speech—was totally irrational.) As further punishment for the escape of Miller and Stewart, the rest of the group was outfitted in magpie (black and yellow) prison garb, making them easier to spot if they tried to escape:

Sir John was incensed, mustered us, called us mutineers, ordered us to be dressed in magpie clothing - one leg and arm black, the other yellow - with a military guard to shoot us down if disobedient. We were then sent to the worst station on the island, at Green Pond.(10)

In addition to the escape, Franklin was furious about another incident. James and his fellow Patriots, even while enduring experiences designed to break their will, still found opportunities to assert themselves and to appeal for more humane treatment. Seven months after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, Elijah Woodman had initiated a petition addressed to the governor:

Elijah Woodman, of Maine, drew up a memorial, in the shape of a round robin,(11) addressed to Sir John Franklin, in July, 1840, setting forth that fellows guilty of the foulest and most revolting crimes, were our overseers - that many of us had to work long and hard barefooted, with wretched food and worn out garments, toiling whether it rained or whether we were in a burning sun, with no place to dry ourselves when wet and weary, till the bell called us to be locked up in our prisons at night.(12)

Franklin strictly forbade any such petitions to be written. Later at Port Arthur he bitterly reviled the young lawyer, Linus Miller, who he assumed had written the document.(13)
  1. Miller, p. 299; Snow, part II; Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 116.
  2. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 2-3. Twenty-eight miles per day is surely an exaggeration, although it must have felt like that far. (See Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, pp. 102-3.)
  3. Snow, part II.
  4. Miller, p. 301.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3; Miller, pp. 301-302.
  6. The average height of the Patriot prisoners was 5 feet 6 inches (compared to 5 feet 4 inches for the average British convict,) and four of the men were at least six feet tall. (See Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 97.)
  7. Miller, pp. 302-303; Snow, part II.
  8. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  9. Miller, p. 304-305; Snow, part II.
  10. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 9. (Miller, p.349; Snow, part II.)
  11. “An instrument with signatures attached to it in a circular form, so that the first or last signer’s name cannot be distinguished.” (Snow, part II.)
  12. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 9.
  13. Miller, p. 340.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sandy Bay

Linus Miller continued to press Mr. Gunn for permission to join his seventy-eight countrymen at Sandy Bay Convict Station, located three quarters of a mile from Hobart Town. Gunn finally consented, but reiterated his original warning: “Depend on it,” he said, “you will fare much worse there than with the English prisoners. They [the Patriots] are marked for severe treatment.” But Miller was adamant: “I shall esteem it a privilege to share their fate, and would rather spend my whole life in slavery with them, than two years’ comparative ease among such wretches as the English prisoners.”(1)

It was a most joyful day—the day Linus Miller, James Gemmell, and John Grant were united with their countrymen to exchange warm greetings and friendly handshakes. It was the next best thing to being at home. This was not a reunion—they had never met any of these men before—nevertheless, they shared a bond of brotherhood in a common cause. Like Miller, most of these men were citizens of the United States who had “entered the Patriot service with the best of motives, only wishing that [their] Canadian neighbours might, in the end, enjoy the same civil, religious, and political freedom, with which the citizens of the United States were blest.”(2)  Miller had the highest respect for these “upright and honorable” men, and he was appalled at the treatment they received. Mr. Gunn was telling the truth when he predicted their fate. Miller put the blame squarely on Sir John Franklin.

Lord John Russell at the Home Office in England had not sent any instructions for the treatment of the Patriots, nor had he yet responded to any correspondence. In the meantime, it was Franklin’s call. Basically, the sequence was the same as Gemmell, Miller, and Grant had experienced at their arrival: no hard labor, just a little healthy exercise. However, when “no resistance was made to this ‘healthy exercise,’ slavery, worse than death itself, began.”(3)  At Sandy Bay the men were consigned to hard labor on the road gang from dawn till dark.

Of the seventy-nine Upper Canadians transported on the Buffalo, only one, Asa Priest of New York, died on the voyage. By the time Miller, Gemmell, and Grant joined them at Sandy Bay, William Nottage and Lysander Curtis had been sent to the hospital. Nottage was injured while blasting rocks. He lingered for several weeks, and then he died. After a few days in the hospital, Curtis was sent back to roadwork at the Sandy Bay station.  Being too weak to push the heavy wheelbarrow loaded with dirt, he stopped to rest:  "Poor Curtis implored the overseers in the most piteous accents to let him lie on the bare ground, as work he could not."(4)  The overseer, Tom Hewitt, a pardoned British felon, ordered him to get back to work. Curtis obeyed, but  finally collapsed.  Hewitt ignored him and let him lie on the ground until nightfall, when he was carried back to the barracks. He was finally taken back to the hospital(5) the next morning and died three days later. His comrades scraped together what few shillings they had and purchased some black crepe to make armbands, which they wore for the next month in honor of their fallen friend, whom they felt was murdered.(6)

Under the constant watch of the overseer, the prisoners worked at breaking up rocks and hauling the stone and dirt in carts. (The small broken stones were to be mixed with tar and used to build “McAdamized” roads.)(7) After a hard day’s labor, rarely were they given enough food to satisfy their hunger. Although James was “in the prime of life, accustomed to farm work, and strong made”, he recalled that he had “often been weary almost to fainting, and never once in those two tedious years did [he] go to bed otherwise than hungry.”(8)  Long before daylight when the morning bell rang, the prisoners would often sneak down to the shore of the Derwent to gather shellfish—mostly cockles and mussels—bring them back to the barracks, boil them, and eat them. As soon as the guards discovered this morning routine, it was strictly forbidden, with the following explanation: “We were there for punishment and no such indulgence could be allowed.”(9)

Elijah Woodman, of London, Upper Canada, (born in Maine) and Chauncey Sheldon, of Michigan, the two eldest of the group, were known to set an example of “manly fortitude” under adversity for the younger men. One evening after a hard day’s work in the cold rain, the men sat silent and dejected in their hut, preparing to lie down to sleep in their wet clothes. Several of the men were sick, and on this particular night a melancholy mood had settled over the whole group, when “suddenly Mr. Woodman sprang from his berth to the floor, and in a tone of voice that might have been heard a mile away, struck up ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’.”(10)

I s’pose you’ve read it in the prints, how Packenham attempted
To make old Hickory Jackson wince, but soon his schemes repented;
For we with rifles ready cocked, thought such occasion lucky,
And soon around the general flocked the hunters of Kentucky.

But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles;
So he led us down to Cyprus swamp, the ground was low and mucky,
There stood John Bull [the British] in martial pomp, and here was old Kentucky.

Miller wrote, “The effect was instantaneous. As if electrified, every man sprang to the floor; sick, blind and halt, joined in the chorus; some danced, others shouted, and all shook off the gloomy horrors of Van Diemen’s Land.”(11)

In April three American vessels were seen in the harbor. The captain of one of the ships came ashore and visited the convict station. From the look on his face, he was obviously pained by the suffering of the American prisoners, but since a colonial magistrate was at his side at all times, there was no opportunity for any private conversations. Two extra police guards were on duty during the period the ships were in port to discourage any escape attempts. In spite of the risk, four of the group, Morin, Reynolds,(12) Cooley, and Paddock, left at dusk one evening. They stole a small boat and made it to a desolate island a few miles from the mainland, where they barely survived by eating shellfish. The four men were gone for three weeks, but were eventually captured and sentenced to two years hard labor at Port Arthur. While they were missing, “the whole island was in an uproar. It was feared that they had got arms, and joined the Bush Rangers, Baird, Fisher, Hogan and Brittain; who, well-armed, and very resolute, kept the woods, and set the colonial authorities at defiance.”(13)
  1. Miller, p. 294.
  2. Snow, part I; Miller, p. 294.
  3. Miller, p. 295.
  4. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 5.
  5. Patriot prisoners were given some privileges not offered to the ordinary road-gang convicts. Patriots who were ill were taken to the Colonial Hospital in Hobart Town. On Sunday the group was marched to Hobart to attend services at St. George’s Chapel. (Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 95.)
  6. Miller, pp. 294-96, 321.
  7. John L. McAdam invented this new process for building smooth roads.
  8. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  9. Miller, pp. 297-98.
  10. Miller, p. 299. “The Hunters of Kentucky” was a popular song celebrating the victory of Andrew Jackson and his frontier fighters over the British in 1814. The victory made Jackson a national hero.  To hear a recording, click this link:
  11. Miller, p. 299.
  12. Apparently this is another William Reynolds who came to VDL aboard the Buffalo, and not the one freed in London. (See Pybus, p. 197)
  13. Miller, p. 298-99; Gemmell, N Y Plebeian, transcription, p. 7.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brown’s River Convict Station

In February, just four weeks after James’ arrival in Van Diemen’s Land, an answer came from His Excellency, Lieutenant Governor John Franklin in response to Linus Miller’s petition: “…after due consideration of our cases, [Franklin] could see no sufficient reason for treating us differently from prisoners sent here for other offenses.” He ordered Miller, Gammell, and Grant to hard labor at Brown’s River Convict Station, seven miles from Hobart Town, as part of a government road project:

Upon our arrival we were sent into the interior to work upon the great road leading across the island, from Hobart Town [in the south of VDL] to Launcetown [in the north] and remained together for sixteen months on what is termed Convict Station. Through the unwearied exertions of…Mr. Joseph Hume, M.P…in consequence of pressing letters from him to Mr. Lawrence, a member of the Council, since dead, we were for [the first month] preserved from associating with thieves, robbers, murderers, burglars, and the scum of the jails of England, but after that we were generally mixed with felons, pardoned and reprieved felons being our overseers.(1)

From daylight to sundown James and his two companions, Miller and Grant, cut trees and carried twelve to thirty-foot logs on their shoulders for fifty to two hundred rods through thick underbrush in the company of forty depraved British felons. The “dreadful reality” of their situation weighed heavily on their hearts and minds. From their new quarters, situated on a hill overlooking the Derwent River(2), they looked longingly for any opportunity to escape, no matter how risky. It was the only way to maintain sanity.(3)

The overseer, after just a few days, assigned the tall, lanky Linus Miller to be the night watchman of the station. Freed from hard labor, he was required to keep watch all night outside the prison hut to see that none of the inmates slipped out to steal hens or potatoes from the nearby farms. During the day he could sleep at the hut while the others worked, yet during those long nights of vigil, he was tortured by the thought that he was a British slave! Miller wrote that it was not until “I turned my eyes upon that beautiful constellation, the ‘Southern Cross,’ and remembered that my Savior bore His cross up Calvary, could I become in the least reconciled to my hard fate. Then would I shout the watchman’s call, ‘All’s well!’”(4)

On February 14th, 1840, Gemmell, Miller, and Grant received word that another group of Patriot prisoners had arrived at Hobart Town: “The American prisoners taken at Windsor and Prescott reached Van Dieman's Land a month after us in the Buffalo. The Lower Canada prisoners were taken thence to Sydney, in Australia, where their treatment, as I learn, was better than ours.”(5)

The Buffalo landed with the final shipment of one hundred fifty-seven state prisoners(6) aboard: seventy-eight had been sent from Upper Canada, and the rest from Lower Canada. In late September 1839, Sir George Arthur had illegally ordered the Buffalo to sail directly from Quebec to Van Diemen’s Land in order to avoid another trial in London—a trial that surely would have set them free. The Upper Canadian prisoners, most of whom were from the United States, were consigned to punishment at Sandy Bay, while the French Canadians continued on to Sydney. Upon hearing the news of their arrival, Miller immediately applied for a transfer to Sandy Bay for himself, Gemmell, and Grant. Gunn warned them, “The governor has determined to treat them with severity, and your condition will be far better where you are.” Gunn also pledged to serve them as a friend, but if they left to be with their countrymen, he feared he would not be able to do so.(7)

In mid-February, when Gemmell, Miller, and Grant were first sent to Brown’s River, they had left Jacob Beemer behind at the prison in Hobart Town. To be sure, not one of them was sad to part his company. The scheming Beemer had finally managed to gain a reward for informing on his friends aboard the Captain Ross, and was appointed as a prison constable at a salary of $2.50 a week. For three days a week he was allowed to work in town at his carpenter trade, but his good fortune didn’t last long. Beemer knew that clothing, books, and a few personal keepsakes belonging to his three comrades had been left in storage at the prison. He duped the storekeeper, Mr. Williams, to obtain all the belongings. Afterwards he sold them, not to “hoard the money,” but “to lavish it upon females of abandoned character.” When the news of the theft reached Brown’s River, the three men were outraged. Miller soon got permission from his overseer to visit Mr. Gunn in Hobart Town. Gunn immediately tried Beemer and sentenced him to twelve months’ hard labor at Port Arthur.(8)

Watching for opportunities to escape was a full-time preoccupation for the three Patriot prisoners. One afternoon in March they spotted a French whaling ship on the Derwent River, anchored just opposite the convict station about half a mile from shore.  This looked like a golden opportunity not to be missed, so with a rush of hope and enthusiasm they made a plan. Each night while all the inmates were locked in the hut asleep, Miller stood on guard duty. From the outside he could help Gemmell and Grant escape through the fireplace chimney, which was just a crude opening through the roof of the hut. The three of them would swim out to the ship and hope for a “favorable reception” from the French captain. If the plan failed, they could be back in their beds before morning light.

View on the Brown's River Road, 1890-1899 (overlooking the Derwent River)
taken by John Watt Beattie
used by permission - National Library of Australia
(IC PIC/3313/14 LOC Album 956)

On the chosen night the signal was given.   Linus Miller climbed up to the chimney on the outside and dropped the rope to James, who was first. Miller tugged away and managed to pull him about two-thirds the way up; at that point the rope stuck fast. Miller couldn’t budge it another inch, leaving James suspended over a bed of red-hot coals. James whispered, “Grant, where in the devil are you? Can’t you give me a hoist? Be quick, for I shall soon roast here.” John Grant was “giggling in the corner of the fireplace, ready to split with laughter.” At this point a large piece of turf fell from the top of the chimney and hit James in the face. He hollered, “Let go the rope!” He then fell straight into the hot coals below. By this time most of the inmates were awake. In the darkness James crawled back to his bunk, still fastened to the rope, and before being seen, he began snoring with a vengeance. Grant was still giggling in a dark corner. Outside, Miller jumped down from the roof and hollered the watchman’s cry, “All’s well!”(9)
  1. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 2.  Van Diemen’s Land is 26,383 square miles in area. The distance from north to south is about 226 miles, and from east to west about 190 miles. It is about the same size as Ireland, Switzerland or the state of West Virginia in the USA.
  2. A photo from a hill at Brown’s River overlooking the mouth of the Derwent River. See 
  3. Miller, pp. 286-87.
  4. Miller, pp. 286-88.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 2.
  6. See Pybus, note #15, in Snow, part I: “In the history of Upper Canada only four civil prisoners were ever transported, including three on the Buffalo, which points to the extraordinary circumstances of the transportation of ninety-two political prisoners of whom 79 were US citizens.”
  7. Miller, pp. 288-89; Snow, part I.
  8. Miller pp. 286, 289-90.
  9. Miller, pp. 292-93.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hobart Town - Sweeping the Prison Yard

On the second day each new prisoner was called individually into Superintendent Gunn’s office and notified that, having been sentenced for life, he must now spend two years on probation, or hard labor, before “any indulgence whatsoever” could be granted. When Linus Miller questioned such harsh treatment for the state prisoners, Mr. Gunn admitted that this regulation was only a formality, and would not be enforced unless the Governor should order it. He mentioned that “no orders with reference to our treatment” had been sent from England. This fact seems to have left the officials in Van Diemen’s Land in a quandary about how to treat the state prisoners. Therefore, at least for the first month, hard labor was not required. The English felons went off the next morning to labor on the government road project, and James and his three comrades remained in the barracks. Miller took this opportunity to write two letters of appeal, one to Governor Franklin, and the other to a member of the Legislative Council of Van Diemen’s Land, Mr. Lawrence.(1)

One or two days later Mr. Gunn summoned Miller again to his office. Knowing that “you Americans detest idleness,” he suggested that they might enjoy a little exercise. He proposed that they could help the overseer of the prison yard by sweeping for one half-hour each morning. As an added incentive, he suggested that this might influence the governor to grant them “liberty of the island” (a ticket of leave). He stressed that their service was strictly voluntary, however, “my advice would be to do as I have proposed.” Miller, Gammell, Grant, and Beemer debated the offer at length, and then came to a decision—one which they soon would regret:

…Mr. G. was only trying the yoke upon our necks to see how it would fit. Had we only refused to perform any labor whatever, I doubt not it would have saved us years of slavery; for even the tyrant Franklin would have hesitated before using compulsory measures to compel state prisoners to labor as felons. It would not sound well in the public papers of Great Britain; but if we could be coaxed and deceived to shoulder the burden ourselves, all difficulty in the matter would be at an end, and they could by degrees force us into absolute slavery. (2)

Over the next several days, one half-hour of sweeping soon became more than half a day of labor in the prison yard and cleaning in the wards, with extra tasks ordered by Mr. Gunn. On Sunday, when the British felons were marched off to church, the four Canadians were ordered to remain in the yard and sweep. Miller boldly announced that he would not work on the Sabbath: “I shall not take any half-hour’s exercise today.” “The devil you won’t!” replied the overseer. Miller stood his ground and fired back: “It is the Sabbath day, and I cannot.” Gammell, Grant, and Beemer, not willing to stir up trouble, simply obeyed the orders.(3) James later gives this account of Miller’s punishment, which seems to be exaggerated compared to Miller’s account of the same incident:

Lynus W. Miller, a fine youth from Chautauque county [New York], was fed 14 days on brown bread and cold water in a solitary cell, because he absolutely refused to do work assigned him on a Sunday. He offered to work harder, if possible, any other day; but assured his employers that his education and his principles alike forbade him from performing unnecessary labor on the Christian Sabbath.(4)

Miller was immediately locked in a small, filthy cell, which had a mud floor and no toilet. After just a few minutes of conversation between the overseer and the constable, Miller was offered a second chance if he would agree to work, otherwise he would surely be flogged. Defiantly Miller replied, “I shall remain here and take the flogging.” Exasperated, the constable ordered him out of the cell: “Now go to church and be d— [damned] to you; but depend on a flogging in the morning.” Miller wrote that he went to church, because “bad as the church was, [he] preferred breaking the Sabbath by going there, to sweeping the yard.” Prison worship services, held nearby at St. George’s Anglican Church(5), were “a solemn mockery.” The clergyman dutifully read the sermon, while all but a dozen of the twelve hundred felons in the chapel played cards, gambled, cursed, sold tobacco, shared a swig of rum, crawled under the benches, or punched each other.

The next morning Miller was summoned to the superintendent’s office. After his interview, Mr. Gunn instructed the overseer to never again require Miller to work on the Sabbath day; Gammell, Grant, and Beemer, however, were still required to work. In this case Miller was definitely granted an unusual concession not offered to the British felons. Of the twenty to thirty prisoners brought before Mr. Gunn each day for various offenses, five to ten of them were flogged, and others were sentenced to one, two, or three weeks of solitary confinement and given only one pound of bread and a pint of water a day. (6)
  1. Miller, p. 275.
  2. Miller, pp. 278-79.
  3. Miller, pp. 280-81.
  4. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription p. 4.
  5. St. George’s Church, built in 1838, still stands at Battery Point, Hobart.
  6. Miller, pp. 277, 280-283.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Upon Van Diemen’s Land

The very day we landed upon the Fatal Shore,
The planters stood around us, full twenty score or more;
They ranked us up like horses and sold us out of hand,
They chained us up to pull the plough, upon Van Diemen’s Land.(1)

In 1770, when Captain James Cook first discovered the continent of Australia, he made landfall on the east coast at a place he called Botany Bay, just south of present day Sydney Harbor, and then sailed on. The Aborigines thus remained undisturbed, as they had been for centuries before, until a day in January 1788, when the first British convict fleet, comprised of eleven vessels, landed on their shores. Beginning on that day “an unexplored continent would become a jail. The space around it, the very air and sea, the whole transparent labyrinth of the South Pacific, would become a wall 14,000 miles thick.”(2)

The first convict colony (1788) was called New South Wales. In 1804 a separate convict colony with its own Lieutenant Governor was established at Van Diemen’s Land, an island off the southeast coast of Australia. Van Diemen’s Land was named after Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company, who organized an expedition in 1642 to map the unknown parts of the world. The expedition commander, Abel Tasman, discovered the island, thinking it was the mainland, and named it after his patron. More than two centuries later, after the name had become tarnished with cruel and shameful memories, it was changed to Tasmania after the island’s discoverer.(3)

Early in January (summer in the Southern Hemisphere) the barren hills and mountains of Van Diemen’s Land appeared in the distance. The Canton entered the mouth of the Derwent River and dropped anchor in Hobart Town harbor at 7:00 p.m. on January 12, 1840. A 16,000-mile voyage to the “very southeastern outskirts of habitable creation”(4) had finally come to an end.

The next morning the superintendent of convicts, William Gunn, “a very respectable looking man with but one arm,” came aboard with his staff. He began the tedious task of interviewing all 230 convicts, and preparing an official written record on each one. After a long series of questions about his family, his education, his religion, etc., each man was instructed to strip to the waist, and his physical features, scars, and marks were all noted:

[James Gemmell] Native Place, Ayrshire; Trade, gardener; Height, 5 ft. 8 ½ inches; Age, 23; Complexion, pale; Head, round; Hair, dark brown; Whiskers, red; Eyes, hazel; Nose, small; Mouth, large. [Con. 18/5] (5)

While still aboard ship in the harbor, James received the first news of his nine friends who had arrived six months earlier on the Marquis of Hastings. Mr. Gunn informed Miller:

McLeod, McNulty, and Van Camp are, I am sorry to say, dead. They lived but a short time after landing. The others are in the interior and are well. They appear to be very good men. I hope you and your comrades will conduct yourselves as well.(6)

Miller and Gemmell esteemed these men as their own brothers, after all they had endured together. They regarded Alexander McLeod as a noble man, “comparatively faultless in person, mind and heart.” Five days after his death, several of his shipmates had been sent to the hospital to help bury the dead. They found a body, dissected and disemboweled, lying on a table: “Behold, it was poor McLeod whom they all knew and respected.” They gathered up the pieces, placed them in a crude wooden coffin, and buried him in an unmarked grave with thousands of other felons. (7)

After nearly four months at sea, twenty-five-year-old James Gammell set foot on Australian soil at Hobart(8) dock on January 17, 1840. Any privileges he may have enjoyed aboard the Canton now came to an end. The convicts were marched to the prison yard, mustered, given prison garb, and subjected to a long speech by the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, His Excellency Sir John Franklin.(9) Specifically to the U.S citizens he said, “Your notions of liberty and equality must be kept within your own breast. Van Diemen’s Land is not America.”(10) They were then ushered into prison society and soon learned that Franklin was right—America it was not!
  1. Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. ix. (Convict ballad, ca. 1825-30)
  2. Hughes, pp. 1-2.
  3. Hughes, p. 47.
  4. Archives Office of Tasmania (transcription.) See Miller, pp. 255-257. James was 23 when captured.
  5. Miller, p. 257.
  6. Miller, pp. 257-259; Wait, pp. 127-129. Four years later Miller, still in VDL, visited Hobart in search of McLeod’s grave, but never found it. The Canadian prisoners wanted to erect a gravestone in his honor.
  7. A small monument unveiled by the Canadian High Commissioner (1995) in Princes Park, Battery Point, Hobart, honors “The memory of 92 exiles transported from Canada.” It fails to mention that nearly 80 of them were Americans.
  8. Sir John Franklin was Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Jan.1837- Aug. 1843. He was a nephew of Ben Franklin.
  9. Miller, p. 271.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Voyage of the "Canton" (Part II)

On days when the weather was tolerable, convict activities included menial work, fishing from the deck with homemade lines, playing cards, gambling, and even singing and dancing (especially after they had been drinking.) The log of Surgeon–Superintendent John Smith aboard the Clyde in 1838 records the activities on a typical convict voyage:

…cleaning and scraping, sprinkling chloride of lime by the water-closets, supervising the laundry, lancing abscesses, blankets become lousy and are soaked all night in the urine-tubs in the hope of killing the accursed insects; the coarse trousers give some convicts “excoriations of the scrotum and thigh;” prisoners squabble and are put in the cramping-box, a lad whispers about mutiny and spends the night handcuffed on deck; the soldiers and their women fight like Kilkenny cats---“a more undisciplined, quarrelsome, noisy set have seldom come together, yet the behavior of the Prisoners is quiet and orderly with little exception.” Surgeon Smith dispenses advice, purges, blisters and bleedings; he buries the dead (but very few men die); and there is a note of quiet gratification at the end, when Clyde warps into Sydney Cove and an official from the colonial secretary’s office asks the customary question of the mustered prisoners: Is there any complaint about the Surgeon? “No, no, God bless him, was the universal cry.”(1)

The convicts aboard the Canton were under the exclusive charge of the kind and decent surgeon, Dr. John Irvine of the Royal Navy. (The captain of the ship, Master John Mordaunt,(2) could only interfere in case of emergency.) The surgeon visited the prison daily to deal with any problems or complaints. At the end of the voyage he was paid, as compensation for his services, one guinea for each man that he landed at Hobart Town; thus it was to his advantage to keep the prisoners alive and healthy. For the most part he was successful: only two convicts were buried at sea, as compared to thirty on the Marquis of Hastings.(3)

Gemmell, Miller, and Grant enjoyed the personal attention of Dr. Irvine, thanks to letters of recommendation written to the surgeon by their kind friends in England. As a result James was appointed “surgeon’s mate,” and had “charge of the hospital, a room adjoining the prison, fitted up for that purpose, where he was quite comfortable.” Miller was appointed as a reading and arithmetic teacher to the prisoners. He and Grant had one berth to themselves, in the center of the prison near the hatchway: “…the fresh air which we enjoyed in consequence rendered our condition far better than it could otherwise have been.” Irvine also allowed them rations of sugar and flour, and an extra allowance of water to make their own tea. He gave them permission to go on deck whenever they wanted, and to stroll the “promenade of the forecastle, from which the other prisoners were excluded… a privilege highly prized.” Of course, this favored treatment incited the jealousy of the English convicts, who then went out of their way to annoy Gemmell, Miller, and Grant.(4)

Despite the better than usual accommodations and privileges, to Linus Miller this prison was “a floating Hell.” The continual conversation of the British felons was more than he could bear:

The most horrid blasphemy and disgusting obscenity, from daylight in the morning till ten o’clock at night, were without one moment’s cessation, ringing in my ears… I tried to close my ears and shut my eyes against all…With the assistance of books which were kindly loaned me by the surgeon, and by persevering in my efforts I… was enabled to shut out the dreadful sounds and live on in the midst of those horrors in an ideal world of my own.(5)

Since James had his own separate quarters, apart from the prisoners, he was able to avoid constant association with “those wretched men.” But he couldn’t escape the painful and private anguish endured during the long, dark nights when, as Benjamin Wait described,

…every noise was hushed save the lashing of the waves against the ship’s sides, the creaking of the helm, the occasional tread of the crew on deck, or the heavy breathings of the human beings about me, …my heart experienced every vicissitude of human misery and passion—sorrow and grief, gloom and despondency, anger and the extreme of despair endured to an extent seldom felt by man.(6)
  1. Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. 157.
  2. Miller, p. 252. According to the Canton’s ship records, 230 (of 240) men were landed. Ten must have died on the voyage. Miller reports only two deaths. There was an outbreak of scurvy on the Marquis of Hastings. After one year in VDL only 103 of the 240 Marquis convicts were still alive, mostly due to the effects of poor diet on the voyage. (Wait, p 125.)
  3. Miller, pp. 244, 246-7.
  4. Miller, p. 246.
  5. Wait, p. 125.