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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)
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  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:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2RAQXu5Ddg
  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.

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