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Friday, April 30, 2010

Aftermath of the Rebellion

President Martin Van Buren had not been successful in obtaining pardons for the American citizens imprisoned by the British.  He had made only one informal request for clemency through his Ambassador in London, Andrew Stevenson. That request resulted in a pardon for William Reynolds, who was supposedly the youngest of the prisoners, but not for any of the others. Van Buren stood by his proclamation of 1838 that “any American citizen who invaded a friendly neighbour, in violation of the country’s Neutrality Act, would forfeit his claim to protection and could expect no legal interference from the United States government on his behalf.”(1)  Also, fear of war with the British over an ongoing boundary dispute in Maine kept Van Buren from pressing the clemency issue any further.

In his New York Plebeian article Mackenzie made an appeal to Van Buren’s successor, President John Tyler:

The victim of oppression found deliverers, and entertained no fears whatever, that John Tyler, President of the United States, will send him back again, but would rather hope the friendly aid of this great nation, through its Executive, will soon effectually relieve those who yet groan in bondage and restore them to their free and happy homes.(2)

In August 1842, two months after James returned and published his story, United States Secretary of State Daniel Webster, as part of his negotiations in the dispute over the border between Maine and New Brunswick, wrote a formal letter to England’s Lord Ashburton requesting a free pardon for the American prisoners in Van Diemen’s Land. Then in 1843, United States Representative Caleb Cushing made a formal appeal to President John Tyler, asking him to petition the British government for the release of the American prisoners.  The British conceded, but the bureaucratic process moved slowly, and it was 1850 before all of the remaining Americans had received their free pardons. Joseph Hume in London had continued to petition for a free pardon for the Short Hills men.(3)

Linus Miller finally received a pardon in July 1845, more than a year after it had been sent from London. Elijah Woodman was finally pardoned, but died on the voyage home. Aaron Dresser, Jr., and Stephen Wright were pardoned, and upon their return in February 1844, they wrote in an emotional letter to the New York Tribune, “To be obliged to drag out an existence in such a convict colony and among such a population, is, itself a punishment severe beyond our powers to describe.” The letter succeeded in pressuring the United States government to intervene, and they finally directed the ambassador to request pardons for the American patriots still in VDL. The process was not completed for several more years.(4)  After living in exile in the United States for eleven years, William Lyon Mackenzie was the last of the rebels to be pardoned. He returned to Toronto in 1849.
  1. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, pp. 38, 43-44, 47-48.
  2. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 11.
  3. Pybus, American Citizens, pp.171-2. 204; Pybus, Introduction to Snow’s narrative.
  4. Miller, p. 354; Pybus, American Citizens, pp. 197-8. (See Pybus’ note #36 in Snow, part III, for the last pardons.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letter to the New York Plebeian

William Lyon Mackenzie

After his arrival James stayed just one week in New York City. During that time he was overwhelmed with visitors anxious to hear about his experiences and to learn any news of their friends still imprisoned in Van Diemen’s Land. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Greeley continued to attend to his needs and “published all the scraps of information he could give them.”(1)  As soon as he could, James attempted to locate his brother Robert, as well as Mr. William Lyon Mackenzie. (Robert was supposedly living in New York at the time: “About ten years ago my brother Robert was apprenticed to a New York book binder. I am extremely desirous to obtain his present address.”(2))   James met a Canadian refugee who directed him to the home of Mackenzie at 401 Houston Street.(3)  Mackenzie, the former mayor of Toronto, former newspaper editor, and the political leader of the Upper Canadian rebellion, was likely a hero and a mentor to young James. This reunion between the two men resulted in a letter to the New York Plebeian.

It has generally been accepted that James Gemmell wrote the article “Two Years in Van Diemen’s Land”, published in the New York Plebeian in two installments on June 25 and 28, 1842. Further research indicates that it was actually written by William Lyon Mackenzie. No doubt it was based on his interview with Gemmell, but the rhetoric definitely belongs to Mackenzie: “The piece could not have been written by Gemmell, who was barely literate; it bore the imprint of the Canadian rebel leader, William Lyon Mackenzie, who had arranged its publication.”(4)  The following excerpt from the first paragraph of the Plebeian letter is an example of Mackenzie's prose: 

My desire is to interest in the benevolent, true-hearted, and kind people of America and Britain, and thro' them their respective governments, for the liberation and restoration to their friends, families and homes, of my truly unfortunate companions who yet remain in captivity on Van Dieman's Land; and as I am the first of the Canadian or American prisoners taken at Prescott, Windsor, or the Short Hills, who has been enabled by the blessings of a kind Providence, to escape from the terrors of that far-distant prisonhouse to earnestly entreat the editors of newspapers of all parties, to lay the statement I am enabled to make before their respective subscribers and readers.(5)

Typical of Mackenzie, the “wiry and peppery little Scotsman”(6) and passionate politician, the article seems to have been written with a political agenda in mind:  to agitate for the immediate release of his comrades still in captivity. He attempts to stir up public sympathy for their plight with stories of floggings:

With the exception of the venerable Chauncy Sheldon, now 70 years of age,(7) who commanded a troop of horse [sic] under General Van Reselaer, in the last war on the frontier, I scarcely remember one American or Canadian who has not been flogged by felons, from two dozen of lashes with the cat-of-nine tails, up to six dozen.(8)

The Plebeian article claims that James Gemmell was flogged twice, and names at least seven others who were flogged. There is no evidence to support this claim:

This seems to have been written to stir up public feeling. No mention of flogging is to be found on the individual convict records and several narratives, like Snow, expressly say they were not flogged. It is not clear whether this was on a directive from HM government or from Franklin. The narratives suggest individual magistrates chose not to have the politicals flogged.(9)

In a somewhat self-serving comment about the fiasco at the siege of Toronto (1837), Mackenzie quoted James as saying:

I parted with Mackenzie when he and Colonel Lount separated, after the Defeat, near Shepards mills, and never saw him again until one of the refugees directed me to his home in this city, a week ago. I saw that he faithfully performed his duty behind Toronto, and if some who do not know, have blamed him in the United States, I am sure that those who were his companions cannot have done so.(10)

As an agitator, Mackenzie successfully drew crowds of supporters, but as evidenced by the outcome of the rebellion, “his forte was passion, not necessarily planning.”  Some called it Mackenzie’s “Comedy of Errors.” He lacked the “patience and prudence needed to organize and effectively command large forces of fighters.” At Toronto he was not willing to relinquish his command to his experienced military leader, Van Egmond.(11)

Perhaps the Plebeian letter was Mackenzie’s chance to bring closure to the events of the rebellion. Using his natural gifts as an orator, he pled for immediate release of the Patriot prisoners in VDL. At the same time he assured both the Canadian and the United States governments that their release would not pose a threat to the peace and security of Canada, and issued a warning to England to rule in Canada with a lighter hand:

My object is to state the plain facts, leaving to better informed men the task of applying them; but I may venture to remark, that it would surely be better for England to govern gently in Canada, and thereby gain the affections of the people, than to be careless there, and keep some hundreds of honest, well-meaning men, who sought to get or give relief from a government acknowledged by the authorities of that nation to have been very wicked, 18,000 miles from their homes, miserable, and among the most degraded of God's creation, under the pretext that their release would involve a million and a half of colonists in revolt.(12)

Mackenzie made a final appeal to the United States government and then signed James Gemmell’s name:

In concluding I would again entreat every friend of humanity to endeavor to get the United States government to interest itself in the matter of my unfortunate comrades…those manly hearts which now beat on a far distant shore with fond and anxious confidence and hope that they will yet find opportune friends and deliverers in the land of Washington.

Acknowledging very respectfully your kindness in the publication of these letters,

I remain your humble servant,

57 West Broadway
New York, June 28, 1842.(13)

For the benefit of their families, James reported the names of the seventy-six Patriot prisoners he left behind (most of whom were United States citizens) and their condition when he last saw them. Most were in good health; some were dead.  Fourteen Patriots had died as a direct result of their brutal treatment on the work gangs in VDL or on the voyage.(14)  Of the fourteen prisoners who had been together since their capture at the Short Hills, James mentioned nine (including himself) that were in good health at the time of his escape: “George B. Cooley, Benj. Waite, Sam'l Chandler, Norman Mallory, John Vernon, of Markham; John Grant, of Toronto; and Jacob Beemer (the informer), all of Canada; James Waggoner of Lewistown."(15)  (James didn’t know that Wait and Chandler had escaped.) There were five others. William Reynolds was pardoned in London and returned home. Linus Miller was still held at Port Arthur. John J. McNulty, Alexander McLeod, and Garret Van Camp, who were transported on the Marquis of Hastings, all died soon after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. McNulty died the first day after arrival from the effects of the poor diet and harsh conditions on the voyage. The next day McLeod died of a quick consumption. Three weeks later Van Camp died from a rupture and other injuries he received while hauling a heavy cartload of wood.(16)

The story of James Gammell’s escape from Van Diemen’s Land proved to be one of the big newspaper “scoops” of the day. A week later the Plebeian letter was reprinted in the Jeffersonian, Watertown, New York, on 4 July 1842. Other newspapers on the frontier continued to pick up the story, including the Northern Journal, Lowville, New York, July 14, 1842. A year later it was reprinted in the Michigan State Gazette, Jackson, Michigan, June 1843.
  1. Wheeler, “The Late James Gemmell”.
  2. NY Plebeian, transcript, p. 12. Nothing more is known about Robert. He has not been identified in later censuses.
  3. NY Plebeian, transcript, pp. 11-12.
  4. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 162.
  5. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 1.
  6. Wilson, W. R., Historical Narratives of Early Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie, Part 2,
  7. Sheldon, age 57 in 1839, was probably in his early 60’s. (See Pybus, American Citizens, p. 232.)
  8. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  9. Pybus, “Snow narrative”, part II, note #22.
  10. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 11.
  11. and
  12. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 10.
  13. NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 12.
  14. NY Plebeian, transcription, pp. 8-9; Pybus, “Snow narrative”, part I. Note #16.
  15. NY Plebeian, transcription, pp. 8-9.
  16. Wait, pp. 127-129; Miller, p. 257-259.   

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Exile Returns

Whaling ships, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1901
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Quitting the good city of old Manhatto, I duly arrived in New Bedford. It was a Saturday night in December [1840]…New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and though in this matter poor old Nantucket is now much behind her…. (Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter two, published 1851)

Leaving the port at Hobart Town, James Gammell “worked his passage before the mast”(1) on an unnamed American whaler. (Hobart’s port, at the mouth of the Derwent estuary, was a well-known calving ground of the black whale.)(2) The voyage to New Bedford, Massachusetts(3), in “this cramped world of the fo’c’sle [forecastle] and the skinning knife”(4) was hardly a cruise. Yet James, better off than he was on the road gangs of Van Diemen’s Land, could at least enjoy a hearty meal each day. Most likely he worked hard during the journey to earn his keep, but this time he was laboring as a free man. While in transit, the whaling ship became its own whale oil factory. The crew would work long and hard at hoisting the whale out of the water before the sharks could consume it. Then came the strenuous task of skinning, dissecting, and rendering tons of whale blubber into oil in big iron pots over the open flame of a brick stove.  The painting of a New England whaler, shown in the previous post, depicts a whaleboat in the foreground conducting the attack, while the whaling vessel billowing smoke in the background is rendering blubber into oil.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, James could have counted himself in famous company with the young Herman Melville, who, at this same time (Spring, 1842), was a crewman aboard the Acushnet on an eighteen-month whaling voyage to the South Pacific.  Melville’s voyage became the inspiration for his novel Moby Dick. (See the 1956 movie starring Gregory Peck, to get a feel for James’ four-month experience aboard the whaler.)

In later years James reported to William F. Wheeler the details of his arrival at New Bedford and his homecoming in New York City:

The news of his escape and that he was coming in on board of a certain vessel reached the town before his ship had touched the wharf.  Kind friends aided him and he hastened by steamer to New York.  Before he landed at that point the boat was boarded by two gentlemen who had come out in a yacht for the purpose, and who insisted on taking the escaped man with them. They proved to be James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.  He was driven to the Astor House, and informed that he was their guest as long as he chose to remain. After a bath, a shave, etc., they took him to a clothing store and dressed him like a gentleman when the party ate a sumptuous dinner, after which several hours were spent in questioning him as to his life in Van Dieman's Land and about the friends he had left there, and the next morning their papers were filled with an account of the interview.(5)

Two New York City newspapers, the Herald and the Tribune, printed notices announcing the arrival on Wednesday, June 22, 1842, of James Gammell, the first of the Patriot prisoners to escape Van Diemen’s Land and reach the United States:

The Herald announces the return to this city of one of the Patriot prisoners sent by the British authorities to Van Diemen’s Land. This escape, fortunate for himself, will not increase the liberty of those whom he has left behind. His name is James Gammell. He is about 28 years of age…he made his escape on board of an American whale ship, and reached this city in fine health and spirits on last Wednesday at high noon, being the first of the American prisoners who has made his escape from Van Dieman's [sic] Land. Gammell says that he left 76 prisoners still there of the patriot army, mostly United States' citizens, and all in bondage, employed by released convicts in various trades.(6)

In his New York Plebeian article James stated, “So far as prudence will permit, I will now state the particulars of my escape.”(7)   He was careful never to reveal, at least in print, the name of the ship that provided his escape, knowing that the captain could incur severe penalties when he returned to Hobart port. Benjamin Wait and Samuel Chandler did the same.(8)   James was also protective of the Freemasons who aided them: “I am not a Free Mason, but many of us were satisfied that it was a real benefit to us that some of our number belonged to that society. [Samuel Chandler was a Freemason.] In what way I may not now state.”(9)
  1. Wheeler, William F. “The Late James Gemmell.” The crew’s quarters were located in the forecastle (in front of the mast,) and the officers’ quarters in the stern.
  2. Hughes, p. 122.
  3. New Bedford, nicknamed “The Whaling City,” was one of the most important whaling ports in the world during the nineteenth century.
  4. Hughes, p. 211.
  5. Wheeler, “The Late James Gemmell”.
  6. New York Herald Times and New York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1842.
  7. NY Plebeian, transcript, p. 10.
  8. Wait, p.144; Scott, p. 307.
  9. NY Plebeian, transcript, p. 4.

Dear Reader,
I have finally caught up with myself.  Everything that I have posted so far, I had already written during 2008 and 2009.  All I had to do was revise and proofread.  Now I am breaking new ground with research and composition, and I'm anxious to get on with it.  The best is yet to come... mostly about James and his family.  So don't give up visiting the blog regularly.  I plan to post something new every week, even if
sometimes only comments and photos, while I work on new text.

Thank you to all of you for your interest and support.  Allow me to make some requests of you.   You can add your own  contribution to this project.  I would appreciate reading your comments about James and the blog, and finding out exactly how you are related to him.  Don't hesitate to identify yourself and to leave comments and questions.  I know that other readers would like to know who else is following James' story.  Your thoughts and family anecdotes would add interest to the whole Gammell/Gemmell story. 

One more thing....  I'd appreciate if you could share any old Gammell/Gemmell photos. 

Back to my research,

Friday, April 9, 2010

The First to Escape (Part II)

On January 27, 1842, James Gammell received his ticket-of-leave, and he recognized immediately that this change in his convict status opened up new possibilities for escape.  At this time he was laboring at Swansea(1), on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land. Mr. Norris, the local police magistrate in that area, had acquired a large tract of land, which he needed to clear. James saw a chance to turn Norris’ dilemma to his own advantage:

Mr. Norris, a police magistrate, and formerly butler to Sir George Arthur, had received a large tract of land, which he was anxious to clear. I persuaded him that I could build a stump machine if I had the model from Mr. [Elijah] Woodman, of Maine, who lived beyond Hobart Town; and such was his anxiety, that he gave me a passport to that place…(2)

The passport issued by Mr. Norris was one of the few possessions that James had on his person when he escaped from Van Diemen’s Land. It contained the details of his convict record:

…the ship that brought me, the place where I was born and tried, with my complexion and height, the color of my hair, eyes, cheeks and eyebrows, the shape of my mouth, were faithfully inserted. My police ticket was 1474, there being then on the island that number of prisoners whose sir-names begin with G.(3)

Arriving at Hobart Town still dressed in conspicuous magpie (yellow and black) garb, James called on the superintendent of convicts, Mr. Gunn, and gave him a letter signed by several of the Canadian prisoners requesting the return of their personal clothing which had been held in storage since their arrival on the island. The moment he saw the letter:

…that shrewd Caledonian(4) suspected my design, arrested and gave me in charge to an armed constable…I was ordered to be taken back into the interior immediately, was handcuffed, and being accompanied by several male and female criminals thither bound, set out on my weary journey. At noon the constable took off my handcuffs, that I might eat, when I seized his musket, declared that I was off for the bush, and disappeared. In the night I left my hiding place, crept to Hobart Town, told some whole-souled American tars [sailors] my unfortunate history and they required no coaxing to perform the part of honest men.(5)
New England whaler
(Wikimedia Commons)

After fleeing the constable, James needed to act quickly to find a ship’s crew willing to take him aboard. A few more hours, and he would have been back at hard labor. Boarding a whaling ship was risky business considering the strict departure protocol imposed on all vessels. Not one ship ever left Hobart harbor without first being searched. On the scheduled departure day a district constable and his posse would board the ship, search her thoroughly for any fugitive prisoners, and remain on board “until the anchor is tripped, and the sails shook out, when the papers shall be given to the master, and the vessel to the pilot, who will see her beyond the heads before dismissing her.” Most fugitives tried to avoid the knowledge of the ship’s master, but if a fugitive were found hidden on board with the knowledge of the master, “the vessel would be detained until he [the master] shall have paid a penalty of fifteen hundred pounds sterling; otherwise she [the ship] shall be forfeited and sold.”(6)  Very often, if a ship were under suspicion, the constable could give orders to fasten down the hatches and fumigate the ship with sulfur to flush out any stowaways. With such strict port regulations at Hobart, “not even a mouse, one would have thought, could get through them.”(7)

As he crept out of hiding under cover of darkness and ventured back to Hobart Town, James soon found a group of sympathetic American sailors willing to conceal him on board their whaler, most likely without the knowledge of the captain. Next he had to survive the official search of the ship before her departure:

My friends took me on board the ship. They were the only ones on board; all others were ashore. When the sailing time drew near the crew came back, my friends hid me in the hold of the ship and covered me with old sails and tarps. Officers came on board before sailing, looking for the escapee. They thrust their bayonets through the sails in several places. I could hear their voices. Then as they were about to leave, one thrust his (bayonet) down near me, the blade went through my leg above the knee. I almost cried out, but did not. The canvas no doubt wiped off the blood, for they went out satisfied, and I was able to bind my leg to stay the blood. My tars came back as soon as we were on our way and cared for my wound, and brought me food and clothes. I was soon able to get about.(8)

James reported nothing concerning the four-month voyage home, other than to praise his rescuers. After two years of deprivation in Van Diemen’s Land, he finally enjoyed his first hearty meal:

Although in the prime of life, accustomed to farm work, and strong made, I have often been weary almost to fainting, and never once in those two tedious years did I go to bed otherwise than hungry. During a passage of four months, on my return to this free land, I fared very differently in the American Whaler, the seamen of which so generously rescued me.(9)

News of James Gemmell’s disappearance must have caused the penal system authorities to keep a tighter reign on the other Patriot prisoners, making it even more difficult for them to escape. Many months after James left, Daniel Heustis was offered a chance to flee. His brother had arrived at Hobart Town aboard an American whaler, under the command of Daniel’s old school chum. Both men tried to convince Daniel that they could safely hide him on the ship, but for fear of losing his life or spending two more years at hard labor, he declined the offer:

I knew it would be worse than useless for me to attempt to escape with Captain Cole, as I was very closely watched. Indeed, as soon as it was known, at Hobart Town, that I had a brother on board the William Hamilton, a messenger was dispatched to Campbelltown, to admonish the police officers to keep an eye on me.(10) 

Heustis elected to wait for his free pardon; as a result he spent at least two more years in Van Diemen’s Land before returning to the United States. William Gates suffered the same heart-wrenching dilemma. Some American sailors at Hobart Town offered him passage home, but like Heustis, he was sure it would cost him his life. Even if he had dared take the risk, he was torn by a moral dilemma. In his pocket he had $5,000 from the sale of wool that he had sold at the market for his employer, Mr. Tabbart. He couldn’t bring himself to flee with the money and thereby betray a man who had trusted him so completely. “My better judgment told me that the taking of the money was doing wrong to an individual who had himself treated me with comparative kindness.” Gates eventually received his pardon in 1845, but he didn’t return to the United States until 1848.(11)
  1.  “…the first public announcement of [ James’] escape appeared in an April issue of the [Hobart Town] Gazette…” It reported his residence as Swansea in the east coast district of Swanport. (See Scott, To the Outskirts, p. 305.)
  2. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, pp. 10-11.
  3. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, pp. 10-11.
  4. Caledonia is the old poetic name for Scotland.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, pp. 10-11.
  6. Wait, p. 143.
  7. Hughes, p. 211.
  8. Hammond, Elizabeth H., “Life of James Gammell, Pioneer of 1847.”
  9. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 3.
  10. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 170.
  11. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 170-1, 220.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The First to Escape (Part I)

Hobart Town by Allan Carswell, 1821
(from Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of their two-year probationary period of hard labor on the road gangs, Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin upheld Lord Russell’s ruling to issue the Patriot prisoners tickets-of-leave. This ticket would allow each man to move his residence within a designated area without suspicion, to work on his own for wages (although jobs were scarce and wages low) in order to feed and clothe himself, and hopefully, to save some money for a future need, with the requirement “to muster every Sunday, that the district Constable may know we have not absconded.” The new regulations also included a warning: a prisoner’s ticket-of-leave could be revoked for the slightest infraction, sending the offender back to hard labor.(1)

The six men who had been transported to Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Marquis of Hastings(2) received their tickets-of-leave on August 4, 1841. Two of them, Benjamin Wait and Samuel Chandler, immediately began planning their escape. Their tentative freedom provided them an opportunity to watch the newspaper for reports of any American ships in Hobart Harbor. Hobart was a major port for the American whaling fleet in the Pacific, and Elijah Woodman had reported seeing as many as eight American whaling ships in the port at one time. Chandler, desperate to return home to his wife and eleven children, discovered that the captain of the Julian(3) was a fellow Freemason, and that he was willing to take them aboard. After many days of careful planning and preparation, Chandler and Wait finally made their escape just after Christmas 1841.(4)

The American captain who had agreed to take Samuel Chandler and Benjamin Wait aboard his whaler was well aware of the heavy penalty he would incur if absconders were discovered on his vessel. In a secret conversation with Chandler, probably at a pub in Hobart Town, he arranged for the two men to board his ship after the constables at Hobart Town had searched it, and after it had left the harbor. In order to avoid one risk, Chandler and Wait took another even more serious risk by rowing out to open sea in the small fishing boat they had hired. Because they had to travel a distance of forty miles downstream to arrive at the rendezvous point well ahead of the whaler, they ended up spending several days and nights out on the water. When they had nearly given up all hope of being rescued, the ship appeared. From the deck the captain recognized Chandler’s Masonic signal, responded in kind, and then ordered the crew to help them aboard. Despite all odds, Chandler and Wait were finally bound for home.(5)

James Gemmell, along with John Grant, was issued his ticket-of-leave on January 27, 1842, and by the time the men who had arrived on the Buffalo received their tickets-of-leave two weeks later, on February 10, 1842, James had already made his escape.(6)  As with the others, James had been asked to choose the district where he would prefer to reside, and where he would seek employment from the free emigrant landowners. His choice was limited to one of six districts in the mountainous interior, far from Hobart Town or any seaport. The men traveled to Hobart Town to claim their tickets-of-leave from the police magistrate and were immediately sent to their various districts.(7)  James later expressed his disdain for the system that still held is comrades:

These townships extend perhaps ten miles by five, and contain, on the average, perhaps thirty landowners, who will unite to pay the poor captive just what they please, as he can go no where else; and if he demand a settlement, they may assert that he was saucy; and, any two of them being magistrates, can send him to the chain-gang for a year, or otherwise coerce him. Redress is a thing not to be thought of. I have seen enough of this. If I were now a Van Dieman's Land "relief captive," I would gladly exchange for slavery in Virginia, as far preferable. Chandler and Waite are the exception to these remarks. They are much respected, and have been allowed to set up a blacksmith shop; John Grant, of Toronto, being their hired assistant.(8)

Just a few days after acquiring his ticket-of-leave, James, unaware that Chandler and Wait had already fled, took advantage of the first opportunity available to make his escape. Surely he understood the enormous risks involved; if caught, he could be returned to the chain gang, or possibly sent to Port Arthur for at least another two years. His fellow Patriots, Miller and Stewart, as well as Morin, Reynolds, Cooley, and Paddock, were still serving time in Port Arthur for their escape attempts. Fortunately this time, spontaneity and quickness paid off, making James Gammell the first of only three Patriot prisoners to make a successful escape and return to the United States. (Wait and Chandler arrived one month later.) In stark contrast to the weeks of careful planning by Wait and Chandler, James seems to have acted completely on impulse—that is if we discount two years of endless days and nights spent hoping and scheming. Ironically, just two or three months before his own escape, James, along with Gideon Goodrich and Asa Richardson, helped to capture five British felons who had absconded.  Perhaps in the process James gathered useful intelligence that was helpful to him a few months later. His convict record reads: “On 8 November 1841, Gemmell was commended for his good behaviour, alacrity, steadiness and respectful demeanour, after having been instrumental in the recapture of five escapees. (Con. 31/17)”(9)
  1. Pybus, “Patriot Exiles”, pp. 196, 204 (note #55); Snow, part II.
  2. Upon arrival in VDL the Marquis of Hastings group spent only five weeks at hard labor before being assigned as servants to free landowners for the remainder of their first two years. Both Chandler and Wait were assigned to work at General Roberts’ farm near Oatlands. (Wait, pp. 133, 136)
  3. Scott, To the Outskirts of Habitable Creation, pp. 307-8. Scott believes that the ship was the Pantheon.
  4. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 160-161.
  5. Scott, pp. 304-5, 307; Wait, pp.143-4. Their journey to America took seven months.
  6. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 9. James suggests that by February 14, 1842, he had already left the island.
  7. Snow, part II, III; Miller, p.350; Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 9.
  8. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 9-10.
  9. Archives of Tasmania. (See Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, p. 221.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Cat-O’-Nine-Tails

During their years in the British penal system, both on the hulk and in Van Diemen’s Land, James and his fellow Patriots were constantly under the threat of the lash. Usually their punishment was limited to the treadmill or to a stint in solitary confinement, but still, as James writes, the threat of “the triangles, ever before our eyes, was the object of our greatest horror.”(1)  They had witnessed many a barbaric scene—a British felon, his back being laid open with the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made of nine knotted cords and wielded by another felon. Miller recorded that “the sound of the blows upon the naked back of the sufferer may be heard at a distance of one hundred rods.”(2)  James described the triangles, which were visible at every probation station, and compares the ordeal to a crucifixion:

The triangles accompany the party to work, and are made of three long pieces of wood set up and meeting together at the top; a ring is run through any two of these pieces near the top - a strap is run through the ring and tied round each wrist of the sufferer whose arms are thus extended at their full stretch, as in cases of crucifixion, his legs are then firmly fastened to a crossbar near the ground.

The freemen of the new world stripped stark naked, except his pantaloons, is then exposed to the lash of the felons of the old. The flagellator is ordered by the police officer to give two, four, or six dozen of strokes of the heavy whip, as the case may seem to him to require, on the sufferer's naked back, who is then unloosed from his degrading posture and ordered instantly to his work whatever it may be.(3)

Just a few lashes were enough to “skin a man’s back and leave it a tangled web of criss-crossed knotted scars.”  One eye-witness to a flogging records seeing the victim with “blood that had run from his lacerated flesh squashing out of his shoes at every step he took,” and “ants were carrying away great pieces of human flesh that the lash had scattered about the ground.” The total number of lashes was recorded on the prisoner’s convict record.  As bad as the physical damage was, the permanent psychological damage was worse: “What the cat-o’-nine-tails instilled was not respect for discipline, but a sullen conviction of one’s own impotence in the face of Authority…”(4)

James claims to have been flogged twice, once for “finding fault with our wretched food,” and again for “hitting a blow at a felon overseer;” and he names at least seven others who were flogged for minor offenses.(5)  His claim is not corroborated by the other Patriot accounts or by the public convict record. James’ record shows that he was punished only once and sentenced to three months at Bridgewater in March 1840. Hiram Loop was not flogged for refusing to work one cold morning without shoes; he was actually sent to solitary confinement for several days and fed on bread and water.  Wright was also put in solitary confinement, and not flogged. In their written narratives, Miller, Snow, Gates, Marsh, and Heustis all claim that not one of the Americans was ever flogged.  The convict records confirm that their punishment for various offenses was either three to ten days in solitary confinement or several days on the tread wheel.(6)

The American and Canadian prisoners never became accustomed to the cruelty or the drunkenness and depravity of convict society. James wrote, “Van Dieman's Land is the most remarkable place for drunkenness I ever saw.”  He and his fellow prisoners “tried to established temperance societies, at which some of our ablest men lectured and a very few of the English convicts joined us.”(7)  The only Sunday services provided for the prisoners were those of the Church of England.  In the absence of a minister from his own Presbyterian faith, James preferred to listen to Mr. Beasley, a ”kind-hearted Methodist preacher,” who came “from a distance to exhort several times.”  His popularity was a threat to the established minister, so his visits soon ended.  According to James, a man like Beasley was much needed in Van Diemen’s Land, “one of the wickedest, most profane, immoral and degraded places on earth.”(8)  He was hesitant to give the specifics:

It is impossible for me to describe the state of society in Van Dieman's Land. Nine-tenths of the people are convicts. The men are bad enough.  Some of their crimes are so revolting that I forbear to name them; and as for the London prostitutes, they are there in thousands, and infinitely worse than the worst of men. Virtue itself would soon be contaminated in such a polluted atmosphere.(9)

Samuel Snow’s assessment is the same: “…we had in countless instances seen total depravity personified.”(10)  Of his experience with Green Ponds treadmill convicts, Miller wrote:

…the scenes enacted by these wretched men, during the hours of darkness, were of the most revolting and diabolical character; too dark to be written—too dreadful to be thought of…Vice and crime of the most revolting nature, such as called down the vengeance of heaven upon ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, are prevalent to an alarming extent … the natural result of herding depraved men together in such a system—a system which ensures not only their entire ruin is this world, but, what is of far more importance, in that which is to come.(11)
  1. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  2. Miller, p. 284.
  3. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 3.
  4. Hughes, The Fatal Shore, pp. 428-9.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 4-5.
  6. Pybus, American Citizens, British Slaves, pp. 112-13, 123, 252.
  7. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 10.
  8. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 5.
  9. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, p. 10.
  10. Snow, pt. III.
  11. Miller, p. 237, 320.