Catalpa rescue

From Academic Kids

The Catalpa rescue was a 1876 escape of six Fenian prisoners from what was then the British penal colony of Western Australia.

From 1865 to 1867 British authorities rounded up supporters of the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish independence movement, and transported a number of them to the penal colony of Western Australia. Among them was John Boyle O'Reilly, later to become the editor of the Boston newspaper The Pilot. They were sent on the convict ship HMS Hougoumont and landed at Fremantle in January 1867, after which they were moved to the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison).

Two years later in 1869 O'Reilly escaped on the whaling ship Gazelle with an aid of third mate whaler Henry Hathaway and ended up in Boston, where he became editor of The Pilot. In 1871 John Devoy was amnestied 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 1873 O'Reilly and Devoy received a smuggled letter from imprisoned Fenian James Wilson, who was among those the British dared not release. He asked them to aid the escape of the remaining Fenian prisoners. Devoy approached the 1874 convention of the Clan na Gael and got the Clan to agree to fund a rescue of the military prisoners. Devoy and O'Reilly approached whaling agent John Richardson who told them to contact his son-in-law, whaling captain George Smith Anthony, who agreed to help.

Jame Reynolds, a member of the Clan and on the committee to rescue the prisoners, bought under his name for the Clan a three-masted whaling bark Catalpa for $5,200 and George Anthony recruited 22 sailors. On April 29 1875 Catalpa sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts. At first, most of the crew was unaware of their real mission. Anthony noticed too late that the ship's chronometer was broken, so he had to rely on his own skills for navigation. First they sailed to Fayal Island in Azores, where they offloaded 210 barrels of sperm oil. Unfortunately much of the crew deserted the ship and they had to leave three sick men behind. Anthony recruited native crewmembers 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). Desmond took a job as a wheelwright and recruited five local Irishmen who were to cut the telegraph lines on the day of escape.

Catalpa fell behind the intended schedule due to a serious storm, in which she lost her foremast. She dropped anchor off Bunbury on March 27 1876. Anthony and Breslin met.

The first intended day for escape was April 6, but the appearance of HMS Convict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers quickly led to a postponement. The escape was rearranged for April 17, 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. Six Fenians - Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hasset, Robert Cranston and James Wilson - slipped down the Rockingham Road, met Breslin and Desmond and climbed into their carriages. They drove to the beach and climbed into the boat. They were half a mile (800 metres) off shore when they saw the escape was detected as two policemen galloped onto the beach.

The whaleboat faced further difficulties in a storm that lasted till dawn on April 18 and cut the boat's mast. They reached Catalpa in the morning but they also found steamship SS Georgette and a water police cutter were closing in. The whaleboat reached Catalpa and because there were no official orders to board the ship, the Georgette and the cutter withdrew.

Georgette returned the next morning and fired a warning shot with its 12 pounder (5 kg) cannon. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony pointed at the US flag and proceeded westward. Georgette pursued until it was low on fuel and turned away. Catalpa slipped into the Indian Ocean.

Due to cut telegraph cables, news of the escape did not reach London until June. At the same time, Catalpa made its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the USA. O'Reilly received the news of the escape on June 7 and released the news to the press. The news sparked celebrations in USA and Ireland and anger in Britain and Australia. A purge of prison officials in Fremantle followed. Catalpa returned to New York harbor on August 19 1876.

George Smith Anthony could no longer sail in international waters because 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 incident inspired a song, sung to an Irish folk tune, with the refrain:

So come all you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away

Further reading

  • Peter F. Stevens - The Voyage of the Catalpa (ISBN 1842126512)
  • Seán O'Luing - "Fremantle Mission
  • John Devoy - Recollections of an Irish Rebel
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