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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.)

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