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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.

1 comment:

  1. A comment from Jan Zollinger:

    I had the most interesting weekend. I visited my mother and father and took a copy of your January and February blogs on James Gammell and read them to them. My mother knew the stories before I read them to her. She told me that she remembered her mother, LaVerna
    Harris telling all the children these stories when she was a young girl...Thank you for the delightful time we had reading what you have written about James Gammell. You are doing a marvelous job! I am so thankful for people like you who take the time to perserve our
    heritage. I wish I could be more help. You have gotten my mother so excited. She wishes that she would have listened a little better to her mother.

    Have a Great Day,