Handwritten tales of 18th century English convicts who fled across Australia revealed

By Culture24 Reporter | 28 March 2014

The personal accounts of 18th century British prisoners who escaped New South Wales on a journey across Australia have been revealed

A black and white photo of a beach scene with palm trees and boats and mountains
Frank Hurley, Sunset, Boianai, Papua and the Torres Strait© National Library of Australia
On the night of March 28 1791, James Martin and eight fellow prisoners, held in New South Wales after being transported from England, fled Botany Bay in the governor’s six-oared boat, travelling along the east and north coasts of Australia on an encounter with Aboriginal peoples and ferocious storms.

A photo of an ancient handwritten letter in black ink on parchment
The first page of Martin's Memorandoms© UCL Library Special Collections
The escapees spent two months travelling 5,000 kilometres in an open boat across many uncharted territories. When they reached Kupang, in West Timor, their Dutch hosts believed they were shipwreck survivors. But their eventual unmasking saw them sent back to England on a journey which four of the convicts and both of the accompanying children failed to survive.

Now their stories have been made public online by University College London, whose former philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, kept handwritten accounts by three of the voyagers in his collection.

“I think this document should have a wider audience than it otherwise has had because it is the only first-hand account written by First Fleet convicts,” says Dr Tim Causer, a Researcher on the Bentham Project.

“It’s such a well-known story – probably the most famous escape story from colonial Australia.

“This is the first time that the original document has been made widely available, and with such detailed contextual information.”

The survivors served the remainder of their sentences in Newgate Prison. Although Martin’s Memorandoms have been portrayed in books and a television drama, Causer hopes the testimonies, maps and paintings will resolve some tall tales and afford greater attention to some of the overlooked figures, with the main focus traditionally given to Mary Bryant.

“The other convicts are reduced to little more than ciphers,” he suggests.

“My introduction and annotation demonstrate that previous accounts of the escape by historians and writers contain a number of inaccuracies, exaggerations and inventions, which are not borne out by a reading of the manuscript.

“So I hope that by publishing this narrative online and fleshing out the perspective of the other convicts, it will help to create a more rounded story.”

A photo of an ancient handwritten letter in black ink on parchment
The cover of the manuscript© UCL Library Special Collections
Bentham had a bone to pick with New South Wales: his Panopticon prison scheme blueprint, allowing a single watchman to observe all institutionalised inmates, unaware of whether they were being watched, was dismissed by the Home Secretary due to the improvement of the prison colony in Australia.

“Bentham was outraged by this,” says Causer.

“He wrote two very antagonistic open letters to the Home Secretary decrying the state of New South Wales.

“He gathered a lot of ammunition about the colony to try and portray it as a sink of immorality, a place where convicts would never be reformed and would be a constant drain on the country, and he appears to have acquired this narrative at some point along the line.

“It’s not clear when or how he acquired it, but we’re very fortunate to have such an important document in the history of convict transportation and colonial Australia here in the UCL collections.”

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A photo of an old black and yellow map showing new holland and the pacific ocean
New Holland and the adjacent islands, agreeable to the latest discoveries© National Library of Australia
An image of a watercolour painting of a boat passing across a sea
missing '>' after '<Page 290: Water Spou...© State Library of New South Wales
An image of a watercolour painting of a boat passing across a sea
A drawing from William Bradley's journal, page 56. Botany Bay. Sirius and Convoy going in - Supply and Agents Division in the Bay. 21 January 1788© State Library of New South Wales
An image of a painting of aborigines standing on a hillside carrying shields and swords
Joseph Lycett, Australian Aborigines - Warriors of New South Wales. Spear shield, 1814© National Library of Australia
An image of boats sailing into an australian coast
Sydney Cove, Port Jackson as seen by William Bradley in 1788© State Library of New South Wales
An image of people standing on the shore on a mountain range looking over a sea
Joseph Lycett, Aborigines spearing fish, others diving for crayfish, a party seated beside a fire cooking fish© National Library of Australia
An image of a painting of aborigine people making a field on a hill over a sea at night
Joseph Lycett, Fishing by torchlight, other Aborigines beside camp fires cooking fish© National Library of Australia
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