The human tragedy that was the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia was immortalised in the sporting anthem, ‘Fields of Athenry’. The first journey from Cobh was one of the most dangerous, writes Robert Hume
Ireland, 1788. Crime was rife, the jails were bursting. Revolutionary ideas were being bandied around. Britain had once off-loaded its criminal elements to America, but since independence somewhere else was needed to place hundreds of men and women – convicted of anything, from murder, to stealing a handkerchief.
The solution: an “open air prison, with walls 14,000 miles thick”. So was born Britain’s Sydney Cove experiment near Botany Bay. Banished (BBC2, Thursdays, 9pm) – a gripping seven-part series written by Jimmy McGovern – charts the establishment of this first penal colony in a “godforsaken corner” of Australia.
The earliest convicts, who arrived there in 1788, included Anne Meredith (played by Orla Brady), sent for stealing; and Cockney convict Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring), banished for punching a woman – who turned out to be a duchess.
In March 1791, Henry Browne Hayes, Sherriff of Cork City, was put in charge of arranging the first transportation of Irish convicts to New South Wales. For the trip, he chose the Queen – a small, three-masted square-rigged vessel, under the command of Captain Richard Owen – that would meet up with ten other ships from Portsmouth to form the Third Fleet.
To make sure the convicts were treated fairly, Lieutenant Samuel Blow was appointed from the Navy Board. But things quickly went amiss: Blow’s first job was to complete the paperwork on each convict. This included recording their name, age, crime committed, occupation, and most importantly, the number of years they had to serve.
It needed to be completed in duplicate: one copy was to be kept by the Lord Mayor of Cork; the other taken with them to Sydney. But Blow prevaricated, preferring to spend his last few weeks ashore, living it up in Cork, and enjoying the city’s nightlife. Almost three weeks later than planned, on 10 April 1791, the Queen eventually sailed from Cobh, its decks crammed with 133 men, 22 women and four young children – amassed from prisons throughout Ireland.
One Dublin newspaper reported how “the jailer of Limerick set off for Cork with a number of prisoners, where a large transport is preparing to carry all the convicts in the Kingdom to Botany Bay”.
Barbara Hall, who wrote The Irish Vanguard: The Convicts of the Queen, Ireland to Botany Bay says: “The people on this boat wouldn’t have been rebels, just urban and country criminals”. They included Cork labourers Daniel Connor (30) and Michael Collins (20), convicted for stealing shoes and wine respectively.
Twenty-five of the convicts had already been sent to Canada, but when they started robbing people, the authorities brought them back to Ireland. Now they found themselves aboard the Queen, bound for Australia.
For the next five months, prisoners and soldiers alike had to endure rancid food, and the stench of foul water and excrement. Each convict had only 18 inches of space to sleep in.
At Madeira there was a six-day stop, in order to meet up with the English ships – but nobody was allowed ashore.
By the time the ship docked in Sydney Harbour on 26 September, seven convicts had died and been buried at sea. Lieutenant-Governor David Collins described many others as being in such an “emaciated and feeble condition” that they were excused the hard labour awaiting them.
James Blake, a 12 year-old Dublin boy who had stolen a pair of silver buckles, never recovered from the voyage, and died four months later.
In November, 12 men and a pregnant woman, who were convinced that China lay on the other side of the Blue Mountains, set off in a bid for freedom.
The woman, Catherine Edwards, was found, and lived for another 25 years. But the men died – indeed, within eight months, only 50 of the 122 male convicts were still alive.
An enquiry into what had gone wrong unearthed scandal upon scandal. Captain Owen had purchased from Cork merchants the cheapest possible food for the crossing, but charged the Navy as much as he thought he could get away with.
Second Mate, Robert Stott, who was responsible for issuing the rations, had asked for the lead weights to be “scraped” so as to make them lighter: the 2lb weight was found to be almost 3 ounces under-weight, and the 4lb weight to be six ounces under.
As for the duplicate list to be carried with them, Lieutenant Blow had never completed it. So the authorities had no idea how long each convict had to serve. When this information arrived, eight years later, it turned out that15 convicts had only been sentenced to seven years.
In April 1801, exactly 10 years after the Queen had sailed from Cork, the organizer of this monumental cock-up, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, was brought to trial for abducting a wealthy heiress. He was found guilty, but instead of the death penalty, the judge showed “mercy” – by transporting him, appropriately enough, to Botany Bay.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved