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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.

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