CATALPA RESCUE – THE LUCK OF THE IRISH
The Catalpa Rescue is a tale of Fenian triumph that we seem to have largely forgotten in Irish history. The tale actually starts in Ireland. From about 1865 to 1867 The British had had enough of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). They were a movement with a passionate belief that Ireland should be an independent sovereign nation. But the British were onto them. They rounded up the biggest pains in the butts of the British, and wanted shot of them so badly that they jailed 62 of them, and then threw some more on a horrible rickety ship to Western Australia. They dumped them in a penal colony at Fremantle in January of 1868. The heat in January is known to be rather unbearable, so to be in the convict ship Hougoumont at the time would have not been a lot different to hell. The Hougoumont was the last convict ship to transport wretched souls to Western Australia. Once the prisoners had arrived in Fremantle, they were moved to a convict establishment, now called Fremantle prison. The Irish political prisoners had been condemned to spend the rest of their lives building roads for the British Empire in one of the most hostile, hot, dry and insurmountable terrains in the world.
This is the Catalpa. You can see the barrels of sperm whale oil in the foreground.
One of these prisoners was John Boyle O’Reilly. O’Reilly was born at Dowth Castle, County Meath, at the onset of the Great Irish Famine. O’Reilly’s relatively wealthy family was fiercely patriotic; his mother was closely related to John Allen, who had played an important role in Robert Emmet’s rising in 1803. The son of a schoolmaster, O’Reilly received a good early education. When he was about thirteen, his older brother contracted tuberculosis, and O’Reilly took his place as apprentice at a local newspaper. At the age of fifteen, he moved to Preston, Lancashire to live with his aunt and uncle, and took up work on a local newspaper. Some time in 1865, O’Reilly joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, then commonly known as the “Fenians”, a secret society of rebels dedicated to an armed uprising against British rule. He turned his energies to recruiting more Fenians within his regiment, bringing in up to 80 new members. By late 1865, the Fenians had become such a large and popular movement that they could no longer evade detection by the British authorities. The government made a number of raids, seized records, and gathered evidence from informers. For his part in the Fenian conspiracy, O’Reilly was sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude. It appears he was originally sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted to 20 years. After arriving in Fremantle on 9 January 1868, O’Reilly was admitted to the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison), but after a month he was transferred to Bunbury. He was assigned to a party of convicts tasked with building the Bunbury–Vasse road.
At Bunbury, O’Reilly quickly developed a good relationship with his warder Henry Woodman, and was appointed probationary convict constable. As assistant to the warder, he did record and account keeping, ordering of stores, and other minor administrative duties. He was frequently used as a messenger, which required him to travel regularly between the work camp and the district convict prison in Bunbury. The warder apparently used O’Reilly to maintain contact with his family, for the prisoner became a regular visitor to the Woodman family home, and at some point began a romantic liaison with Woodman’s daughter Jessie. This ended badly, at least for O’Reilly; he wrote poetry expressing his agony of mind, and hints at romantic causes. On 27 December 1868, O’Reilly attempted suicide by cutting the veins of his left arm. After falling into a faint from loss of blood, he was discovered by another convict, and his life was saved.
While in Bunbury, O’Reilly formed a strong friendship with the local Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe. Late in 1869, McCabe offered to arrange for O’Reilly to escape the colony. By February, McCabe’s plan was ready for execution. On 18 February 1869, O’Reilly absconded from his work party, and met up with a party of Irish settlers from the local town of Dardanup. Together they rode to the Collie River where a rowboat was waiting for them. They rowed out of the Leschenault Inlet into the Indian Ocean, and north about twelve miles up the coast. O’Reilly hid in the dunes, awaiting the departure from Bunbury of the American whaling ship Vigilant, which Father McCabe had arranged would take him on board. The ship was sighted the next day, and the party rowed out to it, but the captain reneged on the agreement, and the Vigilant sailed off without acknowledging the people in the rowboat. O’Reilly had to return to the shore and hide again while his friends tried to make arrangements with another ship. After two weeks, they succeeded in making a deal with the captain of the American whaler Gazelle. O’Reilly and his friends met the Gazelle three miles out to sea on the 2nd of March, and he was taken on board. With him was a ticket-of-leave convict named James Bowman, who had heard of the intended escape. He had blackmailed the conspirators into allowing him to join O’Reilly.
McCabe had arranged for the Gazelle to take O’Reilly only as far as Java, but adverse weather prevented the ship from finding a safe passage through the Sunda Strait. The captain decided to sail for Roderiquez, Mauritius, at that time a British colony. As soon as the Gazelle arrived at Roderiquez, it was boarded by a magistrate and a contingent of police, who claimed to have information that the Gazelle carried an escaped convict from Western Australia, and demanded that he be given up. The crew gave up Bowman, but denied having O’Reilly on board. The Gazelle‘s next port of call was to be Saint Helena, another British colony. The captain recommended that O’Reilly transfer to another ship before then. On 29 July, the Gazelle met the American cargo vessel Sapphire on the high seas, and O’Reilly changed ships. The Sapphire arrived at Liverpool on 13 October, and O’Reilly transferred to another American ship, the Bombay. The Bombay docked in Philadelphia on 23 November 1869, where O’Reilly was enthusiastically welcomed by Irish compatriots.
In the summer of 1870, Father McCabe received a letter from O’Reilly, who now used another name. He had reached Boston and had beaten the warders of the British colony. Two years after arrival in Boston, O’Reilly became editor of The Pilot.
In 1871, another Fenian, John Devoy, was granted amnesty in England, among others, on condition that he settle outside Ireland, and he sailed to New York City. He also became a newspaperman, for the New York Herald. He joined the Clan na Gael, an organization that supported armed insurrection in Ireland. In 1869, pardons had been issued to many of the imprisoned Fenians. Another round of pardons were issued in 1871, after which only a small group of militant Fenians remained in Western Australia’s penal system. In 1873, John Devoy received a smuggled letter from imprisoned Fenian James Wilson, who was among those the British had not released. He asked them to aid the escape of the remaining Fenian prisoners. Devoy discussed the matter with O’Reilly and Thomas McCarthy Fennell, and Fennell suggested that a ship be purchased, laden with a legitimate cargo, and sailed to Western Australia, where it would not be expected to arouse suspicion. The Fenian prisoners would then be rescued by stealth rather than force of arms. Devoy approached the 1874 convention of theClan na Gael and got the Clan to agree to fund a rescue of the men. He then approached whaling agent John T. Richardson, who told them to contact his son-in-law, whaling captain George Smith Anthony, who agreed to help.
James Reynolds, a member of the Clan and on the committee to rescue the prisoners, bought a three-masted whaling bark Catalpa for $5,200, under his name. They recruited twenty-two sailors. On 29 April 1875, Catalpa sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts. At first, most of the crew was unaware of their real mission. They also noticed too late that the ship’s marine chronometer was broken, so they had to rely on their own skills for navigation. First they sailed to Faial Island in Azores, where they off-loaded 210 barrels of sperm whale oil. Unfortunately, much of the crew deserted the ship, and they had to leave three sick men behind. Whaling captain George Smith Anthony recruited replacement crew members and set sail for Western Australia.
At the same time, two Fenian agents, John Breslin and Tom Desmond, had arrived in Western Australia in September. Breslin masqueraded as an American businessman “James Collins”, with suitable letter of introduction, and got acquainted with Sir William Cleaver Robinson, Governor of Western Australia. Robinson took Breslin on a tour of the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison). Tom Desmond, who had arrived with him, took a job as a wheelwright (fixing wheels) and recruited five local Irishmen who were to cut the telegraph lines connecting Australia on the day of escape.
The modern-day memorial that reminds people of the events of the Catalpa escape.
Catalpa fell behind the intended schedule due to a serious storm, in which she lost her foremast. She dropped anchor off Bunbury on 27 March 1876. Anthony and Breslin met. The pair began to prepare for the rescue.
The first intended day for escape was 6 April, but the appearance of HMS Convict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers quickly led to a postponement. The escape was rearranged for 17 April, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison was watching the Royal Perth Yacht Club regatta.
Catalpa dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to the shore. At 8.30 am, six Fenians who were working in work parties outside the prison walls, absconded – Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson – were met by Breslin and Desmond and picked up in carriages. A seventh Fenian, James Kiely, had been exposed as an informer by his fellow prisoners and left behind.
The men raced 50 km south to Rockingham where Anthony awaited them on the beach with a rowboat. A local saw the men and quickly alerted the authorities.
The rowboat faced difficulties on its return to the Catalpa due to a storm that lasted till dawn on 18 April. The storm was so intense that Anthony later stated that he didn’t expect the small boat to survive. At 7am, with the storm over, they again made for the Catalpa but an hour later spotted the steamship SS Georgette which had been commandeered by the colonial governor making for the whaler. The men lay down in the rowboat and it was not seen by the Georgette which was forced to return to Fremantle to refuel after following the Catalpa for several hours.
As the rowboat again made for the ship a police cutter with 30 to 40 armed men was spotted. The two boats raced to reach the Catalpa first, with the rowboat winning and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passed by. The cutter turned, lingered briefly beside the Catalpa, and then headed to shore.
Early on 19 April the refuelled and now heavily armed SSGeorgette returned and came alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters. They fired a warning shot with the 12 pounder (5 kg) cannon that had been installed the night before. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony had raised, and then pointed towards, the U.S. flag, informing the Georgette that an attack on the Catalpa would be considered an act of war against the USA, and proceeded westward.Georgette pursued until it was low on fuel and turned away. Catalpa slipped into the Indian Ocean. This escape took two years to accomplish, and required the financial assistance of over 7,000 Irish Americans.
Due to cut telegraph cables, news of the escape did not reach London until June. The cables were cut by volunteers John Durham and Denis F. McCarthy, a native of Kenmare, Co. Kerry.
At the same time, the Catalpa did its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the USA. O’Reilly received the news of the escape on 6 June and released the news to the press. The news sparked celebrations in the United States and Ireland and anger in Britain and Australia (although there was also sympathy for the cause within the Australian population). A purge of prison officials in Fremantle followed. The Catalpa returned to New York Harbour on 19 August 1876.
George Smith Anthony could no longer sail in international waters because the Royal Navy could have arrested him on sight. With the help of a journalist, Z. W. Pease, he published an account of his journey, The Catalpa Expedition, in 1897. The Catalpa was presented as a gift to Captain Anthony, John Richardson and Henry Hathaway, it was eventually sold and turned into a coal barge. Not of great value in this capacity, Catalpa was finally condemned at the port of Belize, British Honduras.
The Catalpa escape created a dazzling international sensation in its day. Its intelligent heroes were celebrated as using Irish wit and ingenuity to extricate themselves from their perceived injustice. But we would like to remember this episode in Irish, Australian, British and American history – especially now that we are all friends.
Some images of the escapees.
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