The Girl from Botany Bay
The sea route produced one epic escape in the early I790’s whose notoriety blossomed in London, reached back to Botany Bay and gave heart to would-be absconders for years to come. It was led by a woman, Mary Bryant (b. I765), "the Girl from Botany Bay," as the English press later dubbed her.
With her two small children, her husband William Bryant, and seven other convicts, she managed to sail a stolen boat all the way north from Sydney to Timor, a distance of 3,250 miles in just under ten weeks.
As a nautical achievement, this compared with William Bligh's six-week voyage in a longboat from Tahiti to Timor with the "loyalists" of the Bounty in I789. No one since James Cook in the Endeavour, twenty-one years before, had sailed all the way up the eastern coast of Australia, through the treacherous Barrier Reef, and lived to tell about it.
Mary Bryant, nee Broad, was a sailor's daughter from the little port of Fowey, in Cornwall. She had been transported for seven years for stealing a cloak. She came with the First Fleet, on the transport Charlotte. Before the fleet reached Cape Town, Mary Bryant gave birth to a girl and named her Charlotte, after the ship.
Soon after the fleet reached Port Jackson, Mary Broad married one of the male convicts, who fathered her second child, Emanuel, born in April 1790.
He, too, was Cornish and had come out on Charlotte. He was a thirty-one-year-old fisherman named William Bryant. Like many another Cornishman who kept a boat on that wild and indented coast, Bryant was a smuggler as well as a sailor, and in 1784 he had been convicted of resisting arrest at the hands of excise officers. He had already spent three years in the hulks when the First Fleet sailed, and his full seven-year sentence still loomed before him.
A fisherman was just what the half-starved colony needed. Governor Phillip put Bryant in charge of the boats that hauled the fishing nets every day in the harbour. But the black-market opportunities were too good for a Cornish smuggler to resist. He was caught selling some of his fish on the sly, instead of delivering them all to the Government Store; for this, he got one hundred lashes.
If he had not set his heart on it before, Bryant was now determined to escape. At worst, he would rather drown quickly at sea than starve inch by inch on land. He had access to the boats but had no weapons, tools, navigational instruments, charts or food.
In October 1790 an East Indies trader, the Waaksamheyd, lumbered into Port Jackson heavily freighted with stores from Djakarta. Her Dutch captain, Detmer Smit, felt no obligations to the English convict system. He listened to William Bryant and was persuaded to part with a compass, a quadrant, muskets, food and even a chart of the waters between Sydney and Timor.
Bryant hid this precious stuff in rolls of bark under the floorboards of his hut and began assembling a crew. He picked his time carefully. In March 1791 the Supply was dispatched to Norfolk Island. At the end of the month, Waaksamheyd, having sold the last of her cargo and finished her repairs, also set sail. Now there were no ships left in Port Jackson to give chase.
On the night of March 28, in the dark of the moon, the Bryants, their two children and seven other convicts scrambled into the governor's own six-oar cutter. In nervous silence, holding their breaths every time the oar-blades kissed the dark water, they rowed out into the harbour, past the little island of Pinchgut, heading east to the gate of the Pacific. The lookout on South Head did not see the cutter as it crept by in the night. They turned north toward New Guinea.
Their escape caused consternation next morning. The officers could hardly believe that although most of the men who had escaped had "connections" with female convicts in the settlement, not one woman had breathed a word about the long-laid escape plan. "They were too faithful to those they lived with to reveal it,', observed David Collins.
One of the men, a spare-time cabinetmaker named James Cox who had been transported for life on the First Fleet for stealing 12 yards of, lace and a pair of stockings, left a note on his workbench for his lover Sarah Young. It was a plain, fond letter, "conjuring her to give over the pursuit of the vices which, he told her, prevailed in the settlement, leaving to her what little property he did not take with him, and assigning as a reason for his flight the severity of his situation, being transported for life, without the prospect of any mitigation, or hope of ever quitting the country."
By no means all the guards were unsympathetic to the escape. "They got Clear off," wrote a marine private, John Easty, in his diary, "but its a very desperate attempt, to go in an open boat for a run of about 16 or 17 hundred Leagues and in particular for a Woman and 2 small Children the eldest not above 3 years of age, but the thoughts of Liberty from such a place as this is Enough to induce any Convicts to try all Skeemes to obtain it, as they are the same as Slaves all the time they are in this Country."
At first the going was easy. At their landings they found edible palms whose hearts they chopped out, a vast Quantity of Fish and natives either friendly or timid. But then the rain poured and the seas rose; for five continuous weeks, they were soaked to the skin and rarely able to light a cooking fire. On the long stretch of surf-bound coast between Port Macquarie and Brisbane they were driven out to sea by an adverse wind, and "making no harbour or creek for nearly three weeks, they "were much distressed for water and food." There was a brief respite for them in Moreton Bay.
On leaving they were immediately blown back out to sea again. The seas were so heavy that two men were bailing continuously until after several days they were blown ashore, half-dead, on one of the desert islands of the Barrier Reef. On its circling coral they ate turtles, one of which furnished "a Noble Meal". They butchered a dozen and made jerky of their meat.
The returned to the coast again and kept creeping north, stopping for water where-ever they could get ashore, caulking the cutter, whose seams were opened by the incessant pounding of the ocean, with soap and turtle fat, and fighting skirmishes with hostile blacks.
Food was short all the way, but they were all still alive when they turned the point of Cape York the northern most tip of Australia, and found themselves in the Arafura Sea with a clear run of five hundred miles of open water to Land, and another five hundred to Timor. They were pursued part of the way by stout cannibals in mat-sailed canoes.
They reached Koepang in Timor on June 5 and passed themselves off to the local Dutch governor as survivors of a shipwreck on the Australian coast.
In new clothes, with full bellies, they settled down to wait for a ship back to England. But after couple of months, by Martin's account, Bryant for some unexplained reason told the truth to the Dutch governor. Perhaps he got drunk.
Bryant had words with his wife, went and informed against himself and the children and all of us, upon which we was immediately taken prisoner and was put into the Castle, we was strictly examined and detained.
In mid-September, some shipwrecked Englishmen appeared from the sea at Koepang: Captain Edward Edwards, had been chasing the Bounty mutineers in the Pandora. He had captured some of them at Tahiti but lost his ship on a reef south of New Guinea. In the pinnace, a longboat and two yawls, he and 120 survivors had escaped the wreck and made their way across the Arafura Sea to Timor.
Now Edwards took the Bryants and their comrades prisoner; they were clapped in irons, put on board the Rembang, a Dutch East Indiaman, and shipped to Batavia. There both William Bryant and his little son Emanuel died of fever just before Christmas I791.
The survivors were shipped back to the Cape. Three of the men died at sea. At the Cape, Mary Bryant, her daughter and the remaining four convicts, James Martin, William Allen, James Brown and Nathaniel Lucas, were put on board the Cargon, the man-o'-war which was carrying the marine detachment (just replaced by the newly formed New South Wales Corps) back from Australia to London. "We was welt known by all of the marine officers which was all Glad that we had not perished at sea," Martin noted.
That he did not exaggerate this is shown by the remarks of Captain Watkin Tench, of the Royal Marines, who had known the Bryants and Martin on the outward voyage of the First Fleet ("always distinguished for good behaviour") and now, seeing them on board the Corgon, could not suppress his esteem for them. "I confess that I never looked at these people," he wrote, "without pity and astonishment. They had miscarried in a heroic struggle for liberty; after having combated every hardship, and conquered every difficulty ... I could not but reflect with admiration, at the strange combination of circumstances which had again brought us together, to baffle human foresight, and confound human speculation."
Mary Bryant's sufferings were not over yet. On May 5, her three-year old Charlotte died and was buried at sea. When she reached London and was committed to Newgate as an escaped felon, all she could look forward to was another transport ship, more irons and a second voyage to Botany Bay. But Mary Bryant soon acquired friends. Word got out about that indomitable curiosity, "the Girl from Botany Bay," who had so far overcome the inherent weakness of her sex to make this epic voyage through cannibals, coral, fever-isles and mountainous seas, from the edge of the chart back to England and civilisation.
Surely a just government could not send this bereaved heroine and her companions back to the thief-colony? So thought James Boswell, for one; and this kind-hearted writer pressed Dundas, the home secretary, and Evan Nepean, the under-secretary of state, with letters urging clemency and pardon for her.
In May I793, Mary Bryant received an unconditional pardon. Boswell then settled an annuity of £10 on her, and back she went to Cornwall.
In November 1793 her four companions were pardoned, too; one of them promptly, if unexpectedly, enlisted in the New South Wales Corps and set sail again for Botany Bay.